Bucs designate Kang for assignment

August 3rd, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates were betting on ’s power and past performance when they re-signed him last November and named him their starting third baseman toward the end of Spring Training.

But Kang’s power only presented itself in a boom-or-bust way, and he never reemerged as the hitter he was in Pittsburgh from 2015-16. So as they began looking toward 2020 on Friday, the Pirates designated Kang for assignment prior to their 8-4 win over the Mets at PNC Park.

“As hard as he’s tried, the work that he’s put in, it hasn’t transferred into the game right now,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That’s the hard part, because at one time -- those of us that were around three years ago -- we saw a guy come in here who was a significant addition to the lineup with a power component that was real and a style of play that worked.”

When a player's contract is designated for assignment -- often abbreviated "DFA" -- that player is immediately removed from his club's 40-man roster, and 25-man roster if he was on that as well. Within seven days of the transaction (it was previously 10 days), the player must either be traded, released or placed on irrevocable outright waivers. However, now that the Trade Deadline has passed, the option to trade Kang no longer exists.

The Pirates had two roster spots to fill after they designated Kang and traded Corey Dickerson to the Phillies on Wednesday. To fill those holes, they called up superutility man Pablo Reyes (the Pirates’ No. 24 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline) and activated infielder Erik Gonzalez from the injured list.

Kang batted .169 with a .617 OPS, 10 home runs and 60 strikeouts in 185 plate appearances this season. The 32-year-old was worth -0.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), a far cry from the productive force he was while posting 6.5 WAR in 2015-16 after he became the first hitter to jump straight from the Korea Baseball Organization to the Majors.

Kang didn’t play in the Majors for nearly two years due to visa issues stemming from a December 2016 DUI arrest, and Hurdle acknowledged that the time off seemed to affect Kang at the plate.

“This season, I didn’t do really well, unexpectedly,” Kang said through interpreter Jeffrey Kim. “I feel definitely a little bad for the team, manager, fans and everybody with the Pirates. I’ll try to do better for next time, whatever we do. I feel a little bad about it.”

Kang’s one-year, $3 million contract included incentives based on playing time, and he would have been due $625,000 if he reached 200 plate appearances. But it’s almost impossible to argue that Kang, a free agent at the end of the season, earned more playing time based on his performance this season and the Pirates’ interest in evaluating younger players.

Kang hit the ball hard when he made contact, recording an average exit velocity of 92.1 mph this season. That contact didn’t come nearly often enough, however, as he posted a 32.4 percent strikeout rate and a 35.9 percent swing-and-miss rate. He lost his starting job to Colin Moran and essentially became a platoon player over the last few months. He said he hopes to continue playing professionally, preferably in the Majors.

“It was my dream when I was in Korea playing baseball to become a Major League player,” Kang said. “I can’t really forget at all, forever, playing in the Major Leagues for the first time with the Pirates.”

Kang, who hadn’t played shortstop since undergoing season-ending knee surgery in September 2015, did prove capable of manning both spots on the left side of the infield. But the Pirates will use the next two months to look at Moran, Jose Osuna and perhaps Reyes and Gonzalez at third base while keeping a close eye on Ke’Bryan Hayes, the Pirates’ No. 2 prospect. They’ll look at where shortstops like Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker and Gonzalez fit going forward.

Simply put, there wasn’t room for Kang given the way he was hitting. The front office made every effort to find a landing spot for the veteran infielder prior to Wednesday’s Trade Deadline but found no takers. On Friday, they finally decided to cut ties with Kang.

“It’s August now. Opportunities were given,” Hurdle said. “The number of at-bats, we felt, were very fair on getting some traction, getting some consistency.”

Osuna stands to benefit most from Kang’s dismissal. The right-handed-hitting corner infielder/outfielder, slashing .292/.337/.607 with seven home runs in 96 plate appearances this season, started at third base against Mets lefty Steven Matz on Friday. The Pirates will also take a long look at Gonzalez, who was their Opening Day shortstop before he was injured and Newman claimed the job. Gonzalez hasn’t played in the Majors since April 19 due to a fractured clavicle and a strained hamstring.

Reyes enjoyed an outstanding September when the Bucs fell out of the race last season, batting .293 with an .832 OPS while playing four different positions. The versatile Reyes made the Opening Day roster as a bench player and struggled badly out of the gate, and his first month in Triple-A didn’t go much better. Over the last three weeks, however, Reyes has slashed .333/.413/.621 with five homers, seven walks and only 11 strikeouts.

“I understand that there’s challenging moments and moments in the game that can be a roller coaster up and down. However, I’ve never lost my confidence,” Reyes said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez. “It’s always been there. Around these guys -- these are my brothers, these are my teammates -- I’m always going to feel comfortable.”