BRADENTON, Fla. — After hitting an $11 million jackpot with the Pittsburgh Pirates, infielder Jung Ho Kang wants to pay it forward with other ballplayers in his native Korea.
Kang signed a four-year contract with the Pirates, who in December paid a $5 million posting fee to the Nexen Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization.
The 27-year-old Kang is the first position player to jump from the KBO to Major League Baseball.
Shortstop Jung-Ho Kang hit .356 with 40 homers last season for the Nexen Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization.
“I know that if I do well, more Korean players will come here,” Kang said through an interpreter. “So, while I feel pressure (to perform), I’m also very excited about opening the market here for Korean players.”
Kang was among three Korean players to be posted over the winter, but he is the only one who signed with an MLB team. The San Diego Padres were unable to work out a contract with pitcher Kwang-hyun Kim. In November, the Kia Tigers rejected a bid for pitcher Hyeon-jong Yang.
The Pirates scouted Kang for a couple of years, but kept their interest in him hidden during the posting process.
“It was quite a surprise,” Kang said. “I didn’t expect the Pirates to bid on me.”
The KBO’s marquee export is pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu, who signed a six-year, $36 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012.
“I’m excited to face him again,” said Kang, who homered off the left-hander in Ryu’s final game in the KBO.
Two Korean hitters, Shin-Soo Choo and Hee-Seop Choi, found success in MLB. However, both were signed as amateurs and developed in the minor leagues.
Over nine seasons in Korea, Kang, batted .298 with an .886 OPS. Last season, he hit .356 with 40 home runs in 117 games.
Kang has a strong, accurate throwing arm and played shortstop with Nexen. At 6-feet, 180 pounds, his stocky lower body was not an issue on the artificial turf fields of the KBO.
Many scouts, however, believe he’s better suited for third base in the majors.
“I have no idea where I’ll play,” Kang said. “That’s decided by (manager) Clint Hurdle. I’ll prepare for all the things they want me to do.”
The Pirates have established players at all four infield spots. Shortstop Jordy Mercer batted .255 with 12 homers in 2015, his first full season as a starter. Neil Walker hit a career-best 23 home runs, the highest single-season total for a Pirates second baseman.
Josh Harrison, who batted .315 in a breakout season last year, will start at third base. Pedro Alvarez, a former first-round pick who shared the National League home run title in 2013, will move from third to first base this year.
Hurdle said Kang will play shortstop for at least the first couple weeks of spring training.
“Once he’s built up some time and comfort at shortstop, we’ll move him to third,” Hurdle said. “If those both work well, we might move him to second. We’re just going to have communication with him and get him reps. We want to put our eyes on him, too, in our camp, at this level, with the speed of this game.”
After signing Kang, the Pirates allowed him to work out for a couple of weeks in Surprise, Ariz., with his former Nexen teammates. Kang got a few lessons on playing second base from Nexen manager Kyung-yeop Yeom.
“It’s been quite a long time since I played second base,” Kang said. “At first, it was a little awkward. But as time went on, I adjusted to it. I feel it’s pretty much the same as any other position.”