BRADENTON, Fl. – A lot of speculation has gone around so far that Jung-ho Kang could be ready to go by Opening Day, based on how well his rehab appears to have gone. So far, no one on the Pirates’ side is willing to admit that the rehab is ahead of schedule, or that Kang could be ready by Opening Day. Kang has playfully said he doesn’t know and Head Athletic Trainer Todd Tomczyk said they’re still on the original timeline.
So what would happen with the roster if Kang isn’t ready to go by Opening Day?
The current infield, with Kang, would have Josh Harrison starting at second base and Kang starting at third. If Kang can’t start the season, then the Pirates would either need to find a third base option, or move Harrison to third and find a second base option. It doesn’t seem like it will matter to Harrison where he plays, since he’s been open to moving around the last two years.
“We’ve not talked with Josh directly about this,” Neal Huntington said about the possibility of moving to third if Kang is out. “He’s been more than willing to bounce all over the diamond. Last year he did it, and he obviously did it extremely well two years ago. We need to have that conversation with Josh first. Our anticipation is he’ll be willing to do whatever we feel we need to do to put the best club on the field, until Jung-ho is healthy and ready to go. And again, with the options we have internally, we have some alternatives at third. We have some alternatives at second. And Josh is going to be more than capable of playing the position.”
Looking at the Pirates’ depth, it appears that second base would be more likely for Kang’s depth. The second base options include Cole Figueroa and Alen Hanson. The third base options feature the same guys at a position they’re not as familiar with, or wondering if Jason Rogers can handle the position without being a total liability on defense.
It would definitely be a position battle if Kang isn’t able to make the team for Opening Day, but don’t expect the stats alone in Spring Training to determine the replacement.
“There’s a lot more that we look at than outcomes,” Huntington said in response to whether performance would determine who gets the open spots. “We’re looking at the process, we’re looking at their work from the day they show up into camp. If you define performance as the entire package, then yes, performance will be a factor. If you define performance by their batting average and their statistics that show up in the box score, that won’t be a driving factor.”
Ideally, Kang would be ready by Opening Day. He was a huge impact bat last year, and in the second half, was statistically the best hitter on the team, passing up Andrew McCutchen in a lot of metrics. Clint Hurdle praised his ability for good at-bats, defensive flexibility, solid defense, strong arm, and the way his hands and feet worked together on the field. He also reflected on the expectations for Kang, and how quickly he became a regular player.
“With my experience, I’m not a man of expectations. More often than not, expectations turn into resentments,” Hurdle said. “I trusted our people. They said he’s going to be a good everyday player. Didn’t know when. Turned out to be a good everyday player last year. What I bought into was the man. The man’s preparation. His confidence. His desire. His willingness to work, to learn. He was as prepared as any player we have. This is a guy coming from outside our game. Crushes video tape. Has a much better feel for energy levels than maybe I had anticipated coming in. He was very honest about how he felt, when he needed a rest, the workload he was carrying. Played out well for him throughout the year, because he actually got stronger, I felt, as the year went on.”
The good news is that it sounds like Kang will return at some point in April, which means if he doesn’t start the year in Pittsburgh, he might just be a quick disabled list trip away from joining the team. For now, the rehab work continues to look good, and even though the Pirates won’t acknowledge it, it definitely seems like Kang could be ready for the start of the season.
“He meant a lot to our club going through the season, and it’s great to see him out here moving around the way he is right now,” Hurdle said.
No Matt Joyce Confirmation Yet
Neal Huntington wouldn’t comment on or confirm the Matt Joyce signing, since it hasn’t been made official. However, he did discuss whether the team felt the need to specifically add extra outfield depth.
“We don’t necessarily feel like we do,” Huntington said. “But there are some pretty good players still out there that may add depth, that may add a different dynamic to our club. The challenge we have is it’s not like a player that we sign right now in this role would come in specifically to beat out one player. There’s some within that player’s control, there’s a lot outside of that player’s control.”
Huntington said that the decision to go with a fourth outfielder would come down to many factors, including the makeup of the bench, the makeup of the roster, the health during Spring Training, righty/lefty splits, and a versatile infield and outfield situation. Overall, it seems like this move was just to add depth, and not to add a guaranteed bench player.
“We talked to different players about what opportunity we have,” Huntington said. “Not something we were specifically looking for, but when you have a chance to add a player that might make you better, we want to make sure we take advantage of that.”
**Neal Huntington talked about John Jaso’s move to first base, and his drive for the position:
“This guy wants to be a good first baseman, and he knows there’s a big upside for him if he can go out and prove that he can play first base here for the next couple of years,” Huntington said. “The catching, the hands are soft. He’s tough. And again, most importantly, this guy is passionate about becoming a good first baseman. He’s put in a ton of work. He’s making adjustments, has retention, and really wants to be good over there.”
I talked with Jaso earlier this week about his move to first base, and the challenges of moving to a new position for a former catcher.
**Huntington on what will ultimately determine the final bench spots: “We’re looking to take the right 25 north, and give Clint and our staff as many options to win games as we can. And sometimes one player may fit a little bit better than another player fits in that versatility, in that ability to help in a given role off the bench.”
**Clint Hurdle was asked about the Cubs off-season and how they’ve gotten a lot of attention, and whether the Pirates would need to change their approach in response.
“We believe our goals aren’t going to change. We’re not going to reset the bar based on coming up a game short in the Wild Card game again,” Hurdle said. “We won 98 games. I think you look at the success we’ve had for the last three seasons, to where we’ve got our process in a pretty good place. We need to tweak it. We need to make some adjustments to get better, collectively and individually. Every year, there’s a team that wins the off-season, doesn’t necessarily win the World Series. Those things are out of our control. One thing we’ve gotten really good at here is taking care of what we need to take care of. Focusing on what we can do to get better.”
The final thing that Hurdle said might come across as a lofty prediction, based on all of the projections having the Cubs as easy NL Central winners and the Pirates sitting around .500:
“We believe we have a talented enough group to win the division and win the World Series.”