When the season wraps up on for class AAA Indianapolis on September 24, most players will be making their plans for the off season. But there are a few who could be packing their bags and headed to Pittsburgh to play in MLB. Here are three players that could be getting the call.
2B Nick Gonzales
The former first-round selection has fallen out of favor with evaluators and scouts in part for his notably high strikeout rates, posting K rates of 28.5 percent in AA in 2022, 28.6 in his first go at AAA in 2023 and 27.7 percent with just four walks in over a month of MLB play this June and July, at times seriously struggling with pitch recognition.
Not what the Pirates expected when they used the seventh overall pick of the 2020 draft to take him out of New Mexico State. However, since being optioned back to AAA on August 3, he has managed to show improved results. Striking out at a 23.4 percent clip while slashing .317/.401/.586 as of September 21.
While the sport has proven countless times that AAA numbers aren’t indicative of improvement in MLB, it is somewhat encouraging. Additionally, the poor play of multiple Pirates middle infielders makes Gonzales getting another shot even appealing.
Alika Williams has an OPS of .543, Ji-Hwan Bae’s OPS is .622, with a .271 OBP in September. The likely move would be Williams, who really only has one use on an MLB roster as it currently stands, a late-inning defensive replacement. But don’t get it twisted, Bae isn’t far removed from Williams as far as usefulness goes. Bae’s very poor fundamental play has cost them games and really hurts his ability to get the most out of what tools he has with a limited offensive ceiling.
SP Jared Jones
Jones was the Pirates’ second round pick in 2020 and the 69th overall prospect in baseball according to MLB pipeline has had a quite successful 2023 season. He was fantastic in his 10 AA starts before being promoted to AAA Indianapolis, there was an adjustment period, but he has really finished strong. Over his last five starts, his ERA is 2.51 with an opponent average of .181.
His blend of consistent upper 90s heat that flirts with triple digits and a hard sweeping slider has combined to get him 99 strikeouts in 82 innings pitched since being promoted to AAA. He does throw a curve and a change-up as well, but while they’re not poorly regarded, they have their issues, and he doesn’t turn to them that often. He’s also tried expanding his arsenal this season to include a sinker and a cutter instead of, or to supplement his fastball and slider to mixed results.
Getting him a start in the now eight remaining games, which would almost certainly come in the final homestand against the Miami Marlins, would be more about rewarding a pitcher for continuing their development and putting themselves in position to join the MLB roster more permanently headed into 2024. Much like Roansy Contreras in 2021 and Luis Ortiz in 2022 respectively.
The obstacle to overcome here is that he does not have a spot on the 40-man roster and is not rule 5 draft eligible this offseason. Someone would have to be DFA’d or placed on the 60-day IL. Candidates on the pitching side of things include Cody Bolton and the recently demoted Thomas Hatch, but if they call up a position player, like Nick Gonzales in tandem, more options open up.
An Alfonso Rivas DFA to go along with Colin Selby, Hunter Stratton or Kyle Nicolas being optioned back to AAA would do the trick. Rivas, a first baseman, acquired when the Pirates sent Ji-Man Choi and Rich Hill to the San Deigo Padres at the trade deadline. He is not part of the future and never was. Now that Jared Triolo is here and spending time at 1B along with Connor Joe who was already getting reps in there, Rivas and his 83 WRC+ look rather pointless.
OF Canaan Smith-Njigba
Probably the least likely of the three mentioned here, partially because there’s not a very good fit for him on the roster as it currently stands. But I don’t think how many MLB reps he’s getting with eight games left to go really matters as much as rewarding Smith-Njigba for finishing as strongly as he has.
Despite making the opening day roster, he appeared in only 15 games this season, he didn’t get consistent playing time when he was here, and when he did play, he played poorly. In just 32ABs he struck out 16 times. He was optioned on April 26 and after being recalled June 9, he was again optioned back to AAA on June 14.
He’s hitting .414/.453/.614 with 23 RBIs in 18 games in September.