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Former top pick Henry Davis eager to help Pirates, after sprint through minors

Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 first-round draft pick Henry Davis runs drills in right field at PNC Park after being called up from AAA Indianapolis before a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh, Monday, June 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/AP
Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 first-round draft pick Henry Davis runs drills in right field at PNC Park after being called up from AAA Indianapolis before a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh, Monday, June 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Pirates tried to take their time with Henry Davis.

His bat wouldn't let them.

The top overall pick in the 2021 amateur draft made his major-league debut on Monday night, playing right field while batting seventh against the Chicago Cubs in hopes of sparking an erratic offense in serious need of a jolt.

The Pirates insist they remain committed to making Davis an everyday catcher. For now, however, the 23-year-old will spend most of his time — at least during games — getting a crash course in how to play right field at PNC Park, where the 21-foot-high Roberto Clemente Wall and its sometimes funky caroms can make learning the position on the fly difficult.

“If I can help the Pirates win in right, I’m excited about it,” Davis said before doubling in his first major league at-bat in what became an 8-0 defeat that extended Pittsburgh's losing streak to seven.

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Davis' debut capped a rapid rise through the system, particularly this season. He began the year at Double-A Altoona and was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 4 with the team intent on having him splitting catching duties with fellow prospect Endy Rodriguez.

Instead, the Pirates stashed Davis in the outfield to get his bat in the lineup regularly, and he responded by hitting .286 with three doubles, a home run, and three RBIs in 10 games.

Davis was “suspicious” about his future when he was held out of the Indianapolis lineup on Sunday. Manager Miguel Perez sat him down and asked him to grab a water out of the small refrigerator in Perez's office, where a note that read “you're going to the Show” awaited.

A frantic 24 hours followed, ending with Davis walking through the tunnel at PNC Park on Monday afternoon as a big leaguer.

Asked if he was surprised how short his stint was at Triple-A, Davis shrugged.

“I think at any point, I would’ve been confident in my ability to help the team have a good at-bat or just play well and contribute to a win,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s more of a point where I can point out one moment. I’ve always been confident in my ability.”

Pittsburgh is hoping some of that confidence translates into help for a team enduring a roller coaster of a season. The Pirates started 20-8, stumbled through a dismal May, rebounded to briefly move into first place in the underwhelming NL Central this month before going winless on a six-game trip to Chicago and Milwaukee that dropped them to fourth.

Davis is among the first building blocks general manager Ben Cherington put in place when he took over in November 2019. Davis' arrival in Pittsburgh is part of the leading edge of what the club hopes will be a massive talent influx at the major-league level over the next few years.

“It’s exciting because I think it shows that the process that Ben put in place and the way he’s talked about it is starting to come to fruition a little bit with our group,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. "And, anytime we can add guys internally that we feel are going to be part of what we’re building, it’s exciting.”

Davis grew up in Westchester County, hour north of New York City. Three standout years at Louisville led the Pirates to make him first overall in 2021 and he needed just 421 at-bats in the minors — including 24 home runs — to prove to the organization he was ready to shoulder the massive expectations that come with being taken “one-one.”

Even if it's not in the role they initially envisioned. Davis' development as a catcher remains very much a work in progress. While Shelton said Davis will catch in games at the major-league level at some point, for now, Davis will be tutored behind the scenes by veterans Jason Delay and Austin Hedges. Davis' education will include copious amounts of video work, plenty of bullpen sessions and sitting in on catcher meetings when he can.

“We have two catchers here that have invested not only in him, but our whole catching group starting going back to spring training and Hedges and Delay in terms of how they get better,” Shelton said. “And, I expect that that will continue. In fact, I know that will continue.”

There appears to be no rush to throw Davis behind the plate in a game situation. There is a major rush, however, to let him stand in the batter's box and swing away. The Pirates entered Monday 21st in the majors in runs and 24th in homers. Davis could provide a boost in both departments for a team that finds itself in the division race — such as it is — with July approaching.

They believe the catching will come at some point. The way he handles himself with the bat in his hands, however, made waiting for the defense to catch up less of a priority.

“Watching him play, how he carries himself, you can definitely tell he’s a different caliber of (a) baseball player than most,” Pirates pitcher Mitch Keller said. "I think just the way he carries himself and his game speaks for itself obviously. I don’t think there’s too much question of how good he is.”