Season Recaps

Altoona Top 10: Three Middle Infielders Lead a Deep Prospect List

Cole Tucker was a late addition to Altoona, but showed all the skills of a future Major League shortstop. Photo Credit: Sean McCool
Altoona Top 10: Three Middle Infielders Lead a Deep Prospect List
John Dreker

The Altoona Curve had a solid team of prospects coming into this season. They weren’t as deep as Indianapolis and didn’t have the top-end talent of Bradenton, but the team had a lot of potential. We saw some breakout players at the level in the past, and that happened again this year with Jordan Luplow, who parlayed a fast start into a Major League spot by the end of July. We also saw a team win an Eastern League title by winning their division, then sweeping both playoff series with excellent pitching and timely hitting. They won those playoffs without the services of three of the top four players on our top ten prospect list.

This list is strong at the top for offense, with two interesting pitchers in the middle, then there is a lot of depth, consisting of many players with a strong chance of making the majors someday. When looking at the list, realize that there isn’t a big different between #7 in the top ten and some of the players mentioned in the notable player section. It’s basically six solid/strong prospects and a very large group of notables. Here is our end of the year rundown of the best prospects at the level.

TOP 10 ALTOONA CURVE PROSPECTS

The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. Those limits kept Mitch Keller from qualifying for the list. We also didn’t include traded players, so Connor Joe wasn’t considered for the list. Unlike the lower-level lists, this list factors in actual results a bit more than potential and upside. The latter is still factored in, but this is the level where we want to see players start producing on the field and showing their tools in games.

1. Cole Tucker, SS – Tucker ranked second on our Bradenton top ten, falling only behind Mitch Keller, who wasn’t eligible for this list. He got on that list because he showed improvements in his defense at shortstop, he hit for some power for the first time, and was aggressive on the bases, winning games with his speed. It was a great sign to see, but there was more to come in his time with Altoona. Tucker got off to a slow start with his jump to Double-A, though it didn’t last long. In his final 26 games, he put up an .897 OPS and went 7-for-8 in steals, finishing the season with a system-leading 47 stolen bases. He also displayed some impressive defense on a day-to-day basis, looking even better than he did in Bradenton.

Tucker just turned 21 during the middle of this season, so he was one of the youngest players in Double-A and showed that he was more than ready for the level. He will return to Altoona to begin next season, but should see time in Indianapolis during the year. That will depend on how things play out in front of him. Tucker has displayed the tools to be a regular shortstop in the majors and hit at the top of the order. The injuries, which includes two thumb injuries (one fractured, one UCL surgery), a broken hand and labrum surgery, have cost him some development time and gives you concerns for the future. That being said, he has still developed well at a young age despite the missed time, so if he can stay healthy, there could be a lot more upside to his game.

2. Kevin Newman, SS – Newman is ranked second on this team, but it was not a good season at Altoona for him. After getting some “lucky” hits early without making good contact, that caught up to him and he put up a .259/.310/.359 slash line in 82 games. That was after playing 61 games for the Curve last year. Newman wasn’t driving the ball well with Altoona until his final couple weeks before being promoted to Indianapolis. He also wasn’t drawing enough walks in the lead-off spot, and wasn’t using his above average speed when he got on base. Newman was trying to get more power out of his swing by closing his wide stance, but he turned into a ground ball machine. A scout who saw him often late in the year said that he looked like his main goal was not to strike out, which is in line with the low walk, low strikeout, low power numbers he put up. The only area where the 24-year-old Newman showed improvements was at shortstop, where he now looks more like someone who will stick at the position, although he will need to show more with the bat to become a full-time shortstop in the majors. More on him in our Indianapolis recap later this week.

3. Kevin Kramer, 2B – While Kevin Newman was getting a lot of lucky hits early in the season, Kevin Kramer was crushing the ball all around the ballpark to the tune of a 1.051 OPS and he was still making a lot of loud outs. However, from May 20th until June 10th, Kramer put up a .560 OPS and a 3:20 BB/SO ratio in 19 games. That sample size ended when he got hit by a pitch and was out for nearly three full months with a broken hand. So due to two small sample sizes, we are left wondering whether we should expect someone closer to the great hitter for the first 34 games, or did pitchers quickly adjust to him for those final 19 games and he’s closer to that type of player? We saw Kramer look better than the stats indicated last year in Bradenton and predicted he could be the top breakout prospect in the system this year. He was certainly on pace for it early, but really dropped off for those final three weeks before the injury. The 24-year-old returned from his broken hand late in the season and showed some rust at the plate. He has continued his season, first in the Fall Instructional League, and now in the Arizona Fall League, where he is seeing time at shortstop. He should be able to move up to Indianapolis next year, likely seeing most of his time at second base, while filling in for Newman occasionally.

4. Jordan Luplow, LF – Luplow finished the 2016 season strong in Bradenton and that turned out to be a sign of things to come for this season. It didn’t take long for Luplow to make his mark this season, as he was hitting for average and power early in the year. After 73 games, he was promoted to Indianapolis, then got a surprisingly quick call to the majors in late July. He would return to Indianapolis, then go back to Pittsburgh for the end of the season just 26 days later. Luplow has always had a solid approach at the plate and he showed some power back in 2015 with West Virginia, collecting 51 extra-base hits. The power dropped somewhat last year, although that’s not a surprise in the pitcher-friendly FSL. Luplow hit a total of 26 homers this season between his three stops, with 16 coming in Altoona. Before leaving the Curve, he showed some defensive improvements in left field and displayed an accurate, above average arm. There will be more on Luplow in the Indianapolis recap.

5. Brandon Waddell, LHP – Waddell had a lost season this year due to a forearm strain, which bothered him in April and then came back in June. He ended up throwing a total of 84 innings this season (includes six shutout innings in the playoffs), with some of them on rehab and some while he was battling the forearm injury. Waddell is making up for some of those lost innings in the Arizona Fall League now after taking the mound regularly in the Fall Instructional League. When he is healthy, he has a nice four-pitch mix and changes up his speeds well. While he can top out at 94 MPH, he works better in the 88-90 range, pounding the bottom half of the strike zone and getting his share of ground balls. His curve and changeup has both been strong pitches for him in the past. Known as a big game pitcher in college, Waddell has thrown 19 shutout innings over his three playoff starts as a pro. He should be able to advance to Indianapolis next season, but a crowded rotation could shuffle him back to Altoona to begin the season.

6. JT Brubaker, RHP – If there was a player who you could look past the stats for with this team, it would be Brubaker. He split last season with West Virginia and Bradenton, then spent the entire 2017 season with Altoona. In both seasons, he allowed 73 runs (64 earned) over 129.2 innings, which of course resulted in an identical 4.44 ERA each year. On the downside, he allowed a few more base runners this season and had 11 fewer strikeouts, but he also greatly increased his ground ball rate and that led to fewer home runs. They were extremely similar seasons overall and not the best numbers obviously, but there was so much more to his 2017 season. Brubaker’s huge leap in development was added velocity. He had always been sitting 90-93, touching 94 MPH. In his final start this year, eight terrific innings in the playoffs, that top speed from last year turned into his low end from this season. Brubaker hit 99 MPH and was still consistently hitting 96-98 in his final inning of work. His changeup has developed well this year and his slider is an effective out pitch. Brubaker’s main issue is his same one coming into this season. He needs more experience on the mound, so he can learn to be a better pitcher, and not just a thrower. The added velocity puts him into an entirely different class of pitcher, and the added ground ball rate helps his case, he just needs to take that next leap forward. He’s currently in the AFL getting extra innings.

7. Pablo Reyes, INF – After Brubaker, here is where the list gets bunched up, with not much of a difference between Reyes and many of the players listed in the notable section. Reyes got the #7 spot due to his tools, but there are still questions about his consistency and whether he can translate those tools into a big league spot at some point. For years, we have heard that he has some of the best hand-eye coordination in the system. He’s not a big player, but he showed some pop in his bat with ten homers and 34 extra-base hits. He has above average speed, although he didn’t get the best results in the stolen base department this season. Reyes can fill in at shortstop and showed the range to play center field this year. He’s still an unpolished outfielder, but the ability to play the position is there. His best spot is second base, where he has above average range, a strong arm and quick hands. Reyes had a major issue in the past with letting bad at-bats affect everything else including his defense and hustle. That seemed to clear up a lot this season, but it still can be an issue from time to time. He has the tools to be a valuable MLB bench player and it’s up to him to keep his head in the game to reach that ceiling. His brother Samuel made our GCL top ten.

8. Yeudy Garcia, RHP – Garcia has definitely fallen from his high point during the 2015 season. He was a starter who sat 93-95 with his fastball, hitting 97 MPH. He also showed a strong slider, which he used as a strikeout pitch. Garcia was considered a breakout prospect at that point, jumping directly from the DSL to Low-A and putting up strong numbers. When he got to Bradenton in 2016, he wasn’t the same. Garcia was sitting 90-93 MPH, losing three miles per hour off his top end speed. His control wasn’t as good and he got overly dependent on his slider. He had minor shoulder surgery after the season and the hope was that it would clear up his issues. During the first half of 2017 with Altoona, there were no signs of progress. He was the same pitcher we saw the previous season. Then after a poor outing in mid-June, he went on the disabled list with a back injury, which seemed more like a paper move to get him down to Pirate City and reset him as a reliever. After returning to Altoona and moving to the bullpen, Garcia was closer to his 2015 velocity. In 17 appearances from early July until the end of the season, he posted a 2.81 ERA, a .228 BAA and 25 strikeouts in 25.2 innings. He finished the year with three shutout innings in the playoffs. It appears he is a reliever now, where his stuff plays up and could get him to the majors.

9.  Jerrick Suiter, OF/1B – Suiter had a breakout of sorts this season, showing power that wasn’t there for the beginning of his career. At 6’4″, 230 pounds, it was always assumed that he would hit for some power, but he had nine homers in his first 288 pro games before reaching Altoona this season. A change in his batting stance was the difference, going from a crouched position, to standing straight up in the box. Suiter started showing power, finishing with ten homers in 100 games, while also hitting a career high 22 doubles. The best part is that the power came from his stance, rather than trying to hit more homers, as he didn’t alter his approach. That led to a career high of 52 walks as well. While he showed improvements, there are still questions with him because he didn’t finish strong, posting a .682 OPS in his final 30 games. Suiter played a lot of outfield this year, where he is a poor defender, but showed some improvements in his reads and routes later in the season. He’s an above average defensive first baseman, considered to be the best in the entire system. In the Fall Instructional League, he saw some time at third base.

10. Edwin Espinal, 1B – Espinal is an interesting case for the Pirates. He reaches minor league free agency next month and they have to decide between adding him to the 40-man roster, trying to re-sign him as a minor league free agent, or watching him walk after he put together his best season at age 23.  Espinal came into this season in his best shape and it led to him putting up strong stats for Altoona, then solid stats at Indianapolis after a late July promotion. He hit a career high 15 homers, tied his best with 25 doubles and he didn’t strike out often. Espinal’s biggest issue on offense is his lack of walks, followed closely by his below average speed. He was an Eastern League All-Star this year and he was named as the Gold Glove winner for all minor league first basemen. Espinal is solid at first base, with sure hands, average range and a very strong arm. He has played third base in the past, but it’s more of an emergency spot, rather than somewhere he could play regularly.

Other Notable Players: Right-handers Austin Coley, Alex McRae and Tanner Anderson all had success in the rotation. Coley was the most consistent, showing signs of the player who was ranked in our top 50 prospects at the end of 2015, before regressing with Bradenton last year. Both Anderson and McRae did great jobs of throwing strikes, pitching to contact and getting ground balls and quick outs. All three profile as middle relievers with chances to spot start if they continue to progress. Relievers Luis Heredia, Sean Keselica, Tate Scioneaux and Montana DuRapau each showed some signs of success, but none of them have upside that puts them higher than a middle reliever in the majors. The good part is that all four moved closer to reaching that upside, although Heredia is a free agent this winter, so he needs to be re-signed or added to the 40-man roster if the Pirates intend on keeping him.

Outfielder Elvis Escobar, catcher Jin-De Jhang and third baseman Wyatt Mathisen all have a chance at making the majors, but need to take that next step in their progress to make it to that level. Mathisen was playing other infield spots during the Fall Instructional League, while Escobar will be working on his running game during winter ball. Jhang missed the early part of the season with an oblique injury and had a tough time catching back up to speed when he returned.

Season Recaps
John Dreker

John was born in Kearny, NJ, hometown of the 2B for the Pirates 1909 World Championship team, Dots Miller. In fact they have some of the same relatives in common, so it was only natural for him to become a lifelong Pirates fan. Before joining Pirates Prospects in July 2010, John had written numerous articles on the history of baseball while also releasing his own book and co-authoring another on the history of the game. He writes a weekly article on Pirates history for the site, has already interviewed many of the current minor leaguers with many more on the way and follows the foreign minor league teams very closely for the site. John also provides in person game reports of the West Virginia Power and Altoona Curve.

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