Pittsburgh Pirates found treasure in Jung Ho Kang

The Pittsburgh Pirates boast the majors’ third-best record thanks largely to an offseason where they struck gold on every major move. They pilfered catcher Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees, re-signed co-ace Francisco Liriano for fourth-starter money and resurrected A.J. Burnett for a second time. But the biggest coup for GM Neal Huntington and Co. was signing Jung Ho Kang for utility-player cash and watching him blossom into an NL Rookie of the Year candidate.

Kang was the Troy Tulowitzki of the Korean Baseball Organization, a shortstop who blasted 40 homers during the 2014 season with OPS of nearly 1.200. Problem was, no one knew how the Tulo of the KBO would fare in the majors. Kang was the first KBO-developed hitter to come stateside (fellow South Koreans Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi were signed by MLB clubs as teenagers), and scouts had their doubts. Did Kang, used to facing upper-80s heat in bandbox ballparks, have the bat speed to combat pitchers displaying unprecedented velocity? Would the stocky infielder be a defensive liability?

Those concerns allowed the Pirates to secure Kang’s services through at least 2018 for a modest $16 million (posting fee included). His rookie year isn’t even over yet, but Kang has already given the Bucs their money’s worth — and then some. The 28-year-old ranks second on the team to Andrew McCutchen in OPS+ (125) and Wins Above Replacement (2.7), making up for subpar and injury-ravaged seasons from Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer (1 WAR combined). Kang is a major reason why the Pirates are primed to reach the playoffs for a third consecutive season, and he has also opened the door for other star KBO hitters (former Nexen Heroes teammate Byung-Ho Park among them) to get a shot in the states. Kangnam style, indeed.