BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ Jung Ho Kang’s debut season in the major leagues ended with a jolt last September, when the Pittsburgh Pirates infielder cracked his left leg in a collision.
Five months after having surgery to repair a broken bone and torn meniscus, Kang is working out at the team’s spring training complex. He is fielding grounders, making throws, taking swings . but not dropping any hints about whether he’ll be ready for opening day.
“I don’t know,” Kang said with a smile. “Nobody knows. I know it’s not 100 percent yet, but I’ve been working hard. I believe it’s going to get better.”
The Pirates didn’t know exactly what they were going to get when they signed Kang, 28, to a four-year, $11 million contract in January 2015. He is the first position player to jump to MLB from the Korea Baseball Organization, where he ranked second in home runs, on-base percentage and total bases in 2014.
“I trusted our (evaluators),” manager Clint Hurdle said. “They said he was going to be a good everyday player, but they didn’t know when. He turned out to be a good everyday player last year.”
Kang wound up batting .287 with 15 home runs and 58 RBIs, and finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting. His progress was celebrated in South Korea, where fans gathered to watch live, early morning broadcasts of Pirates games.
“Overall, I think I did better than they expected,” Kang said through an interpreter. “However, not everybody has the same expectations. A lot of Koreans hold high expectations for me – every season, more home runs, more RBIs.”
In a game Sept. 17 at PNC Park, Chicago Cubs baserunner Chris Coughlan crashed into Kang, who was playing shortstop, to break up a double play. After Kang had surgery, the Pirates estimated his rehab would take six to eight months.
MLB is mulling rule changes that would curb takeout slides. Kang, who was used to a less aggressive style of play in Korea, supports the reforms.
“I think it’s a very good idea,” Kang said. “It would help protect the players, so I think it’s good.”
Kang spent most of the offseason in the United States. In December, he checked into the Pirates’ spring training complex and ramped up his workouts. He also made it a point to improve his English skills, hoping to bridge the language gap with his teammates. That effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by Hurdle or the Pirates.
“We’ve used the golden rule, treated him the way we’ve wanted to be treated,” Hurdle said. “Players, staff, everybody consistently reached out from day he was injured until now. His communication has gotten so much better. He’s grown up.”
Pittsburgh will be relying on that maturity whenever Kang returns to the lineup. Though Kang is coming off the first significant injury of his professional life, Hurdle isn’t worried about it becoming a mental obstacle. Kang showed relentlessly last season that he was tough enough to handle the rigors of the major leagues. It comes from a confidence that won’t be shaken by one unfortunate play.
“This guy is motivated to be better than he ever was,” Hurdle said. “He’s done a lot of work. He’s come a long way. And the work he’s done has been done with great perseverance and we expect that to continue.”
NOTES: The Pirates signed former Los Angeles Angels outfielder Matt Joyce to a minor-league deal on Saturday. An All-Star while playing for Tampa Bay in 2012, the 31-year-old Joyce hit .174 with 12 doubles, one triple, five home runs and 21 RBI in 93 games with Los Angeles in 2015.