Kang trains in Arizona ahead of Pirates' camp
Korean infielder says he's 'looking forward to playing with my new teammates'
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Even without knowing he wears uniform No. 16 or being increasingly familiar with his visage, Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang was easy to pick out on Field No. 5.
His stature is similar to that of the other 41 Nexen Heroes going through preseason workouts at the Texas Rangers' Spring Training facility, but not his breadth. Kang is brawnier, bulkier -- visual confirmation of something often heard about him.
Baseball players in Korea aspire to play in Japan; it's the natural next step in their progression. Kang dreamt bigger, shooting for the Major Leagues, so he got bigger.
That partly explained why, while the other Heroes were on fields rotating through basic drills, Kang was sequestered in a weight room. Very few Korean players are into weight training, but in three years it has added 30 pounds and many homers to Kang. Though still listed at 180 pounds, he put about 210 pounds behind the 40 homers he struck last season in the Korean Baseball Organization.
It has also helped inflate his bank account. Kang's four-year, $11 million contract with the Pirates reflects a nice jump from the $440,000 he earned last season with the Heroes.
Another explanation for Kang being on his own routine here: While not exactly shunned by his former Korean Baseball Organization teammates, he does feel a bit of a lone wolf.
"To be honest, it's not exactly the same as before," said Kang, speaking through an interpreter. "They're good people. I still mingle with them. But I'm doing my own thing every day. I need to work out on my own, pretty much."
His erstwhile teammates are optimistically encouraging him, none more so than first baseman Byung-ho Park, who led the KBO with 52 home runs in 2014. He will be the next Nexen player to be posted, following the 2015 season, and big league clubs' response to that opportunity will depend a great deal on Kang's success as the first KBO hitter to transition to the Majors.
On the third day of the Heroes' preseason camp, Kang joined others in light fielding practice -- at shortstop. He displayed soft, quick hands but, without full-fledged drills, there was no chance to assess his range -- concern over which could be overstated. Four of the 10 ballparks in the KBO still have artificial turf, which place a greater premium on range, and Kang handled them well enough.
Nexen is scheduled to break camp here on Feb. 18, but Kang is expected to switch over to Pirate City on Feb. 10, about two weeks before the team's position players are required to report.
"Right now, being here, it still feels unreal," Kang said. "Once I get to Florida, I will realize I'm really part of the team and I'm looking forward to playing with my new teammates."
It will not be Kang's first visit to the Bradenton, Fla., complex. The Heroes held their preseason training for years at Pirate City before relocating here in 2010, in Kang's third spring with the team.
Kang is aware of the need to pace himself during this early work. It is the start of an unusually long preseason regimen for him. The KBO season begins at the end of March, a week before the Bucs' April 6 season opener in Cincinnati.
"Not doing anything special here. I have to look at the long season, and try to keep my pace down," Kang said.