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Can Brault break out this season?

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Cincinnati Reds v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

One of the more satisfying aspects of being a baseball fan is being able to spot a player’s breakout season before it actually occurs. For example, how many Pirates fans entered the 2019 season convinced that Bryan Reynolds would put together an All-Star caliber season during his first exposure to the big leagues? I certainly wasn’t among them. In fact, although I certainly was pulling for Reynolds to make it big, I had a chance to watch him in Bradenton a few times and wasn’t exactly impressed. He just looked, well, ordinary in all aspects of the game. I started to wonder whether all of the positive reports on Reynolds while he was Giants property were off-base, and that he might not live up to his hype. Shows you what I know.

Every year, fans scour the 40-man – and the list of non-roster spring training invitees – around this time and circle a breakout name or two. But in all honesty, I’m having a difficult time coming up with mine for 2020. My heart wants to say Cole Tucker, but my head is balking. For one thing, I can’t see him getting the playing time needed to establish himself as a regular in the big leagues. Barring a trade, Kevin Newman seems likely to retain the starting shortstop position he earned last year, with Erik Gonzalez next in line. So perhaps Tucker will spend at least the first half of the season back at Indianapolis, where he hit .261 with a .759 OPS in 310 at-bats in his first Triple-A go-round. I’d hardly consider that a disappointing season, given his age (22) and experience level.

So, who are the other potential breakout candidates? At this point, I’ve narrowed it to one – and it’s not even a player I particularly like. Steven Brault.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been a huge Brault booster. I’m not sure if it’s his entertainer-type persona, or his consistently inconsistent performance on the mound, but I’ve never found him to be all that intriguing from the moment he joined the organization as the player-to-be-named in the Travis Snider trade in 2015. For one thing, he seemed too much like a Jeff Locke clone, and although Locke had his moments in a Pirate uniform, they were way too few and far between.

Brault made his big league debut with Pittsburgh in 2016, starting seven games and going 0-3 with a 4.86 ERA in 33 1/3 innings. He put up similar numbers the following year, which he split between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, and then spent the bulk of the last two seasons with the Pirates.

In 2019, though, Brault showed signs of perhaps being more than just another mediocre left-hander. His year-end numbers were not all that impressive – he went 4-6 with a 5.16 ERA in 113 1/3 innings — but he had a significant stretch where he was the Pirates’ best starter. And while that might be damning him with faint praise, the numbers didn’t lie. During a 15-game stretch from May 18 through Sept. 1, Brault posted a 2.97 ERA, walking 32 and striking out 62 in 78 2/3 innings. Fifteen of those outings came as a starter.

I realize it’s easy to pick and choose when you’re building an argument in favor of someone or something. And there’s no ignoring the uglier numbers – 10 earned runs in less than three innings against the Cubs, for example, and six earned runs in less than four innings against the Cardinals. But what if Brault is actually capable of getting even better?

I’m guessing the Pirates are not convinced, given the signings of two left-handers last week – Robbie Erlin and veteran Derek Holland – and the addition of Sam Howard earlier in the offseason. I have no problem with any of those additions. Holland seems like the quintessential bounce-back candidate; he pitched well in 2018 but then failed miserably last season. But he has had some success in the big leagues, and perhaps a scenery change might set him on the right path. But I like to think that perhaps Brault, still just 28 and a fine athlete — and now free of the old pitching philosophy he’d been subjected to during his entire tenure in Pittsburgh — could also tap parts of his pitching potential that he could never reach before.

That’s why I’m holding out hope that for Brault, 2020 will be the year he turns things around and becomes a legitimate contributor, either as a starter or in a key bullpen role.