There are different levels of breakout prospects each year, which always makes this an interest award to decide. You could have a player come out of nowhere to become a top 50 prospect. You could have a player who was a top twenty prospect, work their way up to a top five prospect in the system. You could have a big season from someone who already had potential, but never showed results. Right-handed pitcher Tahnaj Thomas actually fits into those last two groups.
The Pirates acquired Thomas as part of the five-player deal with the Cleveland Indians that sent Jordan Luplow and Max Moroff the other way. The average fan saw the Pirates acquiring Erik Gonzalez and then watched him have a poor season, making it look like a bad deal. While it may not have been considered this way at first, Thomas is the actual big piece acquired in that trade and he has a chance to make this a great deal for the Pirates.
Usually with a breakout prospect, you have someone with raw tools and they haven’t put them together yet. Saying “everything finally clicked” ends up being the basic explanation for their success, though there is usually something more to the uptick in performance. Thomas threw low-to-mid 90s when the Pirates acquired him, with a a breaking ball that showed lots of potential. He was considered a raw pitcher due to his age and lack of experience. He was an infielder growing up, with very little pitching time when he signed in 2016.
The easy explanation for his 2019 season is that a 6’4″ pitcher, who turned 20 in June, made natural progression as he continued to fill out and get more mound experience. However with Thomas, you can pinpoint his change from potential to performance. It started with a minor shoulder injury during the beginning of Extended Spring Training, which was followed by a slight change to clean up his mechanics. Part of that was to prevent further shoulder issues by cleaning up his delivery, but he started throwing harder with better control in the process.
Thomas also continued to work on improving his slider and changeup, showing a nice three-pitch mix by early July. He began the year with two rough starts, then really turned things around to finish the season. Through his first four starts, he went from someone who threw 92-95 previously, to someone who was 95+ all game, hitting 99 MPH. Then in his fifth start, he kicked it up a notch and we got reports that he hit 101 MPH. He also wasn’t just hitting 99 MPH from that point on, he was sitting 95-99 MPH, while finishing off strong in outings by holding that velocity throughout. In his last ten starts, he had a 2.31 ERA in a league that favors hitters. That came with a .207 BAA, an 0.96 WHIP and 58 strikeouts in 46.2 innings.
This is the fifth time that we have named a Breakout Prospect of the Year. The previous winners show that anything can happen from this point on for Thomas, though it needs to be said that it’s a small sample size and not a lot of time has passed. It also matters where the breakout occurs. Jordan Luplow was our 2017 winner and he finished that season in the majors. If you missed it in Cleveland this year, he had a solid half season in the majors, which was sidetracked by an early demotion to Triple-A and a late injury that cost him a month.
Our 2016 winner was Mitch Keller, who was much like Thomas in that he was already rated high, we just didn’t see the results on the field yet. He had a poor season at Bristol in 2015, then broke out in Low-A the following year. Last year’s winner was Oneil Cruz, who lost a lot of time to injury in 2019, but made it to Double-A for the last month of the season, after spending 2018 in Low-A ball. Both were young for the level and coming off mediocre seasons, while showing tools that still had them rated high in the system going into the year.
Then there is Yeudy Garcia in 2015. He qualifies as the type to come out of nowhere to become a top 50 (top twenty actually) prospect. We had strong reports for him prior to 2015, but he skipped from the DSL right to Low-A ball, so that was quite the jump for one year. Garcia had a huge 2015 season at West Virginia, then hasn’t been able to repeat that success since. In fact, he looked completely different by the next season, losing velocity immediately, which led to a lack of confidence in his fastball and a major over-usage of his slider. A late season minor shoulder surgery in 2016 was likely something that was bothering him for a lot longer than he let on. He would regain the velocity in relief by 2018, but his control has held him back since.
Thomas should be in the Greensboro rotation in 2020, where he will have a chance to build on his breakout season. As long as the velocity, improved control and secondary pitches carry over, then you should expect big things for him in this upcoming season.
When a pitcher wins the Breakout Prospect of the Year, we also add in the top breakout hitter, and vice versa if a hitter wins. This was a tough one to figure out because you want to use someone who broke out in the minor leagues as your example, but Bryan Reynolds was technically still a prospect into early June when he reached his 131st big league at-bat. He only played 13 minor league games this year though.
We decided on Reynolds ultimately because he had a true breakout season. He had some strong minor league stats in the past, but his best season was this year and it happened after a very disappointing showing, both on offense and defense, in the Arizona Fall League last October/November.
Reynolds hit .314/.377/.503 in 134 games for the Pirates in 2019, setting a team rookie record with 37 doubles. He also hit 16 homers with the Pirates and another five in Indianapolis, eclipsing his previous career high of ten homers in a season.
After his AFL showing, plus the fact that he had no prior Triple-A experience, his rise to success in the majors this fast was unexpected. We had him making the majors later in this season and likely competing for a spot in 2020. Injuries helped him get to the majors much earlier than expected, but they didn’t help him stick around all year. That was all of Reynolds having a breakout season.
Mason Martin was also considered, though he had a season similar to 2017, just at a higher level. So he was more of a bounce back, then someone breaking out.
2015: Yeudy Garcia
2016: Mitch Keller
2017: Jordan Luplow
2018: Oneil Cruz