We’ve been announcing our Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year for the last seven years, but this is only the third year we’ve had an official Breakout Prospect of the Year. For a site that tracks the progress of everyone in the system, and always looks for breakout candidates, the award only makes sense. Previously we named Yeudy Garcia as the winner in 2015, and Mitch Keller the winner in 2016. Max Moroff and Eric Wood were named the breakout hitters in each of those years.
There were a lot of strong candidates this year, and the Breakout Prospect of the Year finally went to a hitter, with Jordan Luplow taking home the award.
The term “breakout” doesn’t have a specific meaning. It could cover a player going from non-prospect status to a guy who could now be seen as a future MLB player. It could be a lower ranked prospect who now becomes a top 20 or 30 prospect. Garcia was an example of the former, and has since dropped in prospect status due to shoulder issues, showing that Low-A breakouts aren’t exactly guaranteed for future progression. That doesn’t mean the upper level guys are any more guaranteed either.
This year we had a difficult decision for the breakout pick. Jordan Luplow obviously had a big breakout season at the plate, but he was a known prospect, and a big breakout candidate before the season. Eduardo Vera, our Breakout Pitcher of the Year, was a total unknown, being seen as a non-prospect by us last year, and emerging to a guy with a potential big league future. But it was a simple comment that shifted the decision to Luplow.
While deciding between Luplow and Vera, a comment was made that we might want to see how Luplow finishes out the year in the majors. That’s not a bad decision, but it also highlighted just why Luplow should be the pick. Vera had a tremendous season with a strong finish in Low-A. Meanwhile, Luplow went from High-A to the majors in one year, and is now getting priority playing time for a prospect, turning into the number one replacement when an outfielder goes down, and still getting starts when all three of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco are healthy.
We had Luplow as the number 38 prospect in the system heading into the year, with a 3.5 grade, meaning we saw his likely upside between a Quad-A guy and a strong bench guy. He has since increased that likely upside to somewhere between a strong bench option and an average starter, and he could still be on the rise. Meanwhile, his floor has gone from just below a Quad-A player to a guy who should now stick in the majors at least as a bench guy.
It’s rare for a guy to see that kind of jump in one season. Luplow put up some promising stats in the second half of the High-A season, but you generally want to be skeptical about college hitters until they’ve had success in Double-A, especially when they’ve struggled at the start of each season like Luplow did in the lower levels.
That all changed this year. Luplow moved up to Double-A and got off to a hot start. He hit for a .903 OPS with 16 homers in 254 at-bats. He was moved up to Triple-A, where he continued hitting well, with a .914 OPS and seven homers in 160 at-bats. That led to a quick promotion to the majors, and later a September call-up. During the month of September he has an .815 OPS and three homers, and that all comes while receiving the seventh most plate appearances on the team. His OPS ranks second on the team this month, and his wOBA and wRC+ both rank fourth among qualified players.
Luplow might not continue with this production and this year’s trend. If he does, then we’re talking about an obvious choice as a starter in the majors, who might even have slightly above average production overall. At this point, I think he has positioned himself to be a member of the 2018 roster, and the top option as the fourth outfielder off the bench. That’s a massive jump from where he was last year, graduating High-A and playing in the Fall Instructional League during this time.
Eduardo Vera was the Breakout Pitcher of the Year, and made a strong case for the overall award. When I saw him in 2016, he was returning from Tommy John surgery and throwing in the mid-to-upper 80s. He was pitching in relief in the GCL, and looked like a non-prospect who would max out as a low-level reliever.
That wasn’t wrong at the time. Vera worked out over the offseason, got stronger after his surgery, and saw an increase in his velocity, taking it all the way up to the mid-90s, and hitting as high as 97 MPH. That led to the Pirates giving him a push this year into the rotation, where he would receive almost as many innings in a single season as he saw in 2012-2016 combined.
Vera had a 3.33 ERA in 132.1 innings, with a 7.41 K/9 and an 0.95 BB/9 ratio. He showed tremendous control, which is encouraging, as it shows his stuff wasn’t easy to hit, even when around the zone often. He’s got the makings of some good secondary stuff, but mostly worked with the fastball, pounding the zone for strikes. This led to impressive results down the stretch, where four of his last six, and each of his final three starts were seven inning outings. That also included two games where he came close to a no-hitter.
Going forward, Vera will need to continue working on his secondary stuff, and incorporating that into his mix more often. He’s already started with that work this year, with a curveball that shows promise as a strikeout pitch, and a changeup that added some downward movement in the second half.
As for this season, Vera went from a guy who was an afterthought, to a guy who is now a legitimate prospect, and an arm to watch in the lower levels. He should move up to the Bradenton rotation next year, and has a shot at being a starter in the majors one day if the secondary stuff continues showing improvements, and if the current velocity and fastball command sticks around.