When the Pirates optioned Jason Rogers to Triple-A on Wednesday night, it looked like Jung-ho Kang was set to return. Kang needs to return this weekend, as his 20 day rehab time is almost up, so this isn’t a big surprise. The news was confirmed by Francisco Cervelli today, who snapped a picture of himself with Kang traveling for the weekend series.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) May 5, 2016
Kang didn’t have a great rehab in Triple-A. He went 6-for-40 with one homer. He did finish 3-for-12 in his final few games, but that’s telling when three straight 1-for-4 games with singles looks like a good run. That said, Triple-A rehab results don’t always tell the entire story, and the results can be immediately different when a player joins the big league club.
With Kang returning, here’s a quick look at some interesting story lines that will take place with the team after the move.
Kang’s Impact on the Batting Order
Last year, Kang spent most of his time in the number five spot in the lineup, with his second most time coming in the cleanup spot. The Pirates have shuffled their lineup approach around, optimizing the order by prioritizing on-base percentage. Kang was outstanding in this regard last year, while also adding some power. If that player returns, then the cleanup spot would be great for him.
We don’t know yet if the 2015 version of Kang will return, and the rehab appearance didn’t give any positive signs. I think it would be best if Kang starts off lower in the order, to ease him back in. This might give an excuse to move Gregory Polanco up in the order, putting him at the number four spot, and putting Kang sixth to start the year.
If Kang’s offense does return, and if Polanco continues being one of the best hitters on the team in the cleanup spot, then the Pirates would have a very good problem on their hands.
David Freese Becoming a Utility Player
Since Spring Training, we’ve known the plan for David Freese when Kang returned — he would transition to becoming the right-handed part of the first base platoon. Based on his usage this week, he could also see time as a backup at second base. And he will almost certainly get some starts at third, since the Pirates won’t bring Kang back as an everyday player immediately.
Freese has been an outstanding pickup. He replaced Kang by hitting for a .291/.376/.388 line in 117 plate appearances, while showing some decent defense at third. That has been a huge value for the $3 M he received. He’ll continue playing a big role until Kang is ready for everyday time, and having a guy like that off the bench shows strong depth.
When Kang does return to everyday time, it will be interesting to see where Freese gets his playing time. The Pirates don’t face a lot of lefties, since almost all of the starters in the NL Central are right-handed. That limits him at first base, and you’d think he’d be limited at second, since he’s only played there once. Perhaps the Pirates can ease Kang back all year, with Freese getting two starts a week at third throughout the year.
Boosting an Already Great Lineup
The Pirates have been one of the best offenses in the majors this year. They rank first in OBP, second in wOBA and wRC+, and fifth in runs scored. They will drop down from these levels. Their league leading OBP is at .366, which is unsustainable throughout the year. So while that will drop, Kang’s addition could make it so that it won’t drop drastically, and should remain at the top of the league.
Kang also provides stronger depth for the team. As mentioned above, David Freese now becomes a valuable guy off the bench. Jason Rogers didn’t show much in his time in the majors, but still remains an interesting guy to call on from Triple-A. The Pirates also have a few infield prospects in Triple-A who now find themselves the third or fourth best option at many positions around the infield, now that Kang is back.
The Pirates not only have one of the best lineups in baseball, but they’ve got a deep lineup, which means they should maintain their high performance even when the inevitable injuries occur.
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