Kang says he ‘can play better’ than Pirates current SS Mercer
BRADENTON, Fla. — In his first season as starting shortstop, Jordy Mercer last year led the Pirates in games played. He put up solid numbers at the plate and was reliable in the field.
At 28 years old, Mercer is in what should be his peak years. He will not be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2015 season, so Mercer provides great production at a bargain price.
Yet Mercer knows he can’t assume he’ll be in the lineup Opening Day.
“There’s no relaxing,” Mercer said Wednesday. “You have to continue to get better and strive for excellence.”
A craving for success is one reason Mercer is the only starting position player attending the team’s voluntary workouts this week. Another reason was sitting on an airplane bound for Pittsburgh while Mercer was on the fields at Pirate City.
Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang is scheduled to visit PNC Park on Thursday to have a physical and finalize a free agent contract.
He reportedly will get a four-year, $16 million deal, with an option for 2019.
Kang, 27, was a power-hitting shortstop for the Nexen Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization. The Pirates will gauge his performance during spring training to determine whether he fits best at shortstop, third base or second base.
After committing at least $21 million — the Pirates paid a posting fee of a little more than $5 million to Nexen to gain exclusive negotiating rights — management doesn’t intend to put Kang in a holding pattern at Triple-A Indianapolis. He’s coming to America to play in the big leagues, whether it’s every day or off the bench.
During a news conference Tuesday at Incheon Airport in Seoul, Kang made it clear what he wants.
“If I get an opportunity to play consistently, I think I can play better (than Mercer),” he told the Yonhap News Agency. “I think I’ll have to talk to the team about my position, but I’d like to play shortstop.”
Thanks to Twitter, Mercer found out about Kang’s comments late Tuesday. The next morning, while he prepared for a two-hour workout, Mercer had only good things to say about his new teammate.
“Bringing in guys definitely can help the club,” Mercer said. “I think (management) has made the right choices so far, as far as adding pieces to our club. Adding a guy like him can help us get to where we want to be: in the World Series.”
And what of Kang’s claim on the starting job at short?
“It’s good to see he’s got confidence coming in,” Mercer said. “All of us can use that, for sure. If we all set our sights on one goal and have confidence in our ability, the sky is the limit for this team. So it’s exciting to see it.”
In the hitter-friendly KBO, Kang last year hit .356 with 40 home runs and a league-best 1.198 on-base plus slugging percentage. Mercer batted .255 with 12 homers and a .693 OPS.
Ryan Sadowski, who pitched three seasons in the KBO, said Kang can be inconsistent defensively.
“At times, he showed he was capable of making the spectacular play,” Sadowski said. “At other times, he’d kind of goof off on a routine play. If you run a hard 90 feet (to first base) every time and put that pressure on Kang, he’s more likely to make an error.”
Mercer made 11 errors in 144 games at shortstop last season. His nine defensive runs saved ranked sixth best in the majors.
According to Baseball Info Solutions, Mercer made 350 throws to first base and had zero throwing errors and no misplays caused by poor throws. Among 13 shortstops who made at least 300 throws to first, Mercer is the only one who did not have at least three wild throws and/or misplays.