In 2015, Jung Ho Kang broke onto the US scene looking like an impact hitter. He was the second best hitter on the Pirates’ roster, behind Andrew McCutchen, and was slightly better than McCutchen in the second half of the season. All of that came to an end when Kang had his season cut short with a Chris Coghlan slide. The hope was that he would return in 2016 with the same production he showed in 2015, although that was up in the air, due to the severity of the slide.
Fortunately, Kang returned with some impressive offense. He only had 370 plate appearances, in part due to the missed time at the start of the year with the knee injury, and in part due to a shoulder injury toward the end of the year. In the time he played, he improved on last season’s totals. He had almost the same OBP (.354 vs .355 in 2015), a higher isolated power (.258 vs .173), and higher wOBA (.369 vs .356) and wRC+ (133 vs 129) totals.
The only player better than Kang on the Pirates this past season in the last two categories was Matt Joyce, who had 293 plate appearances. Joyce, Francisco Cervelli, and Starling Marte beat him in OBP out of the players with about 300+ plate appearances. And as far as ISO, Kang was first overall. As a display of his power, he had 21 homers, which finished third to Gregory Polanco’s 22 and Andrew McCutchen’s 24. At the rate Kang was hitting home runs, he would have had 33 homers with Polanco’s playing time (587 plate appearances).
Unfortunately, the defense didn’t look as sharp as it did last year. Kang split the 2015 season between shortstop and third base, and looked much better at third base, with positive defensive value. This year he played only third base, due to the knee injury. His UZR/150 went from 3.6 to -4.6 and his defensive runs saved went from 4 to -2. This could all be chalked up to the recovery from the knee injury, with the hope that it isn’t a permanent setback.
The Pirates were fortunate to have David Freese on the roster this year, stepping in for Kang when he was out. Freese had a slower finish to the season, but still finished with a wOBA and wRC+ that ranked 6th each on the team among players with 293 plate appearances or higher (and fifth if you don’t include Joyce with the starters). That wasn’t the same offense that Kang had, but Freese had better defense, with a 5.2 UZR/150 and 5 DRS in his time at third base.
The Pirates are in good shape at third base with Kang and Freese over the next few years. Kang is signed for $2.75 M in 2017 and $3 M in 2018, with a $5.5 M team option in 2019. Freese was extended at the end of the year, and matches Kang in terms of years of control. He will be making $6.25 M in 2017, $4.25 M in 2018, and has a $6 M team option in 2019. In total, the Pirates could have this combo for $9 M, $7.25 M, and $11.5 M each year respectively over the next three years. That’s a big value for their production.
There was some talk by Clint Hurdle at the end of the 2016 season that Kang could get some work at shortstop next year. I don’t think that is a good idea. Kang wasn’t a solid defender in 2015 when he played the position, and that was before the knee injury. He saw a downgrade defensively in 2016 at third base, so it shouldn’t be expected that he’d improve or maintain his defense at shortstop if he moved back. Kang would definitely provide an offensive boost over Jordy Mercer (although the real offensive tradeoff would be Freese for Mercer), but the defense might negate that.
There could be a circumstance where it makes sense to start Kang. If he’s showing better defense next year in his second year since the knee injury, and if Mercer doesn’t bounce back to his usual defensive numbers, and if Freese is performing the way he did in 2016, and if Kevin Newman isn’t ready, then the overall value of Kang at shortstop and Freese at third would make sense. But that’s a lot of “ifs”, with a lot needing to go wrong to make Kang the starter.
As for the long-term at third base, the Pirates have some interesting prospects, but none banging on the door to the majors just yet. The best third base prospect in the system is Ke’Bryan Hayes. He dealt with a back muscle issue this year, and then a cracked rib. The combination prevented him from playing in the second half, meaning we didn’t get a chance to see his bat develop in West Virginia. That could keep him in West Virginia next year, at least for the first half while Will Craig is in Bradenton.
Craig was the first round pick in 2016, and was drafted as a third baseman. His body probably won’t allow him to stick at third base for the long haul, although there’s no harm in the Pirates keeping him at the position as long as possible. He’s focused on conditioning this off-season, which is the one thing that will help his chances of sticking at the position. At best, he seems like a Pedro Alvarez situation, where he can handle the position for a few years in the majors, before eventually moving to first base. Unlike Alvarez, Craig already has experience at first base, playing there in his sophomore year in college, and getting work there this off-season during instructs.
The one thing that could move Craig over sooner is if Hayes breaks out with the bat and starts on a fast track. Hayes has the best defense in the system, and would be the obvious long-term choice for third base if the bat finally comes around.
The upper levels will have a few third base options in 2017, although none that really stand out as guys who would be able to replace Kang in the next three years. Eric Wood leads the group, after having a big year in 2016 with Altoona. He didn’t have a high average, but showed good plate patience and a lot of power, with a .194 ISO. He also improved his defense, and was named the best defensive third baseman in the Eastern League by Baseball America. The Pirates have him playing in the outfield and at first base in the AFL this off-season, which makes sense as he’s only going to play third base in Pittsburgh the next three years if Kang and Freese are both injured.
Connor Joe played third base in Bradenton, and while the numbers don’t show it, he was impressive with the bat. He only hit for a .277/.351/.392 line in 442 plate appearances, along with a .115 ISO. He hit the ball hard all year, but the production really started translating to the stat line in the second half. He had a .309/.390/.471 line and a .162 ISO from July to the end of the season. Joe was playing his first season at third base since high school, and will continue getting work at the position until someone else moves him to another spot. He seems more likely to end up as a corner outfielder or a first baseman, considering that Wood is the better defender, Kang and Freese are in Pittsburgh the next three years, and Craig and Hayes are right behind him.
The Pirates also have Wyatt Mathisen expected to make the jump to Altoona next year. Mathisen doesn’t have the offense that Joe has, with his power lagging behind. However, he’s shown some much better defense, with a better first step than Joe, making him another intriguing option going forward.
Wood might be able to provide some nice depth in the short-term, in an emergency situation if Kang and Freese get injured. The Pirates also have Max Moroff, Alen Hanson, and Adam Frazier as options to slide over to the position in the short-term if that happens. In the long-term, Hayes looks like the starter of the future, with Craig also having a shot at the position if he arrives before Hayes. Until then, the Pirates are set with Kang’s bat, and Freese providing a strong backup option.