This is the fourth year that we have picked a Breakout Prospect of the Year. We also pick a second breakout prospect each year. If the overall winner is a hitter, then we select a breakout pitcher. We’ve had two pitchers who were named as our Breakout Prospect in the past (full list below) and in those years we picked a breakout hitter.
The term “breakout” can mean a few different things when we are looking for the winner each year. The obvious part of the requirement is a big season and overall improvements from someone who is considered a much better prospect at the end of the season.
Sometimes the winner comes from someone who was already a top 20-30 prospect, but they greatly improved their stock to now be among the best in the system. Maybe we already ranked them high based on potential and not results, so their jump wasn’t big, but they started living up to the hype. You could also have a player in the back-end of the top 50, make a large jump in the rankings, but still be outside the top 10-15 prospects in the system. The final group of players would be someone like last year’s Breakout Pitcher of the Year. Eduardo Vera went from completely off the prospect map, to being ranked #31 in our 2018 Prospect Guide.
The basic idea is that the winner looks a lot better now than they did at the end of the previous season.
Oneil Cruz was ranked fairly high coming into the season based mostly on his potential. He is now considered the #4 ranked prospect in the system after having a big season with the West Virginia Power. That earned him the title of the Pirates Prospects Breakout Player of the Year.
Cruz came to the Pirates from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Tony Watson trade late last season. He was just 18 years old and in Low-A ball already, where he wasn’t over-matched, but the stats were far from great. Cruz had a .240/.293/.342 slash line in 89 games, with 110 strikeouts, while with the Dodgers last year. He played sparingly after the trade, putting up a .717 OPS in 16 games with the West Virginia Power.
What we saw last year from Cruz was the above average raw power in his bat, but it mostly came out during batting practice. He was hitting the ball to places that baseballs normally don’t go to in games or BP. That only translated to a total of 23 extra-base hits last year in 397 at-bats.
We rated him fairly high at the end of last year based more off the potential than the stats. There were too many strikeouts, not enough power in games and poor fielding, but that was coming from an 18-year-old in full-season ball with tons of raw power. The potential that everyone saw prior to this year, turned into impressive stats this season.
Cruz hit .286/.343/.488 in 103 games, with 25 doubles, seven triples and 14 homers. His walk rate stayed the same, while he cut down dramatically on his strikeouts, going from 132 last year, to 100 in 2018, while batting five more times this season. Cruz finished fifth in the South Atlantic League in OPS, sixth in slugging and 11th in OBP.
The 2019 season should be a nice measuring stick for Cruz and his power potential. He’s going to the Florida State League, where power goes to die. Not only will he face better pitchers, but he will be battling the ballparks and brutal summer months in Florida, doing that as one of the youngest players in the league. With any luck, he will do enough during the first half of the season to spend all or part of the second half in Altoona.
Breakout Pitcher of the Year
Travis MacGregor was teammates with Cruz this year and his biggest competition for the Breakout Pitcher title came from another teammate. Cody Bolton was also considered for this spot, but he had two things going against him. He only made nine starts due to beginning the season in Extended Spring Training, then suffering a forearm injury later in the year. The other thing was that we already saw some nice things from Bolton and gave him a bit of a boost in the rankings coming into this season.
MacGregor on the other hand was trending down at the end of last season. He just finished up a rough year that saw him shut down from games during Extended Spring Training to work on mechanics, then the results were subpar while in Bristol. MacGregor was putting in a lot of work to get better and as it turned out, all he needed was just some extra time for all of that work to translate to better stuff on the mound and much better results.
While MacGregor had two separate injuries this season, he made enough starts to put up some impressive numbers. Showing cleaner mechanics, better velocity and command of his fastball, he finished with a 3.25 ERA in 63.2 innings with the Power, while striking out 74 batters. He also went from a .339 BAA last season, to a .239 mark this year.
What we saw this season was what the Pirates envisioned from MacGregor when they took him in the second round of the 2016 draft. He was working on a new slider earlier this year to give him a better out pitch than the curveball he has been using. He was already pitching well without a quality breaking ball, so more reps with the slider could really take him to another level. That will have to wait though because he had Tommy John surgery last week, which will keep him out for all of 2019.
2017 Breakout Prospect: Jordan Luplow
Breakout Pitcher: Eduardo Vera
2016 Breakout Prospect: Mitch Keller
Breakout Hitter: Eric Wood
2015 Breakout Prospect: Yeudy Garcia
Breakout Hitter: Max Moroff