Pirates' Kang says he doesn't know if he'll be ready for Opening Day

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, Feb. 15, 2016, 6:00 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Fresh from his daily English class Monday afternoon, Jung Ho Kang was ready for the question.

Will Kang's rehab after surgery to repair his shattered left leg be completed in time for him to play in the Pirates' season opener?

“I don't know,” Kang replied in English, not waiting for his translator to relay the query.

Or does he? Kang just smiled.

Even if Kang is not in the lineup April 3 when the Pirates face the St. Louis Cardinals, it is likely he will be back early in the season. Pirates officials continue to talk of Kang's return with optimistic tones.

When Kang had surgery Sept. 17 to repair his meniscus and fractured leg, his recovery time was estimated at six to eight months. He has rehabbed the past several weeks at Pirate City, posting occasional updates on his Instagram account.

Last week, Kang began working in the indoor batting cage — swatting underhand tosses and hitting off a tee — and fielding grounders outside. On Monday, he made throws from third base across the diamond for the first time.

“I feel good, much better,” Kang said through his interpreter. “I know it's not 100 percent yet, but I've been working hard. I believe it's going to get better.”

Kang was injured in a collision at second base with Chicago Cubs baserunner Chris Coughlan, who slid hard to break up a double play. MLB is mulling possible rule changes to curb takeout slides.

“I think it's a very good idea,” Kang said. “It would help protect the players, so I think it's good. I think it's a little more aggressive here (than in Korea) when it comes to baserunning.”

Kang was playing shortstop the day he was hurt, and this year will primarily play third base. He was asked if there are any physical limitations that could prevent him from playing short.

“The doctor says it's going to get better, and we'll see where it takes me,” Kang said.

In 126 games last season, Kang batted .287 with an .816 OPS. His success as the first position player from the Korea Baseball Organization to play in MLB made headlines in his native country.

“Overall, I think I did better than (fans in Korea) expected,” Kang said. “However, not everybody has the same expectations. A lot of Koreans hold high expectations for me — every season, they want more home runs, more RBIs.”

This offseason, three more Koreans — pitcher Seong Hwan Oh (Cardinals), first baseman Byung-Ho Park (Minnesota Twins) and first baseman Dae-Ho Lee (Seattle Mariners) — signed with MLB teams.

“I think I helped open the door for other Korean players,” Kang said. “Also, if I didn't do well last year, they wouldn't be here.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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