Prospect rankings and evaluations are always a snapshot in time. They are always changing, and while most changes are subtle in the short-term, there is always the opportunity for big changes in a short period of time. Seeing sudden, rapid changes is only natural when you are dealing with young baseball players mostly in the 18-22 age range.
We follow the Pirates’ farm system closely, seeing every player from the moment they enter the system, and watching them at every level along the way. For that reason, we get to see all of the changes being made, both of the subtle variety, and the bigger changes that alter a player’s likely upside.
Every year, we use this information to determine who will be the next big breakout prospects. In the past, we have picked guys like Gregory Polanco, Tyler Glasnow, and Mitch Keller. We don’t always get the pre-season predictions right — no one saw Yeudy Garcia emerging as a prospect prior to 2015 — but we do track the progress of everyone throughout the year, and notice when people are making changes in their prospect value.
The minor league season started on Thursday, but we’ve had plenty of opportunity to see these guys throughout Spring Training and their careers. Using that information, here are two breakout candidates for the 2017 season at every level, along with one deep sleeper prospect from each team.
It’s difficult to pick a “breakout” player for Indianapolis. When players reach the Triple-A level, you pretty much know what you’re getting. Very few players go from “likely bench player” to “impact starter”. You might see guys move up and down one ranking tier, to the point where a bench guy can become an average starter, or an up-and-down player becomes a regular bench guy. That’s what I focused on here.
The Pirates have a lot of prospects in Indianapolis who can help the MLB team in 2017. The two guys that I picked as breakout candidates are Angel Sanchez and Max Moroff.
Sanchez was the easy pick on the team. He has been forgotten due to Tommy John surgery, and there are so many pitching depth options that it’s easy to ignore him. He falls behind Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas in the bullpen, along with Pat Light, who is on the 40-man roster. He won’t be a starter this year, so that puts him behind Steven Brault, Clay Holmes, Tyler Eppler, and veterans Drew Hutchison and Josh Lindblom.
But Sanchez was sitting 96-97 MPH consistently this spring, mixing in a low-90s cutter. He was reaching mid-90s before his surgery, but never this high, this consistently. That takes him from being a depth option out of Triple-A to a guy who could be a power reliever in an MLB bullpen, putting him on par with Santana and Neverauskas.
Moroff is obviously on the radar as a prospect, emerging as one of the big breakout players in Altoona during the 2015 season, and getting placed on the 40-man roster. He wasn’t used much in the majors last year, and didn’t receive an MLB call-up in September. I still think he could emerge as a regular bench option, similar to what Adam Frazier did, although it would involve a change in approach.
Moroff’s 2015 season in Altoona was so good because he was getting aggressive early in counts. He has a tendency throughout his career of being overly selective, which means he was sitting on hittable pitches early in the count, and working himself into 3-2 counts. This led to a lot of walks, a high amount of strikeouts, and a low average. Once he started getting aggressive early, he would hit the pitches in the zone, while still working himself into deeper counts and drawing walks when the early pitches weren’t there.
This approach didn’t carry over to the 2016 season in Indianapolis. If he can get back to that this year, he could work himself into a bigger role with the Pirates going forward, possibly emerging as a regular bench option in the majors, rather than just a depth guy.
Deep Sleeper: Gift Ngoepe has the best defense at shortstop in the system, but has never seen consistent enough hitting to be more than an emergency depth option out of Triple-A. He has shown flashes of hitting potential, including this spring. The problem is that he also continues to strike out at an alarming rate, making it unlikely that his hitting would carry over to the big leagues. If he can cut down on the strikeouts, he might have a shot to hit enough to win a regular bench role, or possibly more with his defense. But strikeouts aren’t an easy issue to avoid, which is why he is such a long shot to finally figure out the offense.
Altoona has been the location of a few upper level breakouts in the past few years, which I wrote about during Spring Training. A lot of these situations involved hitters who struggled by the numbers in Bradenton, but still looked good on the field. They got the Altoona, outside of the pitcher friendly Florida State League, and not only did they continue looking good, but they also started putting up the numbers.
Kevin Kramer and Connor Joe are my two picks to break out in Altoona this year. They both looked good on the field, both continue to put up strong at-bats this year, and the FSL robbed both of them of the stats they should have seen. Kramer is the big one for me, showing some power potential in the form of doubles and some home runs. He’s got extra value as a middle infielder, and if he hits enough, he might be more than a bench guy like Adam Frazier and Max Moroff. I’ve seen him making consistent hard contact at every stage in his short pro career so far, and it’s only a matter of time until that starts turning into results in the stats.
Joe has more raw power than Kramer, and will need it, since he’s limited to a corner spot. He has also hit the ball hard for most of the last year, looking good at the plate after recovering from his early-career back injury. Once again, this hasn’t shown up consistently in the stat line, but that could change this year in Altoona.
Both of these guys are off to strong starts in their first week of the season, but they make this list for their body of work, and the fact that it’s not a new thing to see them hitting the ball hard and putting up good at-bats on a consistent basis.
Deep Sleeper: Tanner Anderson used to be a non-prospect with the interesting side note that his Bronson Arroyo-style high leg kick delivery was one of the best deliveries in the system. In the last year, he worked his way up from the West Virginia bullpen to the Altoona rotation, getting the innings of a prospect. He’s not going to be a starting option in the majors, but could emerge as a bullpen option due to a sinking fastball that gets up to 93-94, a slider that can be an out pitch, and deception in his delivery from both the windup and the stretch.
The Bradenton team is loaded with some of the top prospects in the system, and you could easily pick breakout candidates from either side of the ball who could jump into some top 100 lists next year. I see the most potential with the pitching staff. The group is highlighted by last year’s breakout prospect, Mitch Keller, but has two more pitchers with top of the rotation stuff.
Gage Hinsz has been a step behind Keller at each stage in their development. Keller would see a velocity increase, and Hinsz would see the same increase the next year. Keller would see improvements with his curveball and command, and Hinsz would follow. Last year, Keller saw some big improvements with his command, while also seeing his velocity jump to 94-97, touching higher. Hinsz saw some improvements to his command, and was flashing a plus curveball, but still has room to grow. He also saw his velocity consistently hitting 95, working in the 92-95 range.
There’s no guarantee that Hinsz will continue following Keller by improving his command and increasing his velocity yet again. But he does have a good build and room for additional velocity, and he has shown more and more comfort with his delivery, leading to the hope that the command will continue to improve. He’s got a shot to be a big breakout guy this year, possibly giving the Pirates another starting pitching prospect near or at the same talent level as Keller, which would be exciting for the future of this club.
Taylor Hearn was added last year in the Mark Melancon trade. The Pirates are getting great results from that trade right now in the majors with Felipe Rivero, who is under control through the 2021 season. Hearn wouldn’t need much development to become another Rivero — a lefty who can throw mid-to-upper 90s with a good out pitch. The Pirates are developing him as a starter right now, hoping to get more.
The biggest thing holding him back right now is his control. He throws consistently in the 95-97 range, but is very wild at times. He hasn’t pitched a full year in pro ball yet, getting drafted in 2015, then missing a lot of time with a broken foot in 2016. The hope is that a full season of work will lead to better command and give him the chance to improve things about his game and get comfortable with his delivery. The Pirates are trying a few minor adjustments aimed at making it easier for him to repeat his delivery. He’s got one of the best arms in the system, and wouldn’t need perfect control in order to be a very interesting starting pitching prospect.
Deep Sleeper: Jake Brentz is another hard throwing lefty added by the Pirates last year, this time in the Arquimedes Caminero trade. Brentz was topping out at 95-96 MPH last year when I saw him during instructs, but saw that velocity increase to 97-100 MPH this spring as a reliever. He also has control problems, mostly due to a lack of experience as a full time pitcher. If he can improve his control just a bit, he would emerge as a very promising relief prospect who could move through the system quickly.
West Virginia has been the spot of the big breakout players for most of the last five years. They had Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson in 2012, Tyler Glasnow in 2013, Mitch Keller last year, and then smaller breakouts like JaCoby Jones and Yeudy Garcia along the way. Every single year there has been a big prospect to emerge from this level, due to the Pirates focusing so much on young, high-upside guys.
This year’s group is thin, and the options for a breakout are very limited. In fact, the two guys I picked might be the only two breakout options on the roster, outside of the wild card players. The biggest breakout guy would be Luis Escobar. The right-handed pitcher from Colombia was hitting 97 MPH consistently last year, working in the low-to-mid 90s. He saw improvements with his changeup, and featured a curveball that was a strikeout pitch.
Escobar has the package of stuff needed to be in the same sentence with Hinsz and Hearn, just behind Keller as one of the more promising lower level starters. His big issue is that he can rush through his delivery at times, which combined with the many moving parts in his delivery, leads him to be wild. He’s only 20 years old, turning 21 at the end of May. If he can get to the point where he’s more mature on the mound, he could emerge as a top five prospect in the system, and a top 100 prospect in baseball.
Stephen Alemais is the other breakout guy on this team. He’s a strong defender at shortstop, rivaling Gift Ngoepe as the best defensive shortstop in the system. He struggles with the bat, but the hope that he could eventually hit more than Ngoepe comes with his understanding of his offensive game and approach to hitting. He spent the offseason working with Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran, getting tips from Beltran on his offensive game. That approach was advanced, and usually something a guy learns in the Pirates’ system in Double-A.
If Alemais can learn how to hit, then you’ve got a guy who can be a starting shortstop with plus defense. He wouldn’t need to hit a ton to reach that upside, since his defense will take him a long way. Without the offense, he could reach the same upside that Ngoepe currently has, working as a depth option out of Triple-A. There is still time for him to improve on his game and show that he can be more than a backup guy.
Deep Sleeper: I feel like most of the players on this team could qualify here, since there are so many guys with 1-2 tools who might emerge as actual prospects. Hunter Owen is my choice here, if I had to pick one guy. He’s got a good approach at the plate, with the ability to hit for average and get on base at a good rate. He also has some power potential, which he needs, since he is limited to a corner spot. The Pirates are trying him at third base this year, where his defense needs work. If that doesn’t work out, he could be an option at a corner outfield spot, with his bat potentially driving most of his value.