Over the last few years, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had more than their fair share of breakout prospects. Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson stepped up in West Virginia in 2012. Tyler Glasnow emerged in 2013 at the same level. Guys like Nick Kingham, Stetson Allie, and Joely Rodriguez also improved their stock. The one thing about Polanco, Hanson, and Glasnow is that they were not only breakout prospects on a local level, but they were also breakout prospects in all of baseball.
The Pirates entered the 2014 season primed for another set of breakout prospects. They had a system loaded with top prospects and a lot of potential breakout candidates in the lower levels. That’s probably why they were universally ranked one of the top three farm systems in the game.
In a way, Polanco has been the big breakout player so far. That’s obviously not in the sense that he’s breaking out as a prospect, since he did that already. Instead, he’s starting to break out on a national scale as one of the top young players in the game.
In about a month, Polanco will be in the majors. So far the focus in the minor league system this year has been Polanco and injuries. So what will be the focus when Polanco graduates? Who will emerge as the big breakout prospect? Or, who might already be emerging behind the massive shadow that Polanco is casting?
At the moment, there aren’t any Polanco/Hanson/Glasnow level breakouts. This is, in part, due to the injuries. Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez were two big breakout candidates, and both have missed time this year with hamstring injuries. Meadows hasn’t made his debut yet. He was originally expected back around the beginning of May, but has been delayed with some tightness. That’s not to say that there haven’t been any good stories in the minors. Here is a quick rundown of a few of the mini-breakouts this year.
It’s hard to get a breakout prospect at this level, since most guys at this level have pretty much established their value and potential. Obviously Polanco is the biggest guy here, since he’s emerging as one of the top prospects in the game. Andrew Lambo has also had a nice start to his season, and is showing that the offense from last year might not have been a fluke.
Brandon Cumpton is another prospect who is raising his stock. He’s not really breaking out, and he’s not doing anything different from what he’s done in the past. But with the rotation struggling in Pittsburgh, Cumpton currently looks like one of the best five starters, and a guy who should be starting over Wandy Rodriguez. You could also add Casey Sadler as a guy who is showing that he might have a future as a major league starter.
My breakout pick this year was Stetson Allie. The power production is there, with Allie hitting his seventh homer of the year tonight. He’s also drawing a good amount of walks, with a 13.3% walk rate. However, the strikeouts have been bad, with a 29.6% strikeout rate on the season. Allie has a .227/.343/.479 line in 119 at-bats. That’s an .822 OPS in three-true-outcomes style. But most three outcome guys in the majors weren’t three outcome guys in the minors.
Take Pedro Alvarez, as an example. He never had a strikeout rate above 24.6% in his initial run through the minors. That’s not great, but it’s better than the 30% in the majors so far. He also showed the ability to hit for average, with a .333 average in Altoona, and a .277 average in his first run through Indianapolis. Allie could become a three outcomes guy in the majors, but he’s got some work to do to cut down on the strikeouts. If he’s striking out 30% of the time in Double-A, then he’s going to have some serious problems in Triple-A and the majors.
As for the rest of the prospects, the two highest profile pitchers coming into the year were Nick Kingham and Joely Rodriguez. Kingham is having a decent year, while Rodriguez is struggling. On the hitting side, there’s Hanson, who had a slow start, but has been hitting well since then.
There have been two smaller breakouts at this level. The first is Mel Rojas, who is hitting for a .306/.380/.440 line in 134 at-bats. Rojas is a very athletic player, and looks to be tapping into some of his raw power, although not to the point where he could be more than a fourth outfielder in the majors. Rojas is Rule 5 eligible this off-season, which means he could play himself onto the 40-man roster by the end of the calendar year if he keeps this up.
The other smaller breakout has been Adrian Sampson, who has a 2.27 ERA in 35.2 innings, with a 27:12 K/BB ratio. Sampson struggled in Bradenton last year while working on his changeup, but has had success this season in large part due to the improvements made on that pitch. He’s a three pitch guy who has the chance to be a number four starter in the majors.
Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes were going to be two of the top prospects to watch at this level. Glasnow missed a few weeks with a back injury, while Holmes went down for the season with Tommy John surgery. The Marauders have had good pitching at times from guys like Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, Orlando Castro, Pat Ludwig, and John Kuchno. However, the biggest upside here would be back of the rotation starters, with Kuhl and Creasy having the best shot at reaching that level.
Offensively, Jin-De Jhang has looked overmatched, which might not be a big surprise, since he jumped over low-A ball due to Reese McGuire’s presence in West Virginia. Eric Wood and Jose Osuna have shown flashes of hitting well, although Wood doesn’t project for the power you’d want from a starting third baseman, and Osuna is currently injured.
The top hitting prospect is Josh Bell, and he’s also the top hitter so far. Bell has had issues against lefties this year, but has been crushing right-handers with an .898 OPS. His swing can be ugly at times, looking long, off-balance, and awkward. It seems to be working from the left side, but the right side could use some work. Bell hasn’t tapped into his potential plus power yet. He displays some good line drive and gap power, but right now his home run power is based more on projection than actual results.
This has been the hot spot for breakouts the last few years, although injuries have limited the opportunities this year. West Virginia has lost Austin Meadows, Harold Ramirez, Barrett Barnes, Luis Heredia, and Reese McGuire to injuries this year. McGuire and Ramirez are both back, while the other three remain on the DL.
Offensively, the two breakout players have been JaCoby Jones and Erich Weiss. Both are putting up good numbers, although nothing close to the monster numbers that Hanson and Polanco had two years ago. Jones is the most encouraging, since his power and ability to get on base from the shortstop position could be valuable if he can stick at the spot.
On the pitching staff, the breakout candidates were Cody Dickson and Buddy Borden. Dickson has been inconsistent, posting a 4.86 ERA in 33.1 innings, and dealing with lapses in control at times. Meanwhile, Borden is having a nice season, with a 2.67 ERA in 30.1 innings, along with a 27:12 K/BB ratio.
It might be unfair to compare any of these guys to Polanco, Hanson, or Glasnow. That shouldn’t be the bar for a breakout candidate, since most prospects — even the successful ones — won’t reach that high. It’s also important to note that it’s still early. Polanco only had an .819 OPS in 189 at-bats through the month of May 2012. In the final three months, he had a .978 OPS in 248 at-bats. So there’s still time for someone like Jones or Bell to take good numbers and turn them into a breakout season. But even having good numbers an entire year can be good enough, as you don’t always need a monster breakout season to eventually develop into a major league player.
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.