The Pittsburgh Pirates have signed talent from some untraditional places over the last few years. They signed the first players out of India when they added Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. They’ve signed several guys out of Australia. They signed Alex Lukashevich out of Belarus. Dovydas Neverauskas is a pitcher who was signed out of Lithuania.
Then there’s Gift Ngoepe, who was the first black player signed out of South Africa.
A lot has been written about Gift over the last few years, typically focusing on his background. In 2011, the middle infielder started to become an interesting story on the baseball field for more than just his background. He started to look like a real prospect.
The 2011 season was cut short for Ngoepe. He only saw 85 at-bats before going down for the season with a hamate injury. In his time in West Virginia he hit for a .306/.359/.459 line. That was a big jump from the .205/.315/.319 line he put up in State College the year before, and the .238/.341/.281 line he had in the GCL during his rookie season. The big change came with his plate patience. Gift struck out in 29.7% of his at-bats in 2010 with State College. He cut that rate down to 16.5% in 2011 with West Virginia.
“I learned to be more selective at the plate,” Ngoepe said about his 2011 hitting. “I’m the type of player that’s not going to hit 30 home runs. I just got to hit line drives past the infielders, get my singles, steal bases, and everything.”
The hamate injury isn’t 100% healed yet. Ngoepe still has days where he’s sore after playing, although it’s nothing that would keep him off the field at this point. Like most hamate injuries, Ngoepe is expected to see a full recovery with no soreness after the games.
The offense was a good sign, although it came with a small sample size. Perhaps the best sign for Ngoepe was his combination of speed and defense. He might be one of the fastest guys in the organization, which not only makes him a good leadoff hitter, but also gives him good range on the field. He combines that speed with a lot of strong defensive tools. He’s athletic and agile. He’s got quick feet, good hands, and a strong and accurate arm. Considering his background, it’s surprising how talented he is on the field.
“You don’t see a lot of kids that have the type of skill-set that he has, even over here in the States, let alone where he’s from in South Africa,” Pirates’ infield coordinator Gary Green said. ”He has all of the actions you’d like to see out of a middle infielder, on both sides of the ball. He can play shortstop as well as second base. He’s got a bright future in this game, and he’s got a physicality that’s strong.”
“Greeny [Gary Green] helps a lot,” Gift said of his defensive skills. “He’s a patient man, due to myself. I’m a quick learner, but it just takes some time to get new things going. Like he told me to be patient, have that split second pause and read the ball’s pace off the bat. I’ve been reading it better, I’m more comfortable, everything’s much slower. Fundamentally everything’s good.”
Green and Ngoepe have been working this Spring on improving those fundamentals, although at this point Gift has the look of a potential plus defender.
As for that adjustment to the United States and to pro baseball, it’s something that Gift has had an easier time adjusting to.
“It has been easier,” Gift said. “[The players have] taken their time to understand me, and I’ve taken my time to understand them. You engage in each other, and it makes it better for the organization.”
One of the big differences came with the amount of games played in the US. In South Africa, Gift would only play 20 games a year. The Pirates play around 20 games in Spring Training alone. They play every day, workout every day, and play a significantly longer season.
“As the years have been by, and going through all of the stages and the levels in the organization, I’ve learned to be more controlled and not to use up all of my energy all at once because I’ve got to save up for a long season,” Gift said.
Even though he missed most of the year last year in West Virginia, he’s expected to start in Bradenton in 2012. It’s hard to project him long-term, but his combination of defense, speed, and his hitting from the 2011 season makes him a very interesting prospect to follow. The fact that he can play shortstop and has a leadoff hitter profile makes him valuable for an organization that hasn’t seen a long-term shortstop option emerge. Along with the tools and the talent, Gift definitely has the right attitude to continue his progression through the minors.
“My personal goals is just be a winner,” Gift said on looking forward to the 2012 season. “Go out there every day, play hard, give it my all like I’m playing my last game. Be a good teammate, be selfless, and everything. And just work hard every day.”