Pittsburgh Pirates: System's Most Underrated Prospect

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Pittsburgh Pirates infield prospect Nick Gonzales has fallen in the eyes of many evaluators, but has this only made him the team's most underrated prospect?

Baseball America recently released their top 100 prospect list. All prospect lists are 100% subjective, but one notable exception from the Pittsburgh Pirates was infielder Nick Gonzales. Gonzales has fallen in the eyes of many, but has that just made him the most underrated prospect in the Pirates’ system?

Gonzales spent the 2022 season at Double-A Bradenton, posting a .263/.383/.429 line. He also had an outstanding 13.6% walk rate, though his ISO fell from .262 last year to just .166 this past season. Gonzales’ 28.5% strikeout rate was a bit worrying, as it was the second season in a row he struck out 25%+ of the time. Overall, he had a .365 wOBA and 127 wRC+, which, while those were decent numbers, were not what you’d expect from a fairly recent top-10 draft prospect.

But, like in 2021, his playing time was limited due to injuries. He only had 316 plate appearances, which made his ice-cold start to the year even more apparent. Through May 10th, Gonzales was batting just .180/.324/.292 with an abysmal 80 wRC+. He was striking out at a 37% pace as well.

However, from that point forward, he batted .306/.411/.506, leading to a .403 wOBA, and 151 wRC+. Gonzales reduced his strikeout rate by over 10% to just 24.2%. That’s still a tad high, but still a 12.8% improvement from the start of the year through May 10th. Notably, of the 93 times he struck out, 40 of the strikeouts came during this early season stretch. Meanwhile, this stretch only made up 34.2% of his total plate appearances.

Although I emphasize this early season stretch, Endy Rodriguez ended April with an even lower wRC+, a similar strikeout rate, and a much worse walk rate. Unlike Endy, Gonzales did not get the luck of staying healthy enough playing time to rack up over 500 plate appearances.

Regardless, Gonzales missed all of June and July but returned in the first week of August. This was an outstanding stretch where he had a .917 OPS, .403 wOBA, and 150 wRC+, but even more importantly, he only struck out 22.7% of the time while still having an outstanding 13.5% walk rate. In his last 100 plate appearances of 2022, he cut his K% down even further to 20%.

Defensively, Gonzales has always been considered a solid defensive second baseman. He might not project as a future Gold Glove candidate, but he does his job and then some. The Pirates did give Gonzales a few outings at shortstop, 12 starts and 115.1 innings to be exact, though aside from maybe a start or two a month and emergency duty, second base is his permanent home.

A lot of detractors of Gonzales see that strikeout rate and automatically assume the worst. On the surface, it is a poor strikeout rate, but there’s a lot more nuance to it than what just the singular number will tell you. He’s consistently hit extremely well, and just like in 2021, it took him about a month to get things ramped up. It took Endy Rodriguez a similar amount of time last year, and it also took Oneil Cruz a month before he got heated up.

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To me, Gonzales has set himself up for a big season in 2023. With Rodolfo Castro, the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have to rush Gonzales to the major leagues. But once he gets here, he will be a fun player to watch. He has the potential to be a Rookie of the Year candidate, and Pirate fans should be excited to see what he can do next season.