The hottest market in baseball right now has to be the market for players who have defected from Cuba. With so many recent success stories, including the most recent story by Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox, it is starting to look like players from Cuba are providing much more of a guarantee, and much less of a risk.
In Abreu’s case, he received $68 M guaranteed over six years, without having seen a single pitch in MLB, and without any guarantee of what he could possibly do in pro ball. A year later, the market is so hyped up that 19-year-old Yoan Moncada will probably cost a team $60-80 M to sign, and he will begin his career in the minor leagues.
It kind of makes you wish that you could go back to the time when the Cuban market was unproven. When the Los Angeles Angels signed Kendrys Morales at the age of 22, they paid $4.5 M guaranteed over six years, with the total value of the contract potentially worth $10 M in bonuses. Even the $30.25 M that the Cincinnati Reds paid Aroldis Chapman in 2010 seems low considering the prices just a few years later.
What if, instead of turning back time, you could find the next Cuban market? The Pittsburgh Pirates certainly hope that could happen with recently signed Jung-ho Kang, out of the Korean Baseball Organization. Kang hit 40 homers last year in the KBO, and has shown a ton of raw power. He signed for $11 M over four years, which could be worth $16.25 M over five years, and more if he reaches certain performance bonuses. The hope is that he can carry his power over to the majors and be an effective player, and possibly a steal from an under-rated market.
I talked to Kang today through his translator, after his practice at Pirate City. While he doesn’t know how his power will translate over to MLB, he does know that his success could open the door for more talent to come over from Korea.
“If I do well, there’s going to be a lot of Korean players to come here,” Kang said, through his translator. “It still depends on how I do, and I know it. I feel a little bit of pressure, but I will just try to enjoy the games, and hopefully I can make the adjustments well so that other Korean players can come here too.”
Kang arrived in Bradenton on Wednesday, and has been working out the last three days at Pirate City, taking batting practice and fielding ground balls. He is still getting to know his teammates, but said he is having a lot of fun so far.
“I can’t name one of them, but all of the guys are very friendly. I’m very welcomed.”
All of his work on the field so far has been at shortstop. The Pirates will use him this year as a utility infielder, playing some second and third. Kang said that he played a lot of second base in Korea, but didn’t play third base as often, although he will adjust to it. As to where he will get most of his playing time with the Pirates, Kang is leaving that up to his manager.
“To be honest, I’m not sure at this point, because it’s Clint Hurdle’s decision,” Kang said. “I will prepare for all of the positions that I have to do.”
The impressive thing the last few days has been the power that Kang has displayed. The power was obviously there, as evident by the 40 home runs last year. The performance the last few days also comes with the disclaimer that he’s only taking batting practice. But Kang’s swing looks smooth and effortless, and the ball flies off his bat.
Dan Farnsworth of FanGraphs recently did an article breaking down Kang’s swing, and gave him some very favorable comps and a lot of praise. One of the big topics so far is how Kang’s leg kick could impact him in the US. I asked Kang about the kick, and whether he used it for power or timing. It turns out that there isn’t a specific focus, and it has just always been a part of his swing.
“It’s just a thing that I do all the time,” Kang said. “It’s just a natural thing I do when I hit. I didn’t think about it too much, and I’ll do the same thing over here and see how it goes.”
So will Kang be the first of many Korean players to make the jump to the US? Kang definitely has power that you can dream about. The question is whether he can apply that power to the game. If he can do that successfully, then the Pirates would end up with a steal, and they’ll be the first in what will probably be a new emerging market.