MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

Pirates filling in for Kang but hoping he returns

Slugging infielder being held in South Korea after third DUI conviction

Pirates filling in for Kang but hoping he returns

CHICAGO -- The Pirates haven't forgotten about Jung Ho Kang. To the contrary, the Korean slugger should soon be getting a shipment arranged by his old team.

It's a pitching machine that is a cross between the Japanese-made Shizuoka Prefecture, which can throw 143-mph fastballs, and the programmable e-Hack Attack, which throws Corey Kluber-style sliders and Kyle Hendricks changeups.

"We're trying to get him a machine with velocity and spin, to help,'' Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's been more working indoors, doing everything he can to prepare. But in here, we're moving on until he's back.''

There's no telling when the Bucs will have the power-hitting infielder back on this side of the Pacific Ocean. He's stuck in Korea, thus far unable to get clearance to travel after a third driving-under-the-influence conviction, and faces a possible suspension from Major League Baseball when he is back in uniform.

It's a cloud that follows the Pirates around. But thanks to the play of David Freese, Adam Frazier and the familiar cast of characters in Pittsburgh -- Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole and Tony Watson, among others -- the Bucs are doing just fine without Kang, thank you.

They arrived in Chicago last Friday, playing their third game in three cities in three days after a makeup game in Boston on Thursday, which had been an off-day. They move on to St. Louis, having somehow swept the defending World Series champions in a weekend series that featured Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Hendricks.

That's a good trick that isn't likely to be duplicated any time soon.

But little things sometimes matter a lot in baseball. For instance, by coming off the bench to get into Saturday's 8-7 victory, shortstop Jordy Mercer kept alive his goal of playing in 162 games.

"I've seen the T-shirt,'' Hurdle said. "I believe it says 162-plus.''

After reaching the postseason three years in a row, the Pirates slid to 78-83 last season, raising questions about every part of their operation. But it may turn out that they had a couple of answers in the deck of cards they were already holding, as Freese and Frazier are stepping up to make Kang's absence a minor issue.

Freese, who was Most Valuable Player of the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals, was traded to the Angels for Randal Grichuk and Peter Bourjos after the '13 season, and he reached free agency two years later, after his age-32 season.

Bucs general manager Neal Huntington immediately identified Freese as a player he wanted, but he had to keep a conversation with him running until the middle of Spring Training before Freese was willing to take Huntington's best offer -- two years for $11 million, with an option for 2018.

Freese was solid last season, hitting .270 with 13 home runs, but he has been the Pirates' leading hitter during their 6-6 start this season. He was 0-for-3 with a walk in Sunday's 6-1 victory at Wrigley Field, but he traveled to St. Louis sitting on a .344 batting average and a 1.082 OPS.

"He has been a real solid get for us across the board,'' Hurdle said. "He has come in with no ego, no entitlement. And the man's back of the ball card speaks for him. He just showed up wanting an opportunity, wanting to play, reignite. It started late last spring, it carried on during the season. The value he's been able to bring to the club with his on-field performance is significant, however, the experience and the demeanor and the life lessons learned [passed along] in the clubhouse is tremendously valuable.''

Freese is filling in for Kang at third base, but he is able to move to first base to give rookie Josh Bell a day off, as he did Sunday. Frazier played shortstop at Mississippi State, but he has developed into the role that Joe Maddon developed for Ben Zobrist with the Rays.

Frazier was in left field on Sunday. He couldn't grab an opposite-field double by Tommy La Stella in the bottom of the seventh -- it hit the tip of his glove on a diving try, giving the Cubs a 1-0 lead -- but he answered with a double of his own off Koji Uehara in the Bucs' three-run eighth inning and a three-run homer off Justin Grimm in the ninth.

While second-ranked prospect Austin Meadows has created a lot of anticipation for Pirates fans, Frazier slipped in somewhat under the radar. He hit .301 in 66 games last year and is hitting .343 with a .953 OPS this season.

"We were looking on the horizon,'' Hurdle said about moving Frazier off shortstop. "He was a guy we started moving around last year for that Super U opportunity, not knowing what would happen with Sean Rodriguez. We got him up late in the season and he was able to provide a spark with the bat. … He's been a very capable offensive player for us.''

Kang has been a difference-making type hitter during his time in Pittsburgh, but he hasn't been able to stay on the field, because of injury and off-the-field issues. He was signed for four years, $11 million (with an option for a fifth year) before 2015 and did a nice job blazing the trail for hitters from the Korean Baseball Organization.

But because of his legal problems, Kang's future is unclear.

"We stay in contact with him,'' Hurdle said. "This is something that's out of his control now. Something we talk about here is we all have opportunities for freedom of choice. Unfortunately we can't pick the consequences of the choices we make. That's where Jung is right now. … We care for him. We want to help him when that time comes, both professionally and personally.''

Hurdle sends and receives texts regularly with Kang and H.K. Kim, the translator who works with Kang regularly even in Korea. He hasn't dismissed the hope of adding Kang at some point in 2017, hopefully with the Bucs already in solid shape in the division or Wild Card race.

"We just want the best for him,'' Hurdle said. "It's completely out of our hands. We'll know more when we know more. [But] yeah, we'd love to see him this season.''

Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.