The Pittsburgh Pirates have a handful of young players who could have a breakout 2023 season, but who are their best candidates?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a young team and one that could continue to improve. While they should see the arrival of top prospects like Nick Gonzales, Quinn Priester, Endy Rodriguez, Mike Burrows, and many more, they could also see the breakout of some players. Since the team is so young, there are bound to be some breakout players, but who are the best breakout candidates on the Pirates? (note I do not count someone who is still considered a prospect as a breakout candidate)
Let’s get the obligatory Ke’Bryan Hayes mention out of the way. Hayes registered just an 88 wRC+ last season, the lowest among all qualified third basemen. However, he put up an above-average 8.6% walk rate and 21.8% strikeout rate and displayed a ton of raw power. He was in the 85th percentile of exit velocity at 91 MPH and 84th percentile of hard hit rate at 46.8%. Hayes is the first player ever to rank so high in both stats and fail to reach the 20-home run mark in 500+ PAs.
The area in which Hayes fails in is lifting the ball. Hayes had just a 5.2-degree launch angle, leading to a 49.4% ground ball rate. His barrel rate was just 3.9%, which was in the bottom 13th percentile in 2022. Hayes needs to lift the ball, but it’s the only thing preventing him from becoming a complete player. I’ve previously gone more in-depth about Hayes’ struggles at the dish and how he can improve next season, which you can read about here.
Of course, Hayes will be at the top of everyone’s breakout list for the Pirates. So is Oneil Cruz, but Cruz did look outstanding down the line, posting a 145 wRC+ in his final 167 trips to the plate in 2022. But a less obvious breakout candidate is outfielder Cal Mitchell.
Mitchell’s surface numbers do not make him a prime breakout candidate. He had just a 79 wRC+ in 232 plate appearances. However, Mitchell had a quality 89.9 MPH exit velocity and a 40.7% hard-hit rate. Mitchell looked much better after he was recalled in September, posting a 112 wRC+ through the final month. The young outfielder also projects to have a 112 wRC+ through 355 plate appearances in 2023, per Steamer.
On the pitching side of things, Johan Ovideo is arguably the Pirates’ best breakout starting pitching candidate. Oviedo was acquired at the trade deadline and was a solid starting pitcher for the Bucs down the line. He only pitched 30.2 innings but posted a 3.23 ERA, 3.47 FIP, and 1.27 WHIP. While he had a mediocre 11.9% walk rate and 20.9% strikeout rate, he allowed just a single home run, inducing ground balls 54.5% of the time.
One of the more impressive notes was that Oviedo gained velocity after the trade. Usually, pitchers lose speed on their offerings when they go from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Oviedo’s fastball and slider velo went from 95.6 MPH and 84.9 MPH with the St. Louis Cardinals (14 appearances, one start) to 96.5 MPH and 86.5 MPH with the Pirates (all seven appearances being starts), respectively. While Oviedo’s bread-and-butter is his fastball/slider combo, his curveball produced a quality -1.2 run value per 100 pitches. There is some relief risk, but he was ranked as a top 10 prospect in the Cardinal system for a reason.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have some potential breakout bullpen arms. Some might point toward Robert Stephenson’s direction, but given that Stephenson has had some good seasons in the past, I think you have to consider Manny Banuelos a more considerable breakout candidate. The Pirates acquired the southpaw from the New York Yankees in exchange for cash, and he was a solid reliever down the line. While his 4.96 ERA might be ugly, he also had a 3.76 FIP 1.32 WHIP, and five of the 18 total earned runs he allowed all came in his first outing. After his Pirates debut, he had a 3.62 ERA, 3.24 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP. On top of that, he held opponents to a .191 batting average against.
Banuelos is a soft contact merchant. Opponents couldn’t make hard contact against him to save their lives. He held opposing hitters to just an 84.2 MPH exit velo and 32.9% hard-hit rate. For reference, the lowest qualified marks in both stats in 2022 were 83.9 MPH and 23.5%. He also had a fantastic 52.5% ground ball rate. It’s no wonder why he allowed just a single home run through his last 32.1 innings with the Bucs.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have more potential breakout candidates, but young guys like Hayes, Cruz, Mitchell, and Oviedo are arguably their best candidates. Banuelos may be older, but he showed off some decent stuff down the line. All four could be key pieces of the 2023 roster.