The Pittsburgh Pirates released infielder Jung-ho Kang on August 4th, ending the Korean import’s stormy five-year tenure with the organization. Kang was signed to a four-year contract with an option back in 2015, becoming one of the first players to receive a notable guarantee from an MLB team after making a name for himself in the Korean Baseball Organization. Kang won MVP of the KBO in 2014 after hitting .356/.459/.739 with 40 homers in 117 games and was able to immediately translate that success against big league pitching. Kang played at shortstop and third base and during his first two seasons with the Pirates in 2015-16, he hit a combined .273/.355/.483 with 36 home runs in 837 plate appearances for a 126 OPS+.
Troubling off-field issues marred the years following for Kang. He was accused of sexual assault by a woman in Chicago in July 2016, but no charges wound up being brought against him. In December of that year, back in Korea, he was arrested and found guilty of DUI after an incident which started with a hit-and-run and turned into a high-speed chase during which Kang ended up leaving his vehicle and attempting to flee the police on foot. It was his third drunk driving conviction, and as a result he was unable to secure a work visa to return to the United States in 2017.
Kang missed all of the 2017 season but was able to renew his visa in 2018. He returned to the Pirates’ org but spent most of the season in the minors, receiving only a brief call-up for the final three games of the regular season. The Pirates declined their option on him for the 2019 season, then re-signed him to a less-expensive one-year deal for $3 mil. He appeared in 65 games and accrued 185 plate appearances for Pittsburgh, but managed only a putrid .169/.222/.395 slash for an OPS+ of 56. He did pop 10 home runs, but also struck out in 32.4% of his PA’s, more than 11% higher than his previous career average coming into 2019. He graded out as a below-average defender in small samples at both third base and shortstop.
you may ask why Kang isn't returning to #KBO yet.— Sung Min Kim (@sung_minkim) August 16, 2019
If Kang does decide to come back to Korea, he'd have to serve a suspension stemming from his three (!) DUI's. According to a new measure set by KBO last Sept., his suspension could be "3 years or longer" https://t.co/U25mQHuzy0 https://t.co/L1i42bB6yb
Given the off-field issues and the cratering of his production, it would make sense if no organization wanted to get anywhere close to the 32 year old. So it was a little odd when these tweets trickled out recently from the San Antonio Missions:
Saw a player I didn't recognize taking infield at third base and BP with San Antonio Missions at Wolff Stadium. Guessing it's Jung Ho Kang. @missionsmilb @brewers #missionsmilb #MissionsBaseball #samissions #Brewers #brewcrew #thisismycrew— Joe Alexander (@JoeAlexander210) August 15, 2019
Infield practice at Wolff Stadium before Thursday's San Antonio Missions game. pic.twitter.com/gzpDc65iqe— Joe Alexander (@JoeAlexander210) August 16, 2019
These posts from the Missions’ beat writer led to an erroneous report that Milwaukee had signed Kang to a minor league contract, but Tom Haudricourt later clarified that no deal had been agreed to, at least not yet:
#Brewers have NOT signed INF Jung Ho Kang to a minor-league deal. At least, not yet. He is with @missionsmilb working out with hopes of getting deal done but GM David Stearns said there are things to settle. So, we shall see.— Tom (@Haudricourt) August 16, 2019
The off-field issues are enough to make many fans hope that the org stays away from Kang, but even on the field, it would be a curious fit. The club currently already has third baseman Travis Shaw playing in Triple-A and trying to find his former 30-home run level of production. Shaw can be retained through arbitration next season, but Kang is not eligible for arbitration based on the original contract that he signed out of Korea and would become a free agent at the end of 2019. Mike Moustakas and Keston Hiura shouldn’t lose any playing time to a player like Kang, so perhaps this has something to do with the production that the team has received from the shortstop position. Orlando Arcia seems to have straightened out his defensive issues a bit and is currently on a long error-less streak, but after a hot start at the plate his batting line has fallen to .228/.293/.366 on the year. He’s batting .190/.271/.226 since the All-Star break.
Hernan Perez is currently the backup to Arcia at the big league level, and other options on the org depth chart include Tyler Saladino, Jake Hager, and Corey Spangenberg, so it isn’t exactly a group that inspires much confidence.
We will continue to follow this story as more information comes out.
David Stearns sheds some further light on the club's pursuit of Kang:
#Brewers GM David Stearns said team is working through "visa protocols" in trying to reach agreement on minor-league deal with Jang Ho Kang. "I don't know whether that will be resolved during the minor-league season." Stearns said Kang's off-field woes have been examined.— Tom (@Haudricourt) August 17, 2019
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs