By Jason Shetler
Towards the end of the minor league season last year, I did a post listing prospects in the Pirates system that broke out in 2018. Those prospects included Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig, Oneil Cruz, JT Brubaker, Travis MacGregor, Max Kranick, Jared Oliva and Domingo Robles. Here are five Pirates prospects who could be primed for breakout seasons this year.
Braeden Ogle: In the 2016 MLB Draft, Braeden Ogle was selected by the Pirates in the fourth round out of Jensen Beach High School in Florida. The 6’5 left-hander chose to sign with the Bucs for an above slot amount of $374,300 rather than pitch for the University of Florida. Ogle throws a mid-90’s fastball, along with a solid changeup and improving slider. He made only four starts last season with the Low A West Virginia Power, as he dealt with shoulder inflammation for much of the year. In those four outings, he posted a 2.65 ERA and a K/9 of 11.1, but had a 5.3 BB/9, which leads you to think that the inflammation possibly played a role to the control issues. Ogle will likely return to the Low A level to be with the Pirates new affiliate in Greensboro. He certainly has the upside as a southpaw, so staying healthy is all it could take for him to make that next step as a top tier pitching prospect.
Brett Kinneman: After a strong collegiate career at NC State, outfielder Brett Kinneman was taken in last year’s draft as a seventh round selection by the Pirates, which appeared to be a real diamond in the rough for them. Kinneman displayed an impressive walk rate (11.5%) in his pro debut season with the West Virginia Black Bears, leading to a .355 wOBA. However, he did have a high strikeout rate (28.2%). Kinneman should start out this season with the High A Bradenton Marauders. If he’s able to cut down on the Ks, then he could begin to tap into his full potential offensively.
Deon Stafford: With their fifth round pick in the 2017 MLB Draft, the Pirates took catcher Deon Stafford out of Saint Joseph’s University. He played his first full season in 2018 with the West Virginia Power. Stafford had a decent walk rate (7.3%), but much like Brett Kinneman, had a high K rate (25.9%). He completely owned lefty pitching, posting a .959 OPS, however, right-handers kept him in check, as he only put up a .685 OPS. Stafford showed some pop in the bat with 11 home runs. There’s been questions about whether or not he will stick behind the plate long term. Last season with the Power, he threw out 27% of baserunners, while having 12 errors and 10 passed balls. Should Stafford improve upon his offensive numbers in 2019, most likely for Bradenton, it won’t matter what position he’ll ultimately play.
Gage Hinsz: Rarely does a player get drafted out of a high school that doesn’t even have a baseball team, but that was the case with Gage Hinsz. The Montana native instead pitched for the Langley Blaze, a Canadian youth team. In 2014, Hinsz was an 11th round draft choice of the Pirates. He had a commitment to pitch at Oregon State, but decided to turn pro by signing for $580,000. After having moderate success his first few years in the organization, Hinsz struggled in 2017, as he posted an ERA of 5.61, and was limited to 20 games (19 starts) due to shoulder soreness. Entering last year, it was reported that he had to undergo open heart surgery, because of a defective valve. While Hinsz missed the entire 2018 regular season, he was able to somehow recover quickly from the surgery and returned to the mound late in the year to pitch in the Puerto Rican Winter League. His numbers were terrific, with a 1.08 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP and a K/9 of 8.3 in five starts for Gigantes de Carolina. Hinsz will look to carry over those results into this season, and if he does, it would not only emerge him as a top pitching prospect, but also make for a great feel good story.
Steven Jennings: In terms of non-first round picks in 2017, the Pirates got one of the better prep pitchers that year, selecting Steven Jennings out of Dekalb County High School in Tennessee. Prior to inking a $264,500 signing bonus with the Bucs, Jennings had committed to Ole Miss. He made 13 starts for the Bristol Pirates last season, with a 4.82 ERA, although he did have a .259 batting average against. Walks were on the high side, as his BB/9 was 3.7 . In addition to a low-to-mid-90’s fastball, Jennings throws a plus slider and above average curveball, so the potential is definitely there. He has done good work keeping the ball down in his first two seasons of pro ball, inducing groundballs at a 50% clip. If Jennings can limit the free passes, and also increase his strikeout total, then there’s no reason to think that he can’t take his performance to the next level in 2019.