The Pirates have watched Jung Ho Kang play winter ball, but they still don't know if they'll see him in Pittsburgh next year.
While Andrew McCutchen's status is the most intriguing plotline in Pittsburgh's offseason, few players could swing the Pirates' fortunes for next season like Kang. The 30-year-old third baseman remains on the restricted list, unpaid and unable to rejoin the Pirates following a DUI arrest last December in his native South Korea.
Kang followed a 4-WAR debut in 2015 by slugging 21 homers in 103 games in '16. Then came the DUI charge, revealed to be his third since 2009, and a suspended jail sentence that has prevented him from acquiring a work visa to enter the United States.
Kang is currently playing in the Dominican Winter League, where he hit .114 with a .383 OPS and 26 strikeouts in his first 20 games. The Pirates remain prepared for the possibility that Kang won't return, but they are still hopeful. For a reasonable $3 million, Kang would instantly add power to a lineup that ranked 29th in home runs and slugging percentage this year.
"We're still remaining open-minded in that situation. A year removed, will the [visa application] process be different? Will there be a different viewpoint taken on it?" general manager Neal Huntington told MLB.com's Mark Feinsand at the GM Meetings in Orlando, Fla. "We hope so, because he's a good player. While we have a lot of work to do on why he's in this situation, we believe we can help him and we believe [he] can help us."
What if he is still sidelined in 2018? Huntington said the Pirates are comfortable with their existing options behind Gold Glove Award finalist David Freese. That group includes veteran Sean Rodriguez, who should be back at full health a year removed from shoulder surgery, along with Adam Frazier, Max Moroff and second baseman Josh Harrison.
"We'll get to a point in the offseason where we've got to plan without Kang, then if he is able to get into the country, that's a bonus for us. If he doesn't get in, then we haven't lost anything," Huntington said. "The Rodriguez acquisition in the first week of August played a role in that. … Sean will have a baseball offseason, and we're looking forward to that. A big part of the acquisition of Sean was Plan B, in case Kang wasn't able to get into the country."
The Pirates broke camp last spring without a true fourth outfielder, relying instead on former catcher/first baseman John Jaso and a handful of converted infielders when Starling Marte was suspended and Gregory Polanco was injured. Prospect Jordan Luplow eventually assumed that role, but he still lacks experience above the Double-A level.
So are the Pirates in the market for an extra outfielder this offseason?
"We don't sit here desperate to go find a fourth outfielder," Huntington said. "If there's a player that makes us better out there and fits what we're trying to do, then we'll take a look."
If they don't find a match, the Pirates could turn to Luplow, Rodriguez and Frazier. Rodriguez has played more than 900 innings in the outfield in the Majors, and Frazier graded out well in the outfield last season, totaling five defensive runs saved and two outs above average, according to Statcast™.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.