Around the Horn: Infielders

Kang keys Pirates' infield makeup entering spring

Around the Horn: Infielders

With Spring Training just around the corner, it's time for an in-depth look at the Pirates' 2016 roster. This is the third of a six-part series checking in on each position. After covering their catchers and first basemen, let's look at the rest of the infield.

PITTSBURGH -- As the offseason began, two questions hovered over the Pirates' infield: When will Jung Ho Kang be back, and will Neil Walker be back at all?

The former remains unanswered, as Kang continues to recover from the devastating leg injury he suffered in September. The Pirates resolved the latter during the Winter Meetings, sending Walker to the Mets for left-hander Jon Niese.

The day Walker was traded, general manager Neal Huntington said Josh Harrison would replace Walker as the everyday second baseman. But the Pirates' infield must be viewed, for now, as two different units -- one with Kang, one without -- and that distinction makes Harrison's current role a little less certain.

Harrison's barehanded play

At full strength, the Pirates will feature a trio of reliable defenders at second (Harrison), shortstop (Jordy Mercer) and third (Kang).

Kang proved what he could do as a rookie, becoming a fan favorite amid his seamless transition from the Korean Baseball Organization. He hit .287/.355/.461 with 15 homers in 126 games, and he turned out to be a capable shortstop and an even better third baseman.

Thus far, every report about Kang's recovery has been positive. Huntington has said Kang is more likely to return in April than in May, but that's as close as the Bucs have come to providing a timetable. Kang's recovery will be one of the Pirates' most important storylines this spring.

That uncertainty also makes it more important for Mercer to avoid another slow start at the plate. The shortstop hit .192 through the first two months of last season, bounced back to bat .287 in his next 39 games, then spent a month on the disabled list.

Harrison also scuffled to start the season, prompting Huntington to publicly wonder if he was trying too hard to justify his long-term contract extension. Shortly afterward, Harrison caught fire -- a hot streak interrupted only by his first career trip to the disabled list.

But where will he take the field on Opening Day? If Kang is still sidelined, the start of Harrison's time as the everyday second baseman may be pushed back. Instead, he could slide back to third base while the Pirates employ a temporary replacement at second.

Must C: Rodriguez's sparkling DP

The most likely candidate to fill that void is Sean Rodriguez, who is expected to be a more traditional utility man this year -- not simply a late-game defensive replacement at first base, as he was last year. Rodriguez, 30, has spent more time at second than any other position in his career.

Infield prospect Alen Hanson also could make a case for himself this spring, Huntington said. Hanson hit .263/.313/.387 with 35 steals for Triple-A Indianapolis last year, working at second base after spending most of his career at shortstop.

Beyond that group, Jason Rogers could see some time at third base. Pedro Florimon, a quality defender with a .199 career average, remains an option as a utility infielder. Huntington also has spoken highly of Cole Figueroa, invited to big league camp on a Minor League deal, as a depth option with experience all over the infield.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.