First Pitch: Mitigating the Loss of Jung-ho Kang in 2015

Most of this week was spent debating the strategy of giving players rest and how often to use the depth players off the bench. Unfortunately, the resolution to that “problem” wasn’t a welcome solution, as Jung-ho Kang’s season-ending injury will now force the Pirates to use more of a regular lineup on the left side of the infield, while losing one of their best players in the process.

With Kang out, Jordy Mercer will almost certainly get the bulk of the time at shortstop, although that was happening before the injury. The biggest change will come at third base, where Kang was getting most of his playing time. Aramis Ramirez expects to get the bulk of the work there, which will cause a chain reaction. Ramirez will no longer be getting starts at first base, which means we’ll see more of Pedro Alvarez and Michael Morse in the lineup.

The reality is that, even with Kang healthy, those guys were already getting playing time. Kang had 58 plate appearances this month, heading into today’s game with the Dodgers. That ranked third on the team, behind Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, who each had 68 plate appearances. Meanwhile, Ramirez and Alvarez had 44 and 43 plate appearances, respectively. So you can probably expect an increase in playing time, but they were already getting playing time to begin with.

There will probably still be substitutions. They haven’t been playing Ramirez on travel days, so expect him to sit out the last game of any road series. They don’t play Alvarez or Walker against left-handers, so Morse and either Sean Rodriguez or Josh Harrison could see an increase in time, with Morse being the main benefactor here now that Ramirez isn’t an option for first base. And everyone’s favorite, Pedro Florimon, will probably get some work at shortstop when Mercer needs a rest, unless they go with Rodriguez at short, which didn’t work out so well the last time they went that route.

One question I’ve been asked about is whether Alen Hanson will be an option now that Kang is gone. As far as being a replacement for Kang, I don’t think Hanson would work. He’s spent time at third base this year, but doesn’t seem like a full-time replacement yet, as he’s only played seven games at the position. He used to play shortstop, but there was a reason he was moved off the position and switched to second base. He could be an option at second, although he hasn’t exactly done well against left-handers the last three seasons, and that would be his primary focus. He’s also slumping right now, although that could be due to pressing to try and get in the majors.

None of this is to say that Hanson wouldn’t be a good option for a call-up. The Pirates could use another utility player on their bench with Kang out, and they could use another speed option, especially if Florimon makes more starts (although I think the amount of starts for him would be minimal). So it would make sense to call Hanson up, but that’s not going to be the solution for losing Kang. It would just replace some lost depth on the bench.

Overall, the Pirates probably aren’t going to feel the impact of losing Kang in their remaining weeks. He was worth half a win above replacement in the first two and a half weeks of the month. Ramirez was worth 0.1 WAR and Alvarez was worth 0.3 WAR, and you could probably boost their combined production up about 33% since they’ll be receiving more playing time. They’ll also get more production from Morse and others, and as Ed Giles wrote today, they’ve been getting a lot of production this month from their bench. That’s probably not going to replace Kang, as he’s turned out to be a guy you can’t replace, but it will help mitigate the loss of Kang to the point where his absence won’t impact their record down the stretch.

Where the Pirates will really miss Kang is in the playoffs, and especially the Wild Card game. Anything can happen in the post-season, and having his bat in the middle of the order is something they can’t replace. Last night I pointed out that he’s been one of the best players in baseball in the second half, even ranking slightly ahead of Andrew McCutchen during that span. No matter who takes his spot in the lineup, there would be a drop off. The big hope is that the “anything can happen in the post-season” theory also applies to someone like Aramis Ramirez, Michael Morse, or Pedro Alvarez going on a mini-power streak during that time to replace Kang’s loss.

**Thanks For Making This Our Best Year Covering the Pirates Farm System. We’re wrapping up our seventh year covering the farm system, and the subscription model has made this the best year yet for live coverage.

**Prospect Watch: Kuhl Pitches Brilliantly, Bell Collects Four Hits in Indianapolis Win. Chad Kuhl makes his Triple-A debut and helps keep Indianapolis alive in the post-season, combined with a huge game from Josh Bell.

**Breaking Down Josh Bell’s Late Season Success. Speaking of Bell, Ryan Palencer broke down what was leading to his success in Indianapolis.

**Giles: Pirates Need Timely Contributions From Depth Players. The latest from Ed Giles, pointing out that the depth players have stepped up this month, and that this will be more important than ever with Kang out.

  • Tim,
    I will look forward to reading your article titled the following
    over the next weeks or months.
    “First Pitch: Mitigating the Loss of Jung-ho Kang in 2016”

    Do we ask Ramirez to see if he has any gas in the tank
    to play through June 2016 or what will be our options
    for early next year. Hanson? Harrison? Other?


  • Right now Kang’s loss leaves a hole in the #4 lineup spot. I’d like to see the Pirates stick Morse at cleanup while playing 1B for about 10 straight games to see what he does. I haven’t been as pleased about ARam’s performance in cleanup as lot of people have been. ARAM needs to play 3rd, but I bat him 6th or 7th.

  • What 2014 said. Mercer hitting slightly below league average(2014) vs being one of worst hitting short stops in mlb would really help things out. Hard to overstate how abysmal his bat has been in 2015

  • I am in the camp that really doesn’t think that Kang’s loss is a big deal at all. We have a CRAPLOAD of depth on this team. Yes, he has been playing well lately, but he was also due for another slump, so expecting it to continue the rest of the month and the playoffs isn’t really a guarantee. We have Harrison and we also have Ramirez. I personally believe that JHAY is the best way to mitigate the loss because he is what can breathe life into the team, he needs to be out there everyday. I think it also makes sense now to bring Hansen up, the fact that we ran out of players to pinch run for ramirez by the 12th inning the other day under expanded rosters is nothing but horrible game management

    • Ha ha…was that a serious comment, or were you just trolling ? I hope it was the latter as that was some of the dumbest stuff I have read in a couple of weeks.

      • Leo you always exhibit such humility. I don’t know if I’d call not having hanson available horrible game management but I do now think an argument can be made for adding him to roster even with super 2 considerations.

      • Leo- I don’t troll- ever. You’ve seen me around here long enough to know that.

    • A team doesn’t lose their first or second best player without feeling the effects. “Depth” are depth because they aren’t as good as the players that start ahead of them.

      • I think that’s my point. I don’t think our depth are downgrades, because he was already sharing time with these players. True depth is when there is minimal or no dropoff in talent when someone goes down. Thats the piece that people forget

  • Kang being out could also affect the off season. I was wondering before the injury if they would trade Neil Walker since he could play out his option at the end of next year. Then they would put Kang at 3rd and Josh Harrison at 2nd. Hanson would then replace Rodriguez since he can play out his option this year.

    • I agree. Now they will probably accept another arbitration settlement with Walker and let him play out his string while waiting to see what they have when Kang is ready to play in mid Summer. I am not overly optimistic about an immediate full recovery from Kang. He may not be a factor until 2017.

  • One possible positive byproduct of losing Kang is to galvanize the team. Often times a team will rally around an injured player to exceed expectations. Let’s hope that’s the case here.

  • What would best mitigate Kang’s absence is Jordy Mercer reverting to July 2014 performance levels.

    Whatever happens, it still comes down to Pirates needing to play one game and play that game exceptionally well. No mental/physical errors, smart pitching, no TOOTBLANS, professional at-bats. Make the other team beat you instead of beating yourselves.

    • Well stated – a look at the Pirate regulars batting averages for September will tell the whole story – I listed this elsewhere, but it deserves more ink – Walker .333, Marte .278, Cervelli .256, JHAY .255, ARAM .250, McCutchen .242, Alvarez .237, Polanco .191, Mercer .170.

      Luckily, the Giants continue to lose so there is little chance of the Pirates dropping out of the Playoffs altogether, but if they want to do more than just a one game appearance, they have to wake up and start hitting the baseball more consistently and scoring runs.

    • Someone, at some point, needs to take responsibility for the horrible defensive issues that this team has. Is that Hurdle, or some of the other coaches? I don’t know, but this needs to be addressed now. Teams that lead the majors do not win world championships

      • True, but players play, coaches can only say.

        • that that “someone” is the players whom are making the mistakes. Coaches jobs are to hold them accountable and motivate them. That is really their only real job at the major league level (except for hitting and pitching coaches)

    • bucsws, I agree with all of your post except the last sentence. My mindset is that a winning team should never play defensively, waiting for the other team to beat themselves. Only the elite teams compete for championships, and against an elite opponent if you want to win you have to go out and take it, not wait for the other team to give it to you.

      With regards to the Bucs present problems, they will only go as far as Cutch, Marte, Cervelli and Polanco will carry them. As emjayinTN’s stats remind us, the Bucs have too many players stuck in mediocrity at the plate. Another April in September won’t do it for the team. The big bats need to hit!