Blue Jays accept a Gift from the Pirates
Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Gift Ngoepe (61) follows through on a game-winning two-run double in the 10th inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves in Atlanta on May 24, 2017. The Toronto Blue Jays made a move on Monday night to shore up their middle infield.Toronto acquired second baseman Gift Ngoepe in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in exchange for cash considerations or a player to be named later. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, John Bazemore)
You don’t acquire a ball player because he has an interesting back story.
But Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins is so fascinated with Gift Ngoepe’s past, and the way he grew up and came to play baseball, Atkins took it upon himself to text a 2009 Sports Illustrated article written by Gary Smith about Ngoepe to a reporter who inquired about the club’s newest acquisition.
And it is an incredible story. Ngoepe - whom the Jays traded for from the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday for cash considerations and player to be named later - literally grew up in a baseball clubhouse. Not just on weekends or evenings. Ngoepe and his brother lived with their mother Maureen inside the clubhouse of the Randburg Mets baseball club, outside of Johannesburg, South Africa - where his mom worked as the clubhouse attendant, cook, and cleaner. As Smith pointed out, the Mets’ infield was essentially Ngoepe’s front yard. Baseball, however, was traditionally a sport for white South African kids, but growing up right at the park, Ngoepe learned to play the game and in 2008 became the first black South African to sign a Major League contract, with the Pirates.
His ascension in the Pittsburgh minor league system has been less than meteoric, but this past year the 27-year-old middle infielder finally made it to the Big Leagues when he was called up to the Pirates on April 26 from Triple A Indianapolis, making him the second African-born player ever in MLB history (the first was Canary Island-born Al Cabrera in 1913 with the St. Louis Cardinals). The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Ngoepe is a decent hitter with some pop in his bat, but it is his defence that intrigued the Jays enough to go out and get him this week. Atkins sees Ngoepe as someone who can fill in at short or second when there’s an injury to one of their starters, though it seems the Jays will continue to search for an everyday major league infielder to play a regular role in case Troy Tulowitzki and/or Devon Travis go down with injuries in 2018, as they did last season. Ngoepe would look to be more of a Triple A call up at this point, as he has options.
“He’s one of the better defenders in all of the professional baseball,” Atkins told the Toronto Sun. “Objectively and subjectively he really stands out as an elite defender. And we’re looking to improve and add to our roster with infield depth. He brings out on a 1-8 scale as a 7 defender by a couple of our professional scouts and the objective metrics are extremely good on him. He’s No. 1 or No. 2 objectively in minor league baseball so that’s first and foremost the reasoning on the acquisition. His calling card is defence and versatility in the middle of the diamond.”
Atkins was quick to point out Ngoepe’s incredible and unique background, adding that the native of Pietersburg, SA is also said to be a great teammate in the clubhouse.
Ngoepe played 28 games for the Pirates last season, hitting .222 and scoring 10 runs. He bounced back and forth between the Pirates and the both the Indianapolis Indians and the West Virginia Black Bears in the minor leagues.
The word on Ngoepe, even though he's 27, is he still has plenty of upside in that he is still developing as a player given that he didn’t come from a traditional baseball hotbed and is still learning the game in many respects.
As for any other moves, Atkins is working on, the Jays GM couldn’t say if any deals (hello KC outfielder Lorenzo Cain) are close to being done or almost ready to get acted upon.
“Nothing new,” said Atkins. “But we continue to have discussions (with teams and agents) and feel better about opportunities to make our team better. We do have a little bit more clarity each day, but there’s nothing imminent.”