Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Jung Ho Kang has been handed an eight-month-suspended sentence in his DUI case. Kang, who acknowledged guilt, will not have to serve time for another two years as a term of the sentence and will have an opportunity to avoid serving any at all if he does not violate conditions set forth.
The news comes as both a relief and a headache for the Pirates. On one hand, the suspension of Kang’s sentence allows the power-hitting third baseman to return to camp and prepare for the upcoming season. On the other, Kang’s unprofessional behavior and poor decision-making has put himself and others in danger and has left the club in the difficult position of balancing talent and ethics.
Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ president, issued the following statement regarding Kang’s sentence:
“Now that Jung Ho’s legal case in Korea has concluded, we will continue to work with him and his representatives in an effort to secure his work visa so that he may resume his career as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. We look forward to meeting with Jung Ho as soon as he is able to travel to the United States and having a serious discussion with him on this issue and how he has and will change those behaviors that led to the very serious punishment that has been levied against him in Korea. We will withhold judgment on what Club discipline, if any, is appropriate until we have had an opportunity to have that discussion. We will also withhold from further comment until we have an opportunity to meet with Jung Ho. Regardless of our decision on the disciplinary issue, we will do everything that we can as an organization to assist Jung Ho as he works to change his behavior and grow into the man that we know he can be.”
It should also be noted that this is not Kang’s first brush-in with the law. Kang, a native of South Korea, had two DUI arrests in his home country prior to his most recent. Additionally, he was accused of sexual assault in an incident that allegedly took place last June in a Chicago hotel where the Pirates were staying in while in town to play the Cubs.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the alleged sexual assault victim, a 23-year-old woman, has not cooperated with authorities and it remains to be seen if any charges will be brought.
On the field, there is no denying the talent Kang possesses. Though he missed time at the end of 2015 and the first few months of 2016 with a torn ACL, Kang has still managed to be extremely useful to the Pirates. The right-handed hitter has slashed .273/ .355/ .483 with 36 long balls over the last two campaigns and has provided above-average defense at the hot corner.
However, Kang’s inability to stay out of the news for his off-field issues leaves a gray cloud over the Pirates’ outlook for 2017.
Kang was expected to fill the fourth spot in a lineup that finished 12th in the National League with 153 home runs last season. The late start this year and any potential punishment he might receive from the Pirates or Major League Baseball could leave the team looking for fill-ins.
Internally, the Pirates have David Freese, Adam Frazier and Phil Gosselin as options if needed. Freese, who hit .270/ .352/ .412 with 13 home runs in 437 at-bats after signing with the Pirates last March, would appear to be Kang’s most likely replacement.
However, he is also expected to see time at first base, which may open up a spot for Frazier. The switch-hitting 25-year-old showed well after being called up from Triple-A Indianapolis last year and is expected to fill the role of ultra-utility player in 2017, thanks in part to his .301/ .356/ .411 line and versatility with the glove.
Though it is far from certain the Pirates will have to make that move, it is nice to know they have pawns available. However, it does nothing to dispel the fact that Kang needs to do some deep reflection and evaluate how much his baseball career means to him. Another poor decision could spell the end of it.