The Pittsburgh Pirates will enter the 2016 season with a different looking lineup. With the departure of Neil Walker and the retirement of Aramis Ramirez, voids exist within the Pirates infield. Josh Harrison is likely to become an everyday starter in the infield and can easily make a difference in various ways. However, a player that might make the biggest difference for the Pirates this season might be a man trying to avoid a sophomore slump and rehabilitate himself from offseason surgery.
On Sept. 17, Pittsburgh Pirates fans held their collective breath as Chicago Cubs outfielder Chris Coghlan slid into second base. This wasn’t any ordinary slide. While trying to break up a double play, Coghlan slid into Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang, injuring him and eventually ending his season. Kang suffered a knee injury and a fractured leg on the play, which required season ending surgery. Kang has spent the offseason recovering and has reportedly been making good progress.
Last offseason, Kang signed a four-year, $11 million contract with the Pirates after the organization won the bidding to negotiate with the former star of the Korean Baseball Organization. Kang showed promise at that level, spending nine years playing for the Hyundai Unicorns and Nexen Heroes. In 2014, Kang put up career high numbers while playing for Nexen, hitting .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBI in only 117 games.
The biggest question surrounding Kang was his ability to translate his game from the KBO to the Major Leagues. That isn’t necessarily a question anymore, as Kang was a pleasant surprise for the Pirates during his rookie campaign last season. The 28-year old, who opened the season as a bench option, put up big numbers for the Pirates, hitting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBI in 126 games. Despite missing the last 17 games of the season, including the Pirates 4-0 loss to the Cubs in the National League Wild Card game, Kang finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind San Francisco Giants Third Baseman Matt Duffy and Cubs Third Baseman Kris Bryant.
Kang has also helped lead the way for other KBO players who wish to play in the big leagues. When Kang signed with the Pirates, he became the first position player from the KBO to play in the Major Leagues. This signing has since opened the door for other KBO players to sign with major league teams, including Byung Ho Park who signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Minnesota Twins this offseason.
This upcoming season could be a big year for Kang, despite the fact that he may not be healthy enough to start the regular season. With an opening at third base, Kang may see himself penciled into that spot when he returns. In fact, despite shortstop being his main position, Kang played in 77 games at third base last year, while playing in 60 games at shortstop. Some may believe that he doesn’t have the range to be a legitimate major league third baseman, but he committed four less errors at the hot corner than he did at shortstop.
To start the season, it is likely that Harrison may need to fill in at third base. The Pirates also have other options that could help take over at second base for the time being as well. With his progress from surgery going well, it could be realistic to see Kang back with the club within the first month of the 2016 season. When that time comes, Kang will likely take his place as the solidified starting third baseman and could make a huge impact in the new year. He will likely get to play more than the 126 games that he played in 2015, so it will be interesting to see if his 2015 success can continue in 2016.
Photo credit: Sporting News