This is part two of a three-part series on breakout prospects for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Part one was published earlier today. Part three will be published tomorrow.
Wilbur Miller already took a look at the potential breakout hitting prospects for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Now we take a look at the pitchers with the same type of potential. What we are looking for here is players who are in the lower levels and not already top 20 prospects. For the most part, they are under the radar unless you follow our site closely. There are no guarantees for success in this group, but we have seen improvements from them already and they have the potential for more.
I left out some players in our top 50 who have already put up solid stats in full-season ball. Osvaldo Bido was on this list last year and then he put up a 3.32 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP in 135.2 innings, while receiving a late season promotion to Bradenton. Max Kranick had his best season, putting up a 3.79 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP in 109.1 innings, while showing an increase in his velocity and an improved slider. Nick Mears went from signing last August as a non-drafted free agent, to throwing shutout ball over the course of the Arizona Fall League season.
That’s the type of progress you like to see in one season and there are some big arms in the system who could provide the next wave. I’ll note that these are all right-handed pitchers below. I wanted to get a lefty in there, but I couldn’t find one who I thought had real breakout potential this upcoming season. There are a few good young arms at the lower levels (Starlyn Reynoso, Estalin Ortiz, Jake Sweeney), but control issues hold them back too much for now.
Santiago Florez – Florez would be the most well-known in this group because he has rated as a top 25-30 prospect for us and other sources, but he’s still in the stages of trying to translate his raw stuff into results. He’s big at 6’5″, 222+ pounds, and still just 19 years old, despite three seasons in the system. Florez reaches mid-90s with his fastball and sat in the 95-97 MPH range during part of the 2019 season. He has also developed a solid changeup since signing. He can have some issues with control from time-to-time and he was working on a new breaking ball this year, going from a loopy curve to a hard slider. He has not picked up big strikeout numbers yet, though he still has respectable numbers. I could see him continue to improve his control and slider this upcoming year, which could lead to big results.
Noe Toribio – Before this year, I was just going on scouting reports for Toribio and they noted his potential, but that didn’t translate to results until 2019. When I got to see him live this year, I really liked what I saw from the 19-year-old (turned 20 two months ago) He’s going to be in full-season ball from the start in 2020 and we could really see big things from him in the future. He has a three-pitch mix that he throws for strikes, with a low-90’s fastball (has touched 97) that has run down and in to right-handed batters, which gets a lot of awkward swings. He was getting swinging strikes with his slider and his changeup in and out of the zone. You could say Toribio had sort of a breakout year already in 2019 because he made some noise with a handful of great starts, but he only pitched 68 innings and seemed to wear down at the end. He’s going to be a name that fans know by the end of 2020.
Shea Murray – Murray had a nice run at one point with Bradenton and even finished with Altoona this year, but there is a lot of potential upside here if he can continue to improve his control. Murray signed in 2016 and didn’t pitch due to an elbow injury. He returned in 2017 with Morgantown and was not throwing strikes most nights. He was limited to 7.1 innings due to control, walking 16 batters. He still doesn’t throw enough strikes, but when you go from 19.6 BB/9IP last year down to 7.1 BB/9IP this year, that’s quite an improvement. The potential here lies in his best two pitches. At 6’6″, he’s bringing upper 90’s heat and a sweeping slider that has the most side-to-side movement in the system. He put up a 14.2 SO/9IP this year, so it’s really just a matter of his getting more experience and throwing more strikes. He did not pitch a lot in college, but got attention by hitting 99 MPH in bullpens prior to the draft.
Xavier Concepcion – Concepcion is another hard-thrower who made improvements with his control this year. In fact, he improved even more during the season, but it wasn’t the way you would like to see it be done. He signed at 20 years old and flew so far under the radar that scouts never saw him. He just showed up at Pirate City one day looking to sign with the team, and after seeing him throw, he was signed. That wouldn’t have been surprising to hear if you only saw his stats in 2018 in the DSL. He walked 22 batters in 23.2 innings. Concepcion throws hard though, to the point that I was told that he had the best average velocity in Extended Spring Training and the Pirates had Oliver Mateo there, who hit 102 MPH this season. Concepcion walked 22 batters again this year, but he pitched seven more innings than in 2018 and he did it three levels higher against much more patient hitters. He also held batters to a .183 BAA and posted a 2.29 GO/AO ratio, while averaging 8.8 SO/9IP. The key here would be to continue to improve his control, but also be able to throw strikes at 100 MPH, instead of dialing it back a little. Late in the year during some of his best outings, he was sitting mid-90s. Solid velocity no doubt, but he has an elite arm.
John O’Reilly – Here’s one like Murray where he had a strong run during the season at Bradenton, but there’s potential for more. When the Pirates signed O’Reilly as a non-drafted free agent last year, he was a starting pitcher, who topped out at 91 MPH. This season he was up to 95 MPH in Extended Spring Training, which earned him a look at Greensboro. He wasn’t there long before he was promoted to Bradenton, where he gave up one earned run in 19 innings. That led to a promotion to Altoona late, where he added a scoreless frame to his run. You would think that one run over 20 innings in High-A/Double-A in his first full season means that he had a big year, but O’Reilly had just 31 strikeouts in 49.1 innings this season. The Pirates recognized his potential, as his fastball/cutter combo was even better later in the year, and they brought him to the Fall Instructional League, where the goal was to give him a better breaking ball to help him miss more bats. The results were great, but the lack of strikeouts kept him out of our top 50 prospects. That could change by this time next year.
Valentin Linarez – I wanted to put in one DSL pitcher and Linarez seemed like the best choice. He’s probably going to be at Bristol in 2020, maybe Morgantown, so his real breakout (if it happens) might not be until 2021. He is a huge young man, listed at 6’5″, 226 pounds, with long arms and huge hands. His control wasn’t as bad as Murray or Concepcion in 2018, but he still had 22 walks in 39.2 innings, which limited his workload. This year he cut his walks in half, going from 5.0 BB/9IP to 2.3 BB/9IP, while improving his strikeout rate from 6.6 to 8.9 SO/9IP. More importantly, he finished up 2019 strong, with one poor outing over the last two months. In his other eight starts during that time, he gave up one earned run over 39 innings, with a 46:9 SO/BB ratio. Linarez hits 94 MPH, with a strong 82-85 MPH changeup and a solid high-70s curve that showed improvements as the season went along.
John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.
When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.