In 2012 the Pittsburgh Pirates featured two of the biggest breakout players in all of minor league baseball. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson both had huge seasons, propelling each hitter onto national top 100 lists.
During Spring Training last year, I identified Hanson and Polanco as breakout candidates, after watching them for a few weeks. Polanco was crushing the ball every time I watched him, while Hanson was picking up a lot of hits early in camp. We’re not to that point this year in minor league camp — the full roster doesn’t report until Sunday and the first full workout isn’t until Monday. Therefore, I can’t write about who is looking good so far in camp, since I’ve only seen a handful of players take batting practice. I can talk about a few players who looked promising at the end of the 2012 season, and who I’ll definitely be watching this Spring.
I sat down with Pirates farm director Larry Broadway to get his thoughts on five potential breakout players for the 2013 season.
The universal breakout candidate seems to be Dilson Herrera. We had him as the #12 prospect in this year’s top 50. Ben Badler of Baseball America had him as the most likely player to become this year’s Hanson or Polanco. Herrera’s hype so far puts him on the level of Hanson. He’s already drawn attention from scouts, and he’s starting to get some national recognition as a lower level player to watch. That was very similar to Hanson prior to the 2012 season.
The highlight for Herrera is that he’s got a lot of offensive tools. He’s got a mature feel in the box and controls the strike zone. He doesn’t profile well defensively, being limited to second base, which will put more emphasis on his bat. Does he have the hitting potential to be a legit prospect even with his second base limitations?
“He’s got the potential to have that kind of bat,” Broadway said. “He’s got the ingredients now to do that. The feel for it, he can impact the ball. He’s not a big guy, but the ball comes off his bat different from a lot of guys.”
Herrera wasn’t projected as a guy who would hit for home run power, but managed to hit a team-leading seven homers last year in the GCL, which is a very pitcher friendly league with big parks. The bulk of his power comes from hitting to the gaps, but Herrera has shown the ability to add some home runs.
“He’s going to have production, he’s going to have extra base hit production,” Broadway said of his power. “He’s going to hit gaps. I don’t know what the home run numbers are going to be, but he does drive the ball well. So he’s going to produce runs for us.
“He’s strong. He doesn’t look like a big guy, but he’s strong.”
Jin-De Jhang was signed for $250,000 out of Taiwan in 2011. When I first saw the catcher I didn’t think much of his prospect status. He was a very heavy catcher, leaving doubts about his ability to move around behind the plate, and his ability to stick at the position for the long-term.
Over the last year, two things have happened which have changed my opinion. First, Jhang worked hard to lose a lot of weight. Second, he’s shown himself to be one of the best pure hitters the Pirates have in the lower levels. It seems like every time I’ve seen him in a game he’s picked up multiple hits.
“He has a very good feel for the strike zone. He’s very disciplined as a young hitter, which is rare at his age,” Broadway said. “So that’s exciting to watch him control at-bats, and watch him control just the pace of an at-bat.”
Defensively, Jhang has always had a strong arm. He’s slimmed up in the last year, which has added some agility behind the plate and has improved his movement. He’s also starting to speak enough English that he can communicate with the pitchers, although he’s not at the stage where he can call a game. He’ll have to keep the weight off as he moves up and gets older. He has the skills to be a good catcher as long as the weight is off.
“From a defensive standpoint, his body has gotten better since he got here,” Broadway said. “He’s committed to that. All around defensively he’s gotten a lot better in the last year. Catching, throwing, calling a game. Being comfortable back there. Blocking. All the aspects of it, he’s made improvements. I’m looking forward to watching him. We’re looking forward to watching him this year.”
I wrote about Glasnow earlier this week, questioning whether he had the same upside as top prospects like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. The right-hander is 6′ 8″, 220 pounds, throws 96 MPH, has touched 98, and is only 19-years-old. He’s got a curveball that is a plus offering at times, and has been working on his change-up and his fastball command over the off-season. That’s the recipe for a top of the rotation pitcher one day. Glasnow isn’t there now, but that’s definitely a possibility down the line. I asked Broadway if he agreed.
“There’s definitely potential there. It’s so early, it’s on him to stay focused,” Broadway said. “We want to stay focused on what he needs to do now to get that next step better. He’s athletic, he’s young, he’s smart, he’s got all the tools. There’s really no ‘ceiling’ there. It’s wide open. Just let him go play, guide him along the way, and help him where we can, and see where he ends up.”
If there’s one player Broadway knows all about, it’s Nick Kingham. In his first year as a pro scout, Broadway scouted and signed Kingham as a fourth round pick in the 2010 draft. The right-hander has been on the radar here at Pirates Prospects, ranking as the number ten prospect in the system in each of the last two years. After a slow start in West Virginia in 2012, Kingham put up some impressive numbers, highlighted by some dominant ratios. So is Kingham living up to what Broadway saw when he scouted him?
“It’s hard to say he’s reaching what I saw since I saw a big leaguer in there and he’s in A-ball,” Broadway said with a laugh.
The right-hander doesn’t have the huge breakout potential that the first three guys on this list have. What he does have is a higher floor, and the body and stuff to become a solid number three starter who can pitch 200 innings per year in the majors. Kingham has great command of his fastball, which was touching 95-96 MPH last year and is thrown on a downward plane. He also has a curveball and a changeup, with both pitches having the chance to be above-average offerings.
“He’s done well from a physical standpoint,” Broadway said. “He’s maturing. He’s strong. He’s leaned up. From a pitching standpoint he’s got really good control of his body right now. All of these guys, when you take risks on big, long, tall, lanky high school guys, it takes a while to get control of the body. He’s done a great job of that. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he goes about his work very seriously. You watch him throw his throwing program, you watch him throw in the pen, and there’s a sense of professionalism that he’s starting to gain and going about his work every day. And it carries over on to the field.”
So is Kingham still on track to be the big leaguer Broadway thought he would be? The answer from Broadway was a simple, matter-of-fact “Yeah.”
Holmes is similar to Kingham. He’s got a high floor, but his ceiling isn’t as high as the first three players on the list. Like Kingham, he’s got the size and the stuff to be a 200 inning per year number three starter. Last year Holmes made his pro debut, putting up a 2.28 ERA in 59.1 innings in State College. The one downside is that he didn’t have a lot of strikeouts, with a 5.16 K/9 ratio. That’s mostly because of the approach the Pirates take in the lower levels, focusing on fastball command and developing the changeup.
“He pounds the ball down in the zone and can get a ton of ground balls,” Broadway said. “Our focus for him isn’t strikeouts in Jamestown or the GCL. It’s nailing what he needs to nail to repeat fastballs down in the zone. Then moving off of that in and out, then up and down. He’s done that extremely well, and is moving forward well.”
Holmes did a good job at getting ground balls in 2012, with a 56.5% ratio. He’s got a curveball that’s a plus pitch when it’s on, and that should help him add more strikeouts once he starts using the pitch more often in games. He’s got the potential for a nice three pitch mix, with all three pitches being above-average or plus offerings.
Video of the Day
Today’s video features several Pirates hitting prospects taking batting practice, including Dilson Herrera and Jin-De Jhang.