Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Potential 2022 Debut for Nick Gonzales

Nick Gonzales is arguably the Pittsburgh Pirates best prospect, but could we see the second baseman make his major league debut next season?

The Pittsburgh Pirates selected Nick Gonzales with the 7th overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. Gonzales had a phenomenal resume coming out of New Mexico State. He had 37 home runs and 39 doubles in 596 plate appearances, 10 more walks than strikeouts, an on-base percentage over .500, and an OPS of 1.249. He also did great at the Cape Cod League in 2019.

Gonzales kept hitting when he got to the pros. In 369 plate appearances, Gonzales posted a strong .302/.385/.565 line, .405 wOBA, and 150 wRC+. He blasted 18 home runs while racking up 27 doubles. Plus he walked 10.8% of the time. He was also one of the top players at the Arizona Fall League. He was second on Peoria in OPS and slugging, but first in OBP and average.

Now there were some very minor red flags. For one, he struck out 27.4% of the time. He also had a .388 batting average on balls in play. But both minor red flags aren’t as bad once you give context to Gonzales’ season. From August onward, he had a better 23.3% strikeout rate and 13.3% walk rate. Gonzales also hit more flyballs than ground balls. His line-drive rate was 27.9%, ground ball rate of 35.6%, and a fly ball rate of 36.5%. A high batting average on balls in play bound to happen with a big line-drive hitter who avoids ground balls.

Gonzales will be going into his age-23 campaign. He did all of his damage last season at High-A Greensboro, essentially guaranteeing that he’ll at least start the 2022 season at Double-A Altoona. But is it possible we see Gonzales in the majors this season?

Now when I say “see him in the majors next season”, I’m not saying that he’s going to be the starting second baseman by May. The Pittsburgh Pirates have more than enough solid hold-over options until he is ready. Rodolfo Castro, Michael Chavis, Diego Castillo, Hoy Park, Cole Tucker, and possibly Kevin Newman once Oneil Cruz comes up. There’s no reason to rush Gonzales by jumping him from High-A to the majors.

But could he receive a treatment similar to Oneil Cruz? Like Gonzales likely will, Cruz started the 2021 season at Double-A. He had a strong season, having a .882 OPS, .377 wOBA, and 136 wRC+. Then in late September, he got the call to Triple-A where he completely demolished the ball. He only had 29 plate appearances, but Cruz collected 11 hits, 5 of which were long balls. He also had an 8:5 BB:K ratio. Cruz got a call to the majors during the series of the season and went 3-9 in 2 games with a home run.

Now Cruz only played a total of 70 games this year between the minors and majors. I very much think that as long as Gonzales stays healthy and keeps producing well, you might see him in the second half of September.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have been a bit more aggressive in promoting their more talented prospects. We saw this with Cruz as they promoted him to the majors very quickly after a brief, albeit extremely dominant, stint at Triple-A. They had Travis Swaggerty skip Double-A. After drafting Henry Davis, the Pirates already had him with Gonzales at High-A after two games at the Florida Coast League. Roansy Contreras got a nearly identical treatment to Oneil Cruz. Carmen Mlodzinski also got a brief taste of Triple-A action at the end of the 2021 season after spending the campaign at High-A Greensboro.

Given Gonzales’s talent, ability, and how the Pittsburgh Pirates have moved their other higher-end prospects through the system, I think it’s absolutely possible that we see Gonzales at the tail-end of the 2022 season. He has the high-end hitting ability, strong plate discipline, and is a laser machine with some pop that you want to see from your top prospect. The Pirates don’t have to rush him, but I don’t think if he spends over a half season at Double-A, and then a short stint at Triple-A is rushing him.