4:23pm: Pittsburgh officially selected Gonzales’ contract. Outfielder Cal Mitchell was optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis to clear a spot on the active roster. To open a 40-man vacancy, the Bucs transferred righty Vince Velasquez from the 15-day to the 60-day injured list. He’s out for the season after undergoing elbow surgery.
11:00am: The Pirates are set to promote infield prospect Nick Gonzales, reports Jim Rosati of North Shore Nine. Gonzales isn’t on the 40-man roster so a corresponding move or moves will be required to get him aboard.
Gonzales, 24, was selected by the Pirates with the seventh overall pick in the 2020 draft. The minor leagues were canceled by the pandemic that year, but he was nonetheless vaulted onto prospect lists based on his work at New Mexico State University. His exceptional bat-to-ball skills and plate discipline were lauded as his standout tools as Baseball America ranked him the #51 prospect in the league going into 2021. MLB Pipeline had him at #43, Baseball Prospectus at #39, FanGraphs at #86 and ESPN at #66.
He was finally able to make his professional debut in 2021, spending it in High-A. A broken finger cost him more than a month of that season but he still got into 80 games. He walked in 10.8% of his plate appearances but his 27.4% strikeout rate was on the high side, especially for a player whose carrying tool is his bat. Nonetheless, he hit .302/.385/.565 at that level and generally crept higher on prospect lists going into 2022.
Injuries popped up again last year as he tore the plantar fascia in the heel of his foot, costing him about two months and limiting him to just 74 games on the year. He posted a strong batting line of .264/.382/.435, mostly in Double-A, but struck out at a 28.4% clip. He finished the year with a sold .279/.351/.500 showing in the Arizona fall league.
Despite those strong batting lines, the concerns about the punchouts delivered a blow to his prospect stock. He’s not considered an especially strong defender or baserunner, making any drop in the assessment of hit bat noteworthy. He was bumped off each of the aforementioned prospect lists coming into 2023 and dropped on team-specific lists as well. BA had him #8 in the Pirates’ system at the start of the this year after having him at #3 in previous seasons. Keith Law of The Athletic put him at #9 while FanGraphs had him all the way down at #23, with each outlet concerned about the swing and miss, particularly against breaking pitches.
Here in 2023, Gonzales has been in Triple-A. Through 262 plate appearances, he’s hitting .257/.370/.450 for a wRC+ of 106. That indicates he’s been a bit above league average at that level but he’s still striking out at a 28.6% rate.
Defensively, Gonzales has spent most of his time at second base. He’s not especially well regarded there, but has also seen some time at shortstop and third. The Bucs are set at third base with Ke’Bryan Hayes but the middle infield is a little less clear with shortstop Oneil Cruz still on the injured list and not close to a return. Mark Mathias got some time at second base but was optioned earlier this week after hitting at a subpar rate. Each of Ji Hwan Bae and Tucupita Marcano have played some middle infield but also with below-average offensive output. Rodolfo Castro has been a hair above average at the plate but his shortstop defense isn’t very well regarded.
Given all of those imperfect pieces, the Pirates will turn to Gonzales to see if he can provide a jolt. Despite the strikeout concerns, he does seem to do consistent damage when he does make contact. The Pirates got out to a scorching hot start this year and were leading the National League Central for a time but they are in a bad skid now. They have lost 10 straight and put Bryan Reynolds on the injured list yesterday. It seems they don’t want the season to slip away from them and are willing to turn to their farm for reinforcements, promoting Henry Davis earlier this week and now Gonzales.