Jung Ho Kang is available to once again play for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pirates announced on Thursday that Kang has been granted a work visa to re-enter the United States. According to a statement from the Pirates, Kang will remain on the team’s restricted list, “while he works his way back into condition to participate in Major League games.”
Team president Frank Coonelly said in the release that the Pirates are “encouraged by the steps that Jung Ho has taken” and will “provide Jung Ho with the resources and support necessary for him to meet the high expectations that we have for him as a member of our organization and our community.”
Kang, 31, had been denied a work visa since being convicted of drinking while driving more than a year ago. It his his third such offense since 2009. The news came as a surprise as Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said last December that he did not expect Kang to play for the team in 2018.
Kang signed a four-year contract with the Pirates for $11 million in 2015. It included a club option of $5.5 million. The Bucs also had to pay a $5 million position.
Deal paid off for Bucs
The deal paid off in a big way for the Pirates as Kang became the first successful position player to make the transition from he Korean Baseball Association to Major League Baseball. Kang, who played third base and some shortstop, batted .287 in 2015 while hitting 15 homers and driving in 58 runs in 467 at bats with an .816 OPS. His season was cut short as he suffered a major knee injury while playing shortstop in September of that year.
He returned in May of 2016, batting .255 with 21 homers and 62 runs batted in and .867 OPS. He became a fan favorite with his hard play and overall hustle.
Where will he play?
The question now becomes where will the Pirates play Kang once he returns. The Bucs acquired rookie third baseman Colin Moran from Houston as part of the Gerrit Cole deal to be the team’s everyday starter. He’s been solid, so far, batting .296 with two homers, 12 runs batted in and an .805 OPS.
The Pirates could move Kang to shortstop where Jordy Mercer is batting .247 with no homers, five runs batted in and a .644 OPS. Mercer signed a one-year deal for $6.7 million in the off-season and will be a free agent at the end of this season. While Kang is a better hitter than Mercer, he’s not as good as Mercer in the field, so the Pirates could face a tough decision there.
It might take some extra time for Kang to get his swing back as he hasn’t faced Major League pitching since October of 2016. Kang did play briefly in the Dominican Winter League earlier this year, but he only batted .143 with 31 strikeouts in 24 games before being released.
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