Pittsburgh Pirates: Ji-Hwan Bae’s Solid Season at Double-A

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 22: Ji-hwan Bae #72 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians at PNC Park on July 22, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 22: Ji-hwan Bae #72 of the Pittsburgh Pirates in action during the exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians at PNC Park on July 22, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /

Pittsburgh Pirates’ middle infielder Ji-Hwan Bae has had a solid season at Double-A, and could be looking at a promotion to Triple-A to start 2022.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have multiple noteworthy prospects who man both second base and shortstop. Nick Gonzales and Liover Peguero are probably the team’s most talented. But Diego Castillo has hit well at Double-A and has so far carried it over to Triple-A.

Oneil Cruz looks like a future middle-of-the-order bats. Rodolfo Castro got a taste of major league action earlier this year. Tucupita Marcano is another high-ceiling prospect in the upper minors. He struggled in his first taste of big-league action, but he also completely skipped High-A, Double-A, and saw just a little time at Triple-A before getting to the major leagues.

They also have a handful of middle infield capable players in the low minors such as Bubba Chandler (two-way player, but plays shortstop), Maikol Escotto, and Juan Jerez. Don’t forget about two of their 2021 draft picks, Mike Jarvis and Jackson Glenn.

That’s already plenty of pretty decent prospects who can man second base, and/or shortstop. But they have another pretty decent middle infield prospect I haven’t brought up yet, one who’s done well in the Pirates’ organization so far. That’s speedy Korean infielder Ji-Hwan Bae.

Bae has had a solid 2021 season. So far, he’s hit .281/.363/.411 with a .345 wOBA, and 114 wRC+. Bae is showing much more power this year compared to 2019. He currently has a .130 isolated slugging percentage. Plus he’s walking at a healthy 10.5% rate in 342 plate appearances.

Bae has mainly played shortstop this year. As a defender, he’s considered average with a solid arm. But, he played a good amount of second base and even has started to play some center field to help free up some room in the middle infield. After all, I listed 11 players in the first paragraph as notable Pirates’ middle infield prospects. You’re going to have to make some accommodations to make room with just 2 middle infield spots.

Bae’s .363 on-base percentage and 10.5% walk rate play way up because of his baserunning ability. Bae has a 65-current speed grade, but even once he fills out, he’s still a projected-60 grade runner. That’s near-elite to elite territory. Bae has shown off that speed this year with 19 stolen bases in just 78 games. He also stole 36 bases in 2019 in just 86 contests. An OBP above .350 with his kind of speed is a deadly weapon.

But his speed isn’t even his best tool. It’s his hit tool. It projects as a 70-grade item. He doesn’t have much power, projecting as a 35-game power grade kind of hitter with a raw power grade of only 40, but so long as he continues to reach base at a decent rate and provide a solid batting average, he’ll be just fine in the long run. Especially if he can show versatility and man centerfield.

The one knock on him is his lack of line drives this year. He currently has a 15.2% LD%, which for a hitter like him, he needs to hit line drives more frequently to be successful. But so far, he’s done pretty well despite that. Plus he is hitting a lot more fly balls with a 36.6% rate (compared to just 27.8% in 2019).

Bae is currently ranked as the Pittsburgh Pirates 11th best prospect on FanGraphs as well as their 22nd best prospect by MLB Pipeline’s measurement. Overall, to be a top 15-25 prospect in the Pirates farm system is something he should be proud about. The Pittsburgh Pirates have arguably the best farm system in baseball. It’s certainly top 5 with FanGraphs placing it at #3 (and by a wide margin) and MLB Pipeline ranking it #4, but arguably the deepest.

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Bae should get the call to Triple-A to start 2022. So long as he stays healthy and keeps producing at an above-average level, Bae is easily a guy you could see come up sometime in June next year (as well as many others) maybe even earlier if the situation necessitates it.