After missing the 2018 season due to open heart surgery, the Pittsburgh Pirates sent 22-year-old right-handed pitcher Gage Hinsz to Puerto Rico to play winter ball. Facing much better competition than he saw in High-A in 2017 with the Bradenton Marauders, Hinsz dominated the league and put himself back on the prospect map.

Hinsz wrapped up his time in Puerto Rico on Wednesday night. He was scheduled to be there for a month and was able to get in five starts before he left to return home. In four of those games, he threw shutout ball, starting with four innings in his debut on November 17th. He followed that with five shutout innings, then finished up with two final starts in which he threw six shutout frames each time. His last start was the high note, with Hinsz striking out eight batters. In between, he had a start with one poor inning, resulting in three earned runs total over the winter. He finished with a 1.08 ERA in 25 innings, with an 0.92 WHIP, a .182 BAA and 23 strikeouts.

It was truly an impressive performance considering everything. Obviously the open heart surgery was the biggest obstacle he faced, but the 2017 season was a rough one due to a scapular stress fracture on his right side. He wasn’t 100% for most of his 2017 season, so before he found out about the open heart surgery, there were questions about how he would return from his 2017 season-ending injury. Scapular stress fractures are rare injuries for baseball players and the players don’t always return to their previous standards.

Hinsz not only proved this winter that he was healthy, he proved that he didn’t have any side effects from the stress fracture either. The added bonus was that he did it against much better competition than he has ever faced before.

Puerto Rico used to have a league with five teams, so the competition was spread out a little more and the level of play was similar to what you would see in Double-A. There are only four teams this year and Hinsz was facing lineups with as many as six players who had recent/current MLB experience. Even the “weak” lineups had four Major League players. For someone who last pitched in High-A, that was quite a jump. Not only did he face those better players, the numbers show that he dominated the league. He left Puerto Rico with the second best ERA, fourth best WHIP, and he’s still the current league leader in strikeouts.

As for what this means going forward, Hinsz will be going to Spring Training in 2019 with some innings to his credit, which will keep him from being severely limited during the season. He likely won’t make the usual 26/27 starts minor league starters make, along with 120+ innings pitched. That would be too much of a jump, but he should be able to get a decent amount of work.

According to Hinsz, he was throwing since the beginning of August, plus he threw several short sim games during the Instructional League in the Dominican Republic. He was also throwing in Spring Training this year before being shut down. That will all be factored in next year when deciding his workload, as well as his performances in games. If he’s not showing signs of tiring, then he could get pushed a little further.

It was exciting for Hinsz to get back on the mound to compete again. He is done for the year now and looks forward to Spring Training 2019, hoping to put everything bad behind him from the last two years. He had a great experience in Puerto Rico and ended a rough year on a high note, just in time to return home for the holidays. He expressed all of that earlier today.

“Between now and spring I’ll be spending as much time with family and friends as possible after a long year,” Hinsz said. “The winter ball experience was awesome to get back out and compete again with and against some really good players. I’m also very thankful to have been given that opportunity.”

Back in 2016, Hinsz was getting rave reviews from scouts who liked his curveball and mid-90s velocity, calling the curve a potential plus pitch. He looked outstanding in some of his starts with West Virginia that year, not long after his 20th birthday. It’s been rough going since then due to injuries and his surgery, but he’s been throwing for the last 4 1/2 months and his performance in Puerto Rico to finish up his season is a great sign for the Pirates going forward.

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