Last year the Altoona Curve had four of the top pitching prospects in the farm system. This year they’ve had top prospects, but it’s been different. Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris returned to Altoona, and for some reason, both pitchers struggled initially, after having success at the level in 2010. Top performers like Kyle McPherson and Phil Irwin joined the team mid-season, putting up strong numbers, but McPherson is the only guy from the 2011 rotation who has a good chance of being better than a #4-5 starter.
Four members of the 2011 Altoona pitching staff have already made it on to the major league roster, including Jeff Locke, who was just called up yesterday after some strong pitching in AAA. Here is a look at how everyone at the AA level performed this season, broken down by age group.
Jeff Locke and Tim Alderson were returning to the AA level to start the 2011 season. For Locke, it was his second season in the league, as he pitched 57.2 innings at the level last year. He started off slow this year, with a 5.33 ERA in 52.1 innings over the first two months of the season. His strikeouts were good, with an 8.6 K/9 ratio, although he had a 3.8 BB/9 ratio to go along with that, which wasn’t in line with his usual numbers. Locke turned things around in the next two months, with a 3.10 ERA in 72.2 innings from June until when he was promoted in early August. He had a 7.9 K/9 ratio, and saw his walks drop to a 3.0 BB/9.
Alderson has spent time at the AA level in each of the last three seasons. This was the first year where he pitched out of the bullpen. Last year he struggled due to an 84-86 MPH fastball. This year he was 87-89 MPH early in the season, and had strong results, with a 1.17 ER and a 27:6 K/BB ratio in 30.2 innings in the first two months of the year. In his final three months he struggled again, posting a 6.18 ERA and a 30:21 K/BB ratio in 43.2 innings. His fastball again dropped closer to the mid-80s, sitting around 86 MPH when I saw him at the end of the year. His curveball looked strong this year, and he finished off strong, allowing one run in his final eight innings, with a 9:1 K/BB ratio. Overall he’s a much better pitcher when his fastball is in the upper 80s, and he’s just not effective when he’s working in the mid-80s.
Kyle McPherson joined the team mid-season after dominating in high-A earlier in the year, and picked up right where he left off. McPherson didn’t seem to have any problems with AA hitters, showing a good K/BB ratio, and putting up a great performance in his final start of the year. He was a little old for low-A last year, but his climb to the AA level and his success this year has propelled him up as a top ten prospect in the system.
Last year Altoona had a great rotation with a lot of young players in the 23 and under category. This year they saw most of their starters in the 24-25 category. At the beginning of the year, Bryan Morris, Aaron Thompson, and Aaron Pribanic were in the rotation. Morris really struggled with a 6.04 ERA in 25.1 innings, along with a 17:16 K/BB ratio. He moved to the bullpen, where the results were much better. He had a 2.05 ERA in 52.2 innings, along with a 47:17 K/BB ratio. The success out of the bullpen could put him in line for a relief pitching spot out of Spring Training next year, and his mid-90s fastball could give him a future as a closer, although starting hasn’t been completely ruled out.
Aaron Thompson started off strong in his first few starts, but struggled, and was eventually moved to the bullpen. He didn’t do much better in the bullpen, but did cut down on his walks, giving up just one walk in 16 innings over his final 11 appearances. Surprisingly he moved up to AAA, and then the majors, where he pitched 4.1 shutout innings in his debut.
Pribanic has had a typical year by his standards. He’s a guy who pitches to contact with a great sinker, which keeps his ERA, walks, and his strikeouts low. His secondary stuff isn’t as strong as his sinker, which leads to the lack of strikeouts. He profiles as a Michael Crotta/Jared Hughes type pitcher, with the ability to start, but ultimately with the upside of a strong middle reliever, due to pitching mostly off of the sinker.
Phillip Irwin joined the team mid-season, after getting promoted from Bradenton. The 21st round pick from the 2009 draft had some impressive numbers in his first shot at the AA level, which is a good thing, since he was too old for high-A at the start of the year. He switched to working off of a sinker once he arrived in AA, and that approach obviously worked. I was impressed with what I saw out of him two weeks ago, and would expect him to make the jump to AAA next year.
Michael Colla was a big surprise, getting thrown in to the rotation after Bryan Morris was moved to the bullpen, and sticking there due to a 3.72 ERA in 123.1 innings, along with a 96:35 K/BB ratio. Colla had pitched at the AA level prior to the 2011 season, although he only threw 29 innings in relief. It was surprising that he had so much success as a starter, after never starting a game in his minor league career.
The remaining pitchers worked out of the bullpen. Diego Moreno was a big disappointment this year, getting injured, then struggling in his time in high-A. He and Duke Welker are similar. They have great fastballs, but have yet to have success above high-A ball. Brian Leach could also be thrown in to that category. Leach has a fastball that can touch 96 MPH, although his control this year in his move to the bullpen was horrible, and those control problems remained after he went back down to high-A.
Typically you don’t see many players from this group make it to the majors, although two of these players have spent time in the majors this year. Chris Leroux was demoted from AAA to work on a new arm slot, and after only five appearances in AA, was sent back up to Indianapolis, and later, Pittsburgh. Jared Hughes began the season in the Altoona rotation, and was moved up to Indianapolis where he made the switch to the bullpen. His numbers really excelled in the pen, thanks to a 96 MPH sinker, and he was recently added to the 40-man roster and given a September call-up.