2013 Prospect #21 – Gift Ngoepe
The failure of the Pirates to have drafted and developed a legitimate shortstop prospect in the last five years may turn out to be one of the main reasons why they are unable to compete with the Cardinals, Reds and Cubs in the near future. Alen Hanson has justifiably received a good deal of attention, and he is certainly the Pirates best hope in the long term. But the shortstop with the best chance to win a starting position the soonest is Gift Ngoepe, who is not only from Randburg, South Africa but is also the first black South African to sign a professional baseball contract.
I will not repeat the very interesting history of Ngoepe’s life, which can be found here, but suffice to say that there are a lot of people out there pulling for him to succeed. If Ngoepe does make it, it will not be as a novelty; he has developed into the best defensive shortstop in the Pirates system, if not all of professional baseball. Ngoepe has exceptional instincts and quickness, and possesses a strong throwing arm; there is absolutely no doubt that he can stick at the position. The issue will be his bat; Ngoepe has excellent speed and has displayed the rudimentary skills necessary to become a superior base-stealer, but his hit tool is lagging behind thus far.
Ngoepe has an interesting set of skills as a hitter. His strength lies in his ability to draw enough walks to pump up a weak batting average and offset a high strikeout rate. In three of his four professional seasons he has generated an OBP at least 100 points higher than his batting average. Despite his weak contact rate, if he is able to keep this up his offense should suffice, given that also has the ability to pop some home runs – he hit nine last year in a pitcher’s league. Ngoepe has hovered around league average as a hitter; he won’t have to do much more to hold down a job, as his defense is of an elite quality.
Finally, Ngoepe is very inexperienced. He will start AA at age 23, but he missed a good part of the 2011 season due to injury, and his background prevented him from experiencing typical levels of competition as a teenager. He held his own in the Arizona Fall League, putting up an OBP of .370 and wRC+ of 110, and in the World Baseball Classic qualifying round, when he walked six times in fifteen plate appearances.
The jump to AA, particularly at a less than favorable offensive environment like the one Ngoepe will face at Altoona, can separate the wheat from the chaff very efficiently. But Ngoepe’s skill set of superior defense, plate discipline, speed and some pop in his bat may be enough to carry the day. Certainly enough of us hope so, not just because he is a feel good story, but because the Bucs have a hole on the left side of their infield that needs to be filled if they are to take the next step towards contention in the NL Central.