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(Yonhap Interview) New Pirate Kang Jung-ho feeling responsibility as trailblazer for S. Korean baseball

All Headlines 10:59 January 18, 2015

SURPRISE, Arizona, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- Having recently reached a history-making agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates, South Korean shortstop Kang Jung-ho said Saturday he feels added responsibility as a trailblazer for baseball in his native country.

Kang's four-year deal with the Pirates was made official Friday, making him the first position player from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) to sign a big league contract via the posting process. He will reportedly earn US$11 million in guaranteed money over four years, with a club option for $5.5 million in the fifth season with a $1 million buyout.

Even before the ink dried on the contract sheet, Kang was eager to work. Though he's now a member of the Pirates, Kang has been given permission to train with his former KBO team, the Nexen Heroes, whose spring training opened here in Arizona.

In an interview with Yonhap News Agency, Kang said he was "satisfied" with the contract, but he is not going to be content with simply having signed his first big league contract. He said how he fares with the Pirates could have an impact on how the rest of South Korean pro baseball will be viewed by the big league observers.

"As the first position player to make it here from the KBO, I think I am a pioneer of sorts," Kang said. "I would like to do well here and open up big league opportunities for younger players at home."

Kang enjoyed the best offensive season of his career in 2014, belting 40 home runs and driving in 117 runs in 117 games. He batted a robust .356 and led the KBO in on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) with 1.198. Yet these impressive numbers mean little as Kang joins a crowded Pittsburgh infield with mainstays at both shortstop and second base, the two potential positions for Kang.

Kang has long been a hard-hitting shortstop, but skeptics have questioned his defense. Kang said he remains confident with his bat and will work on improving his defense in spring training.

Kang will have to compete with Jordy Mercer at short. Mercer, in his second full season, had 12 home runs and 55 RBIs in 2014, both career-highs, while improving his defense. Of the 13 MLB shortstops who made at least 300 throws to first in 2014, Mercer was the only one not to commit a throwing error.

Before departing for Pittsburgh, Kang told reporters in South Korea he felt that if given a consistent opportunity to play, he could put up better numbers than Mercer.

Informed of Kang's comments, Mercer told local media that it was "nice to see" Kang's confidence. Kang himself said Saturday he was looking forward to competing with Mercer for the position.

"General Manager (Neal) Huntington told me I have to win the battle (for the position), and with the top players around, I am obviously going to try to win it," Kang said. "It's going to be fun. I think the key is how well I can adjust (to the new surroundings)."

Before the deal was made official, Kang said that though he'd first have to talk to the club about the situation, he'd like to play shortstop.

Kang, a former catcher who has played some third base as a pro, said Saturday that he is willing to do whatever the Pirates ask him to do.

"If I have to play (second base or third base) because the situation calls for it, I will do that," he added. "I will have to be prepared to play (different infield positions)."

Kang also declined to offer specific statistical goals for his rookie year, saying, "If I can stay healthy and give my best one game at a time, I think the numbers will be there at the end."

Kang said the Pirates liked his confidence and the power he can bring to shortstop position. He also said he felt the strike zone was wider in the majors than in the KBO, but the difference won't affect him much because "I am an aggressive hitter."

Kang will be wearing No. 27, after having No. 16 on his back with the Heroes in the KBO. The team's first base coach, Nick Leyva, has Kang's old number. The player said he couldn't ask for it since he's only a rookie, and the coach has had it for over 30 years.

For the time being, though, Kang will be training in a Nexen shirt. An official from Kang's agency, Octagon, explained that the Pirates have allowed Kang to wear his old team's jersey until he gets his new Pittsburgh uniform.

Kang will be with the Heroes before joining the big league club's spring training in Florida in mid-February.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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