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A defensive wiz, young Hayes has more to prove

Bucs' No. 2 prospect looks to improve bat, may face new challenge
@adamdberry
January 13, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- When Ke'Bryan Hayes was just a kid, 5 or 6 years old, his travel-ball team wore shirts designed like Superman’s suit. Their goal was always the same during each game of catch, he said: Throw the ball like you’re trying to hit your partner in the middle of

PITTSBURGH -- When Ke'Bryan Hayes was just a kid, 5 or 6 years old, his travel-ball team wore shirts designed like Superman’s suit. Their goal was always the same during each game of catch, he said: Throw the ball like you’re trying to hit your partner in the middle of the Superman logo.

That was the beginning of Hayes’ development into a potentially elite defensive player.

“It started at a super, super young age. I remember my first travel-ball team, just all the types of drills that they had us doing,” Hayes told MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo during the Rookie Career Development Program in Miami last week. “A lot of that stuff, I still think about to this day. … It’s just little stuff like that I took pride in every day.”

Hayes is still just a kid in some ways, only five years removed from high school and a couple of weeks shy of his 23rd birthday. He was alongside fellow prospects Will Craig, Oneil Cruz and Blake Cederlind last week at the RCDP, an event designed to prepare up-and-coming prospects for life in the big leagues.

“I’m just honored to be able to represent the Pittsburgh Pirates here,” Hayes said.

But Hayes is saddled with high expectations -- no surprise for a first-round Draft pick, the Pirates’ No. 2 prospect according to MLB Pipeline and the son of a longtime big leaguer, Charlie Hayes. This year, he could face an entirely new challenge in the Major Leagues. He almost certainly won’t be at third base on Opening Day, as the Pirates can still lean on Colin Moran, backups like Erik González and José Osuna or a stop-gap acquisition.

It doesn’t feel like Hayes is far away, though.

Hayes spent all of last season with Triple-A Indianapolis, one call away from Pittsburgh. The Pirates added him to their 40-man roster on Nov. 20. Last year, he was in Major League Spring Training -- with a locker between Josh Bell and Melky Cabrera -- to get his feet wet and learn. Next month, he’ll report to Pirate City with a chance to prove himself.

There aren’t many doubts about his glove. There shouldn’t be, anyway.

Last year, Hayes became only the second player to win a Rawlings Minor League Baseball Gold Glove three years in a row; the other was Ramón Conde from 1959-61. Hayes led the Minors with a .989 fielding percentage, and he’s committed only 17 errors in 331 games over the last three seasons. In MLB Pipeline’s 2020 Pipeline Poll, the 22-year-old was voted the second-best defensive prospect in baseball.

“He’s special. He’s got great hands, just a great feel for the game,” Pirates infielder Cole Tucker said last year. “The smooth plays, the crazy plays down the line, you expect that out of him. When things go wrong, everyone has a meltdown.”

But Hayes still has to show he can hit in the upper Minors, much less the Majors. He made progress in Double-A in 2018, batting .293 with an .819 OPS while striking out only 84 times in 117 games during his age-21 season. But this season was a step back. While offensive numbers soared around Triple-A, Hayes slashed .265/.336/.415 for Indianapolis.

He finished strong enough, hitting .313 with an .806 OPS in his final 30 games, and chose to highlight the positive aspects of his inconsistent season at the plate.

“I learned a lot this year, being in Triple-A. I got to struggle for a long time the first time ever, so that was great for me, I think,” Hayes said. “I got to really just sit there and try to figure things out. I know at the higher level, that’s going to happen a lot. I’m glad that it happened in the Minor Leagues. All in all, it was a great year for me, great experience.”

This spring will present a clean slate for many people in Pirates camp. They’ll be evaluated by a new general manager, Ben Cherington. They’ll work with new coaches. And they’ll play for a new manager, Derek Shelton, who is already excited to see Hayes’ defensive wizardry in person.

“I talked to Derek briefly," Hayes said. "He introduced himself and kind of talked about this upcoming year, and said he couldn’t wait to see me play in Spring Training.”

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.