Around the Horn: Pirates have X-factor at 3B

Moran back for Year 2 with Bucs as Kang seeks return to 2015-16 form

January 23rd, 2019

With Spring Training approaching, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' roster. This is the sixth part of a series checking in on their current and future options at each position. Next up: third base.

Around the Horn:2B | 1B | C | Bullpen | Rotation

Big question: What role will play?

The right side of the Pirates' infield seems to be settled with Josh Bell back at first base and ready to take over at second. The left side? Not so much.

The Pirates' shortstop situation appears to be unresolved, and Kang's return complicates the scene at third base. Last winter, Pittsburgh acquired in the trade and paired him with veteran while Kang was on the restricted list. But now Freese is gone, and Kang is back after being out of Major League action for most of the previous two years.

Rather than pick up Kang's $5.5 million option, the Pirates re-signed him to a one-year, $3 million contract that includes $2.5 million in performance bonuses. They were encouraged by how he looked when he was able to play last season, but even general manager Neal Huntington has said it's unclear if Kang can get back to the level at which he played in 2015-16.

Moran will continue to play at third, but the Pirates will see what they have in Kang. What if he still shows that powerful swing? What if he looks good at third base? As Huntington said in September, "If Kang plays the way Kang is capable, he has everyday opportunity here."

The returning starter: Moran

Moran matched 's batting average (.277) and 's on-base percentage (.340) but slugged just .407 with 11 homers and 58 RBIs in 144 games last year. Defensively, he showed a strong and consistent arm but ranked last among qualified National League third basemen in the SABR Defensive Index. So there is room for the 26-year-old to improve in his second full season.

Offensively, Moran took a step forward in September by stepping away from the plate. He slashed .296/.375/.537 over the final month, by far his best stretch of the season. Moran can bolster his case to be the everyday starter by proving his late-season success was sustainable, although defense was clearly the focal point heading into his first offseason as a big leaguer.

"There's no defensive metrics in the Minors. It was just kind of, 'Catch the ball. Don't make errors.' Being judged on that is somewhat new, so I'm just trying to learn what I did bad and get better at it," Moran said in late September. "I haven't been good at it. It boils down to pretty simple stuff, just trying to figure it out. Obviously if you put an emphasis on something, you can get better at it. That's what I'm going to try to do."

The wild card: Kang

Kang wasn't able to acquire a work visa in 2017 following a DUI arrest in South Korea, his third such charge since 2009. But he entered the United States last year, had his work visa extended and received work authorization to play this season. By all accounts, Kang is following the treatment program recommended jointly by MLB and the MLB Players Association.

"He was hungry to show that he deserved a second chance. That was the first part," Huntington said last month. "He knew that he put himself in a really bad spot. He knew that he didn't do what this organization expects of our players, and he wanted a second chance. ... In our minds, he's earned a second chance. There won't be a third chance."

Kang has barely played professional baseball since the end of the 2016 season, and he'll turn 32 years old in April, but he has the potential to provide much-needed power to Pittsburgh's lineup. Kang slashed .273/.355/.483 with 36 homers and 120 RBIs in 229 games for the Pirates from 2015-16.

Kang has never experienced a normal Spring Training with the Pirates. In 2015, he was adjusting to a new culture and work environment after nine years in the Korean Baseball Organization. In '16, he was still recovering from the knee injuries that prematurely ended his rookie season. Last year, his "Spring Training" program took place in May and June. This spring, he'll have to prove what he can do after so much time away.

Backup options: , , , ,

There might not be many innings available for anyone other than Moran and Kang, but these five could pick up some playing time. Chisenhall has experience at third and should move around the field when Polanco is healthy. Osuna has worked hard the past few years to make himself playable at the hot corner. Kramer can handle second, third or shortstop, and Reyes will have to bounce around to earn a spot on the roster. Gonzalez is capable of playing just about anywhere, but he's still a candidate to be the regular shortstop.

In the pipeline: Ke'Bryan Hayes

It may only be a matter of time before Hayes, the Pirates' second-ranked prospect, makes a run at the job. The son of longtime big leaguer Charlie Hayes was recently named the No. 4 third-base prospect by MLB Pipeline, and he'll move up to Triple-A Indianapolis this season after a strong showing last year in Double-A.

Hayes' defense has earned rave reviews from teammates, coaches and scouts alike. His bat started to catch up last year as he slashed .293/.375/.444 for Altoona, good enough for the Pirates to name him their Minor League Player of the Year. He will only be 22 years old this season, but he could make his Major League debut late in the year if all goes well.

Also keep an eye on Oneil Cruz, the Pirates' No. 4 prospect. Cruz played shortstop last season in Class A, but his 6-foot-6 frame leads some evaluators to believe he'll eventually move to third base or right field.