Ji-Hwan Bae is set to take over a regular role with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2023, but what could the season hold for the rookie?
Ji-Hwan Bae has steadily climbed prospect rankings since the Pittsburgh Pirates signed him after the Atlanta Braves international signing scandal. Now, as we head into 2023, Bae is projected to play a notable role for the major league club. So what is he bringing to the team, and what could we expect to see him do?
2022 marked the third straight season Bae had a wRC+ above 110. Last season, the speedy infielder/outfielder batted .289/.362/.430 with a .353 wOBA and 112 wRC+. Bae has always been known for his ability to make contact and draw walks consistently. He had a 10.1% walk rate and a career-best 16.9% strikeout rate. Although he isn’t known for his power, he’s seen his output slowly creep upward and had a .141 isolated slugging percentage last year.
Bae is fast, which makes his ability to hit for contact and draw walks a deadly combination. He swiped 30 bases for the second time in three seasons. Bae is a middle infielder by trade. He mostly grades out as an average defender up the middle, but the Pirates have given him an increasing amount of time in the outfield. He logged more innings in center and left field than he did at shortstop. During his short promotion to the major leagues, Bae made four starts at second base but also six starts in the outfield (five in CF, one in LF).
Bae makes the outfield situation interesting. He’s likely not going to overtake Rodolfo Castro at second base, and nobody is pushing Oneil Cruz off of shortstop. But given Bae's versatility, he could find plenty of time, even if Bryan Reynolds isn’t traded. Cruz nor Castro are known for their defensive prowess, so Bae could see time as a late-inning defensive sub at either position. Plus, he could give either the day off once a week.
Given his ability to play the outfield, he could occasionally spell the likes of Andrew McCutchen and Connor Joe when there is a right-hander on the mound. The best possible outfield alignment the Pirates could send out at the start of the year would be Bae and Reynolds in left and center field, respectively, with Cutch or Connor Joe and Jack Suwinski platooning in right.
Wherever Bae plays, he’ll have plenty of opportunities for playing time, given his defensive flexibility. Bae also looks like he could be a prime leadoff candidate. He’s a solid bet to bat .270/.350/.400. He’s an advanced contact hitter who has shown the ability to avoid the strikeout and draw walks. Unlike Kevin Newman, Bae has posted a semi-respectable isolated slugging percentage, at least once in his minor league career, and has consistently drawn his fair share of walks.