The Pittsburgh Pirates have signed up to take a chance on a 27-year-old shortstop who hit 40 home runs last season.

Yeah, you’ll have to trust me that there is some chance involved with a player like that. Actually, “risk” might be the better word, as the shortstop in question is no sure thing.

We can say this, though: The Pirates are just the team to roll the dice on him.

The shortstop in question is Jung-ho Kang, a nine-year veteran of the Korean Baseball Organization. The Nexen Heroes agreed to post him last week, and Jon Heyman of reported Monday that the Pirates have made the winning bid:

Yonhap News reported over the weekend that Nexen had agreed to accept a $5 million bid for Kang‘s exclusive negotiating rights. Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review reports that this is indeed the price the Pirates have paid. They’ll now have 30 days to hammer out a contract for Kang.

We’ll see where things go from here, but Kang‘s numbers in Korea say he shouldn’t come cheap. He’s a career .298 hitter with an .886 OPS, and he’s coming off a season with 40 dingers with a 1.198 OPS.

Factor in how Kang is younger than most free agents. Then factor in how he has right-handed power at a time when such power is in short supply. Oh, and also how the shortstop position in Major League Baseball has become almost entirely devoid of power.

“If he was Cuban, he’d get $100 million,” said Kang‘s agent, Alan Nero, in early November to a group of reporters that included Heyman.

Put it all together, and you have what looks like a rare gem. But when discussing Kang‘s potential in the majors, it’s best not to get carried away.

Regarding the absurd numbers Kang put up last year, it’s important to view those in context of what was happening around him.

To this end, a lot of guys were putting up absurd numbers in the KBO last year. Here’s FanGraphs‘ Jeff Sullivan writing at

Three seasons ago, a Korean baseball game featured an average of about eight and a half runs. Two seasons ago, that rose to nine and a half. Last season, it jumped all the way up past 11. What was allegedly a more lively ball certainly played like a more lively ball, and offensive numbers league-wide skyrocketed.

Basically, the run-scoring environment in Korea is the exact opposite of the run-scoring environment in the States. Where pitching rules in MLB, hitting rules in the KBO.

Beyond this, there’s the book on Kang himself. I’ll refer you to Mike Rosenbaum‘s scouting report for the full breakdown, but there are two concerns that stand out. 

One has to do with Kang‘s swing mechanics. They look like an exaggerated version of Josh Donaldson’s, as Kang uses a big leg kick that sees him shift virtually all his weight to his back leg, and there’s also some hand movement involved.

That’s a lot of moving parts, so Rosenbaum could be right in thinking, “Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kang struggles against good velocity in the big leagues, as his swing and timing mechanism could make him susceptible to fastballs on the inner half.”

This wouldn‘t have been too big of a concern a couple years ago, but it’s a big concern now. Between a new era of hard-throwing starters and a surplus of hard-throwing relievers, there’s a ton of good velocity in MLB these days.

The other notable concern has to do with Kang‘s defense. Rosenbaum sees enough athleticism for the position but opines that Kang‘s arm strength “is probably a better fit at second.”

With Neil Walker stationed at second base, there’s no job opening there for Kang in Pittsburgh. And while Jordy Mercer is nothing special at shortstop, Kang won’t necessarily be an upgrade if his arm doesn’t play on defense and pitchers are able to overwhelm him with velocity.

So while the Pirates may be on the verge of signing a power-hitting shortstop, let’s not pretend like they’re on the verge of signing a guaranteed star. That’s an unfair assessment.

Instead, here’s a more fair assessment: Maybe he can’t be a star, but Kang could be the piece that pushes the Pirates over the hump from “NL Central contenders” to “NL Central favorites.”

Though there are concerns about how Kang‘s talent will play in the big leagues, there are reasons for optimism too.

For one, the consensus appears to be that even despite his iffy swing mechanics, Kang‘s power is the real deal. Rosenbaum sees “above-average bat speed to go along with raw power to all fields,” and’s Keith Law sees “legit plus power.”

As such, it’s not nuts to expect as many as 20 homers out of Kang. Maybe you lower the expectation to 15-20 to account for PNC Park, but that’s still solid in the wake of a season in which only four shortstops made it to 15 home runs.

As for Kang‘s defense, it could be that Rosenbaum is underselling his arm a little. Law sees a “60 arm” to go with a good feel for the position. If that’s true, then the Pirates have picked up a guy who can add some solid defense to his 15-20 homer power.

A decent comparison for a player like that is Starlin Castro. He’s not a particularly great hitter or fielder but is solid at the former and good enough at the latter. Going off FanGraphs‘ version of the stat, his skill set has made him about a three-WAR player in his better seasons.

A shortstop like that would not only be an upgrade over what the Pirates got out of the position in 2014, but also what FanGraphs projects them to get from shortstop in 2015. Knowing how scarce shortstop upgrades are, Kang would thus be quite the find.

And in the end, he could be what puts the Pirates on top of the NL Central.

As things stand now, FanGraphs has Pittsburgh projected to be on par with the St. Louis Cardinals. Where they’re projected for 87 wins, the Pirates are projected for 86. If the Pirates are indeed adding a 3-WAR shortstop to the mix, you can imagine the Pirates leapfrogging St. Louis in the projected standings.

If that’s what comes to pass, adding Kang will have been the difference between the Pirates earning another wild-card berth and winning the division and going straight to the National League Division Series. Now more than ever, that’s the way you want to go.

Of course, that the Pirates are already projected to be a pretty good team in 2015 means they’re cut out to absorb the worst-case scenario of Kang‘s becoming a total bust. It also means they could live with the not-quite-best-case scenario of Kang‘s only being good enough to be a reserve infielder. And with Alen Hanson down on the farm, the Pirates don’t really need Kang to be their long-term solution at shortstop.

In other words, the Pirates are well-positioned to make the kind of upside play they’re making with Kang. If he doesn’t pan out, they should be OK. If he does pan out, they’ll be a lot better than OK.


Note: Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted/linked.  

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