There has a been a surprising amount of radio silence this offseason regarding the elephant in the room that is Jung-ho Kang. Not only did he have a high-profile arrest for DUI in his home country of South Korea, it was reported that it was his 3rd such offense. Even more problematic is that the Pirates were apparently unaware of the first two. After his arrest for DUI, the Pirates President, Frank Coonelly, issued a very generic statement that they were disappointed in him and would speak to him soon. Driving while intoxicated is taken very seriously in South Korea, as a blood-alcohol level greater than 0.05 can be punishable by imprisonment up to 2 years and a substantial fine (Kang’s blood-alcohol level was 0.084). The DUI arrest is affecting the Korean public’s perception of him to the point that Kang is dropped from the Korean World Baseball Classic roster (which is fine by me, this tournament is terrible).
There’s an outside chance that the Pirates may need to organize a four-man strike team to spring Jung-ho Kang out of jail in order to play this year. Personally, I see an off-the-books A.J. Burnett leading the team, with Francisco Cervelli as the charming intelligence agent, a rabid Jared Hughes as the strong man, and Gerrit Cole as the wild card. Instead of the A-Team, it would be the P-Team.
It would be highly hypocritical of the Pirates, especially if it were coming from Coonelly, to issue some sort of suspension for Kang as a result of this DUI. When Coonelly had his own DUI issue back in 2012, there was no known public reprimand or suspension from his duties. As a point of reference, Padres’ GM A.J. Preller was given a 30-day suspension for his role in faking/altering medical records on players traded during the 2016 season.
If a suspension were to occur for Kang based on the DUI charge, it would almost have to come from MLB itself. However, they’ve been very reticent in the past to deal with alcohol abuse. Then-Commissioner Bud Selig issued no suspension or reprimand for Tony La Russa when he was arrested and found guilty of DUI back in 2007. Alcohol is not treated in the same fashion as cocaine, marijuana, or performance-enhancing drugs in MLB’s eyes.
Setting aside the issue of Kang’s DUI for a nanosecond, there’s still the issue of his unresolved sexual assault case in Chicago which allegedly occurred back in June 2016. It’s unbelievable to me that this has not been resolved, one way or another, to this point. The issue clearly was hanging over Kang’s head after it was announced, as his July was by far his worst month of the year (.182/.250/.255, 39 wRC+).
Jung-ho Kang appears to be a mess when he’s outside the white lines of the baseball diamond. The problem is that he’s so good and such a key to what the 2017 Pirates hope to accomplish within those white lines. A fully healthy and focused Kang is most likely going to lead the Pirates in homers this year, all while playing solid defense at 3B and hitting cleanup. He’s vital to their playoff contention hopes. But can the Pirates afford the potential public relations fiasco that comes with him? It’s almost as if the Pirates are hoping the issue is taken out of their hands by some 3rd party, whether that be the Chicago Police Department, the Seoul judicial system, or MLB. That way they can gain some measure of distance between themselves and the fanbase.
Kang makes a relative pittance in terms of baseball salary. He’s under contract for $2.75M in 2017, $3M in 2018, and has a club option for $5.5M in 2019. That is budget dust in today’s MLB. For comparison, Jeff Locke made $3M last year in his first year of arbitration eligibility. I know I was a Locke supporter prior to last season, but it’s pretty obvious that Kang and his 3 WAR are quite a steal for that amount of money. A scandal-free Kang is one of the best bargains in all of MLB, but that’s not what reality exists for the Pirates.
This all makes the extension of David Freese last August to a 2 year/$11M seem so much more prescient on Neal Huntington’s part. Not only is Freese a perfectly cromulent player in his own right, but he provides “in case of Kang, break glass” insurance to the team. In an ideal world, Josh Bell learns how to catch the ball at 1B and Kang occupies the hot corner. Freese is an excellent bench option and part-time starter. If Kang is deemed unable to play for whatever reason lands on the roulette wheel that day, Freese then becomes the starting 3B in his absence.
There’s a certain star quarterback in this town that had a reputation in his younger days for partying hard on the South Side (witnessed firsthand by this author on an occasion) and getting mixed up in some hairy sexual assault situations on two reported occasions. He escaped from those with the same aplomb as wriggling out of a defensive end’s grasp in the pocket. I hope for Kang’s personal sake that he is cleared of the sex assault accusation in Chicago and that he gets the appropriate alcohol treatment he seems to need. For the Pirates’ on-field sake, they need a locked-in Kang to help propel them to a playoff spot in 2017.
Kevin Creagh is the author of the sci-fi novel Creating Christ, available now on Amazon.