Jung Ho Kang Is The Key To 2019

Kang must power Pirates if they even hope to contend

Matt Koll
February 26, 2019 - 1:21 pm
Jung Ho Kang

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“Championship teams typically are based on starting pitching and you win the games you are supposed to win because of your back end. And then you score.”

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said this from Bradenton, Florida at Pirates Spring Training just a couple weeks ago.

I agree with Huntington’s sentiments here. The first part of this statement, the starting pitching, you have to feel good about.

Jameson Taillon is coming off his first full, healthy season in the Majors and went 6-2 with a 2.18 ERA to go along with an 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings rate in the last two months.

Trevor Williams finished with a lower season ERA (3.11) than Taillon (3.20) and emerged as a steadying force. Chris Archer was the Pirates’ big trade deadline move and many believe that a fully healthy season of Archer (hernia surgery in November)  settled into PNC Park will yield great results, similar to his work in Tampa Bay where he was once a Cy Young candidate.

The “back end” or bullpen featured the Pirates’ lone All-Star from 2018 in Felipe Vazquez closing things out with set-up man and former closer Keone Kela being added to the mix at the deadline last year.

Kyle Crick and Richard Rodriguez proved to be overall pleasant surprises out of the ‘pen last year as well.

But Huntington didn’t stop his quote there. 

“And then you score.”

There’s the rub with this Pirates team.

In 2018, the Pirates finished 20th of 30 teams and 10th of 15 National League teams in runs scored.  They finished 8th in the NL (16th in MLB) in slugging percentage and a meager 9th in the NL (17th in MLB) in OPS.

All those numbers point to this: The “and then you score” part didn’t go so well and needs to be a lot better in 2019. 

As you scan the Pirates roster and projected depth chart wondering how in the world this team is going to score more runs, there is one name that should pop off the page.

A man who’s capable of things no other hitter on this roster is capable of, was completely taken out of the mix last season and is---in my opinion---the key to the 2019 Pirates being able to contend in any way.

Jung Ho Kang.

Why?

To start, whether Jung Ho Kang produces or not, the NL Central got MUCH better this offseason. 

The defending Central champion Brewers filled a hole at catcher by signing Yasmani Grandal and then re-signed third baseman Mike Moustakas to one-year deal.

The Cubs have been relatively quiet, adding RP Brad Brach and 2B Daniel Descalso. But let’s not forget they have an ace coming back from injury in Yu Darvish.

The Cardinals retained all major assets, traded for All-Star 1B Paul Goldschmidt and signed All-Star RP Andrew Miller.

The Reds went crazy, trading for SP Tanner Roark, SP Alex Wood, OF Yasiel Puig, OF Matt Kemp and SP Sonny Gray.

The Bucs need the bats to compete now more than ever with fresh talent appearing on the schedule more frequently.

In that continued scanning of the depth chart you’ll notice a theme: inconsistency and questions.

Francisco Cervelli and Gregory Polanco’s health issues, Josh Bell and Starling Marte’s production fluctuations, first-time starter questions with Kevin Newman/Erik Gonzalez and Adam Frazier.

Kang is a huge question himself, but his upside is much higher because he brings more of something than anyone else on this roster has proven to.

Power.

Let’s not forget that Kang forced his way into the Pirates lineup in his rookie season of 2015 by hitting 15 homeruns and hit 21 in 2016 in just 102 games. Give him 150 games at 4 at-bats per game and that’s about 32 homers on the year.

Anybody else on this roster going to give you that? Scanning, scanning….

Polanco hit 23 last year before injuring himself on that absurd slide into second base that by the way is going to keep him out to start the season. The most Starling Marte has hit in a year is 20. Josh Bell hit 26 in ’17 but after last year’s 12 homer campaign…can you really trust he’ll hit over 30 this year?

A few weeks ago, MLB.com’s Adam Berry projected the Pirates everyday batting order to feature Bell in the cleanup spot, a role to be filled by a power bat. 12 homeruns doesn’t get it done.  

If Kang can hit close to 30 homeruns with table-setters Frazier, Marte and Dickerson in front of him, that lineup suddenly looks a lot better. In today’s launch angle and power-driven league, the Pirates desperately needed that kind of bat last year and never got it.

Here’s their chance.

Jung Ho Kang is the X-factor. In 2018, the Pirates run producing options were now injured and rehabbing Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte who’s shown that asking for more than 20 HR’s is unrealistic and corner infielders Colin Moran and Josh Bell who combined for 23 HR’s.

In Kang, they can achieve better lineup stability, power at a corner position and pop to increase those runs scored and OPS numbers from 2018 to get this offense performing at an acceptable level.

Also in Kang, they have a third baseman with a troubled past who hasn’t played at the Major League level in two seasons outside of six at-bats.

But if the Pirates want to contend and at the very least play meaningful games in September, I believe Kang is the key.

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