Jung-ho Kang was released from his Dominican team Monday. Imagine explaining that sentence to someone in 2015.
The Pirates were hopeful that they could convince the Aguilas Cibaenas to have him stick around for a whole season to get the rust off, but the former Rookie of the Year contender was hurting a team that has plenty of players who will never sniff the big leagues. In 24 games, he batted .143, slugged .202, struck out in 37% of his plate appearances (31/84) and made four errors. The Cibaenas had seen enough.
The sad part is just about everyone expected this to happen. The Dominican League is one of the premier homes for winter ball. Kang had not played in a game or even faced live pitching in over a year. He was lead to the slaughter.
It may also be the last time he sees any action for a while. Neal Huntington has been steadfast for months now in his hopes that Kang is in the Pirates’ 2018 plans. Don’t count on it.
In March, Kang was sentenced to a suspended eight-month prison sentence for his third DUI. That’s been hanging over his head in his failed attempts to earn a work visa and get back into the country. He won’t have to serve any jail time if he honors the terms of the sentence, but the terms of that sentence are in place until early March 2019. He can’t even play in the KBO until then because he’s still under contract with the Pirates. So from now until then, his playing options are extremely limited. The Dominican was a perfect fit because of the country’s relaxed temporary visa policies and the league’s demand for players. There won’t be any comparable competition he can face again until next winter.
Can Kang keep his nose clean for the next 15 months? For his sake, I hope so, and I hope that DUI was the wakeup call he needed to get help. When talking about the incident in September, Kang told Yoo Jee-Ho of the Yonhap News Agency: “Something like that must never happen again, and I am trying to be a better man.” Good. Don’t just say it. Be that better man.
But Kang’s performance in the Dominican should be Huntington’s sobering reminder that it’s time to give up. Kang can’t/won’t help the team in 2018.
The best the Pirates can realistically hope for is Kang gets a visa halfway through spring training in 2019 once his sentence is completed. At that point, he’ll be a few weeks away from turning 32 and would not have faced American pitching in nearly 30 months. Getting his feet and timing back would demand a lengthy minor league assignment. At best he would be a mid-year call-up, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he didn’t get the call until September.
And even if he did get back to the big leagues, he probably has a suspension waiting for him, either from the DUI (which the league never dolled a punishment for), the sexual assault accusation in Chicago in 2016 (and with the recent paradigm shift where sexual assault victims of the rich and powerful are being believed and supported more and the assaulters are starting to feel the repercussions, you can bet the commissioner won’t let this slide), or both.
But besides that, yeah, he TOTALLY could be the starting third baseman in 2018.
The Pirates have decisions to make about the future of their infield, and they need to accept that Kang won’t be a part of it. They’ve dragged their feet long enough. It’s time to choose their path.
Jordy Mercer is entering his third and final year of arbitration. Sean Rodriguez is on the last year of his deal. Josh Harrison and David Freese have club options remaining for 2019 (and 2020 in Harrison’s case), but there’s no guarantee they will be back. The Bucs could probably use an upgrade over Freese, anyway. There’s a chance Josh Bell is playing with a completely different infield in 2019.
The Pirates have options on how they want to approach a potential changing of the guard. I already suggested Neil Walker would be the perfect fit if he and Huntington could bury the hatchet. If they want to get flashier and take a risk, Zack Cozart was one of the best infielders in baseball last year and should fall within the Pirates’ price range. Between the BAMTech money and the $3 million they will save from Kang’s salary, they have cash to spend.
Internally, Kevin Newman could be in the majors next year despite struggling in 2017. Cole Tucker should be a year behind him. As the founding member and acting president of the Max Moroff fanclub, I would be remiss to not mention his .846 OPS and four defensive runs saved in the second half of the season.
My point is that the Pirates aren’t Kang or bust. Sure, when he’s healthy, he’s probably the best player out of the five I mentioned (besides perhaps Cozart), but he comes with the most turmoil. And not fake, generated turmoil like how he handed out Korean snacks to his teammates and alienated the locker room. Real turmoil, to the point that he is borderline untouchable despite how many dingers he can hit.
Kang put it best during his interview with Jee-Ho: “I’ve been away for too long.” He’s going to be gone even longer. The Pirates don’t need to release him yet because he’s on the restricted list, meaning he’s not taking a roster spot or earning a salary, but he’s played his last game as a Buc. He was doomed to fail in the Dominican, but maybe failure was good. Now Huntington has all the proof he needs that he cannot and should not come back.