This is the North Shore Nine’s four-part Spring Training preview for 2017. We will break down the four biggest stories as the Pirates report to Bradenton this week to mark the beginning of a new season.
After a disappointing 2016 season for the Pirates, there was a lot of optimism for this upcoming season as most of the Pirates bats were locked up and capable of a tremendous bounce back season. Many envision a renewed Andrew McCutchen, but ultimately getting a full season of a healthy Jung Ho Kang is what made myself really anxious. Then on December 2, Jung Ho was caught on camera crashing through a guard rail and fleeing the scene of an accident. Kang’s blood alcohol level was a .084, .034 above the legal limit.
Fast forward a few months and the Pirates pitchers and catchers have now reported to Bradenton. The first spring training game is 10 days away and there is still no resolution to Kang’s DUI case. As a matter of fact, his trial is set for Feb. 22 in Korea. Kang will remain in Korea to appear for his trial which means he will not be arriving to camp on time. When exactly he does arrive and if he will face punishment from MLB both remain in question. This has put the Pirates in a complex situation.
Last week the Pirates made a trade for Phil Gosselin by giving up RHP Frank Duncan. It was a trade that was puzzling to some, including ourselves. Sure, Duncan was not going to see any action at PNC for the next fews years as he was solely a depth piece. However, using him to acquire another infielder to the crowd Pittsburgh already has on their 25 man is what was so puzzling. You could think this was Neal Huntington’s way of seeing value and acquiring a piece on the cheap that could boost this team for years to come. You could also read that it was his way of providing some cheap insurance in the essence of Kang being suspended for some extended length of time.
The uncertainty around Kang’s 2017 status leaves a lot of uncertainty for the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates. Kang has proven that he is a game changing talent who could help carry an offense. For his first two seasons on professional baseball in America, he has slashed .273/.355/.483/.838 in 837 plate appearances. He has provided a 131 wRC+ along with a .210 ISO demonstrating that his bat and power is for real. When you mix in his average defense (-1.4 UZR & 2 DRS) over the past two seasons he has totaled a 6.2 WAR.
What has been unfortunate for Kang is the fact he has been unable to produce a full seasons worth of work. He was eased into the role his first season in Pittsburgh and ended it with a tragic ACL tear and broken leg as Chris Coghlan hit him with a dirty slide into second. After a long rehab, he once again eased into his role in 2016. Last season had many up’s and down’s for the Korean slugger as he averaged a home run every 15 at bats and was also accused for a sexual assault case in Chicago. It appeared this effected his play as he hit .216 with just three home runs in 100 plate appearances after it was announced. The Pirates placed him on a rehab after announcing an ‘injury’ which seemed to get him back on track. He finished the season batting .289/.427/.602/.1.030.
It is the numbers that he produced outside of this sandwich that has many people very optimistic about this upcoming season. The potential for a 40 home run season is very real and the possibility of putting up the best offensive numbers in the National League behind Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado is within realm. Now because of Kang’s irresponsibly, nobody knows what to expect this season.
The Pirates added insurance in the Gosselin deal, but if Kang were do be out of the lineup for an extended period of time, don’t expect to see him manning the hot corner. There is still a good amount of depth the Pirates have and I would suspect that David Freese will handle the majority of the paying time there. Freese was given a two year $11 million extension with a $6 million third year option last season. Many viewed it then as protection in fear that Kang’s sexual assault case leads to something further. Today, it’s still being viewed as a security blanket but for another reason.
Freese had a very solid season last year as he reestablished his deteriorating value. He batted a .270/.352/.412/.764 slash while posting a 110 wRC+. He also displayed some solid defense. Freese posted a 2.7 UZR last year and had 5 defensive runs saved, which ranked 15 & 12 among third basemen with at least 300 innings played. As much as I wouldn’t like to see Freese in a full time position, he has proved he can hold his own and not be a burden on the team.
Another option would be to use Adam Frazier and Josh Harrison in a creative way to get their bats in the lineup. Both are second basemen with the capabilities of playing third. It would appear that Harrison has the inside track to be the Pirates everyday player at second this year. With that said, I could see a scenario where they shift him to third base on days they want to get Frazier’s bat in the lineup while giving Freese a day off. I feel the Pirates, and myself included, feel more comfortable employing J Hay at third while keeping Frazier at second. Defensively, I don’t trust Frazier at the hot corner as much as I would Harrison, and it won’t put as much pressure on him. Besides the 18 innings Frazier played at third this year, he only tallied nine entire innings at third in his minor league career.
I believe the very last option would be Phil Gosselin. Though the trade was just made in the wake of the Kang trial news, it’s hard to really see him even making this team unless Kang is suspended. With a bench already including David Freese, Adam Frazier, John Jaso, Chris Stewart, and Alen Hanson, there isn’t much room for Gosselin. That will change if Kang is suspended, but his bat and glove in no way combine to push out the previous mentioned players. Gosselin owns a career 93 wRC+ and only a .102 ISO. To say the least, power eludes this man. At third base he has a career total of -1 Defensive Runs Saved, so the glove is just good enough. He would be best served as a bench option only in this scenario.
As you can see, there are plenty of options in the event of a Kang suspension. These options can be serviceable, but neither of them provide the upside and impact that Jung Ho Kang brings to the table. February 22 will decide his legal fate, but it could still be weeks after that until his potential MLB punishment is discovered. We will keep you posted on all the details throughout spring. Most importantly, let’s hope Jung Ho has truly learned something from this and gets his personal life on the right track.