Pirates snag NCAA batting champ at No. 7

June 11th, 2020

PITTSBURGH -- At every turn, it seems Nick Gonzales had to show that he should be taken seriously. Undrafted out of high school, he went from being a freshman walk-on at New Mexico State to earning a scholarship and winning an NCAA batting title as a sophomore.

He spent his first college season worrying about whether he’d make the team, whether he’d get to go on road trips, whether he’d get a scholarship so his parents wouldn’t have to keep supporting him. But even after doing all that, Gonzales set out to prove himself in the Cape Cod League to let people -- and perhaps himself -- know that he was for real.

Well, how’s this for real? On Wednesday night, the Pirates made Gonzales the seventh overall pick in the MLB Draft, giving the talented middle infielder a chance to prove his ability in the professional ranks.

“That’s incredible,” Gonzales said, wearing a Pirates hat on a Zoom call. “To be here now, you see all the players that are ahead of you, all the players that are around you, it’s just super incredible.”

Gonzales, 21, is widely considered to be one of the best pure hitters in this year’s Draft class. He was MLB Pipeline’s No. 5 overall Draft prospect due primarily to the potential at the plate. He hit .347/.425/.596 as a freshman at New Mexico State then slashed .432/.532/.773 with 16 homers as a sophomore.

But was his success just a product of the high altitude? Was it the Western Athletic Conference competition? Was it a fluke? Gonzales knew the knocks against him, so he wanted to show that he could hit at sea level with a wood bat against elite collegiate competition. The Pirates already liked what he’d done at New Mexico State and what they’d heard from area scout Derrick Van Dusen, amateur scouting director Joe DelliCarri said, but they wanted to see how he’d fare without the NCAA’s metal bats as well.

Turns out, his success was just a product of his talent and hard work. Gonzales proved it by slashing .351/.451/.630 with seven homers in 153 at-bats against some of the country’s best players in the Cape Cod League. In the end, Gonzales was named the league’s MVP.

Any more questions?

“For me, it was so important and crucial for the next level,” Gonzales said. “Going there was the X-factor for me. I really had to go out there and do well, and fortunately, I was able to do well.”

Some scouts believe Gonzales will eventually move to second base due to his range and arm strength, drawing comparisons to an offensive-minded second baseman like the Brewers’ Keston Hiura. But he was announced as a shortstop when the Pirates selected him, and general manager Ben Cherington confirmed that Gonzales will enter Pittsburgh’s organization as a shortstop after he signs.

The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Gonzales said he’ll play anywhere on the diamond. And it won’t really matter where he’s fielding if he keeps hitting like he did in college, with a compact and controlled right-handed swing that shows plenty of bat speed.

“For us, the plate discipline, control of the zone and being able to get to some impact already with that ability is probably the most impressive thing about him,” DelliCarri said.

Gonzales is the kind of advanced college player who could move quickly to the Majors, but Cherington won’t put a timeline on his development just yet -- especially when the coronavirus pandemic makes it difficult to say when his professional career might begin. But the Pirates need high-ceiling prospects like Gonzales, and they need to develop them into impact Major League players. That is the challenge that Cherington and assistant GM Steve Sanders accepted when they joined Pittsburgh last offseason.

In this year’s five-round Draft, the Pirates have six guaranteed chances to add that kind of talent. They used one of those opportunities to pick Gonzales and another to take South Carolina right-hander Carmen Mlodzinski with the 31st overall pick. The Bucs have a Draft bonus pool of $11,154,500, the fifth-largest pool in the Majors, and the slot value for the seventh pick is $5,432,400.

The Draft continues on Thursday with Rounds 2-5. The MLB Network preview show begins at 4 p.m. ET, with live coverage on MLB Network and ESPN2 beginning at 5 p.m. ET. Go to MLB.com/Draft for complete coverage, including every pick on the Draft Tracker, coverage and analysis from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter.

The last time Pittsburgh took a college position player in the first round was 2018, when it selected outfielder Travis Swaggerty 10th overall. Gonzales only has some familiarity with the Pirates' organization, but he noted -- not just to make everyone feel old -- that Andrew McCutchen was “one of my favorite players growing up.”

“Watching him play and run down balls in center field,” Gonzales said, “I think he wore the black and yellow really good.”

The Pirates hope Gonzales will, too.