By: Noah Wright
If you haven’t hear, the Pirates have decided to give Jung Ho Kang the starting role at third base, and Erik Gonzalez the role as the starting shortstop. While the news that Gonzalez will receive regular playing time to start the season isn’t much of a surprise, the news that Kang will be the starting third baseman to open the season is to an extent. Entering spring training, Colin Moran was the starting 3B, but after some spring struggles, Kang has overtaken his role.
Regardless, Kang taking over at third base is overall beneficial for the team. Both for him and Colin Moran. One important thing Kang is going to provide is power to a line-up that needs power. He blasted 36 home runs in 837 plate appearances between 2015 and 2016. He also finished with a .200 ISO between the two seasons as well. Josh Bell is the only other healthy player the Pirates have that has potential for good power numbers, but that’s after a sophomore slump during 2018. Gregory Polanco is another player with 25 home run potential, but he will start the year on the DL, and be out for at least most of April, if not part of May. It’s also good for Kang to be starting at third base, as his defense is better than Moran’s. Kang has better career DRS and UZR ratings at third base than compared to Moran. This spring, Kang has had 5 hits. Weirdly enough, all of them have been home runs.
Like I said earlier, Moran being moved to a bench/platoon role is a good move. Moran being limited to see right handed pitchers is very good, as he only had a .503 OPS against LHP last year, but a .790 OPS against RHP. It’s also a good thing to have Moran on the bench. He was a clutch hitter last year for the Bucs. He had a .287 average and .790 OPS with RISP, and a .291 average and .807 OPS with RISP and two outs. In high leverage situations, he batted .390/.405/.558 during the ‘18 season. Moran on the bench improves the bench very much, and like power in the line-up, bench depth is something else the Pirates needed.
While I don’t have strong positive feelings about Erik Gonzalez getting the starting role at short, it’s still interesting to say the least. The Bucs acquired Gonzalez, along with 2 other minor leaguers from the Cleveland Indians in exchange for Jordan Luplow, and Max Moroff. Last season, Erik batted a weak .265/.301/.375 with only 80 wRC+ in 143 plate appearances. His defense was so-so, as he finished the year with positive DRS numbers at third base and shortstop, but negative DRS numbers at second base. Overall, he was worth .2 dWAR. In terms of bWAR, he was barely above replacement level at just .6 in 81 games. However, Gonzalez made hard contact 39.2% of the time during the ‘18 season, so maybe there’s untapped potential in the middle infielder. Regardless, I don’t think Gonzalez is the best answer at short. I personally would rather see Pablo Reyes get a chance at short. Afterall, he did do well in his small 18 game sample size last season.
I think this move overall solidifies the left side of the infield. Kang and Gonzalez are definitely a defensive upgrade over the Mercer and Moran combo they had last year. Plus, Gonzalez doesn’t need to put up eye popping numbers. If he can meet Jordy Mercer level production, that would easily fill the gap he left at shortstop, but with a better glove. Kang, given a full healthy season, I’d expect a .270/.350/.480 season out of him, plus 20-25 home runs in 500 PA’s, and 3 DRS at the hot corner.