The Pirates are coming off a year where they won 82 games. They made a big splash at the deadline, adding Chris Archer and Keone Kela while sending away prospects. And now they enter an offseason where they will look to build on that momentum, and add more players for the cause.
The needs? Either a starting second baseman or a starting corner outfielder, with Adam Frazier starting at one of those spots.
They could use a Plan B at shortstop for rookie Kevin Newman, either getting a guy to split time early in the season, or someone to ride the bench and take over if Newman struggles.
They also could use a backup plan at first and third base, in the event that one of Josh Bell or Colin Moran repeat their struggles from 2018.
And while their big splash at the trade deadline saw them adding pitchers, it never hurts to add more pitching.
Most of the big moves that you see a team make come later in the offseason, which is why I wouldn’t expect the 2B/OF situation to be resolved any time soon. But the uncertainty in the infield leads to a need to address the bench. This week, the Pirates addressed that need with two potential value moves.
The first move was when they brought back Jung Ho Kang on a one-year deal. The Pirates bought out his option for $5.5 M, then brought him back for $3 M, with $2.5 M in incentives.
The next move saw them trade Max Moroff and Jordan Luplow to the Indians for utility player Erik Gonzalez, plus young projectable right-handed pitching prospects Tahnaj Thomas and Dante Mendoza.
Between the two moves, the Pirates have addressed the bench with some potential value. I’m not saying they should be finished addressing the bench. Even if we assume Kang and Gonzalez make the team, you still have two spots that are completely up in the air. But right now let’s take a look at each of these moves and explore how the Pirates could see an upgrade to their team.
Can Kang Bounce Back?
Discussing Jung Ho Kang is tricky. First, you’ve got the legal issues to deal with. He had a sexual assault claim in Chicago, but nothing ever came of it after the accuser disappeared and didn’t take it further. He then received his third DUI in Korea, which caused him to miss all of 2017 with visa issues, and almost all of 2018 under suspension and trying to get back to the majors.
If we separate the talent, it can be difficult to cheer for Kang. Yes, he served his suspension, but that was only after finding a loophole to get back in the country by establishing a residence in the Dominican Republic. As we’ve seen with guys like Aroldis Chapman, Robert Osuna, and others is that teams will give additional chances to guys with special talent. So it’s hard to shake the idea that Kang would be out of baseball — at least Major League Baseball — if he had been just a regular bench player.
For the rest of this section, I’m going to separate the legal and off-field matters, and simply focus on Kang’s chances of helping on the field.
The obvious upside here comes from pointing to his 2015 and 2016 seasons, when he put up a 3.7 and 2.1 fWAR, respectively. Kang has shown the ability to be a starter in the past, and the old Kang would easily be an upgrade over Colin Moran right now.
My issue here is that getting the old Kang might be a lot more difficult than expected. It’s not impossible that Kang returns as a productive hitter and a starter quality guy. But I think there are things which are being overlooked.
One thing that is obvious is that he hasn’t really played much the last two years. He missed all of 2017, then went to the Dominican Winter League that offseason, only to be dismissed early for poor performance. He returned to the US in 2018, but outside of a small amount of plate appearances in A-ball, he didn’t look any better.
We’re dealing with a small sample size here, so positive or negative results can’t be seen as an indicator of what he will do in the future. The problem here is that Kang has seen very little playing time since 2016, and the little playing time he has seen hasn’t been good. So while that is a small sample size, the poor performance is all we’ve got from the last two years, raising questions about Kang’s future.
The bigger issue which seems to be overlooked is the age factor. Kang was in his age 28 and 29 seasons in 2015-16 when he had his solid results. He’ll be in his age 32 season in 2019. I don’t think it matters who the player is — expecting age 28-29 results at age 32 isn’t usually a good practice.
We haven’t seen Kang much in his age 30 and 31 seasons. We don’t know if he’s seen a decline in skills due to age. Then you add the rust from being out of the game for two years, and it doesn’t really seem like a slam dunk that Kang is going to return and pick up where he left off.
That’s not saying he can’t be successful. The Pirates are taking a flier here, and at $3 M guaranteed, it’s not a costly bet. They’re not getting a guaranteed starter for that price. The alternative is going with a prospect who also comes with questions and no guarantee of MLB success. So going with a guy who previously showed he was a starter, and hoping against the odds that he can return to that in 2019 isn’t a bad plan. I just think Kang needs to be viewed more as a reclamation project, and less like a guy who has a strong chance to repeat his age 28-29 seasons.
The Next Harrison or Frazier?
The Pirates love their super utility players. They give guys in the minors extra positions in order to try and maximize their chances and opportunities of reaching the majors. You see this happening more with guys who have a shot at being a starter, but aren’t guaranteed to be a starter. Guys like Ke’Bryan Hayes and Cole Tucker stick with one position. But guys like Josh Harrison and Adam Frazier — who weren’t the top prospects when they were making their way to the majors — get moved around.
Harrison and Frazier are the success stories, and what you hope for with a super utility player. By having a lot of positions, you increase your chances of reaching the majors. Harrison and Frazier were both primarily infielders, but got their first big breaks in the majors in the outfield.
Harrison was able to hit his way into a starting job in 2014. Frazier may have done the same this past year, and should open the 2019 season at either second base or in right field. That would leave a spot on the bench for the next super utility guy, who the Pirates may have just acquired in Erik Gonzalez.
Gonzalez has played all over the field, and has some decent defensive skills. Baseball America rated him the Indians’ 11th best prospect prior to 2018, saying he has above-average arm strength and quickness on the field, capable of making highlight-reel plays, but also being prone to mental mistakes. That’s a very common combination in the minors, and can sometimes carry over to the majors. The Pirates would hope the mistakes would be limited, in order to provide some defensive value.
Harrison and Frazier got their chances due to their versatility, and ability to play decent-to-solid defense at multiple positions. They got their starting jobs after hitting. Gonzalez has shown some offensive ability, with speed on the bases and some pop in his bat. He’s shown a bit of power in limited time in the majors, hitting for a .126 ISO in 275 plate appearances. He doesn’t walk much, so he’s going to need to hit for a high average and add some power in order to be a starter — which is very similar to what Harrison had to do to become a starter.
The average might be difficult to increase, as it has been around .260 the last two years with a BABIP around .345. The high BABIP is due to speed, and should remain. Gonzalez will need to increase his contact skills, reducing his strikeouts in the process to see further improvements to his average. He saw a reduction from 32.2% to 23.8% last year. Both are small sample sizes, and both are too high for a guy who doesn’t walk (3.3% career walk rate).
The last two years, Gonzalez has been worth 0.2 fWAR per season, with less than 150 plate appearances per year. He could be worth about half a win in a regular bench role for the entire season, with no changes or adjustments. But there’s some potential here if he can improve his offense by cutting down on the strikeouts. He’d have a shot at being a starter somewhere, with the ability to provide insurance at shortstop for Kevin Newman, and the versatility to provide insurance anywhere else on the field.
At the least, Gonzalez is a good addition to a bench that seems wide open right now. At best, he could be a nice value addition, and the next super utility player to follow the Harrison/Frazier path to starting.