The Altoona Curve easily had the strongest part of the farm system this season, with over a third of the top 30 prospects going in to the 2011 season finishing up the season at the level. Those prospects led Altoona to first place in the Western division of the Eastern League, and the first Eastern League championship in Altoona franchise history, just one season after many of the same prospects won a championship in the Carolina League.
Altoona’s biggest strength was pitching, led by top prospects Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson. That’s great for the Pirates, as the major league team needs help in the area, and all four prospects could be in the majors as soon as June 2011. Altoona also had some strong bullpen arms throughout the season, with a few guys potentially joining the major league bullpen by the end of the 2011 season.
The only position player who really stood out this year was Alex Presley, who was a total surprise, and ended up in the majors by the end of the season. Altoona has several talented middle infielders in Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Josh Harrison, but so far no one has stood out as a guaranteed starter. Harrison had the numbers, but lacks the defensive skills, while Mercer and d’Arnaud struggled at the plate this year. There are more hitting prospects at the level, like Gorkys Hernandez, Andrew Lambo, and Matt Hague, but no one has emerged as a future starter, unlike what we’ve seen with the pitching staff.
Here are the stats for everyone at the level this year, broken down by age group:
The big strength here came from the starting rotation. Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, and Justin Wilson are all top 15 prospects, with all but Wilson being consensus top 10 guys in the organization. The four starters combined to give Altoona an extremely strong rotation for most of the season, and all four should go on to Indianapolis, possibly threatening to reach the majors as soon as June 2011.
There were some disappointments from this age group. Tim Alderson didn’t have the same success as the big four, putting up horrible results while he was with Altoona. Gorkys Hernandez struggled while he was healthy, with a .667 OPS in 328 at-bats, which is far from what is expected of a guy who rated in baseball’s top 100 prospects last year. Chase d’Arnaud also had a down year after a lot of hype coming in to the year. All three players are young enough to rebound from their poor seasons, and while their performances give their prospect status a hit, those same performances don’t remove the prospect label completely.
Josh Harrison was a big surprise with his hitting. It wasn’t so much the hitting for average, as Harrison did that in high-A, but it was the increased walk rate, after Harrison posted a low walk rate in high-A in 2009. Harrison doesn’t hit for much power, although he is a gap hitter who gets a lot of doubles. He also isn’t strong defensively at any position, which projects him out to a future utility player in the majors.
Andrew Lambo was a great addition at the trade deadline, coming over in the Octavio Dotel trade. Lambo, the number 49 prospect in baseball in 2009, showed signs of returning to his former prospect status, especially in the playoff run. Lambo has been regarded as being poor defensively, which might make him a future first baseman. In order to play that spot, he would need to increase his power production. He’s a talented player, but far from a lock at living up to his potential and 2009 hype.
There are a lot of bullpen prospects from the pitchers in this group. Daniel Moskos, Diego Moreno, and Ramon Aguero are all hard throwers who could eventually be back of the bullpen relievers, although Aguero has suffered some injury issues, and Moreno faced some disciplinary action and was demoted to Bradenton as a result of his incident.
Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, and Michael Crotta all worked as starters in Altoona, but all three project best as bullpen arms in middle or long relief in the majors, and possibly spot starting depth if needed.
The notable offensive players were Jordy Mercer, Alex Presley, and Matt Hague. Presley was a big surprise, coming from out of no where to have a breakout season in Altoona, after two down years in Lynchburg. Hague had another strong season, continuing his strong hitting at every level in his pro career. The only issue with Hague is a lack of home run power, although if he can somehow put up these numbers in the majors one day, he would make a league average or better first baseman. Mercer’s average was up, but overall he was a disappointment. His power was down, and his on-base percentage, in relation to his average, was pretty low. Mercer is supposed to be an offense-first shortstop, but the offense wasn’t there this season.
The top performers here were Derek Hankins and Hector Gimenez, although both players are too old for the level, and have spent too much time at the level for their performances to be seen as totally legit. Gimenez could be a backup catcher, and Hankins could be a middle reliever, but that’s about it for the upside.
Top Hitter: In his time with the team, Alex Presley hit for a team leading .932 OPS, with a .350 average. He ranked fourth on the team in homers, despite having just 246 at-bats. Presley led the team in average, on-base percentage, and tied for the lead in slugging percentage with Hector Gimenez.
Top Pitcher: Rudy Owens was phenomenal this season for Altoona. In 150 innings, the left hander put up a 2.46 ERA and a 0.98 WHIP. His secondary numbers were very special, with a 7.9 K/9, a 1.4 BB/9, and an 0.7 HR/9. Owens was spectacular down the stretch, with a 1.41 ERA in 51 innings over his last nine starts, including an amazing 51:4 K/BB ratio. In the month of August he made six starts, with an 0.82 ERA in 33 innings, and a 33:3 K/BB ratio.
Biggest Surprise: Presley would have to be the biggest surprise. In his two seasons in high-A, Presley combined for a .257/.313/.379 line and ten homers in 704 at-bats. What added to this surprise was the fact that Presley didn’t quit after being promoted to Indianapolis. Presley posted a .294/.349/.460 line in 272 at-bats in Indianapolis, with six homers. He was then promoted to the majors, where he currently is 3-for-12. To go from a sub-.700 OPS between two seasons, to a jump from AA to the majors all in one year has to be the biggest surprise.
Biggest Disappointment: This could go between Alderson, Hernandez, and d’Arnaud. Hernandez showed signs of rebounding, hitting for a .306/.369/.414 line in 186 at-bats from the start of June until the point where he went out for the season with a broken finger. Chase d’Arnaud started out slow, but improved in the second half, with a .262/.343/.419 line in 191 at-bats after the All-Star break, plus a strong playoff performance. That would make Alderson my choice. Alderson was demoted to Bradenton, and still suffered despite the lower level. Last year he was one of the top prospects in baseball, with some saying he could end up a future top of the rotation starter. Now some are questioning whether he will even be a future starter, or even make the majors at all. Alderson is very young, so by no means is this season the end of the line for the 21 year old right hander.
Top five prospects:
1. Bryan Morris – He didn’t have the best numbers in Altoona, but Morris has the best stuff in the rotation, and the biggest upside. If he can maintain his mechanics, and continue to avoid major injuries, he could be a number two starter in the majors.
2. Rudy Owens – Owens was throwing in the lower 90s this year, touching 93 MPH, so the idea that he’s a “soft tosser” should be discarded. Owens has spectacular control, and command of three pitches, all while adding a two-seam fastball to his arsenal this year. I often say that Owens could be a special pitcher in the majors. He’s drawn some comparisons to Tom Glavine. I don’t like comparing anyone to a Hall of Famer, which is why I go the “special pitcher” route.
3. Jeff Locke – Locke showed his potential this year, both in Bradenton, and again in Altoona. When Locke has command of his curveball, he is a very tough pitcher, who could possibly be a future #2-3 starter in the majors. That can be seen with his ratios in his jump to AA, with the high strikeouts and the low walk totals demonstrating his command.
4. Andrew Lambo – Lambo was one of the top prospects in baseball prior to the 2009 season, but has fallen off in the last two years. He saw a bit of a turnaround after joining Altoona, and will play in the Arizona Fall League this off-season, where he can hopefully continue his success. Lambo is far from a lock to live up to his 2009 hype, but he’s still young for the level, and another attempt at the AA level won’t hurt him.
5. Chase d’Arnaud – D’Arnaud had a down year, but he did finish strong, including a great run during the playoffs. He’s got average to above average tools across the board, and still could be in the mix for the shortstop position in Pittsburgh, especially if he builds on his second half success and has a bounce back season in Indianapolis in 2011.
The Curve had one of the better teams in the minors and maintained a significant lead in their division throughout the season. They did this despite the fact that their top position prospects—Chase d’Arnaud, Gorkys Hernandez and Jordy Mercer—mostly struggled. They also finished near the bottom of the Eastern League in HRs, but had one of the better offenses just the same. They managed a solid offensive output thanks to a number of players who did well at getting on base and who hit for good gap power. The Curve’s primary offensive weapons were the very surprising Alex Presley, at least before his promotion to AAA, and minor league veteran Hector Gimenez, who was their best power source. Firstbaseman Matt Hague also provided a solid bat, mostly in the cleanup spot, although he only hit for modest power.
Altoona’s real strength was pitching, as it ran neck-and-neck with Harrisburg and Trenton for the league’s top staff. It seemed as though everybody plugged into the Curve’s rotation pitched well. Mike Crotta was spectacular at the beginning of the year and earned a quick promotion. Jared Hughes, who like Crotta had been mostly mediocre throughout his career, pitched well at times, although he did better in the bullpen. Veteran Derek Hankins, in his third AA season, pitched very well as a swing man. Most importantly, the Curve finished the year with a very good, all-prospect rotation made up of Bryan Morris (although he was moved to the bullpen in mid-August to control his inning total), Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke and Tony Watson. The one significant negative among the starters was Tim Alderson, who was demoted after struggling badly. The bullpen was good much of the time, as Dan Moskos was possibly the league’s best reliever, although he got bombed during an aborted AAA promotion. Watson was outstanding before his move to the rotation and Tom Boleska pitched well after a late promotion. Like the rotation, there was one big negative in the bullpen: Ramon Aguero, who figured to be the right-handed mainstay, missed much of the season with an elbow problems and a back strain, and got bombed when he was able to pitch.
Top hitter: Hector Gimenez, by a nose over Alex Presley. Their slash stats were remarkably similar, but Gimenez was with the Curve longer. The two provide an interesting contrast. Presley turned 25 shortly after his promotion to Indianapolis. He’d struggled through two mediocre seasons in high A before suddenly breaking out in AA. Gimenez, who played the season at 27, is a former Astros’ prospect who got derailed by shoulder surgery. He actually reached the majors briefly, but now seems mired in AA despite good performances.
Top pitcher: Rudy Owens. Justin Wilson was very good but erratic, Bryan Morris was outstanding until he hit a rough stretch, and Jeff Locke was outstanding after a late promotion, but Owens was one of the best pitchers in the Eastern League from start to finish. He put up terrific numbers across the board.
Biggest surprise: Presley. In fact, he was one of the biggest surprises anywhere in the minors. He went to camp with his job in jeopardy after making little progress during two seasons in high A, much of the time in a backup role. He impressed the Pirates in camp and went to Altoona expected to fill a limited role, and quickly became the team’s best hitter during the season’s first couple months. He continued to pound the ball after a mid-season promotion to AAA, until he slumped in August. Presley was old for AA and it remains to be seen whether a player his size (5’9”) can continue to hit for the solid power he did in 2010. He impressed the Pirates enough, though, to get a September callup.
Biggest disappointment: This is a tie between Chase d’Arnaud and Tim Alderson. Jordy Mercer and Gorkys Hernandez also disappointed, but Mercer came in with lower expectations than d’Arnaud, who was considered one of the team’s top prospects, and Hernandez had a good June and July before going out with a broken hand. D’Arnaud came into the season as the Pirates’ possible shortstop-of-the-future, but he had a terrible time in April and May, possibly due in part to an illness in the early season. He had a big month of June, but then slumped again in July and August. He also played erratically in the field, with the Pirates eventually moving him to secondbase part-time to give Mercer time at short. Not all the signs with d’Arnaud were negative, as he continued to show good patience and hit a lot of doubles, but he’ll need to rebound strongly in 2011. Alderson came into the season with somewhat more muted expectations than d’Arnaud due to his well publicized loss of velocity. He fell even lower than d’Arnaud, though, as he struggled so much that the Pirates moved him down to Bradenton to rebuild his mechanics. He got hammered mercilessly there at first before he started to rebound near the end of the season. He’s a major reclamation project at this stage.
Top five prospects:
1. Bryan Morris, RHP. A repeater from the Bradenton list, Morris has considerable upside after a breakout season. After a great start in AA, he ran into problems in July with faltering command, problems that the Pirates blamed in part on his reworked mechanics and workload, but there’s no reason to think he won’t rebound from that.
2. Jeff Locke, LHP. Another repeater, Locke straightened himself out at Bradenton after serious control issues led to struggles in 2009, then he really took off after moving up to Altoona. He may have marginally better stuff than Owens, but the two really are interchangeable on this list.
3. Rudy Owens, LHP. He was one of the best pitchers in AA and probably the best pitcher in the Pirates’ system this year.
4. Andrew Lambo, OF. Lambo joined the Curve in August. He missed much of the season after failing a drug test due to something other than PEDs. He’d gotten off to a strong start on the season, then struggled after returning. He hit well for the Curve, but hurt his shoulder running into a wall and then slumped. The Pirates have few upside bats in their system and Lambo is one of them.
5. Chase d’Arnaud, IF. Too soon to get down on him.
Honorable Mention: Like Bradenton, Altoona needs a lot more than a top ten. Others worth a nod include Gorkys Hernandez, Jordy Mercer, Matt Hague, Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Tony Watson, Dan Moskos, Tim Alderson, Ramon Aguero and Tom Boleska.
Altoona by the end of the season was a team so loaded with prospects that you could make a top 10 list of just their players and still leave off someone who you thought had a good chance at being a serviceable major leaguer. They didn’t start out as loaded as they ended, but they were still an impressive group of players who took an early huge lead in their division and finished strong to take the Western Division of the Eastern League. The additions of Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Andrew Lambo had them going in to the finals, facing a strong Trenton team with a deep pitching staff and strong lineup. In the end the team from top to bottom contributed to the 3 games to 1 win in the finals as Altoona took their first title ever made up by a good portion of the group that won last years Carolina League title.
Top Hitter: Matt Hague, 1B – Hague isn’t one of my top prospects due to his age but he has the same amount of, or less, pro experience as everyone else on the team so he’s still moving at a good pace and it’s good to see the complete season he put up this year. His home run total of 15 was more than he hit he previous two seasons combined, but even more impressive is that he cut back on his strikeout total, which was low to begin with, and took more walks. He scored 90 runs on the season, hit 30 doubles and hit .295, surpassing what most people expected from him going into the year. Definitely an all around solid season at the plate.
Top Pitcher: Rudy Owens, LHP – Pretty much an easy choice despite how Justin Wilson pitched all year because Owens was just that good. His 12-6 record actually was indicative of how well he pitched, that’s not always the case in the minors with low pitch counts. Rudy walked just 23 batters all season while striking out 132, third in the Eastern League and just two behind teammate Justin Wilson. His 2.46 ERA and 0.98 WHIP both led the entire Eastern League and he finished strong during the playoff chase, posting a 0.82 ERA in 6 August starts.
Biggest Surprise: Anthony Watson, LHP – I chose Watson even before his impressive start in the deciding game of the finals, that just helped assure me the choice was a good one. I don’t think anyone could have expected after his injury filled season last year that he would not only put in a strong full year that ended with him as a starter but he would pitch well in that role ending with his best performance of the year. He dominated lefties all year holding them to a .131 BAA. He walked just 24 batters while striking out almost a batter per inning (105 in 111 IP). He may only be a LOOGY by the time he reaches the majors, but if he’s anything like he was this year in that role he would be a key pitcher out of the bullpen.
Biggest Disappointment: Chase d’Arnaud/Jordy Mercer – I was hoping one or both of them would develop power this year and that both would show they’re a future major league starter for the Bucs but both of them had disappointing seasons. Chase didn’t hit for average like last year, his power dropped and his strikeouts went up. Jordy didn’t turn all those doubles from last year into homers, in fact he only hit three homers all season. Sure his average went up and he cut down on his K’s but he wasn’t projected to be a light hitting, average glove middle infielder but thats what it looks like they might have at this point. I’m not giving up on either of them but these guys need to show a lot more than they did this year as they move up the ladder or they will just fall into the category of middle infielders in the Pirates system who didn’t live up to the early hype.
Top five prospects:
1. Bryan Morris, RHP – Morris probably has the best pure stuff of anyone who pitched for the Pirates organization anytime this year and that helped him dominate at Bradenton this year like we have not seen from a pitcher in a long time. His Altoona stats weren’t as impressive but that’s mostly due to his limited innings last year and him not only tiring as the year went along but being sent to the bullpen where he wasn’t that effective. Still, the progress he made this year had team officials talking about a possible jump from high-A to the majors in one season.
2. Rudy Owens, LHP – Altoona’s pitcher of the year, he continues to dominate hitters since his break out two levels lower last year. His stuff isn’t overwhelming so there is some doubt whether he will continue to be effective as he goes higher, but it’s hard to overlook how he’s pitched now for two straight year at three levels, showing a high K rate and pinpoint control. He’s still just 22 and getting better each year, adding innings to his arm (26 more than last year when he was limited) and turning his groundball rate from a negative (0.75 last year) to another one of his strong points at 1.32 this year.
3. Jeff Locke, LHP – Another 22 year old lefty who put up an outstanding season as he moved up a level, Locke really broke out like the Bucs hoped when they traded for him. He had a great K rate (8.9 per 9 IP over 144 innings) and only walked 26 batters all season, plus had a decent groundball rate. He has more impressive stuff than Owens but doesn’t quite get the results yet that Rudy does. His ERA was a little high for someone pitching so well but all the other stats were there and scouts like what they saw from him this year. The most impressive part of his year I think is that he pitched just as well in AA as he did in high-A. Rarely does that happen when pitchers make that particular jump mid-season.
4. Andrew Lambo, OF – Can’t take too much from his season with so much time missed due to his suspension and then he had a minor injury after joining the Curve that slowed down his quick start. He comes with a good pedigree so that’s why I ranked him here, first overall prospect going into 2009 and he still put up 51 extra base hits in AA as a 20 year old so he didn’t do that bad for him to drop so much. He just turned 22, lefty hitter with some pop in his bat. I’m interested to see how he performs in the AFL, he can really use the added at-bats as well.
5. Justin Wilson, LHP – It’s hard to imagine that a kid who is in AA his 2nd pro season and was easily one of the top 5 pitchers in the league is “only” ranked fifth but it’s not a slight to Wilson, it’s just that the team is so loaded. His playoff performance of 13 scoreless innings over his two starts had me thinking of maybe pushing him one spot higher to have the four horsemen of Altoona listed in a row. He’s starting to get a rep as a big game pitcher now with impressive postseason performances two times in the pros and his last year of college. Justin had a great K rate this year, a great GO/AO ratio, a great H/9 IP rate and allowed just four home runs all season. His only drawback is control issues every once in awhile. He will walk a couple batters each game but once in awhile he walks 4-5 but when you look at his numbers and his big game attitude you’ll see he bears down when the pressure is on even if it’s self-inflicted.
Double A is typically the level that you want to see your prospects have the most success. The AA level is the “wheat from the chaff” level, so to speak, in which you really see who can have future big-league success. There have also been two full-season levels (for most players) to be weeded out, as well. As mentioned in the Triple A Indianapolis review, the AAA level is sometimes a holding tank of major-league vets so the AA is the best distallation of “prospectiness” in the system.
The extremely encouraging result is that the AA Altoona team won the Eastern League championship, on the heels of the same core group winning the Carolina League Championship in 2009. This group is primarily the 2008 draft class (Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud, Justin Wilson, Matt Hague) with some key trade acquistions (Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Josh Harrison).
The old axiom of drafting is that you draft 50, sign 30, get 20 to Double A, and have 2 starters and 1 bench guy from every draft class. With Pedro Alvarez already starting in Pittsburgh, the class of 2008 is on the right path to meeting or exceeding that end goal.
Top Hitter: Alex Presley, OF — Look, at this point as a Pirates fan, I don’t care if Alex Presley made some sort of Faustian deal with the Devil or not. The Pirates need talent and if this way we have to do it…hail Satan. Presley came out of 2 years of looking like an organizational soldier to put down a triple slash line of .350/.399/.533 (932 OPS) in 67 games before being promoted to Indy. Presley finished out the year being added to the 40-man and getting a cup of coffee in Pittsburgh in September.
Top Pitcher: Rudy Owens, LHP — There are multiple good choices here, but Owens stood apart from the rest. I would have liked to have seen him promoted to AAA at some point, but he stayed in AA all year with the rest of the guys. The Pirates seem to want to promote this group en masse level by level, which could be really interesting to watch in the second half of 2011 and into 2012.
As for Owens, he had a marvelous regular season of 150 IP, 23 BB, 132 K’s, and 124 hits allowed for a 0.98 WHIP. Yeah…less than 1 baserunner per inning. Not that ERA is a great predictive stat, but Owens had a 2.46 ERA as well.
Biggest Surprise: Alex Presley, OF — I don’t know how there could be any other choice. He was the surprise of the whole farm system this year.
Biggest Disappointment: Tim Alderson, RHP — The wheels are completely off this prospect’s train. Apparently, it got to the point of a mental block with Alderson, as referenced by some comments Kyle Stark made in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He said that Alderson at the end of the season (in Bradenton after his demotion) was finally smiling again and looking relaxed. As for Alderson the prospect, they either need to let him go back to his San Francisco Giants throwing motion that made him so successful or completely break him down and rebuild him this offseason. No “minor tweaks”. It has to be one of those two options.
Top 5 Prospects
1. Bryan Morris, RHP — It’s fun to have to choose between Morris, Owens, or Locke as the top pitching prospect from this staff. I went with Morris because his stuff grades out slightly higher than either Owens or Locke. Morris didn’t have the fantastic numbers as the other two did, but his arsenal may portend better long-term results.
2. Rudy Owens, LHP — I always flip-flop between Owens and Locke for this spot, but in the end I always go with Owens. He has been so steady and dependable the last two seasons, while Locke was a semi-disaster last year after the trade until the stretch run and 2009 playoffs. I think Owens is a cross between the good versions of Duke and Maholm in the long term. It is also my belief that because of his big league readiness and success in 2009-2010 that Owens will be part of a potential trade package this offseason to upgrade the Major League team.
3. Jeff Locke, LHP — Locke had a great year spread over A+/AA. While in Altoona, Locke pitched 57 regular season innings and allowed 57 hits while striking out 56 and walking 12. Apparently the fastball command mantra has sunk in with the pitchers, judging by the low BB totals for most of our top guys. Locke has been half a level behind in his promotion schedule so far in his Pirates career, but I’m hoping he can start 2011 in AAA with an eye towards a September 2011 trip to the majors.
4. Chase d’Arnaud, SS/2B — 2010 is a season that d’Arnaud may want to forget. The rumor stream says that he was fighting everything from mono to pneumonia at the beginning of the year, leading to a horrendous start that he never truly recovered from. To his credit, d’Arnaud did not use any excuse (aside from adjusting to cold weather) for his problems. As bad as his .247/.331/.377 (708 OPS) looks in comparison to his previous seasons’ stats, he still maintained a 10% walk rate and 20% K rate. He still had 33 doubles, 9 triples, and 6 home runs with 33 steals in 40 attempts.
Ultimately, d’Arnaud may be a 2B instead of a shortstop, but still profiles as a #2 table setter type of hitter. I still believe.
5. Justin Wilson, LHP — I am not a charter member of the Justin Wilson Fan Club, but I have to give him credit for this season and his body of work as a Pirate. I still feel that long-term he is a reliever, as his control problems may hamper him from being a starter. In 2010, Wilson had 71 walks in 142 innings (4.5 BB/9) which is too high a rate (3.5 BB/9 is the typical cut off for a starter). But he punishes the infield dirt with a 1.60 GB/FB ratio and had 134 K’s in those 142 innings.
When 4 of your 5 starters are in a Top 5 prospects list for the team, and that same group should be promoted together to AAA in 2011, that is a huge positive for the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Top 10 Prospects at the Level
This is a very deep team, and while there are no future superstars, there’s a ton of guys who could be average to above average starters at the major league level. Everyone on this list would probably be in the organization’s top 30 prospects, and that includes Mercer and Harrison, who I left tied for the tenth spot since they were so close in the overall rankings.
1. Bryan Morris
2. Rudy Owens
3. Jeff Locke
4. Andrew Lambo
5. Chase d’Arnaud
6. Justin Wilson
7. Gorkys Hernandez
8. Daniel Moskos
9. Matt Hague
10. Josh Harrison/Jordy Mercer