Kang, Mercer take field for first full-squad workout
First day of teaming for shortstops at Pirate City
BRADENTON, Fla. -- It was curtain up Tuesday on the greatest sideshow in the Pirates' camp.
Under the scrutiny of the eyes and camera lenses of a dozen and a half media members from South Korea, shortstops Jung Ho Kang and Jordy Mercer took Pirate City's Field No. 1 for the team's first full-squad workout and the first day of their somewhat awkward teaming.
Mercer is the incumbent. Kang is the insurgent. The Bucs are committed, financially and otherwise, to having Kang start for them, somewhere, sometime. Maybe Mercer doesn't have to fight for his position. But Kang definitely has to fight for his people.
"He's got a different look at it," said manager Clint Hurdle at the end of the workout. "He's representing a country. We're excited to have him, and I believe he's excited to be a Pirate."
Kang is a rookie at Pirate City -- again. He recalled being here with his Korean Baseball Organization club years ago before Nexen switched its preseason base to Surprise, Ariz.
"But I was a rookie then. I didn't know much and spent most of my time running around [catering to the veterans]," Kang said through his interpreter. "I'm enjoying the baseball more now. So it's different."
In warmups, Kang played catch with Andrew McCutchen. Then he and Mercer partook in fielding drills, working bunt plays with the rest of the infielders, then handling grounders. Finally, there was batting practice, which, typically for this early stage of Spring Training, was more like "taking" practice. Marcer stepped in against Gerrit Cole and Tony Watson, and Kang's turns came against Antonio Bastardo and Casey Sadler.
"It was just the first batting practice," Kang said. "It will get better."
Kang has one leg up in the competition: The left one, kicked up in the batter's box, an exaggerated timing mechanism that some feel will hinder his ability to handle big league offspeed pitches. He has a reputation for being able to clobber the best fastballs.
"It's just a thing that I do all the time," Kang said of the habit. "Just a natural thing I do when I hit. I don't even think about it. I'll do the same thing over here, and see how it goes."
Kang isn't really in a situation of having to prove he can hang with Major Leaguers. The only thing he could do is disprove the Bucs' faith.
"We're confident in his skill set. We believe we've brought in a player who's going to be an everyday player," said Hurdle, immediately raising the ante because, as he was quick to add, "We have solid starters at third [Josh Harrison], short and second [Neil Walker]. We want to prepare him for a starting role, see where he can fit in and what he can add.
"But everybody's vision down the road is for this man to post up and become a regular in the Pirates' lineup."
The declaration by Hurdle wasn't exactly a news bulletin. The Pirates didn't make an $11 million commitment to Kang to watch him play occasionally. Where he anchors, and when, will be a problem, hopefully, because that would mean his bat and arm demand exposure.
That set infield -- it appears pretty transparent -- for the time being will allow Kang to make a smooth, gradual transition to American ball and life.
"We're encouraging him to take little steps," Hurdle said. "We're very excited to see him out on the field, coming together with the entire club. We like everything he does. We signed a very good ballplayer. He's got an edge, and self-confidence. I believe he's got some expectations."