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Jung Ho Kang among 3 Pirates players to watch during spring training

Chris Adamski
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Pittsburgh Pirates’ Jung Ho Kang watches his three-run home run during the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, in St. Louis.

Looking at the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training roster, it is likely 20 or more of the players who are there for Opening Day will be holdovers from last season. As such, Pirates fans figure to be familiar with the 2019 roster.

That does not mean there won’t be any intrigue in Bradenton and other Florida outposts over the next six weeks. Spots can be won as the No. 5 starter, on the bench and at middle-inning and long relief. And who knows what injuries or trades could create other questions?

Short of that, though, here are three players to keep an eye on as the Pirates prepare for the upcoming season:

1. Jung Ho Kang

Perhaps the Pirates’ biggest wild card, Kang, when healthy and present, arguably has been one of the team’s top hitters. Statistically, there is no argument. OPS-plus is considered an all-encompassing, objective metric for offense. Kang, over 837 plate appearances in 2015-16, had a 126 OPS+, best on the team during that span (beating runner-up Andrew McCutchen, who had 123 OPS+). Kang also has a lengthy track record of slugging in his native South Korea.

But a series of calamities on and off the field such as three DWIs in South Korea and a serious leg injury limited him to 229 games over the past three years of his original contract with the Pirates. At age 32, with major leg surgery under his belt and only six major league at-bats over the 30 months prior to Opening Day, can anyone reasonably expect the same Kang?

If Kang can regain his old form, Pirates fans can salivate at the thought of a sorely needed middle-of-the-lineup presence, but it might just be safest for the organization to assume anything Kang provides as a bonus.

2. Erik Gonzalez

With apologies to the Barry Bonds-led teams of the late 1980s and early 90s, the past six seasons arguably were the Pirates’ most successful span since their last World Series title in 1979. You might be surprised who appeared in the most Pirates games between 2013-18, when they won 515 games, had four winning seaons and qualified for the playoffs three times.

It was Jordy Mercer.

But Mercer is gone, and for the first time since 2013, the Pirates will have a different starting shortstop. Barring something unforeseen happening, that almost certainly will be Gonzalez. Management gushed about the former Indians utility player, believing he can bring “plus” defense and be better offensively than his career numbers (.263 average, .681 OPS, five home runs in 162 games) suggest.

3. Ke’Bryan Hayes

Keep an eye on Hayes in the Grapefruit League if only because he won’t playing for the big league club come Opening Day. Hayes likely will be in the majors within the next 19 months, though, asthe Pirates’ top position-player prospect. He’s a player with a high ceiling who’s seemingly assured of being a major leaguer.

The son of former 14-year major-leaguer Charlie Hayes (who played part of 1996 with the Pirates), Ke’Bryan Hayes turned 22 last month. A first-round pick in 2015, he has shown progress in each of his professional seasons and is viewed as reliable and consistent. If there’s a concern for a corner infielder, it’s a lack of power (15 home runs in 348 minor league games), but his defense is considered elite.

Hayes won’t come north with the Pirates when they begin the regular seasonm, but he might arrive in Pittsburgh by September. He’s worth tracking in Florida.

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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.