The Rise of The Altoona Four

Like any good superhero trilogy, the first movie introduces the viewer to the heroes.  By the end of the movie, the team is united and ready to fight evil.  However, the second movie usually introduces some type of conflict, whether internal or external, that challenges the team and makes them all question themselves and each other.  By the end of that second movie, the team has been through the ringer and is battered and beaten, but lessons have been learned.  Typically, the third movie shows the ascent of the team to its ultimate destiny and they emerge victorious over all their enemies.

In 2010, we were introduced to a team of pitching prospects that were dubbed The Altoona Four because they all were pitching at Double A Altoona.  The leader of the group, due to ridiculously fantastic man-perm, was Rudy Owens.  He was coming off of a dominant 2009 split between Low A Hickory and High A Lynchburg.  He followed that up with a Pirates’ Pitcher of the Year in 2010 at Altoona when he went 12-6, 2.46 ERA in 150 IP, giving up only 124 hits, walking just 23, and striking out 132.

The rogue of the group was Bryan Morris.  There was a great deal of pressure placed on Morris by fans, as he represented the best hope to gain long-term value from the Jason Bay deal.  After embarrasing the Florida State League for 8 starts, he was called up to Altoona and made 16 solid, yet unspectacular starts for Altoona.  In 89 IP, he went 6-4 with a 4.25 ERA, yielding 87 hits, walking 31, and whiffing 84.

The youngster of the group was Jeff Locke, part of the return for the Nate McLouth trade to Atlanta.  Although not significantly younger than the others, if at all, Locke looks like the paperboy that used to deliver your newspaper to your door.  He lagged behind the others in getting to Altoona because his 2009 stint with the Pirates was poor after arriving from Atlanta.  He spent most of the year in the FSL, but did make 10 good starts for the Curve going 3-2 with a 3.59 ERA.  In his 57 innings, he gave up 57 hits, walked 12, and struck out 56 batters.

The wildcard of the group, both figuratively and semi-literally, was Justin Wilson.  The only Huntington draftee of the four (2008, 5th round), Wilson started the whole year at Altoona and went 11-8 with a 3.09 ERA.  In 142 IP, he allowed 109 hits and struck out 134, but his long-time nemesis (Captain Control) reared his ugly head as he issued 71 free passes.  But he was still considered a high-end prospect as a pitcher…if he could just get those walks under control.

If 2010 was the intro to our heroes and the “first movie”, then 2011 was the 2nd movie where they start to experience adversity.  By and large, it was not a memorable year for the Altoona Four.  Part of the problem may have been that they were split up to start 2011, with Locke and Morris staying back in Altoona, while Owens and Wilson went up to Indianapolis.  Perhaps their struggles are because they’re like Voltron — they only function properly when they’re all assembled.

Owens came into the year out of shape, pitching-wise and was ineffective for the majority of the year.  He eventually was shut down with shoulder issues, but not before Owens put up a 5.05 ERA.  In 112 IP, he gave up 129 hits, issued 32 walks, and struck out only 71 batters with a .289 BAA.  Wilson struggled again with his control and had a very uneven year, some nights he was unhittable and other nights he was all over the park.  Wilson put up a 4.13 ERA, but had 21 starts and 9 relief appearances.  In his 124 IP, he gave up only 121 hits, but allowed 67 walks and struck out 94 batters.  The silver lining was when he was switched to relief at the end of the year, he was regularly hitting 97+ mph on his fastball.

Morris, somewhat surprisingly, started the year in Altoona and made that decision look good by having 6 blah starts and then spending time on the disabled list (again).  When he returned to the lineup in mid-June, he became a reliever full-time for the remainder of the season.  This was viewed as a disappointing turn of events, as mentioned before he was the great hope from the Jason Bay trade.  As is common, Morris’s fastball velocity spiked when he went to the pen.  Morris never did get the call up to Indy in 2011.  Locke had a very quiet year, but through steady performances and injuries to a multitude of pitchers at end of the year, he made The Show for 4 starts in September.  His so-so Altoona season didn’t seem worthy of a promotion, but because of the aforementioned injuries he got moved up to Indy.  While there, Locke turned it up a notch and pitched some of his best innings as a Pirate farmhand.  In 5 starts at AAA, Locke pitched 28 IP, gave up 25 hits, walked 9 and struck out 25 with only a .240 BAA (his lowest as a Pirate).  This led to his callup, which was not good, but he still got there ahead of any of the other Four.

Here we sit 1/4 of the way through the 2012 minor league season and we can safely say that so far this year can be dubbed The Rise of the Altoona Four (now they have grown into the Indy Four, but stick with it).  Owens and Locke are both pitching fantastically and are viable callup candidates to Pittsburgh at any time.  Morris has become a dominant reliever with a strong 3 pitch mix, highlighted by a mid-90’s fastball, and is a legitimate candidate to be the next closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Wilson has already been part of a combined no-hitter, but is still having his control problems.  However, his pure stuff could easily play up in the bullpen and become a power lefty out of the bullpen.

What a difference a year makes.  Our heroes looked lost last year and robbed the Pirates’ system of that key 2nd-tier depth behind Cole/Taillon/Marte.  Now they are all thriving and all of The Four should see the major leagues at some point this year.  At the outset of the 2013 season, it is entirely possible that all of The Four could be part of the 12 man pitching staff for the big league club.  The final chapter is not completed yet, but it is looking very promising for our heroes.