by STEVE HAN | @steve_han
South Korea’s star shortstop Jung Ho Kang became the first position player to make the leap from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to the major leagues after the Pittsburgh Pirates announced Friday that they signed the 27-year-old to a four-year deal worth about $16 million.
Kang passed the required physical on Wednesday in Scottsdale, Ariz., and signed a deal that guarantees at least $11 million over the next four years. Last December, the Pirates paid a $5 million posting fee to Kang’s former KBO club, the Nexen Heroes, to earn the exclusive rights to negotiate with him. The deal also includes a team option for a fifth year at $5.5 million.
“I’m very excited and humbled by this opportunity,” Kang said in a press release. “I look forward to joining a great group of teammates, and I am ready to work hard to help the Pirates win any way that I can.”
Kang’s deal, worth up to $21.5 million, is relatively a significant investment by the Pirates considering that they had the third lowest payroll ($71 million) last season among the 30 teams in the big leagues. His annual salary over the next four guaranteed years (an average of $2.75 million) makes him one of the top 10 paid players on the Pirates’ current roster.
“We like the player a lot,” Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington said, according to MLB.com. “We look forward to confirming our belief in him as a shortstop. We’re excited by the opportunity to have the first Korean hitter make this transition.”
Despite their aggressive investment, the Pirates remain cautious about making Kang an immediate starter at shortstop. Jordy Mercer, the current starting shortstop for the Pirates, was the only shortstop in the big leagues last season who made more than 300 throws to first base while drawing no errors.
The MLB Network also named Mercer as the sixth best shortstop in the big leagues for his standout defense.
Huntington revealed that Kang will begin spring training in March as a “complementary player” for the Pirates, hinting that Pirates manager Clint Hurdle may use the South Korean as a utility player.
Kang’s defense remains suspect, especially at the major league level, which conceivably puts him behind Mercer in Pittsburgh’s shortstop pecking order.
But the Pirates are hoping that Kang’s contribution off the bench could still give them a substantial boost, perhaps in the similar way that the Los Angeles Dodgers fed off of Justin Turner’s production last season as a bench player. Turner, averaging only 2.6 at-bats per game last season, hit an impressive .340 while playing all four infield positions on defense as the Dodgers won the National League West.
For nine seasons in the KBO, Kang played multiple infield positions, including third baseman and second baseman. Although Pittsburgh boasts a formidable lineup across the infield with third baseman Josh Harrison and Neil Walker, Kang would likely be its first option off the bench given how aggressive its front office pursued his services since late last year.
Huntington further added that Kang will go through a “significant transitional period,” despite confirming that there is no intention to send him to the minor leagues.
“[Kang] will give [Hurdle] a lot of [in-game] flexibility,” Huntington said. “He’s a nice all-around player who will have a successful career as a regular [in the major leagues]. We just don’t know when that will happen.”
Where Kang holds the edge on his competitors, notably Mercer, is his potential on offense. He is a power hitter, a rarity for most shortstops, who averaged .298 batting average and .504 slugging percentage in the last nine seasons in Korea. Last season, he shattered his career-highs in most offensive categories with 40 home runs on a .356 batting average, .459 on-base percentage and .739 slugging percentage.
When asked about competing for the starting shortstop job in Pittsburgh before he left Korea on Tuesday, Kang said: “If I can get an opportunity to play consistently, I think I can play better.”
Featured photo courtesy of Starin