Pittsburgh Pirates: How to prepare for life after Jung Ho Kang

The Korean export was released by his Dominican Winter League team on Monday, leaving the future of his playing career in doubt.

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On Monday, reports circulated that Jung Ho Kang, the Pittsburgh Pirates infielder whose career has been in limbo for the better part of a year, was released by the Aguilas Cibaenas, the club he was playing for in the Dominican Winter League.

Kang had a terrible time for the Aguilas, slashing .143/.219/.209 with one home run in 24 games. His struggles were understandable, considering that until the start of the Dominican season he hadn’t played organized baseball since he was denied a work visa to the United States before Spring Training after receiving a third conviction for DUI in his native Korea.

With this latest setback, it’s worth knowing where things will go from here both for Kang and for the Pirates.

Uphill battle

Let’s make something clear: Kang was not hard done by the Aguilas here. In the United States, the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, elsewhere in Central America, and the Caribbean are often characterized as a place where young players go to work on their game or veterans go to make an impression and earn a contract. But these leagues are not affiliated with Major League Baseball and are not there for its benefit. The competition is intense and making the Caribbean Series is serious business. Players have gone to these leagues to work on specific aspects of their game but been sent packing when they haven’t been able to produce. Kang didn’t perform—predictably so, given the rust factor—and got cut.

Where he goes now is unclear. The Pirates still own his rights and have him on the restricted list, essentially suspended without pay and without accruing service time. The question now is whether he will be given a visa for the 2018 season. It seems unlikely. This latest infraction carried an eight-month suspended jail sentence, pending two years of probation. Combined with the fact that this is his third DUI conviction, Kang’s chances may not be that good. Until he gets cleared to enter the country again, his Major League career is in limbo.

Compensating

As for the Pirates, they now have the benefit of a full offseason to prepare for the possibility (or perhaps probability) of Kang’s absence. His inability to enter the country last year hit the team out of nowhere last year and severely hampered their plans in the infield. Kang was a reliable piece of their lineup in his two seasons with the team, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting in 2015 and hitting 21 homers in 2016 despite missing 59 games.

The Pirates now need to fill the hole in their infield, particularly at shortstop, where Kang would likely have slotted in with David Freese at third and Josh Harrison at second. When RealSport ran down the likely destinations of the winter’s top free agents earlier this month, Kang’s situation was taken into account when predicting that Cincinnati Reds shortstop Zack Cozart would sign with Pittsburgh this year. 

Cozart broke out in his contract year, setting career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, triples, walks, and home runs and tying his high in RBI while cutting his strikeouts slightly. His run production numbers were nearly identical to what Kang posted in his last MLB season, and his rate stats were actually a good deal higher.

If the club doesn’t want to shell out in free agency, they have two top prospects, Cole Tucker and Kevin Newman, who play shortstop. Tucker is considered at least a year away, but Newman could conceivably be given the chance to earn the position after slashing .283/.314/.373 in 166 at-bats after being promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Regardless of how they proceed, the Pirates need to plan for 2018 without Kang in mind. If he gets a visa, the Pirates will be in the enviable position of having some infield trade chips to throw around come deadline time. If he doesn’t, they need to be covered.

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