Once upon a time, the Pirates had a promising rookie shortstop. He slashed .287/.355/.461 (129 wRC+) as a rookie while compiling 3.9 fWAR in just 126 games. His name was mentioned alongside those of the other great young shortstops coming up through the game, like Correa, Seager, Lindor, Russell, Bogaerts, and Crawford. Yes, he was 28, but he was still among the next wave of great shortstops in the MLB. His name was Jung Ho Kang, and as long ago as this story may seem, it took place just last September.
All of a sudden, one mid-September day, Mr. Kang found his knee on the receiving end of a Chris Coghlan slide, one that would incapacitate the Pirates’ shortstop for the rest of the season and the beginning of the next one.
Then, whether because the Pirates were protecting Kang’s knee from another accident or because they simply preferred Jordy Mercer’s defense, they moved Kang to third base, where his bat (relative to the position) went from otherworldly to simply awesome.
And somewhere along the way, the Pirates took a flyer on free agent David Freese for a measly $3 million. As Kang began the year injured and missed the entire month of April, Freese got off to a wonderful start, posting an .845 OPS in the first half. Despite significant concerns among Freese’s underlying numbers, the Pirates decided to extend him for another two seasons with a team option for a third.
As expected, Freese cooled off in the second half (.240/.322/.328), and he ended the season with a .372 BABIP, 21.7 HR/FB%, 28.9 K%, and 60.7 GB%, all numbers that portend a continued struggle through 2017 and beyond. Nonetheless, because of his shiny year-end numbers, the recent extension, his lack of positional flexibility at second or short, and the emergence of Josh Bell at first, it appears that there’s a good chance the Bucs start the year with Freese as the lead third baseman.
With Mercer and Josh Harrison locked in as the starters at shortstop and second base, respectively, there is simply no room for Kang in the starting lineup, despite the fact that Kang is probably the most productive infielder on the team.
Now, Kang is admittedly very streaky, and that’s something that may have obscured his great end-of-year numbers. We can break Kang’s 2016 into three distinct parts — Kang hit .294/.362/.627 from the beginning of the season through June 14, .174/.258/.287 from June 15 to August 10, and .307/.444/.653 from August 13 through the end of the season. That middle section, the slump, brought Kang’s season average to as low as .230 at points, with just a .307 OBP, so many people may not have realized just how strong of a season Kang did have.
In spite of all of the ups and downs, if we just evaluate his season lines from 2015 to 2016, Kang actually made major improvements. The obvious popcorn stat, batting average, doesn’t favor Kang, as his rookie year average of .287 dropped to just .255 this past season. However, Kang managed to improve his OPS by over .050 points despite his BABIP dropping more than .070. He improved his walk rate and power while keeping his strikeout rate steady, and his 133 wRC+ on the season placed him right between Paul Goldschmidt and Ryan Braun on the leaderboards.
Looking ahead to next season, most of the underlying numbers indicate good things for Kang. Nothing in his plate discipline numbers underwent the kind of major shift that would indicate the corresponding jump in walk rate is necessarily sustainable, but his chase rate was already comfortably better than league average to begin with. Part of his power spike was due to a HR/FB% increase of 6.4 percent, but he also increased his flyball percentage by about 10 percent, so some of it was also due to a real change. Lastly, his BABIP was an unsustainably-low .273, and a positive regression in that should lead to even more base hits.
However, for as good of a player as Kang is, it looks like he may be without a starting spot to begin the year. For teams like the Red Sox, Dodgers, and Giants, he represents the perfect trade target this offseason. The only marquee free agent third baseman is Justin Turner, who will be 32 next season and could probably be had for a five-year pact. Beyond that, it’s Luis Valbuena and a bunch of nothing. As far as other third basemen on the trade market, there aren’t any obvious ones at the moment. Evan Longoria could be available, but he’s the face of the Rays’ franchise and is under an affordable contract, even by their frugal standards. And even if Nolan Arenado were available, it’s unlikely that the Rockies would deal him intra-division, ruling out two of the three contenders with the most pressing needs at the hot corner.
Now, I would like to reiterate that I have heard nothing suggesting that the Pirates are shopping Kang, or that he’s even available. But as all good GMs repeat over and over, everyone is available for the right price. And with the way that it appears the Pirates value Kang’s talent, he could probably be had for less than his true value. Kang won’t turn 30 until after the season begins, and he’s under one of the best contracts in baseball, making $5.8 million combined over the next two seasons and coming with a team option in 2019 for just $5.5 million.
The Red Sox, Dodgers, and Giants seem like the most obvious fits, but keep in mind that his defense at shortstop was more mediocre than unplayable. If a team thinks they can play him at shortstop, or even teach him the keystone, then his market opens up even further.
The Pirates should be starting Kang, but if they’re truly set on Freese, then it might be too tempting to pass up on a Jose De Leon- or Rafael Devers-led package, replenishing Pittsburgh’s farm system without taking away from the big club’s starting lineup.