CHARLESTON, WV – Tomorrow I’ll get my first regular season look at Mitch Keller. The right-hander was drafted in the second round of the 2014 draft, and received an aggressive push to West Virginia this year, pitching at the level at the age of 20. It doesn’t seem like the young age is bothering him that much, as he’s started the season with 15 shutout innings, giving up seven hits, no walks, and striking out 23.

Keller features a fastball that has been sitting 93-96 MPH this year, along with a curve that can be a plus offering when it’s on — and it’s been on during his first three starts. He started getting the feel for a changeup last year, and has looked more comfortable with the pitch so far this year. Everything is pointing to him continuing this progress, and having a breakout season, likely ending up as one of the top 100 prospects in the game by the end of the year.

This has become an annual event in West Virginia. Every year, a new prospect breaks out and emerges up the ranks in the system. Some of them come from out of nowhere. Others entered the system with bigger bonuses, and the hope of such a breakout. There have certainly been breakout prospects at other levels, but for whatever reason, most of the big ones come at this level.

The recent trend started four years ago when the Pirates sent a group of young international talent to the level. The big breakouts that year were Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson, although Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna showed promise, and still remain in the system as prospects. Elias Diaz was also in that group, but took a few more years to become a prospect.

Prior to that year, all of those guys were seen as prospects to varying degrees. Osuna, Garcia, and Hanson made the back half of our top 50. Polanco was a lot more raw, but a guy with a ton of tools who had been grabbing my attention since I first saw him in 2010. The Pirates gave the entire group an aggressive push to full-season ball, and a few of them broke out, seeing their raw tools turning into actual results.

The next year, the Pirates had a bigger breakout. Tyler Glasnow was drafted in the fifth round in 2011 and given a $600,000 signing bonus. Nothing was known about him at the time, other than the fact that he was very tall, wore size 17 shoes, and had a fastball that was 88-91 MPH. His velocity jumped in 2012 in the GCL, and he saw a massive breakout in 2013 with West Virginia, propelling him to becoming one of the top pitching prospects in the game.

Glasnow, Polanco, and Hanson are the biggest breakout stories, with all of them going on to becoming top 100 prospects in the game. But the Pirates have had smaller scale breakouts in the process.

The same year Glasnow emerged, the Pirates had Dilson Herrera stepping up at the level. He was traded that fall as the big piece for Marlon Byrd. The next year, JaCoby Jones had a breakout year. A year later, he was traded, this time for Joakim Soria. Herrera was a bigger bonus guy than Polanco and Hanson, but still relatively small at $220,000, when you consider the top international prospects usually get seven figures. Jones was an athletic third round pick who the Pirates ended up moving to shortstop, trying to get more value out of him, and that value increase led to him being a trade piece last year.

The breakouts continued last year, when Yeudy Garcia came out of nowhere to be the big breakout in the system. Garcia was almost unheard of, making the jump from the DSL to West Virginia, which is a massively aggressive jump. He flew under the radar because he signed late, going to college in the Dominican before signing. He had a great fastball, and that really played up in West Virginia last year. That fastball that he showed last year hasn’t been as good this year, and he’s relied on the slider a bit too much, leading to some struggles. But he still emerged as an actual prospect at the level.

I haven’t even mentioned the pitchers who weren’t “breakouts” in West Virginia, but quietly emerged at the level. Nick Kingham is one of those guys, posting a 5.50 ERA and a 63:24 K/BB ratio in 68.2 innings in his first half with West Virginia in 2012. He closed out the year with a 3.09 ERA and a 54:12 K/BB ratio in 58.1 innings in the second half, and continued that success in higher levels.

Clay Holmes did the same thing the next year. He posted a 4.98 ERA in 72.1 innings in the first half, with a 48:49 K/BB ratio in the first half. He improved in the second half with a 2.70 ERA in 46.2 innings, with a 42:20 K/BB ratio. He was derailed by Tommy John after that, but has carried the control improvements over to his return to the mound.

Both pitchers were high upside, big bonus draft picks. They both saw control problems early in West Virginia, then improved in the second half and carried those improvements to higher levels. It’s not going to grab headlines like Glasnow or Polanco, but those guys emerged as top prospects in the system, and the improvements started in West Virginia.

The reason the Pirates get these breakouts is because they play the numbers game. They draft a lot of high upside prep players. They don’t spend seven figures on the best international players, but spend that amount on 7-10 guys who aren’t as well known, but have the same tools as the top guys. Then, they give all of those guys aggressive promotions to challenge them against older talent, and one or two always end up breaking out.

This year’s group is led by Keller, who was a second round pick, and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who was a first round compensation pick. Those guys aren’t in the same class as Polanco, since they had high profiles due to their draft positions. They’re a bit closer to Glasnow, since they were signed to big bonuses with the hope for a breakout.

Beyond Keller and Hayes, the Pirates have Tito Polo, who is another toolsy, high upside guy. They’ve got older guys like Casey Hughston, who has some good tools. They’ve got projectable pitchers like JT Brubaker and Dario Agrazal, who could see improvements after some time at the level, working on commanding the fastball and improving their control.

It will continue beyond the 2016 season. Next year’s group in West Virginia looks to include high upside pitchers like Gage Hinsz and Luis Escobar, along with Adrian Valerio, who has some of the best shortstop defense in the system, along with a line drive stroke and the ability to hit to the gaps. Those guys will be joined by other prep picks and international guys making the jump from this year’s short-season leagues, and we should see another breakout in the future.

This is a trend that is great to see for the Pirates. They’re picking lower in the draft, their top prospects in the upper levels are close to graduating, and they will need another wave of prospects to follow the upper level group. Their continued ability to find breakout guys will definitely help the system continue churning out new top prospects to watch each year.

This year, I’m looking forward to watching the breakout of Mitch Keller. And I’m looking forward to getting my first live look of a real game tomorrow.

**I’ll have live coverage of Keller’s start tomorrow in the Prospect Watch, and I’ll have a feature on him on Thursday. To read all of the live reports, and get the best coverage of the minor league system, be sure to subscribe to the site.

**Prospect Watch: Tyler Glasnow Uses Change-Up Effectively in 11 Strikeout Performance. Great outing from Glasnow tonight, and encouraging that he had success while using the changeup so often.

**Giles: Breaking Down the Pirates’ Struggles in the Bullpen. Ed Giles looks at the struggles the Pirates have had with their bullpen, noting the comparisons between this group and the 2014 group.

**Austin Meadows’ Path to Pittsburgh Might Not Be in Center Field. The Pirates will be playing Meadows at the corner outfield spots this year, preparing him for the possibility of breaking into the majors at a corner if an injury comes up.

**Morning Report: Checking the Progress of the 2011 Draft. John Dreker continues his looks at the previous draft results, going back to the 2011 group. That group might be the best of all, yielding Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, and Tyler Glasnow, along with a few other interesting prospects in the system.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. I would not doubt that for a minute. Some great times though. Good getting a chance to take a run down memory lane.

  2. For years, folks in Charleston complained that they did not get “the breakout” players.
    I guess in a way, it just runs in cycles. Or maybe, they get there now because
    the new Pirates system is now filled with quality talent.

  3. The WV Power is off to a great start. As for Bradenton, the hitting so far as been very disappointing, but I think guys like Suiter, Luplow, Suchy, etc will get going soon…

  4. Tim,
    Your paragraph on how the Pirates succeed in developing a high number of breakout prospects is a sharp, insightful summary of how to explain it. High upside preps, international guys with tools but not the notoriety, and aggressive promotions. Very clear and it corresponds to the results.

    • And, to go to school. When Robert Morris was a JC, I did 2 years at RM in downtown Pittsburgh, and then transferred to and graduated from West Liberty SC. At that time WLSC accepted the most credits from RM so it was very popular, and only an hour or so away.

          • Bethany was only a few miles away, but light years away at the same time. Presidents Conference. But they got some of the best entertainers to come in and play – We went over to see a concert where Dionne Warwick was the headliner, and the opening act to the best of my feeble memory was the Chicago Transit Authority. And, if I am not mistaken, it was a freebie for the Bethany Students, and guests.

        • I was there from ’68 – ’70, a few years before Ray played. I lived in the house that housed the WLU “animal house” fraternity Chi Nu. They were in the basement, the old couple (luckily they were both near deaf) who owned the house were on the first floor, and me and 2 or 3 guys from Pittsburgh were on the 2nd floor. It was cheap, and since I worked my way through, it fit my budget.

  5. Clearly the player development team deserves much of the credit for the successes of the players mentioned. Bob Nutting may deserve criticism for not spending enough at the ML level, but he certainly is one of the best Owners at hiring and retaining staff. For this reason, the Pirates should remain competitive for the foreseeable future.

    • Nutting is as good an owner as the Pirates have ever had, and I truly doubt that he is consulted by NH or RC on personnel decisions. They put together a road map years ago and follow it. However, I would say that if NH or RC wanted to go outside the parameters of that road map, or if they wanted to discuss an extension for ‘Cutch, then Bob Nutting would definitely be involved.

      The model has worked, and they are so loaded with talent currently on the Pirate Roster or at AAA that they will remain competitive for the foreseeable future, as well as having a lot of valuable trading chips that will be exercised during 2016 or during the off-season.

      • Good response emjay. As you probably know, the best leaders hire the right people, set the expectation for their performance, give them the tools and resources necessary to achieve those goals, and most importantly, let them do it.

        Nutting has checked every box on that list and this is why us fans have so much to be thankful for.

        For those who claim he hasn’t given NH the resources in the form of ML payroll, I would counter he spent millions on a new Baseball Academy in DR, broke the draft by overpaying for amateur talent (Josh Bell), and has been aggressive in locking up burgeoning star players to lucrative contracts (Cutch, Marte, Harrison, Polanco, et al).

        Anyone who doesn’t recognize how wonderful of an Owner he is needs to revisit their own vision of what a good Owner looks like.

        • But logic and facts do not fit the “Nutting is Cheap” Template. I agree with you both. The local talking heads still complain that Nutting being cheap prevented them from signing a big arm for the rotation in the off season. 2 big reasons why the Bucs were actually smart in not doing so. They have at least 2 big time arms that will in the rotation sooner than later this season. If they would have signed a big name, one of these guys would have been blocked. On top of that, has anyone noticed the ERA for Mr. Greinke lately? Read several articles in the off season explaining how a large long term deal for a pitcher usually never pays off. Why go out and buy something you already have in the cupboard and plan on using soon anyway??

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      • Good to hear he is still throwing and on a schedule. I think it was you who reported in the off season or early in spring training that the Bucs intended on taking him slow. Appears that is still the plan. No real need to rush him with several other healthy arms in AAA that will help the big club sooner than later.

        • Yeah. I reported back in March when he started throwing bullpens that he would be on that schedule for about two months. So he should be nearing the end of it (although they just gave him a two week break, which is new to the TJ rehab this year).

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