Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Pirates promoted first baseman Matt Curry to Altoona, skipping him over high-A in the process. That’s not a huge jump for a guy like Curry, who was drafted in 2010 as a college senior, and has already played against the talent level he would have seen in high-A. At the same time, it’s an aggressive promotion, and one that the Pirates don’t usually make. Off the top of my head, I can’t remember a prospect who has taken the same approach under Neal Huntington. The last player I remember skipping high-A with the Pirates was Andrew McCutchen, who went from low-A to AA in 2006. That move was a little more extreme, as McCutchen was only 19 at the time, in his first full year as a pro.
Curry was drafted in the 16th round of the 2010 draft, and ever since signing he has done nothing but hit. In his pro debut last year, he hit for a .299/.421/.477 line in 197 at-bats in the New York Penn League. This year with West Virginia he hit for a .361/.477/.671 line in 155 at-bats. However, because Curry was drafted as a college senior, the success in the lower levels is almost meaningless, especially if he can’t repeat that success in the upper levels.
The big thing for Curry is his plate patience. Last year in State College he struck out 23.9% of the time, and walked 16.3% of the time. This year in West Virginia he struck out 18.7% of the time, and walked 17.9% of the time. He doesn’t really profile as another Brad Eldred or Chris Shelton type of player that strikes out way too much. So what does Curry profile as?
When thinking about his promotion, I thought of one other late round college players who made a quick ascension through the minor league ranks. Unfortunately, it didn’t provide any answers, as we can see by looking at these two players:
Curry: .361/.477/.671, 9 HR, 155 AB
Player B: .383/.492/.628, 10 HR, 269 AB
As you probably know by the title of this post, Player B is Brandon Belt. The numbers were what Belt produced in high-A at the age of 22, in his first full season, after being selected in the fifth round of the 2009 draft by the San Francisco Giants. Belt went on to be promoted to AA, where he hit for a .337/.413/.623 line with nine homers in 175 at-bats. He even got a taste of AAA in his first full season, with a .229/.393/.563 line and four homers in 48 at-bats. The strong year was enough to make him the 23rd best prospect in the game in 2011, according to Baseball America.
There aren’t many similarities between Belt and Curry, outside of the fact that they both came out of the college ranks, they both are left handed hitting first basemen, and they both destroyed A-ball pitching in their first full season (Belt played in high-A, although it was the hitter friendly California league). Belt came on the radar because he continued to destroy pitching, even in the AA and AAA ranks. We don’t know how Curry will do yet against AA pitching, so it’s impossible to make a full comparison to Belt. However, the fact that Curry is already in AA allows us to ask the question: what if?
What if Curry continues to demolish pitching, even at the AA level? Curry is a great hitter, who can hit to all fields, and hit for power to all fields. He also dropped 20 pounds over the off-season, which has led to more athleticism, especially with his defense at first base. If Curry has strong results in AA, would it be fair to compare him to Brandon Belt?
My rule with first basemen is that I don’t rank them high until they start producing in the upper levels with the bat. Even with his strong season so far in West Virginia, I don’t think I’d put Curry any higher than 20th overall without seeing what he can do in AA. He’s expected to be able to dominate the level of pitching in the South Atlantic League. It’s a big difference when he jumps to Altoona.
That said, if he can dominate the Eastern League, what would really separate him from a guy like Belt? Like Belt, Curry is a great hitter. He’s got some power potential, and I believe he could at least match the 20 home runs per year projection that Belt has. If Curry can have similar success in Altoona, why wouldn’t he be considered a top prospect? It’s definitely a question that needs to be asked after we see what Curry does at the AA level. However, if he does have success, the question of whether he should draw comparisons to Belt should definitely be brought up, as it should for any player that has success at the AA level in their first full season in the pros.