Jung Ho Kang’s slow start to spring training had a surprising number of people concluding that his big-time production in Korea wouldn’t translate to MLB, but he’s proven them very wrong so far and has now established himself as the Pirates’ starting shortstop.
Kang began the season in a bench role, but he’s hit .299 with two homers, five doubles, and an .823 OPS in 75 plate appearances. Along with Opening Day shortstop Jordy Mercer hitting .176 that convinced manager Clint Hurdle to make Kang the shortstop all weekend.
He signed a four-year, $11 million deal with the Pirates this offseason after hitting .356 with 40 homers and a 1.198 OPS in 117 games last year in Korea. Kang needs to keep putting up big numbers at the plate in order to remain the starter, because Hurdle made it pretty clear that he still views the 28-year-old’s defense skeptically, telling Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette:
I believe when you look at Jung Ho, the shortstop I’d probably compare him to would be a Jhonny Peralta-type. Jordy has probably more lateral range. They’re both very accurate with their arms. Jordy’s got more experience within this league for positioning. The only way Jung Ho’s going to get it is to continue to get out there and get those reps.
Mercer is a career .254 hitter with a .688 OPS in 325 games, so even if Kang comes back down to earth a bit there’s a good chance he can continue to be the superior offensive player. Hurdle’s ongoing evaluation of his defense figures to play a big role. Whatever the case, that $11 million is looking like a solid investment.