Person of Interest: New Blue Jays infielder Gift Ngoepe

MLB insider Jon Paul Morosi discusses the rumours that the Blue Jays are in on free agent slugger J.D. Martinez, says he doesn’t see this management team tying so much salary into one player at this point.

You could be forgiven for at first not getting too excited about the Toronto Blue Jays‘ trade on Monday evening. Several teams across baseball completed minor transactions, amid a flurry of moves before Monday’s deadline to protect players from next month’s Rule 5 draft.

The Blue Jays acquired infielder Gift Ngoepe from the Pittsburgh Pirates for a player to be named later or cash, and while he’s not a well-known player, Ngoepe’s story is among the more interesting you’ll find.

Here’s a closer look at him.

Name: Gift Ngoepe
Position: SS, 2B
Throws: Right
Bats: Right
Age: 27
Height: Five-foot-eight | Weight: 200 lbs.
Contract status: Under team control until after 2024 season

Backstory

Let’s get this out of the way. When you first heard of this trade, you likely double-checked to make sure you read Ngoepe’s first name correctly. After all, Gift is not a name baseball fans are used to hearing.

His original first name is Mpho, which means “gift” in the Sotho language, which is spoken in South Africa, where Ngoepe (pronounced in-GO-pay) was born and raised.

His mother got a job as a cook and cleaner for a local baseball club in Randburg, South Africa, and in exchange, was given a room in the team’s clubhouse, according to The Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent Geoffrey York. That’s where Ngoepe’s love of the game was fostered, and several years later, at age 17, he was invited to a major-league training camp in Italy.

A Pirates scout noticed him and he was soon signed to a $15,000 bonus. The organization later signed his younger brother Victor, 19, a shortstop who has spent the past two seasons with Pirates’ rookie ball affiliates.

Breaking a barrier

Ngoepe became the first African-born player to reach the majors when he was called up by the Pirates in April. It’s a historic feat that adds another pin to MLB’s growing heritage map, and his promotion was especially sweet given that Ngoepe toiled for nearly nine years in the minors before finally getting his chance in The Show.

“It’s a dream come true for me, because it’s been my dream since I was a 10-year-old boy, but it also means so much to the people of South Africa and baseball in Africa,” he told media before the game.

He entered the April 26 contest against the Chicago Cubs at second base in the fourth inning and later notched a hit off ace Jon Lester.

Ngoepe’s mother passed away a few years ago and as he arrived at first base, the thought of the woman who first showed him the sport was overwhelming.

He spoke about it in this touching Players’ Tribune piece.

All I could think about when I reached first base after my first big league hit was….

Don’t cry!

Whatever you do, Gift … just don’t cry.

Again, easier said than done.

And it was almost like our first base coach, Kimera Bartee, was going out of his way to get me to shed some tears. He came over to me and told me that he had almost wept when I stepped into the box for the first time.

There were tears kind of welling up for me at that point.

Then he said, “When I saw you hit the ball like that … I almost cried again.”

But it was the next thing he told me that hit me the hardest.

“Oh,” he said, “one more thing: Your mom is really proud of you right now, Gift. She is smiling down on you from above.”

I almost broke down at that point. I really did.

“I was holding it back,” Ngoepe said. “I told myself not to cry.”
— Ngoepe, in The Players’ Tribune

What he brings to Blue Jays

Ngoepe has a reputation as a premier defender, with a strong arm and good hands. During his tenure with Pittsburgh, he was considered the best defensive shortstop in the organization’s farm system, according to Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

He spent the majority of time at short, but also played frequently at second base, as well. His acquisition makes sense for the Blue Jays, at least as organizational depth goes, given that Darwin Barney is a free agent and starting middle infielders Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki have battled injuries in recent seasons.

Ngoepe’s hitting skills, however, have always lagged behind his glove. He produced a .231/.320/.351 slash line with 43 home runs in 768 games over his minor-league career. He was once a switch-hitter, but abandoned it to bat solely right-handed.

During his 28-game major-league stint with the Pirates this past season he didn’t fare much better, hitting .222/.323/.296 with no homers, while striking out at a 41.3 per cent rate.

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