By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 21 (Yonhap) -- Former Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Kang Jung-ho has taken a formal step toward a return to the South Korean baseball league.
The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) said Thursday that Kang has applied for reinstatement from the "voluntarily retired" list. He was placed there when his former KBO club, Nexen (currently Kiwoom) Heroes, posted him for interested big league clubs after the 2014 season. Kang signed with the Pirates in January 2015.
Since Kang wasn't a free agent at the time, the Heroes still hold their reserve right to Kang. The Heroes must agree to take Kang off the list, but Kang has yet to contact the Heroes about a potential return. Kang, 33, first expressed an interest in returning on April 21.
Kang's big league career is essentially over, following a drunk driving accident and subsequent on-field struggles over the past three years.
Because of Kang's checkered past, the KBO will soon convene a disciplinary meeting to discuss the exact timing of his return.
Kang received a suspended jail term in 2017 for driving into a guardrail in Seoul while under the influence and then fleeing the scene in December 2016. It was his third drunk driving arrest.
Under KBO rules, a player who has been caught driving under the influence as least three times is subject to a suspension of at least three years.
That rule was instituted in 2018, and the league's disciplinary committee will decide if the rule will be applied retroactively on Kang's 2016 DUI arrest, which happened when he wasn't a KBO player. If the KBO decides to penalize Kang for only the first two DUI cases, committed while playing in South Korea, then the ban could be 90 games or more, along with a fine and community service hours.
Kang carved out an All-Star career with the Heroes and set the single-season record for most home runs by a shortstop with 40 in his final KBO season in 2014.
Kang finished third in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2015, thanks to a .287/.355/.461 line, 15 home runs and 58 RBIs in 126 games.
In 2016, Kang slugged at a .513 clip while setting career highs with 21 dingers and 62 RBIs in 103 games.
But Kang got himself into trouble that offseason. Unable to secure a work permit, Kang missed the entire 2017 season and only got into the final series of the regular season in 2018.
After his four-year deal ran out, the Pirates gave him a second chance by handing him a new one-year deal for the 2019 season.
The move appeared to pay off early, as Kang led the majors with seven home runs in spring training. But in the regular season, Kang stumbled to a .169/.222./.395 line in 65 games with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. He struck out 60 times in 172 at-bats. The Pirates released him on Aug. 4.
Kang briefly worked out with the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple-A team, but no new deal came out of it.
If the KBO slaps Kang with the three-year ban, he'll be 36 by the time he becomes eligible and will have played very little baseball from 2017 to 2022.
Kang, who was drafted out of high school as a catcher, was mostly a shortstop with the Heroes, before going on to play third base with the Pirates.
The Heroes are set at shortstop, with a potential future big leaguer Kim Ha-seong entrenched there. Kim is expected to be posted this winter and could leave for the majors in 2021.