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Mariners 2020 draft preview: 2B Nick Gonzales

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Keston Hiura comps? In this economy?

Wakanda Forever

I spent most of last week blissfully inhaling the U18 WBSC, which was streamed free on YouTube and is still there if you’d like to watch some teenagers from around the world playing baseball. The tournament itself was a blast to follow, as World baseball events usually are, and there were even some MLB-affiliated players who had signed in the July 2 period, along with standouts like Japanese phenom Roki Sasaki. Team USA came away with a silver medal, losing out to Chinese Taipei, but there were several highlights from players we’ve covered as part of this series (and players we will cover) like elite defender Pete Crow-Armstrong and my draft pet, Robert Hassell III.

But the tournament is over, school is back in session, and it’s time to get real. Teams are drafting more collegians than ever—in 2019 51 of the 78 players taken on Day One of the draft were college players—and the Mariners under Jerry Dipoto have shown a strong tendency to go that way. That’s not to say they won’t change course for players they deem special, like Jarred Kelenic, but given the team’s 2021/2022 ideal timeframe for contention, a fast-moving college player feels much more likely. Unfortunately, picking outside of the top five, as is all but guaranteed, means a couple of the most appealing college players will be off the board: Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin, who would be a perfect fit, is currently being projected in the top three. Joe has proposed a different Martin who is also an infielder, Arkansas’ Casey Martin. Today we’ll look at a player who doesn’t have the program pedigree of either of those two but is a fine player in his own right, New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales.

There’s some argument over where Gonzales, who doesn’t have a traditional high-draft-pick background, fits. MLB has Gonzales as the seventh-best college player available, and Baseball America lists him sixth. but the FanGraphs crew has him going in the second round (and the back half, at that, at 68), and one evaluator wrote “this type of prospect usually goes in rounds 4-5” after seeing him on the Cape (!), where he won every conceivable award a player can win on the Cape except the pitching ones. The concern with Gonzales is not only that he plays in a non-elite conference—the Western Athletic Conference, also home to Seattle U—but also in an extremely hitter-friendly environment. NMSU’s Presley Askew Park (“the Skew”) is just 345 to the corners. How forgiving is the environment? Well, in 2018 the NMSU Aggies defeated Mississippi Valley State 39-0, so it would probably be wise to slightly handicap Gonzales’s .347/.425/.596 line from 2018, or his even more bizzonkers 2019 line of .432/.532/.773. Haha I’m sorry that is the nuttiest stat line I’ve ever typed, give me a minute here. As you might expect, that batting average was the best in NCAA D-1, while his OPS of 1.305 ranked second (.773 was only good for THIRD in slugging, as Kody Hoese from Tulane posted .779 and Western Kentucky’s Jake Sanford slugged an impossible .883).

Those who insist Gonzales’s numbers aren’t just a product of hitting at altitude in the desert against second-tier pitchers note the noise he made on the Cape this season, where he was a Cape All-Star and led the Cotuit Kettleers to a CCBL championship, earning MVP honors. Gonzales slashed .351/.451/.630 in his time on the Cape with seven homers and six stolen bases. Others note his strike-zone discipline; in 2019 he walked a Mike Troutish 20% of the time while striking out just 13.6% of the time. Gonzales has earned comparisons to Keston Hiura thanks to a similar build and elite ability to make contact. He’s not a power hitter—his 16 home runs in 2019 were only good enough for third on the team—but has some raw power and ability to gap doubles. Adding to his power numbers could be a big step forward for Gonzales’s draft stock. But the selling point here is really the hit tool; when Yale attempted a four-man outfield stacked to the left against the righty-swinging Gonzales, he defeated it by flipping the ball the other way.

Scouts praise Gonzales’s clean, compact swing, and note his elite bat speed and lightning-quick hands that help him get barrel to ball on almost any pitch he chooses to swing at.

And while the power numbers need to be taken with a grain grain silo of salt, it’s not hard to look at this whippy swing and see some present pull power, with perhaps more to come with professional instruction.

Gonzales has some speed, but he only swiped seven bases last year and was caught three times, which is another area of his game that could use improvement (he did go to the Cape specifically to work on base-stealing two seasons ago, but it seems the lessons didn’t quite take hold). Probably the biggest knock on him, outside of possibly altitude-inflated numbers and his 5’10” listed height, is his defense, which needs to be good enough to stick at second. But when partnered with an elite defender in shortstop Joey Ortiz (taken in the fourth round by the Orioles in 2019 and the highest-drafted player in NMSU history...so far), Gonzales’s own defense ticked up a notch as he pushed himself to improve to match Ortiz’s skill level. NMSU coach Brian Green notes the improvement he saw in Gonzales from 2018 to 2019:

“His double play turn, he only had one, he could only step back at second base. He was really only skilled going to his left, he struggled going backhand side or any ball that was a slow roller. But now if you profile him, I think you’re looking at a legitimate offensive big league second baseman. Now he can really turn it, we lead the nation in double plays. His backhand has improved dramatically, last year he struggled with that. He can throw from different arm slots. These are all throws he didn’t have. I think he profiles there now, as a legit plus-armed, plus-exchange second baseman, and he’s very athletic.”

Nothing here that a little time with Perry Hill and his six Fs of fielding can’t clean up:

One thing about Gonzales not having the traditional first-rounder background—coming out of Arizona’s Cienega High, he was only offered the merest glimmer of a role at NMSU and Austin Peay, and chose NMSU because it was important to him his family be able to come see his games—is it’s created a player who is humble, hardworking, and thankful for every opportunity he gets. His Twitter timeline is littered with praise and thank-you notes to friends and fellow players mixed in with baseball content, and his college coach tells stories about the “baseball rat” Gonzales who seeks out every learning opportunity, even taking a lantern to the cages so he could hit at night. Gonzales was a walk-on when he first showed up at NMSU, and only earned a scholarship his sophomore year after taking home all the awards the WAC has to give as a freshman. Despite all the accolades he’s received, Gonzales still plays with the determination of the 5’10” kid who didn’t get any scholarship offers out of high school, and it’s impacted his leadership style. He prefers to lead by example, telling the Cape Cod Times: “I don’t think it’s really my place or my job to yell at somebody or anything like that”...“So I think just leading by example and continuing to work hard and give it my all every game is the best. ... I know there were some guys who wish they could have played harder or done better or whatever, and I just don’t want to have any regrets so I want to every day continue to play as hard as I can and leave no regrets on the field.”

The Mariners have prided players like Gonzales under Director of Player Development Andy McKay, drafting analytics-minded Logan Gilbert and encouraging swing-studiers like Josh Stowers, Braden Bishop, and Mitch Haniger, and Gonzales would seem to fit that mold of both player and person they like to draft and develop. Projections might have Gonzales in the late first or even second round, but if Seattle likes him as an early first-round choice, the Mariners have shown they aren’t afraid of bucking industry experts and going with the players they like best. And it’s very hard not to like Nick Gonzales.