PITTSBURGH — In need of a spark, the Pittsburgh Pirates promoted 2020 first-round draft pick Nick Gonzales to the big leagues last week while the club was in Miami to play the Marlins.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Gonzales. “I got the call after my game in Triple-A. I was back at my apartment around 11 at night. It was a hectic few hours getting ready to go, but it was a dream come true and a blessing to be a part of this team.”
The decision to promote Gonzales was a calculated one. He started to heat up at the plate for Triple-A Indianapolis after cutting down on his strikeouts and impacting the baseball more.
That was more like it from the seventh-overall pick in the 2020 draft, whose offense has always been his calling card.
In his college career at New Mexico State, Gonzales slashed a video-game like .399/.502/.747 with 37 home runs and 152 RBIs in 128 games for the Aggies.
Despite a pretty high strikeout rate throughout his minor league career, Gonzales has consistently been a well above-average producer at the plate. He has some pop in his 5-foot-9 frame and has shown a strong ability to get on base.
After a sluggish start to his 2023 season and a brief stint on the injured list with a shoulder issue, Gonzales started to look like his regular self, prompting the Pirates to take action.
“He was swinging the bat well,” manager Derek Shelton said. “We’ve talked about it when we feel guys are at the point where they’re ready to come to the big leagues, we’re gonna bring them to the big leagues.”
The success at the plate in the minor leagues hadn’t quite translated to the big leagues just yet, that is until his first game at PNC Park.
Gonzales broke through with his first-career hit on Tuesday night against the San Diego Padres — an RBI triple off the Clemente Wall. Later in the game, he whacked his first-career home run with a solo shot to dead center.
There’s an element to his game, though, that has been much-improved as he’s worked his way up the minor league ranks.
Known as a bat-first prospect coming out of college, Gonzales has turned himself into a solid defender. The vast majority of his time has come at second base, but he’s also played some shortstop and some third base in his career.
“He’s definitely gotten better defensively, and I think that has led to that is his ability to play multiple positions,” Shelton said. “In moving around the diamond – especially when you play on the right side – it helps your defense. We’ve seen him get better defensively and that’s a credit to him and our group that he has done that.”
His defense has improved so much so that the Pirates had the confidence in him to start him at shortstop against the Padres on Tuesday night.
Shortstop has become a question mark for the Pirates ever since Oneil Cruz went down with a fractured ankle early in the season. Maybe Gonzales can provide somewhat of an answer until Cruz returns.
Gonzales’ work in the field has raised his floor when it comes to his prospect status. Instead of solely relying on his offense to carry him as a player, his profile has become more well-rounded.
“I’ve definitely been making improvements defensively from college and working that out every single day,” he said. It’s something that I want to improve on and want to be better at, not just being a bat-first type of guy. I want to be a plus-defender.”
His promotion was the second former first-rounder to get the call to the majors last week. 2021 first-overall pick Henry Davis made his major league debut on Monday of last week against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh.
Alongside Carmen Mlodzinski, who was also recently selected from Triple-A, the Pirates are starting to see some of their higher-upside prospects start to reach the big leagues.
The trio are the first three Ben Cherington draftees to reach Pittsburgh since he took over as general manager.
“Everyone has a positive outlook and everyone’s excited to get here and make an impact, Gonzales said. “We want to win, whether it’s Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A or the big leagues. We all want to be a part of a winning culture.”
Mired in a slump for what has become the better part of the regular season, it might very well be up to Gonzales and some of the other young guys to try and right the ship this season.
In the bigger picture, the Pirates will count on this crop of prospects to try and bring Pittsburgh their first World Series trophy since 1979.