Wrath of Jung-ho Kang: What Does Pirates’ New Signing Mean for Neil Walker?


Sep 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walke (18) turns a double play over Milwaukee Brewers first baseman

Lyle Overbay

(24) during the seventh inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

According to various baseball sources, including the two major newspapers in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are very close to signing Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang to a four-year contract. ESPN’s Jim Bowden says the deal is done, for what it’s worth.

The Bucs were always a strong bet to complete this transaction, as they wouldn’t have spent the money to win Kang’s bidding rights if they weren’t prepared to commit to him. Still, the imminent addition of the 27-year-old to Pittsburgh’s 40-man roster has some interesting implications.

No matter how Kang translates his 40-homer power from the top Korean league to MLB, his arrival signals that the Pirates were dissatisfied with the current state of their infield. And since it’s unlikely that Kang plays shortstop in the majors, perhaps second baseman Neil Walker should be looking over his shoulder.

Walker, 29, is arguably coming off his finest offensive season as a major leaguer; the Pittsburgh native hit .271/.342/.467 as the Pirates earned their second consecutive playoff berth. That level of production was 27 percent better than the average National League second baseman by the OPS+ metric. Also, Walker’s offensive Wins Above Replacement (oWAR) in 2014 was the best of his career at 3.9.

More from Pittsburgh Pirates

Those numbers match up with Walker’s rising reputation as a slugging middle infielder. Although he has probably reached his peak as a player, we can expect him to come close to last year’s production for at least the next couple of seasons.

But maybe Walker, who is entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, shouldn’t get too comfortable competing for his hometown team. The signing of Kang, in addition to stalled contract talks between Walker’s agent and the Pirates, indicates that the Bucs may be willing to move on from the former two-sport star at Pine-Richland High School.

The emergence of Josh Harrison last season also complicated matters. The man known as J-Hay was once considered strictly a middle-infield depth player, but he seized third base from the struggling Pedro Alvarez last season and appears to have that position on lockdown heading into 2015.

That means Alvarez will be starting the new season at first base and that there was no obvious backup middle infielder after Clint Barmes moved on this winter. Enter Kang, although it’s doubtful the Pirates will commit more than $15 million to a second-stringer.

Walker is sure-handed at second base, but his range is consistently below-average according to several advanced fielding metrics. It could be that the Pirates plan to plug in Walker at first if Alvarez can’t handle the transition, but that would require Kang to be ready for the rigors of MLB.

There are seemingly countless contingencies to keep in mind with regards to Walker. The only certainty of the Kang signing is that the right side of the Pittsburgh infield will be intriguing to watch this year.

More from City of Champions