How much is he going to hit? That’s the question that will determine exactly how high Nick Gonzales goes in the 2020 draft. If you’re going to have one carrying tool, you want it to be the hit tool and that’s what stands out here.
An undrafted and relatively unheralded recruit out of high school in Arizona three years ago, the 5’10” Gonzales won a starting position almost from the get go, posting a .347/.425/.596 line in 57 games as a freshman. That certainly got him some notice, earning some freshman All-America honours, but it last year that truly put him squarely on the radar. Gonzales posted truly video game numbers, hitting .432/.532/.773 in 55 games, with 16 home runs among 39 extra base hits while walking 45 times against 30 strikeouts.
That’s all well and good, but Las Cruces is at elevation (just under 4,000 feet above sealevel) and New Mexico State is part of the Western Athletic Conference, so those stats came with some significant caveats. He was certainly in the first round mix as potentially one of the best pure hitters in the 2020 draft, but not towards the top of the round, evident in that he was passed over for the prestigious USA College National team.
It was against that backdrop that he headed to Cape Cod last summer, the premier wood bat league and traditionally an acid test for top prospects to prove themselves. He more than held his own, hitting .351/.451/.630 in 185 regular season PA and .361/.425/.500 in another 40 postseason PA. He walked almost as much as he struck out, and while mostly showing off gap power did pace the league with 8 home runs to boot.
Most importantly, he showed that against good competition, with wood bats and in a hitting environment that didn’t resemble the moon his production was not a mirage. If we’re nitpicking, the pitching on the Cape isn’t what it used to be even 10 years ago as most of the top college arms get largely shutdown for the summer for workload purposes — but there’s still a lot of velo and quality breaking balls.
In the early going of the 2020 season, Gonzales posted even crazier numbers, .448/.610/1.155, with 12 home runs in 16 games. Granted, it was against quite poor non-conference competition the first three weeks (did you know that Iona was an actual university at least theoretically at the D-1 level?). That changed the last weekend when he faced a powerhouse in Texas A&M, but only went 2-for-10 on the weekend, including 0/3 with a walk against two strikeouts in the Friday showdown against fellow premier prospect Asa Lacy.
So Gonzales will go as far as his hitting ability carries him, with modest power projection and some questions at least about his defensive consistency at second base if not necessarily the underlying tools and athleticism to stay there (it’s a tougher and significantly less valuable profile if he had to move to the outfield and particularly an outfield corner).
There’s some comparisons thrown out to Keston Hiura, another smaller second baseman who went 9th overall in the 2017 draft and debuted last year with 2 WAR over four months and profiles to be a well above regular and dynamic hitter for the foreseeable future (8.5 WAR three year ZiPS projection). If Gonzales ended up with that type of value it would be a great outcome to get him 5th overall, but I don’t love the comp. Hiura had a rock solid three year track record of hitting in a much better and pitcher friendly league in the Big West with UC Irvine, falling down boards late on rumours of an arn injury that could require Tommy John. But generally, there’s similarity in the profile asplayers whose hit tool was going to carry them and who one hoped would stay on the infield.
Gonzales seems to be consistently linked to the Royals at the 4th overall pick, and the Orioles are apparently looing to cut deals with the 2nd overall pick, so there’s a significant chance he won’t even be around by the time the Blue Jays get on the clock. But if he is, Gonzales would certainly be a compelling option even with the infield being an area of significant organizational strength. The Jays have had a tendency to go more for pitching in the first round in the Shapiro/Atkins era, but most of those picks were further down. Moreover, new scouting director Shane Farrell was responsible for drafting some contact oriented hit tool first infielders in Nico Hoerner and Chase Strumpf that last couple years.