Inbox: How long will Bucs stick with Kang?

Beat reporter Adam Berry answers fans' questions

May 6th, 2019

 PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates were off on Monday -- the calm before a storm of 27 games in 27 days. Despite everything that’s gone wrong this season, the Bucs are a game above .500.

Before they dive into a long and critical stretch of their schedule, let’s answer your questions in the Pirates Inbox.

How much longer can we stick with Jung Ho Kang? We needed his power bat, but he looks terrible at the plate. I would just move on or send him to the Minor Leagues to get right. I’d rather see Ke’Bryan Hayes, but I’ll settle for Colin Moran playing every day.

-- Jim C., Pittsburgh

It sounds like the Pirates are going to remain patient with Kang, who has indeed been a liability offensively. Kang is slashing .146/.213/.329 with a remarkable 33.7 percent strikeout rate (30 strikeouts in 89 plate appearances). He drew a key walk during the Pirates’ 13th-inning rally on Sunday, but his most recent hit came on April 26.

They named Kang their starting third baseman near the end of Spring Training, but you’ve seen Moran get four of the last five starts at third. The Pirates have been open about the fact that Kang is a “wild card,” a phrase GM Neal Huntington used again on Sunday. They knew there was risk involved.

They can’t let Kang struggle like this forever, especially when they have a viable backup plan in Moran, but I don’t think you’ll see them give up on his upside as a power hitter anytime soon. They stuck with him the last few years and brought him back this season for a reason.

Manager Clint Hurdle pointed out that, when Kang makes contact, it’s generally been solid. His 90.8 mph average exit velocity ranks in the 75th percentile in the Majors, and he has a respectable 42.3 percent hard-hit rate. He’s just not hitting the ball enough. Breaking balls and offspeed pitches have baffled him.

“It’s pretty simple,” Hurdle said. “Too much swing-and-miss right now.”

The Pirates theoretically could send Kang to Triple-A, Huntington said, but it might not help. Kang was a disaster in Triple-A while rehabbing his knee in 2016, and he wasn’t very good there while working his way back last year. They need Kang to get right in the Majors.

“To say he just needs to go get at-bats, that may not be that simple,” Huntington said. “I know [hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz] continue to work with him on his mechanics and his timing and his approach. You still see the power, but it has, it’s been a challenge.”

I’d also be patient with Hayes, by the way. He entered Monday batting .252/.336/.383 with 29 strikeouts in 123 plate appearances. Pittsburgh’s No. 2 prospect is going to be a good player, but he needs some more time in Triple-A.

Why on earth are we starting Steven Brault and Nick Kingham when neither has pitched well out of the bullpen? I don’t get it.
-- Dale F., Bradenton, Fla.

The Pirates are without Jameson Taillon (for potentially as long as two months) and Chris Archer (for at least one more turn through the rotation), and they don’t have a ton of Major League-ready options. Kingham and Brault competed with Jordan Lyles for the last spot in the rotation during Spring Training, so they’re the next men up.

Top prospect Mitch Keller is in the process of making a significant addition to his arsenal, and the Pirates don’t want to interrupt that. J.T. Brubaker is hurt. Clay Holmes is a reliever now. Their other Triple-A starters -- Eduardo Vera, Alex McRae and Rookie Davis -- currently have ERAs above 6.00, and Dario Agrazal (the International League Pitcher of the Week) was just promoted from Double-A.

Only one of Kingham and Brault will remain in the rotation for more than a start or two, it seems, as Archer is set to throw off a mound sooner than later. Since neither has worked deep into a game in a while, it’s more likely that they will be pitching glorified bullpen games with an assortment of multi-inning relievers (Francisco Liriano, Michael Feliz, Tyler Lyons and Dovydas Neverauskas) behind them.

Given all their current defensive woes, should the Pirates be developing more pure position players? They've obviously had some past success with their preference for super-utility men (Josh Harrison, Sean Rodriguez), but it seems like that model is losing its luster fast.
-- Matt E., New York

Interesting question, Matt. It’s worth noting that the Pirates typically do develop “pure” position players when they show enough promise to be an above-average everyday player at that position. Cole Tucker has never moved off shortstop, for example, and I don’t think Hayes is going to move off third.

Along those lines, the Pirates have shown a willingness to let former utility men establish themselves at one position when they show they deserve to be in the lineup every day. Adam Frazier is making that transition now, and I’d argue that Frazier’s defense has improved because of that consistent work.

They typically convert prospects into super-utility men as they get closer to the Majors because those prospects often break into the big leagues in reserve roles. Kevin Newman is not the starting shortstop, so as one of three non-catcher position players currently on the bench, it’s important that he can provide versatility as a backup shortstop/second baseman/outfielder.

They’ve actually been a fairly solid defensive team lately, aside from Kang’s throwing errors on Friday and Gregory Polanco’s adventures in right field. (Polanco played six games in the field during his rehab assignment, which was essentially his Spring Training, and we knew his arm strength was going to be diminished at first.)

Josh Bell’s throwing remains an issue, but he’s been a better fielder overall. Having Starling Marte back in center improves the whole outfield. And while Tucker has struggled offensively, he has been excellent defensively; his play at shortstop was an underappreciated aspect of their win on Sunday.