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Kang enters 2019 as Pirates' wild card

'It's go time' for third baseman in return to Pittsburgh's lineup
@adamdberry
March 23, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Arden Pabst, a catching prospect in the Pirates’ system, has been working out for years with Zach Ray, the founder and president of a physical therapy and performance center called Live Athletics in Westlake Village, Calif. In early December, Pabst informed Ray he might be getting a

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Arden Pabst, a catching prospect in the Pirates’ system, has been working out for years with Zach Ray, the founder and president of a physical therapy and performance center called Live Athletics in Westlake Village, Calif. In early December, Pabst informed Ray he might be getting a new client.

“Arden came to me one day and he’s like, ‘You’re about to go international,’” Ray said in a phone interview. “I’m like, 'What are you talking about?' He says, ‘Do you know who Jung Ho Kang is?’”

Kang spent the rest of the offseason training with Ray at Live Athletics and hitting with Pabst at Harvard-Westlake School, where Pabst went to high school. He reported to Spring Training in what manager Clint Hurdle called “the best shape he’s been in as a Pirate.”

Still, do the Pirates know who Kang will be?

Club officials openly refer to their starting third baseman as a “wild card.” Kang is their great unknown -- a much-needed home run threat looking to do right by the Pirates and their fans after being given a second chance, or a controversial figure who could struggle after missing essentially two years in the prime of his career.

Kang hit .273/.355/.483 with 36 homers and 120 RBIs in 229 games from 2015-16, when he became the first position player to jump straight from the Korean Baseball Organization to the Majors. But he has only played in three Major League games since the end of ’16. He played that season at 29 years old. He’ll turn 32 on April 5.

Kang couldn’t enter the United States in 2017 and early ’18 after being arrested for driving under the influence in his native South Korea, his third such charge since 2009. Kang was also investigated, but never charged, following a sexual assault allegation in 2016. Kang eventually secured a work visa last year, returned to the U.S. in late April and, after being delayed by wrist surgery in August, joined the Pirates for the final series of the season.

Pittsburgh declined Kang’s $5.5 million club option for 2019, but quickly re-signed him to a one-year deal. They believed he was conducting himself appropriately off the field, and they were willing to take a chance on his upside. Kang spent the first part of the offseason in Pittsburgh, then went west to California, seeking warmer weather and better workout facilities.

Kang met Pabst, a 12th-round pick in the 2016 Draft, while he was on a Minor League assignment with Class A Advanced Bradenton last year. They kept in touch, and Kang reached out to Pabst over the winter. That connection led Kang to Ray, a physical therapist by trade, who also works in performance training with professional athletes. Kang toured the Live Athletics facility, called the next day and told Ray, “I’ll be there.”

“I didn’t know him and I didn’t know his story, honestly, when he first came to me,” Ray said. “I can tell you first-hand, he was such a great dude. I never had one issue with him. He was on time, if not early, every single day. He did every single thing that we wanted him to do -- every rep, never said anything about it.”

Kang trained with Ray and his staff four days a week the rest of the offseason. Kang said through interpreter Jeffrey Kim that his diet and training program were “nothing special,” but he set out to burn fat and add muscle -- and Ray set out to make sure he’d stay healthy.

“He did phenomenal for us in our offseason camp. His weight came down. His body mass leaned up,” Ray said. “It was noticeable to myself and the rest of the staff, even before he left. Then I started asking him how he felt, and what he kept saying was, ‘What’s really weird is I feel really, really strong, but I also feel very, very lean.’”

The Pirates took notice. Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington have raved about Kang’s physical condition. Pittsburgh’s performance team tests players at the beginning of Spring Training to measure their strength, agility and speed. Director of sports medicine Todd Tomczyk said Kang exceeded his past results.

“I personally think it’s his re-commitment. I think the stage of life that he’s in, the stage of his career that he’s embarked upon,” Tomczyk said. “I think he’s moved past a lot of the challenges and struggles that he had in the past, and it’s go time for him.”

Kang’s fitness has been evident in his defensive work -- his lateral range, first-step quickness and, perhaps, the Pirates’ willingness to take a look at him as an emergency shortstop option Friday. Kang has also shown explosive power at the plate, slugging six homers and two doubles in his first 14 spring games.

Will that translate to success this season? Only time will tell. For now, Kang is still the Pirates’ wild card.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.