BRADENTON, Fla. — Jung Ho Kang is “unlikely” to be ready for the start of the MLB season, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said Thursday.
The Pirates have just eight preseason games remaining after Thursday’s contest with the Boston Red Sox and Kang remains in his native South Korea, awaiting a decision on his work visa for the season. Huntington said that the delay, while frustrating for the Pirates, is not necessarily indicative of a negative outcome.
“It is a process that’s ongoing,” he said. “When it takes time in October or November when we apply for them, nobody cares. When it’s every day at Spring Training, it seems to be much more. But the process is ongoing.”
Huntington said that at this point in the spring, even if Kang were to arrive in Bradenton soon, the amount of work he has left to do before the start of the season would mean at least some time in extended Spring Training.
“As hard as he’s working, to think that we’re going to be able to get him ready to go in seven to ten days is unrealistic,” Huntington said. “That’s nothing to take away from his work, it’s just the speed of the game, facing live pitching, facing live balls off the bat and baseball activity versus working out activity, we’re essentially there.”
That means that David Freese will likely start the season as the third baseman, with an added emphasis being placed on those that can back him up. Jose Osuna and John Jaso have both been experimenting with playing at third base, in addition to options with more experience. There are enough internal options that Huntington does not see a need a to go out and replace Kang with a trade.
“If it takes some time, we built this club and feel good about the guys that we have here,” Huntington said. “With what Adam Frazier’s doing this spring, [Alen] Hanson’s having a nice spring, [Phil] Gosselin’s having a nice spring, we look forward to getting Josh [Harrison] back in here, we’ll fill and we’ll go with the 25 guys that we have to go north with and feel good about them.”
Two of the players that could have been an option to fill in at third base were among the nine players cut from the major-league roster on Thursday morning, as Max Moroff was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis and Eric Wood was assigned to minor-league camp. Huntington expects both to start the season in Indianapolis and play multiple positions to prepare to help the major-league club at different spots.
“The reality is, a lot of those guys are going to bounce around,” Huntington said. “It’s because of the fact that we have established major league players and to play one position, if that one guy stays healthy and is better than you, you’re not going to make the major-league team. We want to maximize as many players as we can, they’re opportunity to not only make our major-league team but help our major-league team. So, that club is going to be a bit of a mix and match club as we try to get guys comfortable at multiple positions.”
Moroff is at something of an inflection point in his development. He hit for a .783 OPS in 2015 in Altoona, which was aided by a .374 on-base percentage. He drew 70 walks in 2015 and another 90 at Indianapolis in 2016, but he also saw his batting average bottom out to a career-low .230. Huntington thinks it was an issue of focusing too much on drawing walks at the expense of swinging at early strikes.
“He’s recognized that, though a walk is 1.000 percent on-base percentage, if they don’t have to fear you swinging at the first pitch, they start to get ahead and the strikeout rate jumped because the walk rate was high,” Huntington said. “As he allows them to get strike one, it becomes more difficult and then he gets more defensive. He has terrific command of the strike zone. Now the challenge just becomes expanding what he’s looking for just a little bit so that he can do some damage in some early counts, so that he doesn’t give pitchers free strikes as often as he did last year.”
Another option at third base could be starting second baseman Josh Harrison, who has yet to return to the team after participating in the World Baseball Classic with Team USA. Huntington said that while the focus on Harrison when he returns will be his batting, because he did not get many at bats in the WBC, he is an option to be moved around the diamond defensively.
“[That’s] a great conversation to have with Josh, what his thoughts are at this point in time and how do we get him ready, first and foremost, offensively,” Huntington said. “He can play defense in his sleep. We’re not all that concerned about that. We want to make sure we do everything in our power to get him ready to go offensively.”
DIAZ SEARCHES FOR CONSISTENCY
Catcher Elias Diaz was also optioned to Triple-A, despite catchers Jacob Stallings and Jackson Williams remaining with the squad. The move doesn’t suggest that Diaz has regressed behind those two in the team’s eyes. Instead, it’s an indication of what he needs to work on at this point in time. Diaz has all the tools to be a successful major-league catcher, he just needs to work on the consistency to do those things on a more regular basis. With Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart dominating playing time in the major-league games, the best place for Diaz to do that right now is at Pirate City.
“We like where he is right now,” Huntington said. “We feel he could come in and catch at the major-league level tomorrow if need be. Hopefully, no offense to him, we won’t have the need. Hopefully Cervelli and Stewart stay healthy. The reality is — Clint [Hurdle] said it this morning to Diaz — we haven’t gone a season where we’ve only needed two catchers. It’s just getting him consistent at-bats and consistent opportunities this season so that if we have the need early in the year, he’s ready to go. Consistency of receiving, blocking, throwing. We’ve seen some good things offensively.”
OSUNA IN THE MIX
Osuna is having an incredible spring, hitting .436 with a 1.418 OPS. Spring Training stats, of course, should be taken with a large grain of salt, but is there something to be taken from Osuna’s hot start? Huntington thinks so.
“We’re working through the best and the right 25-man roster and he’s still in camp because he’s still in a legitimate competition for that,” Huntington said. “The way he’s swung the bat, it’s not a Spring Training performance where he mashed A-ball pitching late in the game. He’s hit good stuff, he’s hit good velocity, he’s hit good breaking pitches, he’s hit good major league pitchers.
“He’s also capitalized on some younger guys. But what he’s done this spring has been very encouraging and building upon what the did in the second half of last season in Triple-A. We like the bat. We could have traded Jose Osuna probably a dozen times as he’s come through our system. We’ve liked the bat, so we held onto him. He seems to be on the verge of being able to help us at the major-league level. It might be opening day. It might be at some point in the season.”
CUMPTON ON THE MEND
Starting pitcher Brandon Cumpton was assigned to minor-league camp to continue his efforts to get back on the mound following elbow and shoulder surgeries. His continued presence in major-league camp was not a sign that he’s close to returning — trainer Todd Tomczyk said that he will likely start the year in extended Spring Training — but instead a chance to reward the work he’s put into rehab.
“With the elbow and the shoulder, it’s going to take a longer period of time,” Huntington said. “He’s worked so hard. That’s why we kept him in camp, to keep him with Ray, to keep him in this environment, to give him a light at the end of the tunnel. He’s in a good spot right now.”
Tomczyk did not have a timeframe for Cumpton’s return to competitive action.
“He’s responded well to the bullpens, both the shoulder and the elbow,” Tomczyk said. “Once the mound progression ceases, we’ll go to live BP sessions and then to games. Not looking too far ahead, I don’t see him getting out at the beginning of the season at this point. Obviously, the goal would be to get him out at some point this season.”
Tomczyk also noted that center fielder Starling Marte is okay for competition — Marte started the Pirates’ game against Boston — but may need additional periods of rest in the early going. Right-handed pitcher Jason Stoffel, who was also reassigned to minor league camp, is still throwing on flat ground. First baseman Jason Rogers has returned from his ankle discomfort and made the trip to Ft. Myers.