Has the next international phenom arrived to play in the Major Leagues?
People are asking themselves that when reading about Jung-Ho Kang, the newest member of a list of international baseball prospects that seemingly gets longer by the day. And now that the Pirates have made the winning bid on the shortstop, I am wondering if he can really make the transition to the MLB, and what they can expect from him as their shortstop into the future.
After doing some minimal research before the Pirates had reportedly won the bidding, I found one common theme amongst all scouting reports. That one common theme was that people were skeptical of Kang's power and how it will translate to the big leagues.
It's not just his power that makes scouts skeptical. Kang's inability to make routine plays has scouts worried the most. His arm is decent, and at roughly six foot and 210 pounds, he isn't too big to play the position. He might just not be able to handle the Major League plays of a shortstop.
As an MLB scout put it, "Kang has a functional arm at shortstop, but he may be better suited at third base or right field. He doesn't have enough range to play shortstop and I don't think he has the glove to play third base. He may be able to play right field, but that position will require better offensive production."
Kang does not appear to be too terrible out at shortstop, but moving him to third base would put Josh Harrison out of a job for the Pirates. Right field? Gregory Polanco. Left? Starling Marte. Second base? Neil Walker. Kang's future in Pittsburgh would be at shortstop, where he needs to handle himself in the field. And nobody knows if he can.
I know I haven't been too optimistic, but one other reason to worry about Kang's defense is that he spent most of his time in the KBO playing on a turf field. Other Korean ballplayers who tried to make the transition to the MLB had serious issues playing defense on a grass field. While grass is easier on the body, especially the legs and knees, the bounces are different and it can be harder to field your position, especially for an infielder. That is not promising for Kang.
However, the Pirates are one of the best teams with scouting reports and defensive positioning. They could move Kang specifically based off splits and where a hitter is likely to hit a ball, possibly making it easier on him in his transition to the Major Leagues.
Kang hit 40 homers last season and posted a 1.198 OPS last season with the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization. There is just one other Korean-born player to play in both the MLB and KBO, and that is Hee-Seop Choi, who's OPS increased by 15.8 percent the season after leaving the MLB for the KBO. While 15.8 percent seems low based on what I have heard, it goes to show that the KBO is a real hitter-friendly league.
Eric Thames slugged at a similar rate to Kang in the KBO after retiring from the MLB. In the Major Leagues, he posted a 96 wRC+, suggesting that he was 4 percent worse than the average player at creating runs, adjusted based on park factors. Thames was worth a -0.1 fWAR in the big leagues, mostly because he could not play average defense.
Kang won't be too costly for the Pirates, as he will "only" cost them $5-6 million per year on a multi-year contract. But if he can even partly reach his potential or numbers from the KBO, he will be a valuable piece for them. Kang is young, as he is only 27, and could be their starting shortstop for years to come.
Every signing a team makes is risky, but the fact that Kang is a complete unknown makes it even more risky. The upside and potential is definitely there, and pretty soon, the Pirates will be negotiating with the best player in all of the KBO. That is a risk they are willing to take. And if Kang works out, they have a steal. If he doesn't, he could be just an expensive utility man or even just a little dead money.
But as the Pirates attempt to go for the World Series crown, expectations for Jung-Ho Kang are thrown out the window. They understand that he's a risk, perhaps a costly one for years to come, but in the MLB you need to take risks in order to win, and that is enough to justify this move for the Pirates.
Now let's see what Jung-Ho Kang can do.