Friday, January 9, 2015

2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Infield Overview-How Kang "Kong" Will Fit In

Hey gang!

Last time, we talked about how Pedro Alvarez' switch to first base will have a major impact. This time, we'll talk about how the rest of the infield shapes up, from second base to the left side of the diamond.

We'll begin with Jung-ho Kang, the Korean star that the Pirates received rights to negotiate with, thanks to their $5 million bid for the rights. While it isn't a sure thing that Kang will sign, the Pirate organization is very optimistic that a deal will get done.

The background on Kang is this: He has been with Nexen in the Korean baseball leagues since 2010. In his progression, his power numbers have went up while his speed numbers have gone down. Kang stole 21 bases as recently as 2012, but managed only three in 2014. However, Kang led the league in homers (40) and runs batted in (117) with 36 doubles. While other writers have said that he is decent to below average, I was unable to find statistics to back any of their opinions. Let's be honest, though. Kang was signed for the potential King Kong numbers he could post. How will the offense translate? Hopefully, with big dividends.

That leaves the next question. Where will Kang end up in the Pirates already crowded infield. For now, the starters are somewhat entrenched in their positions. Neil Walker won a Silver Slugger in 2014 at second base and Josh Harrison was an All Star and played so well last season that he displaced Alvarez from the hot corner. Jordy Mercer played well at shortstop, but admittedly his numbers were down from 2013.

The first primary thought is that if Kang puts up the same offense as he did in Korea that he would displace Mercer and start at short. There is an adjustment to Major League Baseball from Korea and many believe that he will start as a bench player, helping give the Pirates their best bench in many years. If the bench is as those critics suggest, we may see a bench of Travis Snider, Corey Hart, Andrew Lambo, and Sean Rodriguez (whom we'll talk about later).Of those pundits, the thought is to watch Kang play his way into a starting role, no matter where it might be among the three positions.

There are some baseball observers that say signing Kang would make Walker expendable and potentially a trade chip. While that may be true, it probably isn't the way the Pirates are thinking yet. Walker is signed through 2017 and is coming off his greatest offensive season. Walker hit 23 homers, 25 doubles and drove in 76 runs while hitting .271 last season. His defense is also improving each season as his errors have dropped since 2012 (9 in 2012, 7 in 2013 and 5 in 2014). He was fourth in assists, putouts and double plays turned by National League second basemen, only behind the Phillies' Chase Utley, the Marlins' new acquisition Dee Gordon (from LA) and Colorado's DJ Lamahieu. I don't foresee Walker going anywhere, but Kang would be of help if his back trouble from previous seasons returns.

Josh Harrison came out of nowhere in 2014 to be an All Star and eventually replaced Alvarez at third once the injury bug finally closed out his season. Alvarez wasn't going back to third after leading the league in errors the past three seasons, but Kang is also insurance if Harrison regresses from his strong season. In 2014, Harrison hit .315 in 143 games, smashed 38 doubles and 13 homers while showing above average speed with 18 steals and seven triples. He improved the third base position as well with only three errors in 73 games at the hot corner.

Kang's best shot at a starting role is at shortstop. After Jordy Mercer burst onto the scene in 2013, his 2014 season was slightly less impressive. However, Mercer hit well considering that he spent most of the season hit in the eighth hole, right before the pitcher. Mercer hit .255, with 27 doubles and 12 homers, along with driving in 55 runs. On defense, he was among average shortstops with 11 errors and finished second in the NL in assists for shortstops (behind the Brewers' Juan Segura). If Mercer starts slow offensively, he might be one that gets pulled for Kang.

The good news for Pirate fans is that Kang is not the end of capable backups for all three. we'll use the rest of this column to talk about others that may garner some time in the Bucco infield.
in the offseason.

The primary utility infielder will most likely be Sean Rodriguez, traded from the Rays on December 1. He been good over the years in Tampa and last season was no exception. His .211 batting average is a bit of a deterrent and misleading as he also hit 12 homers with 41 RBI in 96 games. On defense, he made only three errors in the field (2 at 2B, 1 at 3B). While Snider and Hart will most likely be the first two of the bench offensively, Rodriguez will probably be first for defensive purposes.

The Pirates also picked up three players off of waivers for the infield. The first is former Twin Pedro Florimon. Florimon started out well in Minnesota, but fell off the cliff and was eventually demoted. The Twins tried to stay with him through 33 games in 2014, but going 7-for-76 for a .092 was his undoing. He started to rebound at the Twins' AAA Rochester with 17 doubles and 12 steals in 85 games. However, his defense suffered with 18 errors (14 at SS, 4 at 3B). The Pirates are hoping that the change of scenery and the positive reward of returning to the big league club is incentive for a turnaround.

The Pirates also picked up Jake Elmore from Cincinnati. Elmore had his best season in 2012 with Arizona's minor league affiliate in Reno with 30 doubles, 32 steals and nine triples. That season he committed only seven errors (5 at 3B, 2 at 2B). Between Sacramento and Louisville in 2014, he hit .279 and again had seven errors (3 at 2B, 4 at SS).  The other waiver pickup was Justin Sellers, picked up from Cleveland on October 25. Sellers has floated around AAA teams since 2010 for the most part and struggled defensively at short in 2014 with 23 errors between Albuquerque and Columbus.

The other future hope is in Alen Hanson. He had success in the Arizona Fall League at second base and had a good offensive season at AA Altoona. He hit .280 with the Curve, with 21 doubles, 12 triples, 11 homers, and 25 steals. His defense led to the move to second after 29 errors at short. He closed the season with only four errors at second. Hanson probably won't reach Pittsburgh in 2015 unless he thrives at AAA Indianapolis and gets a September call-up.

The Buccos are pretty well set in the infield. Some have reported the possibility of picking up Ben Zobrist in another trade with the Rays. I won't go as far as saying we don't need him, because he is a proven bat and can play practically anywhere. His veteran presence would make him welcome, but I don't see the need to have him at all costs at this point.

Next time, we'll take a look at the Pirate outfield, the strongest group of the Pirates.

Thanks for reading,

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