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Pirates and Jung Ho Kang are hoping for a comeback

Chris Adamski
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Chris Adamski | Tribune-Review
The Pirates’ Jung Ho Kang talks Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, at PiratesFest at PNC Park.

For his first public appearance at PNC in almost 2 ½ years, Jung Ho Kang relied on a translator Saturday for communicating with fans and media.

There was one question among those thrown at him during 13 minutes with reporters, though, that Kang did not need to wait for the assistance of translator Jeffrey Kim. It was an inquiry about whether Kang would like to win MLB’s comeback player of the year award.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah,” Kang said, smiling widely.

Fair to say that if Kang stays healthy, earns regular playing time and matches the production he’s displayed during his play in the majors so far, the Pittsburgh Pirates infielder would be a favorite for the comeback player of the year honor.

“The team expects that Jung Ho (can perform) the same thing as (he did in) 2015 and 2016, (when) did well,” Kim said in relaying Kang’s words, “and also make more slugging hits to help the team get better in the future.”

Per Kim, Kang believes that the Pirates have faith that a 32-year-old Kang – after two full seasons away from the majors – can return to being the player he was as a revelation in his first 162 games as an MLB player when he was 28 and 29 in 2015-16 for the Pirates.

Does Kang believe that’s possible, too?

“He strongly believes that,” Kim said in translating Kang. “…He (believes he) can have a good season this year.”

If that comes to pass, Kang would fill a gaping void as a middle-of-the-lineup, run-producing presence for the Pirates, a valuable missing piece that could help them to the playoffs.

Kang had 36 home runs and a .838 OPS over 229 games for the Pirates in 2015-16 after he became the first position player to successfully come from the top Korean league to the majors. But after he was arrested for a DUI for a third time in late 2016, his visa application for working in the U.S. the following year was denied.

The Pirates ultimately placed him on the restricted list, and Kang did not play professional baseball until struggling in the Dominican winter league in 2017-18. It wasn’t until April of last year that Kang returned to the U.S. and to working out and playing for the Pirates.

A wrist injury stunted his ascension through the minors on a rehabilitation assignment, but Kang was finally promoted to the majors for the final series of the season in Cincinnati. He had two hits in six at bats.

The Pirates, though, declined a $5.5 million contract option for 2019 but quickly re-signed Kang for a deal that could be worth that much if he performed well but only had $3 million in guaranteed money.

A free agent for eight days, Kang could have signed elsewhere, even if out of spite after the Pirates declined his option. Manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged that Kang likely had other suitors, but that Kang wanted to “make good” with the Pirates after all that’s happened.

“He’s always been thankful to Pirates,” Kim said, “so he definitely wanted to come back to the Pirates instead of considering other places.”

Outfielder Starling Marte said Kang’s teammates were “very happy” to have him re-join the team last September. Marte termed Kang’s play “a big thing” in regards to the Pirates’ chances for contention in 2019 and said Kang “for sure” can return to his 2015-16 form.

“We trust him to do the same that he did before,” Marte said.

Hurdle said Kang would play only at third base, at least to start the spring. Colin Moran is the team’s incumbent at the position; he hit 11 home runs with a .747 OPS in his first full MLB season last year. It’s possible the lefthanded-hitting Moran could platoon with Kang.

“(Kang) is in the best physical condition he’s ever been in since he’s been a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “Now we have to get him out in the field.

“He’s been away from the game an extended period of time. This is unchartered territory for us as an organization and for him as a player.”

Hurdle said that after almost two years away from the majors, “it wouldn’t be fair” to expect the 2019 Kang to match the production of the 2015-16 Kang.

“We are going to be open-minded,” Hurdle said, “and I’m not going to put limitations on him.

“He just wants to play third base, get his game back underneath him, get his legs back underneath him, get his bat back in play and see where it takes us.”

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