Hot-hitting Jung Ho Kang takes over as Pirates’ shortstop

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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.

This Day in Transaction History: Padres pawn off James Shields

James Shields
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For a few years, starter James Shields was quite dominant. From 2011-14 with the Rays and Royals, the right-hander made a minimum of 33 starts each season with a 3.17 ERA. He peaked in ’11, finishing with a 2.82 ERA and finishing third in American League Cy Young balloting.

Shields leveraged that 2011-14 run into a four-year, $75 million contract with the Padres, inked in February 2015. It wasn’t an outright disaster of a contract for the Padres, but Shields did not live up to expectations. In his first year with the Padres, he posted a 3.91 ERA. Through the first two months of the 2016 season, Shields allowed 32 earned runs over 67 1/3 innings. The Padres, however, scored only 22 runs in his 11 games, so he was 2-7 after 11 starts. Shields also gave up one of the more memorable home runs in recent history on May 7, 2016:

On June 4, the Padres moved Shields and $27 million of the $58 million remaining on his contract to the White Sox. The White Sox gave up pitcher Erik Johnson and an infield prospect named Fernando Tatís Jr.

If the White Sox had a do-over button, they would have pressed it. Shields, 34 at the time of the trade, had a disastrous rest of the 2016 season, posting a 6.77 ERA in 22 starts for the White Sox. He finished out the remainder of his contract in Chicago, registering a 5.23 ERA in 2017 and a 4.53 ERA in ’18. Shields went into free agency but went unsigned and hasn’t pitched since.

Johnson flamed out after the 2016 season, yielding 20 runs in 19 2/3 innings in four starts for the Padres. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2017 and spent the ’18 campaign between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso.

Tatís, as we know now, was the jewel of the trade. The White Sox signed Tatís as a 16-year-old as a free agent. A year later, before he ever appeared in a professional game in the White Sox organization, he was moved in a big trade. While it took him a couple of years to appear on top-100 prospect lists, his talent was readily apparent. In 2017, Tatís spent most of his season with Single-A Fort Wayne. He accrued 26 doubles, 21 homers, 29 stolen bases, 69 RBI, and 78 runs scored in 518 trips to the plate. Going into the 2018 season, Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus each ranked him among the top-10 prospects in the game.

Tatís was off to another great start in 2018. Through 88 games, he had a .286/.355/.507 line with 22 doubles, 16 homers, 16 stolen bases, 43 RBI, and 77 runs scored spanning 394 plate appearances. Sadly, in mid-July, Tatís broke his left thumb and suffered ligament damage while making a head-first slide. He recovered from the injury, playing in the Dominican Winter League and having another strong performance over 23 games. Tatís followed that up with a productive spring training, giving the Padres only one choice. He began the season on the Opening Day roster and jumped out to become one of baseball’s best players.

Over his first 84 games as a major leaguer, Tatís batted .317/.379/.590 with 13 doubles, six triples, 22 home runs, 16 steals, 53 RBI, and 61 runs scored over 372 plate appearances. Baseball Reference put him at 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. Sadly, similar to 2018, Tatís suffered a season-ending injury, a stress reaction in his lower back. At the time, he was neck-and-neck with Pete Alonso and Mike Soroka in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The injury allowed Alonso to win the award in a landslide while Tatís finished third.

While the White Sox would have loved to have Tatís at third base, they did end up finding some quality players in Yoán Moncada at the hot corner and Tim Anderson at shortstop. The White Sox and their young corps are close to being competitive again, but having Tatís in tow certainly would have sped up the process. And the Padres likely never would have gotten Tatís if they hadn’t inked Shields first.