Major league scouts sold on shortstop Kang Jung-ho's power, not so much on defense
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 17 (Yonhap) -- Kang Jung-ho, the slugging shortstop for the Nexen Heroes in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), this week became the third South Korean player to be posted for Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs.
He is also the KBO's first position player ever to be posted. The bid winner after an MLB-wide silent auction will earn exclusive negotiating rights with Kang for 30 days.
A handful of teams are reportedly interested in Kang's services. Media reports have speculated Kang could garner anywhere between US$5 million and $15 million in posting fees.
The 27-year-old is coming off the best offensive season of his career, as he established new career highs in multiple categories and also set single-season records by a shortstop with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs in 117 games. He hit a robust .356 to finish fourth in batting average.
Major league scouts say they like Kang's power, though there are skeptics among them who took his gaudy numbers with a grain of salt.
Some say the numbers may have been inflated in a season of massive offensive production across the KBO and that his stats may not mean immediate success in the majors.
In 2014, the nine teams in the KBO together batted .289 and scored 6,477 runs, both all-time records. They hit 1,162 home runs, the second-highest total ever in one season.
Pitchers, in contrast, posted the worst single-season ERA with 5.21. No club had an ERA of below 4.00, and only six starters had an ERA under that mark.
One major league scout who watched Kang in 2014 said he had his doubts about Kang's ability to hit MLB pitching.
"His numbers jump out but look at what happened to run production this year (in the KBO)," the scout said. "The pitchers' velocity is way down compared to MLB. He's also got that leg kick that can make him look foolish (against offspeed pitches)."
Another scout pointed out that Kang's swing "has a lot of holes" and that big league pitchers will try to exploit them every chance they get.
On the other hand, Kang didn't come out of nowhere in terms of power production. He's hit more than 20 home runs in three different seasons, including the past two, before exploding for 40 homers this year.
Brian Corey, a former KBO pitcher and now a scout with the Cleveland Indians, was more effusive about Kang when discussing the player's merits with Global Sporting Integration (GSI), a U.S.-based sports consulting firm.
"He deserves such interest from MLB teams because he has great power and technique," Corey said.
Another big league scout told GSI: "(Kang) has good power for a shortstop, so any team would like that. It is more a matter of how much he expects to be paid upon signing and what he expects his role to be once he gets there."
And just what role Kang will be asked to assume remains a big question mark. In high school, Kang was a catcher who occasionally pitched. He played behind the plate early in his pro career before converting to shortstop. During the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, Kang was named to the team as a backup shortstop to veteran Son Si-heon but played his way onto the team and was inserted at third base, with South Korea going on to claim the gold medal.
Kang Jung-ho of the Nexen Heroes (Yonhap file photo)
Because of his reputation for botching routine plays and for having a limited range, teams that are interested in Kang are reportedly considering putting him at a new defensive position: second base, third base or even in corner outfield.
One particular MLB scout was skeptical about Kang's ability to handle grounders on natural grass. The Heroes' home park, Mokdong Stadium, has had artificial turf since 2008, Kang's first full season.
"He doesn't charge at grounders; he waits for them to come at him," the scout said. "It may work on artificial turf but not so on grass. This is why some Japanese infielders struggled in the majors."
Still, Kang's raw power, an increasing rarity for middle infielders in MLB these days, may make some clubs take a flier on him.
As one big league scout put it, "Kang Jung-ho is getting mixed reviews, but it only takes one team to bet millions of dollars on him. Either way, I think he will sign with a major league team."
Kang is trying to become just the second KBO player to make the jump to the big leagues, after Los Angeles Dodgers starter Ryu Hyun-jin.