Curry is hitting his way to Bradenton early in 2011

The early part of the 2011 minor league season has seen more than a few players get off to hot starts, but leading the pack so far is West Virginia Power first baseman Matt Curry.  Curry is off to a .400/.481/.800 (1281 OPS) start after Wednesday’s game.  Embedded within that .800 slugging percentage are 6 doubles, 3 triples, and 2 homers.  Additionally, Curry has walked 8 times and struck out only 4 times in 45 at-bats.  In the Pirates Prospects 2011 Prospect Guide, I had Curry ranked #22 on my personal list heading into the season (he placed #44 overall by Pirates Prospects staff).  Additionally, in the 2011 Minor League Preview for the West Virginia Power, 3 of the 5 staff members selected Curry as their Hitter of the Year pick.

Curry’s 2010 debut, after being selected in the 16th round out of TCU, was impressive.  At State College, Curry made the adjustment from college to pros quite well with a .299/.421/.477 (898 OPS) triple slash line.  Even though he had 47 strikeouts in 197 at-bats, Curry did draw an excellent number of 39 walks (a shade under 20%).  Curry slugged 7 HR’s and smashed 14 doubles in short-season as well.

Curry’s journey from Red Oak High School to Pirates farmhand was not a typical path.  His story was chronicled by Stefan Stevenson of the Star-Telegram last April, prior to Curry being drafted by the Pirates.  Curry was not recruited out of high school, despite hitting .566 as a senior at Red Oak.  There’s a chance that it was due to the fact that, to be polite, Curry was husky in high school.  Curry’s father met the head coach at Howard Junior College and got his son an open tryout.  After seeing the pure hitting displayed by Curry, coach Britt Smith immediately signed him to the team.  It was after his 2nd season at Howard in 2008 (.451 average, 20 HR’s) that Curry was drafted the first time.  The team that drafted him in the 37th round was none other than the Pirates.  The two sides didn’t come to an agreement, so Curry went to TCU to further advance his baseball resume.  Apparently he made an impression on the Pirates’ scouting staff as they kept up on him and took him again two years later, this time in the 16th round after his senior season campaign of .339/.464/.677 (1141 OPS) with 18 HR’s and a 57 walk/50 strikeout ratio in 248 at-bats.

While at TCU, Curry packed 248 pounds on to his 6′-1″ frame at his maximum weight.  His coach, Jim Schlossnagle, challenged Curry to lose 40 pounds and do a more focused strength training program coupled with improved eating habits.  During his senior year at TCU, the revamped Curry played at 215 pounds.  Suddenly, Curry’s agility was improved around 1B and his defense was noted as much as hitting.  Curry enjoyed running the bases now, too.

There’s a slight misconception around various message boards that Curry is “old”.  Due to his July 27th birthday, Curry was only 21 years old as a senior at TCU when he was drafted.  The year 2011 is his age-22 season, which is the typical age that a drafted college junior is when he enters full season ball the following season.  It’s considered successful if a drafted college junior makes High A during his first full season at age 22, which Curry most certainly will do at his current pace.  Even allowing for Curry’s return trip to Earth, it’s hard to believe that he will still be in West Virginia any later than June 1st.

Right now in the Pirates system, the first basemen are Matt Hague at AAA, Miles Durham in AA, Aaron Baker in High A, and Curry in Low A.  Miles Durham is not a true prospect, as he’s more of an organizational player at this point in his career.  The other 3 first basemen are all off to good starts to the 2011 season.  Hague is known for his hit tool (never has hit lower than .293 in the minors) and his plate discipline (just shy of a 1:1 K/BB ratio in his career) and good defense at 1B.  Aaron Baker has raw power (18 HR’s in 2010 and 2 already in 2011), but an average hit tool and so-so plate discipline to this point in his career.  Curry may be a blend of these two players with his contact skills, high average, slugging, and suitable defense at first base.

Curry bats left-handed, but throws with his right, which is not ideal for a first baseman as he needs to pivot on his throws to the bases at a more awkward angle than a lefty.  In general, due to their low spot on the defensive spectrum it is more difficult for a 1B to be a highly-regarded prospect.  The bat really needs to play in order for a 1B to stand out.  Hopefully Curry can maintain his core functions of hitting for average and drawing walks, while continuing to hit for power as well.  If that happens throughout 2011, we may be talking about Curry in the Top 10 for the Pirates in 2012.