For the past few years I’ve done an article at the start of the year along the lines of “18 Players Who Can Help the Pirates Win in 2018”. The focus of the article is always on potential breakout players, prospects who can make the jump to the majors, and reclamation projects who will be essential to the Pirates winning.
This year, that process seems irrelevant. The Pirates haven’t traded anyone yet, but they’re currently seen as sellers. That would prevent them from contending in 2018. Sure, I could do an “18 Players” article, but it would be more of an “All of these things need to go right” type of article.
So I decided to change it up, and write an article that makes more sense for this site. I decided to write about “18 Potential Breakout Pirates Prospects to Watch in 2018”.
The Pirates are looking to trade some of their biggest players in the majors, which will prompt a small rebuild. I think that could actually be a quick reload, especially with the young players they have in the upper levels, the young players in the majors, and any potential help they get back in trades. But they’re also going to need some of their prospects to step up from the lower levels, either providing some insurance, or extending the next window of competition.
The thing about breakout performances is that the term can mean many things. We saw breakouts last year where Eduardo Vera and Oddy Nunez went from non prospects to guys who have a shot at the majors. We’ve seen guys like Mitch Keller go from a promising prospect to a top 50 prospect. And then we’ve seen the type of breakouts where Keller takes the next step, going from a top 50 prospect to one of the best in the game.
Rather than give a standard list of 18, I decided to organize the 18 players into groups who provided similar breakout chances.
Making the Jump to Impact Players
The first group comes from our top five prospects in the system. The breakout potential here is going from a top prospect in the system to one of the top in the game.
Baz has the chance to be a top of the rotation guy, but is raw. He needs some work with his control, combined with learning to pitch off the fastball, and learning to pitch the same way from the stretch. But the potential is there, with good velocity and two solid breaking pitches. He should go to West Virginia this year, and if everything clicks, he could be on the fast track to the majors after the 2018 season.
Tucker and Hayes both have starter potential in the majors, but there could be above-average or higher potential with both. Tucker has made good strides with his defense at shortstop, and needs to continue showing the improved offense he saw in 2017 going forward. Hayes will need to add some power to his game, while maintaining his average and OBP in the upper levels, and maintaining his solid defense.
The Young International Hitters
The Pirates have another wave of young international players making their way through the low levels, including a few hitters who have shown some potential in the last year.
Lolo Sanchez leads the group, going from a promising guy who didn’t put up numbers in the DSL, to a guy who made an adjustment with his swing and showed off enough in the GCL to become a top ten prospect in the system. He could have a big breakout year this season, getting closer to his impact upside as a future strong defensive center fielder who can hit for average, get on base, provide speed, and hit for some power.
Adrian Valerio started to show some of his promise last year, looking smoother on the field, and looking more consistent with the bat. He’s behind Kevin Newman and Cole Tucker, and competing with Stephen Alemais for time in Bradenton, but you can never have too many prospects, especially if they can play shortstop.
Rodolfo Castro might have less of a chance to stick at shortstop, but showed off some offensive potential last year, and could eventually hit enough to play second or third. He should make the jump to West Virginia, and will be a guy to watch to see how his bat translates to full-season ball.
Finally, there’s Oneil Cruz, who was acquired for Tony Watson this past year. Cruz has a ton of raw power, putting him near the top of the organization in that department. There are questions about whether he could stick at third base due to his height, but he should be athletic enough to play a corner outfield spot if the infield doesn’t work out, and he’s got the upside with the bat to handle that spot. The 2018 season will show how he does in the infield, and how he does in his second run through Low-A at a young age.
The Young Pitchers
The Pirates have drafted and signed a lot of young pitchers the last few years, with the biggest success story so far being Mitch Keller. They have a few other guys who will be pitching with one of the A-ball teams next year, who all have some nice upside.
Luis Escobar is at the top of the list, and while he’s already a top ten prospect in the system, and on the 40-man roster, there is room for more upside. He needs to improve his control, and while he’s good on strikeouts, he needs to find a way to be more efficient with his strikeouts, getting them in a way where it doesn’t lead to high pitch counts and early exits.
Braeden Ogle is a young lefty with mid-90s velocity, but some control issues. He’s got a promising slider to pair with the fastball, and has shown comfort with the changeup. If he improves the control, you’re looking at a good arm with a nice three pitch mix from the left side, which is valuable.
Max Kranick missed a lot of time with injuries in 2017, but returned strong at the end of the year with good velocity and good results. He’s got velocity in the low-90s, with the chance to go higher due to his projectable frame. He also has a promising curveball and a feel for the changeup, combined with strong control. Now that he’s healthy, he should have a chance to start showing what he can do, and should get that chance in West Virginia.
Gage Hinsz is a wild card. He looked to be a step behind Mitch Keller every step of the way up until the 2017 season. He had a plus fastball that sat mid-90s, and a plus curveball that was inconsistent. Unfortunately, he dealt with a rare shoulder injury that doesn’t have a great return rate. If he does return to form, he’s a guy with a mid-90s fastball that hits upper 90s, plus improved control and a plus breaking pitch. His breakout will really be about returning healthy, and seeing if he can take the next step with his stuff.
The 2017 Draft Picks
The Pirates went heavy with prep players in the 2017 draft. I already discussed first rounder Shane Baz, but there were several others taken from the high school ranks.
Calvin Mitchell, Mason Martin, and Conner Uselton could all go to West Virginia. All three have a lot of raw power and good all-around potential with the bat. It will be a big test for all three of them seeing how well they hit in A-ball.
Steven Jennings and Cody Bolton are two more projectable pitchers with promising secondary stuff and the chance for added velocity. They should go to Bristol, and while we might not see them as breakout guys in 2018, we could see the early signs of a breakout performance in future years.
Will Craig and Stephen Alemais don’t really fit on any of the above lists. They also don’t really fit together on the same list. But that’s not why I named this list “The Extras”.
The one thing they have in common is that they would be extras if they worked out. I have no strong feelings that Craig will fix his power without hearing about changes to his approach (attempting to hit for more power, rather than average/OBP) or changes to his swing mechanics. But if one of those things happens, and he starts to show off his power, the Pirates could have another future starting first baseman, leading to a decision to make between Josh Bell and Craig.
Alemais is another in the growing list of shortstop prospects, except he has the best defense of the group by far. The question is whether he can hit enough to be a starter in the majors. He worked hard on that last year, and started to show results at the end of the year in Bradenton. If he can carry that over to 2018, and continue in Altoona, he would not only give the Pirates an extra shortstop prospect, but a guy who would enter the conversation with Newman and Tucker.