When the Pirates took Nick Gonzales No. 7 overall in the 2020 Draft, they were undoubtedly buying what many felt was one of the best pure bats in the class. He was, after all, coming off posting a ridiculous 1.765 OPS in the shortened collegiate season that spring -- not that it was that far off from his 1.249 career OPS at New Mexico State. And to show he wasn’t just the product of his environment, he was the Cape Cod League MVP in 2019 after hitting .351/.451/.630 in the elite collegiate wood bat league.
In other words, the guy can hit, and the Pirates couldn’t wait to see what their No. 4 prospect (No. 62 on the Top 100) could do in their system and how quickly he could climb the ladder. The only thing that could slow him down, it would seem, would be an injury … and that’s exactly what happened. A broken pinky sidelined him just 13 games into his official pro debut, putting him on the injured list for more than a month.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” said Gonzales, who is currently making up for that lost time by playing for the Peoria Javelinas in the Arizona Fall League. “It was my first time being out for a significant amount of time. I didn’t miss any in college, really. Six weeks out without swinging, it was tough. I think it’s a good learning lesson and moving forward, I’d rather it happen in the Minor Leagues than later on in the career.”
Once he got back on the field with High-A Greensboro and shook the rust off, he more than lived up to his advanced billing. A .364/.419/.757 August helped the second baseman to finish with a .302/.385/.565 line that included 18 homers in 80 games. There was no big aha moment for Gonzales; he simply got back to what he’s always done in the batter’s box.
“It was awkward at first,” Gonzales said. “The pinky was still a little swollen and moving it around was a little different, but I think once I got confident again and started swinging, it was back to normal. I was just trusting the process and staying with it. I didn’t really change anything with my swing. I just stayed with it, and I knew the time would come.”
Now the time has come for him to work in the Fall League to prepare for the upper levels. He’s working on his two-strike approach (he had a .633 OPS while behind in the count vs. a 1.189 OPS ahead in the count during the regular season), trying to refine his work defensively at second base and getting a little time at shortstop as well.
“I think this is an incredible opportunity for me to get out here, play against these guys, top prospects from every organization, and learn from a lot of guys, too,” Gonzales said. “I’ve already learned a ton, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the games we have.”
It’s not lost on Gonzales that the AFL can be a steppingstone, not only to Double-A, a level he might have reached this season if not for the injury. In the talent-rich Pirates system, he and the other prospects know there will be opportunities to help turn things around in Pittsburgh, though they’re trying not to look too far into the future.
“We don’t really talk about it too much,” Gonzales said. “We worry about getting better and worry about what’s ahead right now and what to do right now. I think we’re staying in the present moment. Looking forward, we’re excited to play in the big leagues and everything, but I think right now we’re just worrying about getting better.”
Pirates hitters in the AFL
Ji-hwan Bae, 2B/SS (No. 22): After Bae hit .323 with 33 steals in 2019, there was excitement to see what he could do at the upper levels this year. He did hit .281/.360/.422 with the first eight home runs of his professional career, but he also missed a month of the Double-A season with a Grade 1 MCL sprain. He got most of his time at second base during the regular season, but he did start folding in some center field action.
Canaan Smith-Njigba, OF (No. 27): Another part of the Jameson Taillon return from the Yankees, Smith-Njigba showed some good things offensively, like hitting .315/.425/.445 in June and July combined. He missed August and most of September with an oblique injury, meaning he collected just 240 at-bats this season.
Pirates pitchers in the AFL
Roansy Contreras, RHP (No. 6): One of the pieces the Pirates got from the Yankees in the Jameson Taillon trade, Contreras was a bit of a revelation in his first year with the organization, finishing with a 2.64 ERA, .191 batting average against and 12.7 K/9 rate that resulted in a Futures Game invite in July and his big league debut at the end of September. The only negative was a forearm strain that kept him from pitching in said Futures Game and limited him to just 58 Minor League innings.
Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP (No. 10): A shoulder issue limited Mlodzinski, the club’s Competitive Balance Round A pick in 2020, to 50 1/3 innings in his first full year, but he was really good early with a 1.62 ERA over his first seven outings. He’ll add some innings while showing off his legitimate three-pitch mix this fall.
Michael Burrows, RHP (No. 14): Burrows missed time with an oblique injury, giving the Pirates another talented right-hander they wanted to send to Arizona to make up for some of those lost innings. When healthy, he used his three-pitch mix, especially his fastball-curve combination, to strike out 12.1 per nine for High-A Greensboro.
Bear Bellomy, RHP: A 28th-round pick of the Pirates in 2019 out of Wright State, Bellomy was a starter during his junior year in college, but was used exclusively as a reliever in 2021, a role he held as a sophomore. He’s big and athletic with excellent arm strength and he’s continued to work on becoming a more complete pitcher, striking out 11.4 per nine almost exclusively in High-A ball.