First Pitch: Where are the Pirates Breakout Prospects This Year?

Over the last few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had more than their fair share of breakout prospects. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson stepped up in West Virginia in 2012. Tyler Glasnow emerged in 2013 at the same level. Guys like Nick Kingham, Stetson Allie, and Joely Rodriguez also improved their stock. The one thing about Polanco, Hanson, and Glasnow is that they were not only breakout prospects on a local level, but they were also breakout prospects in all of baseball.

The Pirates entered the 2014 season primed for another set of breakout prospects. They had a system loaded with top prospects and a lot of potential breakout candidates in the lower levels. That’s probably why they were universally ranked one of the top three farm systems in the game.

In a way, Polanco has been the big breakout player so far. That’s obviously not in the sense that he’s breaking out as a prospect, since he did that already. Instead, he’s starting to break out on a national scale as one of the top young players in the game.

In about a month, Polanco will be in the majors. So far the focus in the minor league system this year has been Polanco and injuries. So what will be the focus when Polanco graduates? Who will emerge as the big breakout prospect? Or, who might already be emerging behind the massive shadow that Polanco is casting?

At the moment, there aren’t any Polanco/Hanson/Glasnow level breakouts. This is, in part, due to the injuries. Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez were two big breakout candidates, and both have missed time this year with hamstring injuries. Meadows hasn’t made his debut yet. He was originally expected back around the beginning of May, but has been delayed with some tightness. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any good stories in the minors. Here is a quick rundown of a few of the mini-breakouts this year.

Indianapolis

It’s hard to get a breakout prospect at this level, since most guys at this level have pretty much established their value and potential. Obviously Polanco is the biggest guy here, since he’s emerging as one of the top prospects in the game. Andrew Lambo has also had a nice start to his season, and is showing that the offense from last year might not have been a fluke.

Brandon Cumpton is another prospect who is raising his stock. He’s not really breaking out, and he’s not doing anything different from what he’s done in the past. But with the rotation struggling in Pittsburgh, Cumpton currently looks like one of the best five starters, and a guy who should be starting over Wandy Rodriguez. You could also add Casey Sadler as a guy who is showing that he might have a future as a major league starter.

Altoona

My breakout pick this year was Stetson Allie. The power production is there, with Allie hitting his seventh homer of the year tonight. He’s also drawing a good amount of walks, with a 13.3% walk rate. However, the strikeouts have been bad, with a 29.6% strikeout rate on the season. Allie has a .227/.343/.479 line in 119 at-bats. That’s an .822 OPS in three-true-outcomes style. But most three outcome guys in the majors weren’t three outcome guys in the minors.

Take Pedro Alvarez, as an example. He never had a strikeout rate above 24.6% in his initial run through the minors. That’s not great, but it’s better than the 30% in the majors so far. He also showed the ability to hit for average, with a .333 average in Altoona, and a .277 average in his first run through Indianapolis. Allie could become a three outcomes guy in the majors, but he’s got some work to do to cut down on the strikeouts. If he’s striking out 30% of the time in Double-A, then he’s going to have some serious problems in Triple-A and the majors.

As for the rest of the prospects, the two highest profile pitchers coming into the year were Nick Kingham and Joely Rodriguez. Kingham is having a decent year, while Rodriguez is struggling. On the hitting side, there’s Hanson, who had a slow start, but has been hitting well since then.

There have been two smaller breakouts at this level. The first is Mel Rojas, who is hitting for a .306/.380/.440 line in 134 at-bats. Rojas is a very athletic player, and looks to be tapping into some of his raw power, although not to the point where he could be more than a fourth outfielder in the majors. Rojas is Rule 5 eligible this off-season, which means he could play himself onto the 40-man roster by the end of the calendar year if he keeps this up.

The other smaller breakout has been Adrian Sampson, who has a 2.27 ERA in 35.2 innings, with a 27:12 K/BB ratio. Sampson struggled in Bradenton last year while working on his changeup, but has had success this season in large part due to the improvements made on that pitch. He’s a three pitch guy who has the chance to be a number four starter in the majors.

Bradenton

Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes were going to be two of the top prospects to watch at this level. Glasnow missed a few weeks with a back injury, while Holmes went down for the season with Tommy John surgery. The Marauders have had good pitching at times from guys like Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, Orlando Castro, Pat Ludwig, and John Kuchno. However, the biggest upside here would be back of the rotation starters, with Kuhl and Creasy having the best shot at reaching that level.

Offensively, Jin-De Jhang has looked overmatched, which might not be a big surprise, since he jumped over low-A ball due to Reese McGuire’s presence in West Virginia. Eric Wood and Jose Osuna have shown flashes of hitting well, although Wood doesn’t project for the power you’d want from a starting third baseman, and Osuna is currently injured.

The top hitting prospect is Josh Bell, and he’s also the top hitter so far. Bell has had issues against lefties this year, but has been crushing right-handers with an .898 OPS. His swing can be ugly at times, looking long, off-balance, and awkward. It seems to be working from the left side, but the right side could use some work. Bell hasn’t tapped into his potential plus power yet. He displays some good line drive and gap power, but right now his home run power is based more on projection than actual results.

West Virginia

This has been the hot spot for breakouts the last few years, although injuries have limited the opportunities this year. West Virginia has lost Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, Luis Heredia, and Reese McGuire to injuries this year. McGuire and Ramirez are both back, while the other three remain on the DL.

Offensively, the two breakout players have been JaCoby Jones and Erich Weiss. Both are putting up good numbers, although nothing close to the monster numbers that Hanson and Polanco had two years ago. Jones is the most encouraging, since his power and ability to get on base from the shortstop position could be valuable if he can stick at the spot.

On the pitching staff, the breakout candidates were Cody Dickson and Buddy Borden. Dickson has been inconsistent, posting a 4.86 ERA in 33.1 innings, and dealing with lapses in control at times. Meanwhile, Borden is having a nice season, with a 2.67 ERA in 30.1 innings, along with a 27:12 K/BB ratio.

Breakout Perspective

It might be unfair to compare any of these guys to Polanco, Hanson, or Glasnow. That shouldn’t be the bar for a breakout candidate, since most prospects — even the successful ones — won’t reach that high. It’s also important to note that it’s still early. Polanco only had an .819 OPS in 189 at-bats through the month of May 2012. In the final three months, he had a .978 OPS in 248 at-bats. So there’s still time for someone like Jones or Bell to take good numbers and turn them into a breakout season. But even having good numbers an entire year can be good enough, as you don’t always need a monster breakout season to eventually develop into a major league player.

Links and Notes

**Scout: Gregory Polanco has a chance to be a star

**More Details on Gregory Polanco’s Extension Offer

**Prospect Watch: Gregory Polanco Just Misses the Cycle in Four Hit Night

**Minor League Schedule: Casey Sadler Looks to Bounce Back From First Poor Outing

**Zack Dodson Activated From Disabled List, Pitches Tonight

**Prospect Highlights: Homers From Gregory Polanco and JaCoby Jones

**Draft Prospect Watch: Kyle Schwarber Homers, Matt Imhof Goes to Pirates in Latest Mock Draft

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    Tim, I think need a new monthly article updating the injury status and progress of the farm system. There has been so many, you forget about certain Prospects like Barnes?

  • johndw28

    To put things in perspective personally I’m more excited about Vance Worley than any of these breakouts this year. I like Rojas but he is blocked. I highly doubt Allie can play MLB.

    • deacs

      Got my doubts about Allie as well but you never know. At times it seems like the farm system wasn’t as advertised but I don’t think that’s really the case. Taillon, Holmes, Heredia are all hurt. We’re sort of not treating Polanco like he’s a part of the farm because in 3 or 4 weeks he’s gone. Meadows is hurt. So it’s not like the players are gone. There’s just less top end prospects to follow on a day to day basis for now. Out of the ones currently healthy I’m most interested in Kingham and Hanson because they might make an impact next year. It’s almost frustrating when Polanco goes 4 for 4. It would be much more exciting if they were winning at the major league level. I definitely understand the argument of not bringing him up for 3 or 4 weeks but it sucks the life out of you when the big league team is struggling and he’s just mashing the ball in AAA.

      • johndw28

        I haven’t heard a word on Heredia and that doesn’t sound good to me. I just don’t think he is a top prospect anymore and sort of thought that before the injury. Excited about Meadows and hopes he comes back soon. I’m really hoping Glasnow gets his control much better by the end of the year. Kingham has been very ordinary so far in AA.

  • ElGaupo77

    How about the Gold Glove SS with the .368 OBP and 3 HRs in AA?

    • johndw28

      I agree with you on Gift- he has been one of the most pleasant surprises in system so far this year imo.

    • BlueBomber72

      How about him? I was thinking the same thing. If he can hit at all he has a place on a MLB roster someday.

      • ElGaupo77

        I’ve seen the dude field. He’s sick. Add that to a little pop, speed to turn singles into doubles etc. and his patience (22 BBs already) and he could be a great regular against RHP.

        Having Clint at SS the last two years made me a believer in having a GG type SS to help the pitchers.

    • CTBucco

      I’m sure he was putting in the work to make this happen, but just following his stats and games, the improvement with the bat this year seems to have come out of nowhere. That’s the best part of it. And it’s happening in his first go at a level that most often turns prospects into pretenders and not the other way around. If he can make it, there may be a movie in his story too, “Million Dollar Glove”.

  • pilbobuggins

    First off ,thank you tim without you we would not know who’s who or what’s what, so thanks a bunch. Secondly all these injuries just emphasize the point that a prospect is just that, a prospect. They have not proven that they can compete at the big league level. Sometimes all they need is a chance, sometimes they don’t pan out with or without a chance.

  • KauaiCoffee

    Two words: Gift Ngoepe.

  • SteveW

    For a little perspective, let’s not forget that Gift is three years older than Alen Hanson. That is an eternity when it comes to player development. Gift is old for his league while Hanson is very young.

    Also let’s not forget that Heredia is all of 19-years old – already at full season A.. Very young for that level.

  • CTBucco

    I’m not too worried about Kingham as this seems to be a normal progression for him with early adjustments and middling performance at each new level followed by excellent performance after that.

    Heredia and even Meadows long absences are worrisome. For some reason, baseball hammies seem to take forever to heal.

    I’m really hoping that Rojas can find some consistency. He’s had hot streaks – although I don’t think any have lasted this long. Lord knows, he has the tools.

    I just love what Jones has done. It’d be great to see his average up closer to .300 and his K rate down, but a plus hitting SS in the system would be great. Speaking of which, Hanson’s overall numbers need to improve some more. With his errors, his bat will have to carry him, and it has been just good since his breakout in ’12 and also very streaky.

    Also, let’s not forget that Allie was given a very aggressive promotion this year. It seems like maybe his swing has gotten out of whack or that the pitchers are adjusting to him. Let’s see if he can figure it out over the next couple of weeks.