In the past, I’ve always done a breakout article, pointing out either one breakout candidate from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ farm system, or several breakout candidates. Last year I expanded things to include two breakout candidates from each team, with a pitcher and a position player from each group. That presented a bit of a problem.
The “breakout” term was really limiting in the upper levels. Those players have either already broken out, and their ceilings are defined. Looking at this year’s team, you couldn’t pick someone like Josh Bell as a breakout candidate, even though there’s a chance he could break out as one of the best prospects in the game. You can’t pick Nick Kingham as a breakout candidate in the sense that he could emerge as a starter in the majors this year. Well, you can do that with each player, but not in the same article where you’re using “breakout” to define lower level guys who could jump into the top ten in the organization.
At the same time, there aren’t really any “breakout” players like that in the upper levels. If I had to choose a hitter, I’d go with Mel Rojas, who could be a starting outfielder in the majors if he fully develops consistency at the plate and taps into his raw power more. On the pitching side, I’d go with Chad Kuhl or Jason Creasy, who both have the chance to be back of the rotation starters, and both have fastballs that can touch the mid-90s, making them strong bullpen options if the starter thing doesn’t work out.
The problem with these picks is that the roles are well-defined. Rojas looks like a fourth outfielder now, and predicting that starter breakout season for him would be making a prediction on something that has a slim chance of happening. Likewise, Kuhl and Creasy are good arms, but they’re unlikely to become more than the back of the rotation/strong bullpen guys, and that’s not a bad role at all.
These are much different situations than a toolsy prospect at the lower levels who might be in the mix for the top 30, but could eventually jump near the top ten. Those guys are currently in the discussion for their potential, and a breakout season would put them in a discussion for future MLB teams, while actually giving them a projected role like the ones that Rojas, Kuhl, Creasy, Bell, and Kingham have. So this year I did things differently, and focused only on the lower levels, picking two pitchers and two hitters from each team. That might seem like a lot, but the Bradenton and West Virginia rosters will be loaded with talented players, which means there were still tough decisions to make to cut this down to four from each team.
The Bradenton Marauders might have the best team in the system when everyone is healthy. Their lineup features nine guys who have a chance to reach the majors, while the rotation features five guys who also have Major League upside. There will be very little organizational filler here. That said, when discussing “breakout” candidates, a lot of those guys can’t be included. Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire are both top 100 prospects, and while they could break out in the sense of being top prospects in the game, they wouldn’t be considered breakout candidates for this list.
On that same note, JaCoby Jones and Harold Ramirez are well-known, and also wouldn’t fit. I’m waiting to see how injured guys like Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler return before making an opinion about them (Eppler would have definitely been one of my pitching selections, but will be out for the start of the year after elbow tenderness shut him down for a few weeks).
I went with names that aren’t well-known in terms of being some of the top prospects in the system, but who also have a chance to make a big jump in the system rankings this year. I don’t know if we’re talking about Glasnow/Polanco style breakouts here, but we could be seeing some potential Sampson/Jones performances.
Pitchers: Cody Dickson and Steven Brault
Dickson was one of my breakout guys in West Virginia last year, and while he had a good season, he still flies under the radar. Part of that might be due to his overall numbers. He had a 3.90 ERA in 129.1 innings, with a 7.2 K/9 and a 4.0 BB/9. Like a lot of pitchers who have gone through West Virginia, Dickson really struggled in the first half, which did a good job of hiding his dominant performance in the second half. He had a 2.33 ERA in 54 innings, with a 47:23 K/BB ratio from July to the end of the season.
Dickson has a good fastball that sits in the low 90s and can touch the mid-90s, with good movement. That’s a good velocity to have for a left-handed starter. He pairs that with a plus curveball. His changeup needs to improve, and I’m sure that will be a big focus this year. He’s had a fastball command issue, but did a good job of improving that last year in the second half. I think he’s a sleeper to be a middle of the rotation starter, and he could definitely make it as a starter in the majors.
Brault was acquired in the trade with the Orioles for Travis Snider. He doesn’t have flashy stuff like Dickson, but that doesn’t mean he can’t fool people. He throws a four-seam fastball in the low 90s and a two-seam fastball in the upper 80s, although he was primarily using the two-seamer this Spring. I really liked the pitch, as it was consistently down in the zone, sitting mostly at the knees, with late sink that made it good enough to fool hitters into a swing and a miss. He also has a little hitch in his delivery which adds some deception.
There might be some issues here when it comes to the sinkerball approach. The Marauders have an infield that includes Wyatt Mathisen (3B), JaCoby Jones (SS), and Erich Weiss (2B). All three have just one year under their belt at the current positions. Meanwhile, the first basemen — Jose Osuna and Edwin Espinal — lack range. So it could be rough at times for a guy who had a 51% ground ball rate last year, and could see that percentage spike if he leans more on the sinker this year.
Hitters: Wyatt Mathisen and Barrett Barnes
The 2012 draft hasn’t been a great one for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The top pick, Mark Appel, didn’t sign, and the next two picks have yet to really establish themselves. That could change this year.
Wyatt Mathisen was taken in the second round that year. He played mostly shortstop in high school, but the Pirates wanted to try him out at catcher. After his first full season in 2013 — which featured injuries, poor performance at the plate, and the addition of Reese McGuire to the organization — the Pirates decided he would be better off at third base. The result was that he stayed healthy and the bat saw improvements in 2014. There is still a lot of potential with Mathisen’s bat, and I think that will continue to show up now that he’s a little more comfortable at the third base position.
Barrett Barnes was a first round compensation pick that year, with the Pirates receiving the pick for losing Ryan Doumit to free agency. The story with Barnes has been a string of injuries, including a hamstring injury and an oblique injury that limited his 2014 season. He’s had 423 plate appearances in his pro career, which is just four more than Mathisen had in all of 2014. That has limited the chances for Barnes to develop. It’s risky picking him here, considering the injury history, but I love the potential with his bat, which includes a lot of raw power. He’s also got a ton of range, which should be useful in left field while Austin Meadows takes time in center. The injuries have put him off the radar, but if he can finally manage to stay healthy, I think the bat will put him back in the mix as a top prospect.
West Virginia has been the home to a lot of breakout players the last few years. They had Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson in 2012, Tyler Glasnow in 2013, and JaCoby Jones in 2014. This year it doesn’t look like they’ve got that big breakout candidate in the form of Polanco or Glasnow, but they have several guys to choose from that could be on the Jones level, or even on the level of Hanson.
I really like the potential of Cole Tucker, and would have included him here, but he’s already a top ten prospect in the system. I do think he’s got a shot at breaking out and becoming a top 100 prospect next year, but it felt like cheating to go with him as one of the picks. I also considered Connor Joe, but I haven’t seen enough of him to make that pick, and he’ll miss some time at the start of the year while he gets built back up in extended Spring Training.
Pitchers: Stephen Tarpley and John Sever
It’s coincidental that all four lower level breakout picks are left-handers. In this case, West Virginia doesn’t have a great pitching staff, and these are the two guys who easily stand out.
Stephen Tarpley was the other half of the duo that was acquired for Travis Snider, and both are breakout picks in the lower levels. I like Tarpley for different reasons than Brault. Tarpley has some of the best stuff of the lefties in the lower levels, capable of hitting the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball. He really saw a positive change last year in the Orioles system after moving to a three-quarters arm slot, and should carry that over to the higher levels this year.
John Sever was a 20th round pick last year who posted the best strikeout rate in the Pirates’ system. That came with the disclaimer that he was a college pitcher in the lower levels, but Sever has some good stuff, with a fastball that sits low-90s and touches 94, with some good movement on the pitch. He will begin the year as a long-reliever, but worked his way to the rotation last year and could do the same in 2015.
Hitters: Tito Polo and Jordan Luplow
I don’t want to say that anyone has the chance for a Gregory Polanco style breakout, because that would be an unfair expectation. I will say that Tito Polo definitely has a small chance to get there. I love the hitting tools that Polo brings to the plate. He’s got a line drive stroke with quick bat speed, and he drives the ball to all fields. He’s a smaller outfielder, so he might not have the potential to grow and hit for a lot of home run power in the future, but he should get plenty of extra bases to make up for that, especially with his speed. He’s got the potential to have the best bat at the level this year, which is saying a lot, since there’s a lot of potential on the offensive side. If I had to pick just one guy from the lower levels to have a breakout season, it would be Polo.
Jordan Luplow was drafted as an outfielder, but will be moving to third base this year. I liked his bat in the outfield, but like it a lot better at the more valuable position. He will be this year’s JaCoby Jones, with the potential to put up some strong numbers that will make you dream about how good of a prospect he could be if he can manage to stick at the new position. He might not start the year in West Virginia, since he was dealing with a shoulder injury in Spring Training, but he should be there shortly after the start of the season.