Kevin Gorman: Jung Ho Kang’s smashing spring debut a strong sign for Pirates
The Pittsburgh Pirates are focused on their great unknowns, from finding a fifth starter in their rotation to an everyday shortstop to solidifying their middle infield and locating a potential power bat.
Perhaps the greatest unknown is what the Pirates will get out of third baseman Jung Ho Kang, the South Korean superstar who showed so much promise his first two seasons before becoming such a letdown the past two years.
But spring training is about new beginnings, and Kang made a smashing debut in the Pirates’ Grapefruit League home opener Sunday afternoon against the Miami Marlins at LECOM Park.
While two new acquisitions started fast — right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall hit the first pitch for a double, and new shortstop Erik Gonzalez followed with an RBI single — Kang topped them by hitting home runs in his first two at-bats. The first was a leadoff shot to left in the bottom of the second off Trevor Richards to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead. Kang blasted another homer to left off Hector Noesi in the third to make it 3-0.
I'd call Jung Ho Kang's first at-bat of Grapefruit League play a rousing success. pic.twitter.com/eNI41Tqep4
— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) February 24, 2019
While it’s way too soon to say Kang is back to recapturing his old form, especially with the Gulf wind blowing out to left, this was a promising start to spring for the third baseman.
After two strong seasons with the Pirates, Kang’s career was interrupted first a visa denial that prevented him from playing in 2017 after it was discovered he had three DUI arrests, including fleeing the scene of an accident. After finally receiving a visa last April, Kang suffered a left wrist injury that required surgery in August.
Now 31, Kang is healthy and hopes to prove he still can play baseball at the highest level. Even more so, Kang wants to reward the Pirates for showing faith in him by becoming a better man off the field.
“It is definitely very important, not just as a baseball player but as a person,” Kang said, through interpreter Jeffrey Kim. “The Pirates gave me another chance. When I’m done playing baseball, I still want to be a better person. I’m done making bad decisions. I made that decision when the accident happened. At the time, I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I have to go back to baseball.’ ”
After two seasons away from the major leagues, save a three-game stretch where he went 2 for 6 against the Reds last September, Kang is competing for the Pirates’ starting job at third base. Manager Clint Hurdle was impressed the 6-foot, 210-pound Kang reported to spring training in the best shape the club has ever seen him but was as interested as anyone to see how much he’s really changed.
— Christopher Horner (@Hornerfoto1) February 24, 2019
“He’s been away from the game for an extended period of time,” Hurdle said. “This is unchartered territory for us as an organization and for him as a player. … I felt that there was a desire on his part to get something together that worked for both sides so he could come back and do good. To come back and show people, ‘I’ve made a change. I’ve made a mistake. I’ve apologized. I need to go on and live the rest of my life. I’d like to regain playing baseball, and I’d like to do it here in Pittsburgh and impact this team and this fan base in a positive way.’ ”
Kang is competing with Colin Moran, who slashed .272/.335/.405 with 12 home runs and 63 RBIs last season but showed limited range at third. Where Moran made a throwing error in the first inning on an Andrew McCutchen grounder Saturday in the opener against the Phillies, Kang shined at third base. He scooped a grounder and narrowly threw out Lewis Brinson for first out of the game, made another play for the final out of the second inning and looked smooth going to his left in the third.
The Pirates hope Kang can recapture the success he showed in his first two seasons with the club, when he slashed .273/.355/.483 with 36 home runs and 120 RBIs in 229 games.
Yet, Hurdle isn’t expecting the “Jung Ho of 2016” to show up, going so far as to admit Kang was a different player after returning from a season-ending knee injury. But the Pirates remain intrigued by the power potential he showed in hitting 21 home runs with 63 RBIs that season.
“There’s a guy in there that obviously wants to come back and make good,” Hurdle said. “He feels he’s let people down. He feels like he’s let the organization down, his teammates, the city. He wants to have an opportunity to push back, to come back with an edge and get some things done.
“We believed in giving him that opportunity. There’s a wild card. We’ve said it. You’ve heard it. The ability that he’s shown, if we can tap into a high percentage of that, it’s a legitimate middle-of-the-lineup bat, and it’s a very good defender at third base, and it’s a run producer, and it’s a guy that puts charge in a baseball. He could also play a very good, solid role in our offensive composition.”
Neither the Pirates nor Kang are ready to define his role, but Kang made it clear he came to camp with the intention of winning a starting job.
“It’s a challenge, but we still have a lot of spring training games, and through those games, I’ll get back to playing that way again,” Kang said. “It should be very exciting because I haven’t played for awhile.
“It’s an important year, I know that.”
And it was a powerful and promising way for Kang to start the spring, we know that.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .