PITTSBURGH—Shortstop Gift Ngoepe has long been a great human interest story in his journey from being raised by his mother in the clubhouse of a South African semipro team to signing with the Pirates in 2008.
However, the 26-year-old would like the next wave of media attention to be generated by becoming the first African to reach the major leagues.
Ngoepe is finally on the doorstep. The Pirates placed him on the 40-man roster in November. He followed that by hitting a home run for South Africa in the World Baseball Classic qualifier finale, which Australia ultimately won, 12-5.
He will have a chance to win a bench job in spring training. It is not completely out of the question that he could be the opening day second baseman as Josh Harrison might be needed to fill in at third base if Jung Ho Kang isn’t completely recovered from the broken leg and torn knee ligaments he suffered last September.
“I see an opportunity for me to break camp with the squad,” Ngoepe said,
Defense and speed have always been Ngoepe’s best tools, but he has started to show improvement as a hitter in recent seasons. He also abandoned switch-hitting last year to bat exclusively from right side.
Ngoepe posted a combined .257/.333/.352 line in 91 games and 352 plate appearances with Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis last season. The Pirates believe the numbers would have been better if he hadn’t missed the last six weeks with a strained oblique muscle.
“I take my defense to heart,” Ngoepe said. “Hitting-wise, you don’t know what you’re going to do. All you can do is hit a ball and whatever outcome you get is whatever happens from there. Defense, you can control a lot of stuff. I’ve worked on it since I was a kid.”
• The Pirates signed Ngoepe’s 18-year-old brother Victor after the shortstop impressed scouts while playing for South Africa’s 18U team in last summer’s World Cup and then again in December at the African Elite Camp in Cape Town.
• Major League Baseball hired director of player personnel Tyrone Brooks as its senior director of the newly-created front office and field staff diversity pipeline program. As a result, the Pirates promoted director of baseball operations Kevin Graves to assistant GM, while assistant Will Lawton assumes Graves’ old position and Sean Kelly moves to special assistant.