The Altoona Curve are heading back to the Eastern League finals for the first time since they won the championship in 2010. A lot has changed in the Pirates organization since then. For one, they’ve tasted some success at the major league level since, so a minor league playoff run really doesn’t register the way it had. The players might be getting overlooked because there is less of a focus on the minors than maybe there had been. Still, the team appears heading for at the very least a minor rebuild, so some help from the farm wouldn’t hurt.
The contending Pirates certainly got a few pieces from the 2010 team, so I wanted to see if there were any similarities between this year’s group and 2010. Age and level is incredibly important in determining future success of a minor leaguer. The higher the level at a younger age generally corresponds well to future success. I also wanted to see how the pedigree compared to prospect rankings . Finally, I’ll try to determine who might make it.
Neither the 2010 Curve nor this year’s edition were really built around offense. The 2010 team had an .727 OPS while this year’s Curve had a .710. That doesn’t mean there weren’t prospects on either team, just that the best ones on both were middle infielders. The average age of players with the minimum required plate appearances in 2010 was 24.1 lifted by a pair of 27 year old organizational players. The team’s best hitter was Alex Presley, who like Jordan Luplow this year, climbed all the way to the majors. Josh Harrison was all batting average all the time in 2010 and Jordy Mercer struggled enough that he had to repeat the level. Only Chase d’Arnaud and Gorkys Hernandez rated in Sickels 2010 Pirates top 20. Neither did much to help their cause and really they were only a C+ and a C respectively. The 2010 system was still pretty thin overall.
The 2017 regulars are almost a full year younger on average at 23.3. I already noted Luplow’s climb to the majors, but Kevin Newman and Edwin Espinal also made the jump to AAA. Newman was replaced by Cole Tucker who struggled badly in his first 50 PA’s before catching fire. He’s out for the rest of the year, but at 20, there is a lot of promise there. While this is certainly not a murderers row, the team had a B, a B- and a C+ (Kevin Kramer) on it according to Sickels. Of all the hitters, Kramer was the most impressive OPS’ing .880 before succumbing to an injury that kept him out most of the second half. There are also a couple of hitters who have never been highly esteemed in the system, in Jerrick Suiter and Jordan George, but have simply hit at every level they’ve been so far.
Breakout performances from the pitching staff in 2010 carried them to the promised land and really it was a pretty heralded group. Five of them started the following season on the Sickels top 20 Pirates list. Their average age was 23.5 and there were a couple of older outliers in Derek Hankins (27), Tony Watson and Dustin Molleken (25). Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson provided the core to a potent rotation. They were second in the Eastern League with a 3.55 ERA. If that doesn’t already sound good, Jared Hughes was on the team. All totaled that makes a back end of the rotation starter and four relievers — not a bad return.
The 2017 team doesn’t exactly have any standout names, but the average age of pitchers with more than 50 innings came in at a slightly higher 23.6. They finished third in the league with a 3.67 ERA only .12 higher than then the 2010 team. The main difference was that none of the pitchers were unreasonably overaged, but only Luis Heredia was better than prime prospect age for level. Some of these guys will make the majors, but none have the name recognition or the same appeal as the 2010 group that ultimately disappointed. Part of the enthusiasm gap could be that the 2017 staff doesn’t have the same pedigree. Half of the 2010 group were taken in the first five rounds, with three in the first two, and those three were also the return from major trades. Heredia was a major signing out of Mexico, but most fans have given up on him as a top prospect even if he has in fact rejuvenated himself as a legit relief prospect. Yeudy Garcia came into the season as a top prospect but struggled with control badly as a starter, so he too got dismissed. In the end, 2010 produced two all star appearances; it’s difficult to imagine that 2017 will replicate that, but it was probably hard to believe that the two who made it, Locke and Watson, were the ones who did. Mitch Keller was a late arrival but he clearly has the best pedigree on either edition.
Not all top prospects make it, but often times they’ll at least get a cup of coffee. Keller has star upside. Of the 2017 Curve position players, I think Newman and Tucker have the best chance. Despite his struggles at the plate, Newman made it to AAA and Tucker outperformed Mercer, albeit in a smaller sample size, but he’s three years younger and at the same level. I like Kramer’s chances as well if his first half of 2017 was a preview of what he can be. On the pitching side, Heredia has reinvigorated his prospect status, but he doesn’t have much time left in the Pirates organization. I think he’ll play, but I think he’ll play somewhere else. No one in the rotation really makes you stand up and take notice aside from Keller, but they could find a roll in the bullpen ala Hughes or Wilson. Brandon Waddell might have the best chance of the rest to stick in the rotation, but after skipping a level last season he hasn’t dominated in the upper levels. He might get lost in the surplus of back of the rotation pitchers the Pirates seem like they’re amassing in the high majors. Big arms Tate Scioneaux and Jake Brentz stand out as well.
The 2010 Curve are likely a better team, but they had more older organizational players. 2017 has some less hype overall but more top end players. 2010 may have had more depth. It remains to be seen if the 2017 Curve will win the championship. It probably doesn’t matter either, but good minor league teams probably have at least a few players who can surface at the major league level.