Pittsburgh Pirates: Making the Case for Nick Gonzales Jumping to Triple-A

Pittsburgh Pirates top infield prospect Nick Gonzales had an outstanding season at High-A Greensboro, but could he skip Double-A and jump directly into Triple-A?

Among the Pittsburgh Pirates sea of top prospects, Nick Gonzales stands out as one of their best. He’s arguably better than Henry Davis, their 1/1 pick this year, and top pitching prospect Quinn Priester.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had the 7th overall pick in the 2020 draft and used it on the second baseman. Going into the draft, Gonzales was considered the best pure hitter available. While Spencer Torkelson brought the big-time power and Austin Martin had strong contact and on-base ability, Gonzales seemed to have a little bit of everything. But even with lofty standards heading into 2021, Gonzales blew expectations of the water.

At High-A Greensboro, Gonzales batted .302/.385/.565 with 18 home runs in just 369 plate appearances. While he did hit his fair share of home runs, he had 23 doubles, which put him on pace for 29 dingers and 37 doubles across a 600-plate appearances stretch.

While he went down on strike three a bit more than you’d like to see at a 27.4% pace, he slowly cut down on the strikeouts as the year went on. Through the last month’s worth of games he played, he only had a strikeout rate of 22.6%. Plus he offset it with a strong 10.8% walk rate. His final line consisted of a .405 wOBA and 150 wRC+.

While Gonzales had a high batting average on balls in play (.388), it makes sense once you look at his batted ball rates. Gonzales was a big line-drive hitter. He had a fantastic 27.4% line drive rate. But he also hit many more fly balls (36.5%) than ground balls (35.6%). While speed isn’t a major part of his game, he is considered a solid runner and has a glove that is trending in the right direction.

While Gonzales was much better at home (1.094 OPS) compared to away (.804), I wouldn’t be majorly concerned about that. Gonzales is more than talented enough to overcome home/away splits. He’s more than powerful enough to be a fantastic hitter at the big leagues. He’s been highly praised for his approach at the plate, showed an improving strikeout rate, and is arugably one of the minor league’s top players.

So where will Gonzales start the 2022 season? Well the Pittsburgh Pirates have been a bit more aggressive with their more talented prospects. Carmen Mlodzinski, Travis Swaggerty, Oneil Cruz, and Roansy Contreras all essentially skipped a level in the minor leagues (both Swags and Mlodzinski will likely skip Double-A completely and both Contreras and Cruz had a very small taste of Triple-A before making their MLB debuts).

So, could Gonzales start 2022 at Triple-A Indianapolis? Well, there are a few things to consider.

First, Gonzales has a good case for the big promotion. One, he’s a highly talented hitter and we’ve seen that the Pittsburgh Pirates are willing to move their better prospects up through the minors a bit faster than others. Two, he had an outstanding year at Greensboro. A 150 wRC+ was the third-best mark among batters with at least 350 plate appearances at the level (the other two being another Pirates’ prospect in Matthew Fraizer and LA Dodgers top outfield prospect Andy Pages). He’s also going into his age-23 season. More than old enough, especially for a prospect of his caliber, to get some time at Triple-A.

But there are also a few things that are working against Gonzales. Triple-A projects to have a ton of middle infielders to start 2022. Diego Castillo, Rodolfo Castro, Oneil Cruz, Tucupita Marcano, Ji-Hwan Bae, and any other depth players such as Cole Tucker or Kevin Newman (assuming they are still in the organization) could potentially be vying for playing time at Triple-A. It could be a case of “we want all these guys to get regular playing time some way, so we’ll keep him at the level below for now”. You also don’t want to rush him throughout the minors. He’s potentially one of your key line-up pieces to build around, alongside Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes. You don’t want to roll the dice and end up losing on Gonzales.

In the end, I do think Gonzales starts off at Double-A, mainly because the organization wants him to get regular playing time without three other players breathing down his neck. But I’d be very shocked if he lasts past May at Altoona assuming he’s healthy and continues to hit well.

While Triple-A Indianapolis will have a ton of competition for playing spots to start the year, I believe it will only be for a short time before many of their prospects get called to the Major League scene. Cruz, Castro, and Marcano have already gotten a taste of major league playing time.

Castillo will be going into his age-24 season and has extremely performed well already at Triple-A this year in his small sample size of playing time. Plus, even if someone like Tucker or Newman is still in the organization, they won’t be taking playing time away from anyone noteworthy. The only two of those prospects I see getting more than a month or two of playing time at Triple-A are Bae and Marcano, but both are versatile enough they can play other positions such as the outfield, shortstop, or third base.

So while I do see Gonzales starting out at Double-A, I don’t think he’s still there by the time summer rolls around with a solid chance to reach Triple-A even before that. I wouldn’t even rule out a promotion to the major leagues at the end of the season, similar to Cruz and Contreras this year.