First Pitch: Picking Two Pirates Breakout Candidates From Each Level

The 2014 Minor League baseball season begins today. John Dreker has a schedule of the Opening Day starters in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization, with Nick Kingham being the highlight in Altoona. We will be releasing our previews of each level in the morning, and starting the nightly Prospect Watch after all of the day’s games are over. To prepare for the season, let’s take a look at two breakout candidates from each level.


It’s hard to call a guy in Triple-A a “breakout candidate”. Most guys in Triple-A have already broken out as prospects, and if they haven’t, they probably never will. There are different directions I could go with this. I could mention the two players who could help the Pirates the most this summer. Those would be pretty obvious (although the pitcher choice might be interesting with the uncertainty surrounding Jameson Taillon). But to keep with the “sleeper” theme of this article, I’ll look at two guys who could surprise with a chance at the majors this year. These guys won’t be high upside guys, but they could be guys who could contribute in Pittsburgh this summer, much like Kris Johnson last year.

Pitcher: Phil Irwin

I don’t know if this is a deep sleeper. I always mention Irwin as a guy who could help the Pirates in the majors as a starter, along with Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke. Cumpton had success last year in a limited amount of time, while Locke had a great first half and a poor second half to his season. Neither of those guys would be a surprise to mention as rotation depth candidates. Irwin just had one start in the majors last year, then went down with an injury after that outing. He hasn’t shown his best, and his best has the upside of a number four starter. He could be a good depth option if the Pirates run into injury problems again this year.

Hitter: Jaff Decker

This pick was hard, because the “sleeper” label pretty much eliminates a lot of the top guys at the level. Then you’ve got the organizational guys who were signed to minor league deals and have limited upside. I picked Decker because I don’t trust the health/performance of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata. I could see Decker up in the majors at some point this year, and possibly getting some starts if he’s up early enough in the season. I like his ability to get on base throughout his minor league career, and he’s not a bad outfielder, with the ability to play center field.


Just like Indianapolis, it’s hard to pick a breakout candidate here. It’s not impossible though. I left off guys who could be considered “top 100 breakout candidates”. That would be someone like Nick Kingham or Joely Rodriguez, who already gets national recognition, but doesn’t currently fall in many top 100 lists. The picks for Altoona were pretty easy, and include one of my overall breakout candidates.

Pitcher: Adrian Sampson

I saw Sampson a lot last year in Bradenton. He’s got some good stuff, with a 91-94 MPH fastball, a nice curveball that is an out pitch, and a developing changeup. Bradenton didn’t have the best infield last year, which led to Sampson’s FIP being about a run lower than his ERA. His fastball was a bit too hittable at times, but he showed great control, and the three pitch mix still has a lot of promise. The Pirates have been aggressive with his promotions because of the stuff, and that stuff makes him a sleeper to watch once again this year.

Hitter: Stetson Allie

Allie is my breakout pick for the entire system this year. I saw him at the end of last season with Bradenton, and the results didn’t look good. He lost some weight over the off-season, and fixed his swing. Early in camp he was showing off effortless power, which was good enough to rival what I saw out of Pedro Alvarez when he was coming up through the system. There’s no question that Allie has the best raw power of any prospect in the organization. He also strikes out a lot. As we saw with Alvarez, that’s not a problem if you can justify the strikeouts with a lot of home runs and extra base hits. Allie’s swing looked great this year in camp, and I could see him hitting for a lot of power this year in the jump to Altoona, possibly giving a long-term answer at first base.


The two guys who have the highest upside in Bradenton aren’t sleepers or breakout candidates at all. Tyler Glasnow broke out last year, and will be joining the Marauders after a few weeks in extended Spring Training. Josh Bell hasn’t really broken out to his full potential, but he had a good season last year, and still ranks as one of the top 100 prospects in the game on some lists. For this level I picked two guys who have the upside to reach the majors as starters/starting pitchers, but might not have impact potential.

Pitcher: Ryan Hafner

He had one of the best strikeout rates in the system last year as a reliever. During Spring Training, I wrote about how he has been overhauling his game in the last year. He moved from a four-seam/curveball guy to a sinker/slider combo. He’s also been working on improving his changeup while getting ready to move to the rotation. The Pirates will have him piggybacking with Pat Ludwig, who is another long-reliever who made the jump to the rotation at the end of the year. This will help Hafner ease into the rotation without seeing a massive increase in innings. He was dominant in the long relief role last year, and if he can carry that over to the rotation, he’ll be an interesting starting pitching prospect to follow.

Hitter: Jin-De Jhang

The Pirates skipped Jhang past West Virginia and straight to Bradenton, allowing Reese McGuire to be the everyday catcher in West Virginia. Jhang is one of the best pure hitters in the system, and he’s got some power potential, with the upside of 20 homers down the line. He’s got to manage his weight so that he can stick at the catcher position. He has done a good job of that the last few years, slimming down and adding some agility. He’s got a great arm behind the plate. He could eventually be a two-way catcher, with his bat giving him a lot of value at the position.

West Virginia

This is where the Pirates have had their big breakout players in each of the last two seasons, and it looks like they’re primed for another year of breakout candidates again. While Indianapolis has guys who have mostly reached their potential, West Virginia is loaded with guys who are mostly nothing but potential. I’m going to leave out Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Harold Ramirez, Luis Heredia, and even Barrett Barnes due to their current top prospect ranking in the system, or their high draft stats. That still leaves several interesting guys to choose from, both pitchers and hitters.

Cody Dickson is a top breakout candidate for the 2014 season. (Photo Credit: Mark Olson)
Cody Dickson is a top breakout candidate for the 2014 season. (Photo Credit: Mark Olson)

Pitcher: Cody Dickson

This pick was between Dickson and Buddy Borden. I went with Dickson because I think he’s further along with his progression, and has much better secondary stuff. Both guys can sit in the low 90s, and can hit the mid-90s with their fastball. Dickson gets the edge because he’s left-handed, and because his breaking stuff is considerably better. He’s got the chance to be a middle of the rotation starter one day. If he gets off to a good start in West Virginia, he could make it to Bradenton by the middle of June, with a jump to Altoona next year. That’s similar to the path that Joely Rodriguez, another lefty, took last year. I could see Dickson having a similar season.

Hitter: JaCoby Jones

The Pirates drafted Jones as a center fielder, but split his time last year between shortstop and center field. He will be playing shortstop this year, which gives him a lot of value. Jones is very athletic, and while there have been questions about his swing, he has shown a good hitting ability so far in pro ball. His offensive upside should provide a lot of value at shortstop, and will be what could put him on the prospect radar. He’s got a ton of speed, which combined with his athleticism could allow him to work out at shortstop. If he can hit, he won’t need to be a plus defender at short to elevate his prospect status. He will just need to be good enough to stick at the shortstop position.

Links and Notes

**The 2014 Prospect Guide is in stock on the products page of the site. The book features profiles, scouting reports, and grades on every player in the minor league system, including our top 50 prospects. The Prospect Guide has been mentioned as a resource several times on the Pirates’ broadcast, and has been purchased as a source of reference by opposing MLB front office members, opposing scouts, and media members. If it’s a good resource for them, it’s a good resource for you. You can order your Prospect Guide on the products page of the site.

**If you missed it over the weekend, here are all of the season preview articles:

**Jameson Taillon Had Second Opinion; Now All Parties Quiet as Pirates Decide the Next Step

**Stetson Allie Close to Joining Altoona; McPherson, Worley, Meadows Updates

**Pirates Still Top Farm System in Baseball America’s Updated Rankings

**Chris Stewart Hoping to Catch His First Game on Friday

**Minor League Schedule: Kingham and Cumpton Get Opening Day Starts

**West Virginia Power Release Opening Day Roster

**Draft Prospect Watch: New Mock Draft Has Pirates Taking Alex Blandino

**International and Amateur Draft Bonus Numbers Released

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Lee Young

Should be another fun year following these guys. I appreciate every minute of this stuff, because I remember all to well, the lean years of Brian Bixler and Steve Pearce.


Lee- Brian Bixler was possibly the most consistently decent hitter i’ve ever seen in AAA who was worse than a pitcher hitting in the major leagues. Remember 2009- Brian struck out 19 times in 24 AB’s at one point and ended up striking out 26 times in 44 AB’s. Heres a reason why I don’t trust OPS. Brian’s OPS was .603. In 2012, Clint Barmes OPS was .598. Anyone can see that Bixler was a worse hitter than Barmes, even as bad as Barmes was.


I….but….44….never mind it’s not worth it.

Lee Young

OR….it just shows you how bad Barmes was in 2012?? 🙂 🙂 🙂

(and yes, I remember BB’s “19 K run”)….lol. He has struck out 117 times in 350+ career PAs….wow!

However, BB hung around the major league fringes for parts of 4 years. EYE would’ve taken that kind of career….. 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

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