The Pittsburgh Pirates have many talented prospects at second base and shortstop. Ji-Hwan Bae is one of them.
The Pittsburgh Pirates deepest position is any player up the middle. At the major league level, Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman are set to open up the 2020 season as the team’s primary second baseman and shortstop. But there are chances that could change early in the season are very high. Former first-round pick, shortstop Cole Tucker could take over at shortstop and push Newman to 2B, leaving Frazier as a utility man or trade bait.
But Tucker isn’t even close to the best minor league shortstop the Pirates have. Top prospect Oneil Cruz reached Double-A last season and is ranked as a top 40 prospect (#32 per Fangraphs). In the Starling Marte trade, the Pirates acquired yet another middle infield prospect; shortstop Liover Peguero. Peguero is the 98th best prospect in the MLB according to Fangraphs.
There is one other middle infield prospect that ranks among the Pirates’ best prospects, and that’s who we’re here to talk about today; Korean prospect Ji-Hwan Bae
Bae was acquired by the Pirates in an unusual way. He wasn’t an international free agent signing by the Pittsburgh Pirates at first. Rather he agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Braves. But when the Braves’ general manager John Coppolella was caught in a scandal involving the signing of international free agents. The league forced the Braves to release many of their top international prospects, one of those being Bae.
Bae only played 35 games at rookie ball in 2018 but got most of his career playing time last year. The Korean shortstop came to the plate 380 times and batted .323/.403/.430 with a .384 wOBA and 145 wRC+. All of his playing time in 2019 came in Single-A Greensboro.
The lefty batter isn’t going to hit for power. He didn’t hit a single home run in 2019 and has all of 2 professional long balls 609 plate appearances. His power tool only has a future of 40 and has a raw power future of just 45. But that’s not what Bae is supposed to do. His job is to get on base, which he does very well. Last year, Ji-Hwan Bae had a walk rate of 11.3%. Bae also stole 31 bags in 42 attempts and his .403 OBP was the 4th best at the Single-A level. His wRC+ was also top 10, sitting as the 6th best.
What makes Bae an extremely valuable prospect is his wheels. I already said he stole 31 bases and coupled that with elite on-base skills, you’re looking at a dangerous leadoff hitter. Bae has a 65 run grade by Fangraphs and 70 run grade by MLB Pipeline. Those are among the best in the minors, and the second-best in the Pirates farm system. According to Fangraphs, only one other prospect has a better grade than 65, that being outfield prospect Sergio Campana (80). But Bae also has above average future grades for his hit tool (55) and throw.
Overall as a fielder though, Bae probably isn’t going to stay at shortstop. He only has a 40 current grade and 50 future grade according to Fangraphs. Although Bae has plenty of professional experience at second base. He could also be seen as an outfielder in the future. After all, he does have the wheels and arm to play left field.
Ji-Hwan Bae might have done well with the bat in 2019 and has a decent future hit grade of 60 per Fangraphs, but there is one major red flag. He only managed an 85 MPH average exit velocity. That’s already going to raise a few questions. Of the 26 batters with an average exit velo under 86 MPH, only 5 produced an OPS+ of at least 100 or league average. Among other Pittsburgh Pirates top prospects, he has the 6th lowest average exit velocity and ties him for one of the lowest among prospects in the minors in general.
But before Bae can make a run as one of the Pirates’ prospects within the top 100 will need to stay out of trouble off the field. The infielder played just 86 games in 2019 because he was given a 30 game suspension for domestic violence issues. If Bae can do that, he could improve throughout the next few seasons. His overall skill set doesn’t project as a super flashy player, but he already has a good eye for a 20-year-old. His 11.3% walk rate is very promising. If he can add a bit of power and increase his exit velocity, he could be a productive MLB player.