PITTSBURGH -- Earlier this summer, after officially signing with the Pirates, Nick Gonzales and a few of his friends rented an Airbnb in Phoenix. With the Minor League season canceled, Gonzales planned to train at a facility called Push Performance rather than at home in Tucson, Ariz.
He didn’t stay for long.
In July, the Pirates added Gonzales, their first-round Draft pick in June, to their 60-man player pool and assigned him to their alternate training site in Altoona, Pa., where he spent the past two months. Their camp at Peoples Natural Gas Field wrapped up on Thursday, and Gonzales is bound next for Bradenton, Fla., where he’ll take part in an instructional league-style camp for Pittsburgh’s prospects.
It’s been a strange introduction to the organization for Gonzales, the 21-year-old selected No. 7 overall. When he signed on June 24, he wasn’t sure where to go next. He wound up reporting to the home of their Double-A affiliate, where he worked with the Pirates’ Triple-A staff. He’s been a professional baseball player for three months and hasn’t played an official game.
But the Pirates like what they’ve seen so far from Gonzales, and Gonzales is thrilled about the head start this year gave him.
“I got to see pitching that I probably wouldn’t have seen had we just had a regular season. ... I got to see some really quality pitching and see how I matched up against them, and also I got to show the Pirates staff that I can play and do this against good pitching and everything like that," Gonzales said. "It’s been good.”
The Pirates knew Gonzales could hit, of course. He raked at New Mexico State and batted .351 in the Cape Cod League last summer. The 5-foot-10, right-handed-hitting infielder has a short, compact swing with impressive bat speed, and he’s shown it against higher-level Minor League arms -- and some pitchers with big league experience -- in intrasquad competition.
“He’s been really impressive there. We know he’s a talented hitter,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “Making a lot of hard contact against pitchers who are a lot older than he is or more experienced than he is. Working on his defensive game, too.”
The Pirates moved Gonzales, who was drafted as a shortstop, to second base in Altoona. He’s been working at second with fellow prospect Ji-Hwan Bae, turning double plays up the middle with 6-foot-7 shortstop prospect Oneil Cruz and Liover Peguero. Gonzales has previous experience at second, and Pirates infield coordinator Gary Green helped him make a smooth transition back to second this summer.
The only thing new for Gonzales defensively has been the organization’s heavy use of shifts. New Mexico State would move around its infielders based on hitters’ tendencies, but now Gonzales is learning to play second base -- which also means learning to play shortstop and shallow right field. The Pirates have done their best to make that work realistic in Altoona, shifting defenders in drills as if they were facing the same hitters as the big league team.
“For me, it being my first year and everything and hearing that I’m possibly learning to defend against these big league names like Javier Báez and stuff,” Gonzales said. “They’ll call out, ‘Javy Báez!’ and you have to adjust. I think that’s pretty cool and it’s unique, and it does help you out a lot more for the shifts and everything.”
Gonzales has had to make some adjustments at the plate to handle professional pitching, gearing up for firmer fastballs, sharper breaking balls and fewer mistake pitches. The Pirates have no reason to tinker with his swing, but they have helped him tweak his timing to get ready earlier and see the ball longer. Pittsburgh has outfitted PNG Field with all sorts of advanced tracking technology, with Rapsodo units on the field and in the batting cages, but Gonzales prefers to rely on his natural feel for hitting.
“I’ve been able to stay in the zone, I would say, swinging at good pitches. I try to limit the chases as much as I can and then do damage on pitches that are in the middle of the plate,” Gonzales said. “That’s where my approach has been helping me.”
One particularly interesting thing at play in Altoona, especially as the Pirates repeatedly stress that they’re building “toward” a winning team, was that those players represent the future of the organization. They might not have all played together in a traditional Minor League season, but they could all coalesce in the Majors over the next few years.
So whether they were taking the field or playing “Call of Duty” video games together, it’s been a valuable experience in that regard for a new player like Gonzales.
“It’s been awesome getting to know everyone. They’ve all been super helpful. Encouragement, letting you know the ropes, get the hang of everything, telling you what things are like,” Gonzales said. “They help you out, and that’s been awesome. Just getting to know more people who love to play baseball and love to get better like myself. That’s been really fun.”