Kang’s return forces Hurdle to make tough decisions with crowded infield



Jung-ho Kang made an emphatic return to the Pirates’ lineup on Friday night. (TNS)

Some players in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ already deep infield might have trouble staying relevant with the triumphant return of multi-talened infielder Jung-ho Kang.

Professional sports teams are always searching for ways to add depth to their rosters. This is especially true in baseball, where teams face a 162-game gauntlet full of injuries and performance slumps.

Every team wants a deep infield, but having one became imperative for the Pirates when Kang – who plays shortstop and third base — suffered a devastating leg injury against the Chicago Cubs last September on Chris Coghlan’s takeout slide. Kang’s injury no doubt influenced the team’s signing of veteran David Freese during Spring Training.

Entering a three-game road series against the rival St. Louis Cardinals on Friday night, the Pirates were on a four-game losing streak and barely hovering above .500.

Enter Kang, who — in his first game back from a torn MCL and meniscus and a fractured tibia — swatted two clutch home runs and carried the Pirates to a 4-2 victory.

On one hand, Kang’s return to the lineup would be cause for celebration. But with only four starting spots available, the team now has too many infielders who are all capable of playing multiple positions.

The five Pirates contending for starting infield spots are John Jaso, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Freese and Kang. Throw in utility player Sean Rodriguez and you have six players vying to fill four spots, meaning two players will lose playing time.

Other teams have players waiting to fill spots left open due to injury, but most have a clear pecking order in the infield. In Pittsburgh, it’s become difficult to find a reason to play one of the six contending players over another, except for Kang — an obvious must-start.

For a sport in which superstitions and pre-game rituals are as ingrained as the 108 stitches on a baseball, the last thing talented players want is for a manager to interfere with their daily routine by taking them out of the lineup.

Having to sit around on the bench for the majority of games without knowing when your name will be called takes a whole different kind of mental preparation than being an everyday starter does.

Overachieving players like Mercer and Rodriguez are making it much harder for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to decide who starts and who sits.

Previously thought of as a defense-first shortstop, Mercer has flipped that narrative on its head this season. After batting .244 last year, Mercer has raised his average to .291 and become an offensive staple for the Pirates.

After batting .246 with four home runs in 139 games last year, the Pirates were in no hurry to resign Rodriguez, another supposed defensive specialist.

But since signing a one-year, $2.5 million contract in the offseason, Rodriguez has combined his slick glove and versatility with an astonishing .341 batting average, while already matching his total of four home runs from last year in the first 20 games.

Mercer, Jaso and Rodriguez have all been outperforming their career averages. But if they lose consistent playing time, they risk losing their rhythm and never returning to peak form. So instead of having an abundance of above-average infielders, the Pirates will be left with replacement-level backups.

One solution to this problem would have been to slowly work Kang back into the lineup, allowing the already productive infielders to play and work toward their averages while opening up a hole for Kang at shortstop or third base.

But Kang nullified that strategy in a hurry when he crushed two mammoth home runs in his first game back. 

“I think everybody in the organization that’s been a part of this or watched this whole process take place is blown away by this man’s courage, determination, resiliency and perseverance,” Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after Kang’s Friday night performance. “It’s been crazy good.”

While the Pirates’ infield is in a constant state of flux, so far every infielder has either played up to expectations or exceeded them.

In one sense, this is a good thing. No matter who gets their name posted on the lineup card, the team knows it will have a productive offensive infield.

But if players who are outperforming expectations stop receiving consistent playing time, they may regress, thus weakening their offensive impact off the bench.

Hurdle has to navigate this situation and make some important infield decisions.

Having depth is great, but keeping the entire infield involved — especially a standout like Kang — should be a primary concern for the Pirates moving forward.