Every year I do a “Breakout Prospects to Watch” article at the start of the regular season, and every year I struggle with the definition of the term “Breakout”.
A breakout prospect can mean many things. We can be talking about a national breakout guy who could make the jump to being one of the top 100 prospects in the game. Think Mitch Keller going from one of the top prospects in the system to one of the top prospects in the game.
We could be talking about a breakout in the system, with a player who makes the jump into becoming one of the top ten prospects in the organization, and perhaps at the top half of that list. Lolo Sanchez was an example of a guy last year who made the jump into the top ten.
Or we could be talking about a breakout where a player goes from being a borderline non-prospect to being a top 50 guy in the system. That happened last year with Oddy Nunez and Eduardo Vera.
Using any of those definitions, I could come up with about two dozen potential breakout prospects in the system easily. It helps that the Pirates have a lot of high upside guys, especially in the lower levels. But I wanted to focus on some of the key players, using the above categories as a guide.
Note that I only included guys in full-season ball right now, or who are expected to join a full-season team in the first half.
The Guys Who Could Breakout on the National Level
The Pirates didn’t have a great showing on most of the top 100 prospect lists this year. Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows were the two consensus picks, and both of those guys could have a shot at graduating their prospect status this year.
Some lists had Cole Tucker, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and Shane Baz. I think all three will end up being consensus top 100 guys by this time next year.
Tucker showed off his offensive skills in Bradenton last year, but had a rough start in Altoona. He got off to a slow start after his promotion to Altoona, but showed results by the end of the year. I’d expect him to take the next step offensively at a higher level, which paired with his improved defense at shortstop will make him a top 100 prospect and the shortstop of the future in Pittsburgh.
Ke’Bryan Hayes has the best defense at third base in the system, and some of the best defense in the minors overall. He’s shown an ability to hit for average, get on base, and steal bases. This spring he was also making harder contact, possibly seeing some power and strength returning from a cracked rib injury two years ago. That would make him a candidate here.
Shane Baz will join West Virginia at the end of April or early May. He looks much stronger this year, after filling out and adding muscle over the offseason. He’s also shown some improvements with his secondary stuff, and after some additional work in extended Spring Training, he could be ready to show his top of the rotation potential and stuff in full-season.
It wouldn’t be a huge jump for any of those three to make the top 100 though. The biggest jump I can see this year could come from Lolo Sanchez. He impressed me last year in the GCL, and only continued that this year in Spring Training. He’s your classic five tool center fielder, with speed, defense, and arm strength in the field, and the ability to hit for average and control the strike zone, with the speed giving him extra bases.
The one question mark about his game has whether he will hit for power going forward. After watching him this spring, with a strong, quick, and easy swing, I don’t have questions about that. I think Sanchez will hit for power, making him more than just a speedy leadoff guy. That power increase showed up often this spring, and I could see it carrying over to the season to make him one of the top prospects in the game by the end of the year.
Making the Jump to the Top of the System
For the past two years, Kevin Kramer has been one of my big breakout picks. I see no reason to change that this time around. Lolo Sanchez is my big breakout guy to watch this year, but Kramer would easily be my number two choice.
I feel that Pirates fans have gotten a chance to see why I’ve been high on Kramer this spring. He got an invite to MLB Spring Training and fared very well in his limited time with the Pirates, hitting for a .320/.500/.800 line. I don’t put a lot of stock in Spring Training stats, but what I saw from Kramer this spring to get those results is what makes him a breakout pick for me.
He’s got the ability to hit for average and get on base, with great command of the strike zone. He also has considerable power potential for a middle infielder. His defense is strong at second base, and he could handle his own at shortstop. I could see him moving ahead of Kevin Newman by this time next year and becoming one of the top position player prospects in the system. Depending on how well he hits in Indianapolis, he could even sneak into a top 100 list. I see Kramer as the starting second baseman of the future, and he could have a shot at arriving in the second half this year.
As for other players from this list, you could just pick a number of people from the West Virginia roster, as that whole team is loaded with young players to watch. The guys who stand out the most to me are Braeden Ogle, Mason Martin, Oneil Cruz, and Calvin Mitchell.
Ogle is a left-handed starter who throws mid-90s and hits 97, with a plus slider and an improving changeup. He could show the potential to be a future big league starter this year, with the stuff to be more than a back of the rotation guy.
Martin has plus raw power, along with great command of the strike zone, and the ability to lay off close and tough pitches. He can be too selective at times, but should be able to hit for average and show off his power this year, while showing improved defense at first base.
Cruz and Mitchell are a bit riskier, but both have a lot of potential. The Pirates are trying Cruz at shortstop, where I don’t project him to stick. He has some of the best raw power in the system, but is also a free swinger at times, which could impede his progress. Mitchell is a corner outfielder who also has a lot of raw power, but has shown some strikeout issues in the past.
Other Guys to Watch
There are some breakout guys from last year who I expect to follow up their big years with good seasons. Right-handed pitcher Eduardo Vera and lefty Oddy Nunez both made the jump from non-prospects to starting pitching prospects last year in West Virginia, and I could see good things from them this year in Bradenton. Nunez is the most intriguing of the two, with the build of Ivan Nova, and velocity from the left side.
Rodolfo Castro will be playing second base this year, and has shown some offensive potential in the past, including this year in Spring Training. He’s another guy to watch, although he would have to show future starter potential in order to climb quickly in the system, as we already have him 43rd.
Dario Agrazal showed good velocity, touching the upper 90s, along with an improved slider last year. He was added to the 40-man roster, and will be a guy to watch this year in the Altoona rotation. I think his upside is a reliever, with the chance to pitch in the late innings. However, he will be given every chance to start due to his stuff.
The two standouts in this category for me are Travis MacGregor and Stephen Alemais.
MacGregor just missed our top 50, but continues to show cleaner mechanics as he gets adjusted to his tall, lanky frame. He also has added some velocity, getting up to the low-90s, with the potential for more to come. He moved ahead of Max Kranick for a rotation spot in West Virginia, and if the velocity continues to increase, and the command continues to improve, he could jump into our top 30 by mid-season.
Alemais was at the tail-end of our top 30 this year, but could make a jump inside the top 20 by the end of the year. He has the best defense in the system at shortstop, but is playing second base. What I like is that his offense has improved, with a gap-to-gap approach that will lead to him hitting for average and getting on base at a high rate.
If you want a deep sleeper, Sergio Cubilete was given a rotation spot in West Virginia this year, after impressing in an aggressive push to Morgantown in his first year in the US last year. He can throw 92-95 MPH with good control and good movement on his fastball. I see him long-term as a reliever, but he could be this year’s version of Vera/Nunez in West Virginia’s rotation.