Sunday, December 30, 2012

South African Glove Wizard

During Neal Huntington's tenure, the Pittsburgh Pirates have signed international players from exotic and under-the-radar locations.  They signed two kids from India who literally won what was the equivalent of a reality show contest. Only one remains in the Pirates farm system - Rinku Singh - and he's basically a non-prospect at this point.  An argument can be made that those particular signings were publicity stunts, but the same is not true of other strange signings.  The Pirates signed Dovydas Neverauskas out of Lithuania and followed that up a few years later by signing Alex Lukashevich out of Belarus (both profiled here). Neverauskas is ahead of Lukashevich right now in both development and prospect status, but both are legitimate guys to watch.

Chronologically, the signing of Gift Ngoepe is grouped with the signing of the two pitchers from India. However, when the Pirates made Ngoepe the first kid ever out of South Africa to sign a U.S. pro baseball contract, it was between the signing of the Singh and his fellow Indian Dinesh Patel and Neverauskas and Lukashevich in terms of impact.  Ngoepe - who signed in 2008 as an 18 year-old - was already a tremendous athlete, albeit with raw baseball skills.  The athleticism lent some legitimacy to the signing, but critics still saw it as a publicity stunt. 

Now in 2012, Ngoepe has begun to silence critics.  He's translated his notable tools into baseball skill and production.  Offensivley, Ngoepe still shows his rawness at times, especially with strikeouts.  This past year, playing as a 22 year-old in High-A, he struck out 24.3% of the time and that lead to a low .230 average, even despite a .301 BABIP.  That BABIP may be a tad low thanks to Ngoepe's speed, which is easily plus, but he certainly wasn't incredibly unlucky.  The South African native did still manage a solid OBP of .328 thanks to a 11.7 BB%.  Overall, that's been a consistent theme for Ngoepe, high walk rates and high strikeout rates.

Ngoepe did manage to hit 9 home runs as well, but that was over the course of 538 plate appearances.  His ISO was barely over .100 at .105 as Ngoepe only had 25 extra-base-hits out of 105 hits total.  As it stands, Ngoepe's offensive game still needs improvement.  Ultimately though, if he makes it to the major leagues, it'll be on the strength of his glove.  That glove is special.  Ngoepe has an above-average arm that plays at shortstop and his range at that position is incredible. His speed and athleticism, along with the arm, give him a chance to be a plus-plus defensive shortstop in the long run.  Baseball America ranked him the best defensive shortstop in the Florida State League this past year.  Overall, Ngoepe is a solid prospect. His glove will always make him intriguing and there's a small chance his offense could improve enough to make him an average or better shortstop at the major league level.  That's always valuable and that makes Ngoepe a valuable prospect, even if he's still a long shot.