By Jason Shetler
The Pirates had a pair of prospects this year who had themselves breakout seasons. Outfielder Tito Polo put up solid numbers before getting dealt to the New York Yankees in August to complete the Ivan Nova deal. The other was Mitch Keller, who not only was entering this year in his first full season of pro ball, but was named the 2016 Pirates Minor League Pitcher of the Year in the process. So which prospects have the potential to be breakout performers next season? – Here are five possible candidates.
Gage Hinsz: The Pirates selected Gage Hinsz in the 11th round of the 2014 MLB Draft out of high school. 2016 didn’t start off promising for Hinsz, as he dealt with an injury and had to build himself back up in Extended Spring Training. He then joined the West Virginia Power in June. In 17 starts for the Power, Hinsz put up a 3.66 ERA and a .266 batting average against. He’s likely to begin next year in Bradenton. With the combination of his good stuff and the pitcher friendly Florida State League, Hinsz could have a breakout season.
Ke’Bryan Hayes: After not being able to re-sign Russell Martin following the 2014 season, the Pirates received a 2015 first round compensation draft pick after Martin rejected their qualifying offer. That pick was used on Ke’Bryan Hayes, the son of former Pirate Charlie Hayes. The younger Hayes was off to a terrific start this year with the West Virginia Power, posting an .826 OPS in April. However, he struggled the rest of the way with an OPS of .626. Since Hayes will be 20 next year, which is still very young, he’ll likely head back to West Virginia. Seeing Low A level pitching for a second time around could result in much better offensive numbers for Hayes, as well as a promotion to Bradenton before 2017 ends.
Kevin Kramer: With their second round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, the Pirates chose second baseman Kevin Kramer out of UCLA. He spent the entire 2016 season with the Bradenton Marauders. Kramer put up above average numbers offensively, as he posted a .352 on base percentage and had 29 doubles, which were tied for most in the FSL. With the consistent gap power he showed this year, perhaps it could translate into some home run power next season with Altoona. If that happens, Kramer could become a Neil Walker type with the bat.
Luis Escobar: The Pirates in recent years have done good work infusing Latin American talent into the system. From the pitching side, Luis Escobar is certainly a talented arm. Signed by the Pirates out of Colombia in 2013, Escobar pitched very well this year in Morgantown for the West Virginia Black Bears, posting an ERA of 2.93 along with a 1.15 WHIP and holding opponents to a .208 average in 15 games (12 starts). Aside from throwing a mid-90’s fastball that can top out at 97 mph, he showed significant improvement of his changeup, which is really good to see from a young pitcher. If Escobar is able to repeat the success he had in 2016 in a full season with the West Virginia Power next year, there’s not much doubt that he’ll himself a breakout campaign.
Taylor Hearn: In the 2012 MLB Draft, Taylor Hearn was taken by the Pirates in the 22nd round, but did not sign. Fast forward four years later, and Hearn is now in the Pirates organization after being acquired from the Washington Nationals two days before the trade deadline in the Mark Melancon deal. While still in the Nats system, Hearn sustained a foot injury in April and was limited to only 22.2 innings with their Low A affiliate Hagerstown. He also pitched 22.2 innings of work with the West Virginia Power, putting up a 1.99 ERA with a WHIP of 1.10 and consistently striking out batters with a 14.3 K/9. For a lefty, Hearn is an absolute flamethrower, as he can hit 99 mph on the fastball. As I mentioned earlier, the Florida State League is considered pitcher friendly, and if Hearn is able to stay healthy with the Bradenton Marauders, his numbers could be sensational in 2017.