Altoona made the post-season this year, winning a Wild Card spot, but going on to lose to Bowie in the playoffs in a best of five series. They made the playoffs on the strength of a very prospect-rich team throughout the year. That started with two of the best prospects in the system at the beginning of the year — Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell — and continued in the second half, with guys like Austin Meadows, Steve Brault, and other players making their way up from Bradenton. The Altoona team also saw a lot of breakout performances, including our breakout position player of the year in Max Moroff. They featured our Player of the Year in Josh Bell, and our Pitcher of the Year in Chad Kuhl. From a standpoint of prospect talent, this was probably the best Altoona team that we’ve covered in this site’s history.
TOP 10 ALTOONA CURVE PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. This excluded mid-season call-ups Barrett Barnes, Erich Weiss, Austin Meadows, Tyler Eppler, and Montana DuRapau. 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. Tyler Glasnow, RHP – Tyler Glasnow came into the 2015 season with very high hopes, and the results on the mound while in Altoona showed the kind of pitcher that he can be. The mid-season ankle injury claimed at least a month of Glasnow’s season, and it took him some time to get back into the groove before his promotion to Triple-A. It’s easy to throw numbers around to talk about Glasnow’s season, but let’s take a look at his pitches and what he accomplished during his time in Altoona instead. Glasnow showed an almost unhittable fastball, and he tended to dare Double-A batters to try and hit it. He really ramped it up during the early season going into the summer, hitting 96-97 MPH regularly on the gun in Altoona. The pitch has a steep downhill plane, which when combined with the velocity and Glasnow’s size, makes it very difficult to hit. Combined with a sharp curveball in the mid-70s, Glasnow was untouchable at times.
He relied heavily on those two pitches, but it was the development of his changeup that eventually scored him the call to Triple-A. While in Altoona, he showed great command, walking the least amount of batters in his career, along with numerous outings without a walk. After his promotion, it seemed like the fastball velocity dipped some, and hitters were more patient in Triple-A, resulting in his walk rate almost doubling. Glasnow will start 2016 in Indianapolis with the intentions of lower the amount of walks again like he did early this season, and continuing to develop the changeup as to counter his fastball. He is expected to reach the majors by the middle of the 2016 season.
2. Josh Bell, 1B – The lead story on Josh Bell all season was his defensive play at first base, after the transition there from the outfield. Bell looked horrendous at the position towards the beginning of the year, but he gradually improved as the season wore on. He worked with Kevin Young regularly on every aspect of the position, and you could see some of the results as the months got warmer. Even with learning a new position, Bell’s bat dominated for the majority of the season. He hit .321 in the first three months of the year before have a “down” month of July where he only hit .264 with a .719 OPS. Even still, Bell did enough with the bat to earn a promotion to Triple-A.
Offensively, Bell may have the best hand-eye coordination I’ve ever seen from a player. We received very favorable reports on his hitting skills, with one AL scout calling him the best pure hitter in the minors. The power numbers were still not quite there for Bell, but it only seems like it will be a matter of time before he begins to find the home run stroke. The organization worked with him throughout the season on adjusting his swing, and he never really seemed to get comfortable with it until late in the season in Indianapolis. Bell was much more productive from the left side of the plate this season with very defining splits (.334 average, .920 OPS from the left and .275 average, .632 OPS from the right). I expect Bell to come out of the gate strong next season with a full off-season to make minor adjustments on his swing as to make him more comfortable. He will also need some work at first base, as he’s not a finished product at the position. He’s the first baseman of the future in Pittsburgh, and could make that jump by mid-season next year.
3. Steven Brault, LHP – As everyone knows, Brault was the PTBNL that the Pirates received in the Travis Snider trade with the Orioles this past offseason (along with Steven Tarpley). He was promoted to Altoona in mid-June, and it didn’t take long for him to get accustomed to the new level. In his last ten regular seasons starts, Brault had a 0.96 ERA in 65.1 IP, along with an opponent batting average of .179. He was able to work his fastball around both sides of the plate and keep it down in the zone during his impressive campaign. The lefty will throw his fastball in the upper-80s or low-90s, depending on whether he’s throwing his two-seamer or four-seamer, respectively. The two-seamer is the better option, arriving at the plate low in the zone, and then cutting at the last second and dropping off the table. He pairs the fastball with a changeup and slider in the mid-80s, and a curveball that sits between 80-82 MPH. He only gave up one home run in Altoona this season. Brault could begin next season in Indianapolis and has the upside to be a starting pitcher in the majors.
4. Chad Kuhl, RHP – Kuhl was recently named our 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and the award was well deserved after a great season in Altoona. Kuhl flew under the radar early in the season because of the great first month that Altoona’s rotation produced, but he truly came into his own after mid-June. From June 12th, Kuhl had a 1.83 ERA through the end of the season and truly rounded into form as the ace of the Altoona staff. His performance in July was off the charts, posting a 0.61 ERA while only allowing four extra base hits (all doubles). His two-seam and four-seam fastball both improved, with the four-seamer hitting as high at 97 MPH on a consistent basis. The sinker proved important again, with Kuhl posting a 57% groundball rate. His most improved pitch was the slider, going from a pitch that he was not confident with early in the season to a strike out pitch towards the end. He should start 2016 with Indianapolis and can become a major league caliber starter as long as his off-speed stuff continues to improve.
5. Max Moroff, 2B – The Pirates named Moroff their Minor League Player of the Year, mostly for his extremely strong first half of the season. He posted a .293 average and .783 OPS this season, and ranked among the Eastern League leaders in runs scored (79, 1st), hits (153, 2nd), walks (70, 3rd), and total bases (214, 4th). He also set the Altoona Curve franchise record for the most hits by a switch-hitter with his 153 hits. He was extremely good from the left side with a .340 average and .880 OPS. Moroff, who played primarily at second base for the majority of the season before being moved around for positional flexibility in the second half of the season, greatly improved his defense compared to his past professional seasons. Overall, Moroff was probably the most improved, and most impressive player on the Curve’s roster this season. He showed great gap power at the plate, as well as the ability to drive the ball deep on occasion as the season progressed. An improved strikeout rate, 24.2% in 2014 to 18.1% in 2015, was a great sign for the young second baseman.
6. Willy Garcia, RF – Garcia was batting .314 at the time of his promotion to Triple-A. The key component to Garcia’s game that needed improvement before his promotion was his strikeout rate, which was at 32.9% in April for Altoona. His K-rate was above 30% in both 2013 and 2014. Between May 1st and June 14th (when Garcia was promoted), he cut his strikeouts in half, only striking out 15.6% of the time. He power numbers dipped during that time, but he worked hard at shortening his swing during a two-strike approach that allowed him to make contact more often. After his promotion to Indianapolis, Garcia’s numbers leveled out some, finishing 2015 with a combined 23.9% K-rate and .156 ISO. Garcia’s arm in the outfield is no joke, either, gunning out runners on the base paths left and right. He’s got the best outfield arm in the system, and some of the best raw power. With the power potential and strong defensive play, Garcia should push for an MLB debut next season.
7. Adam Frazier, SS – Frazier missed the beginning of the season after a hand injury in Spring Training, but he came on strong once he made his 2015 debut in May. He slashed .451/.500/.610 between June 5th and July 5th, forcing manager Tom Prince to find a place for him in the lineup daily. Overall, Frazier hit .324 in 2015, good for second in the Eastern League in the batting race. He actually had the best average out of players with a qualified number of at-bats, but he lost the batting title due to a technicality. Frazier is mostly a singles hitter with the ability to slap the ball into the gaps. The Curve moved him around positionally during the season, from the outfield to playing shortstop for the most part during the stretch run. He does not profile as a major league shortstop at this time because of too many errors and not the greatest range. His upside would be more of a utility player, with strengths at second base or center field.
8. Keon Broxton, CF – Broxton was a great leadoff hitter for the Curve during the two month span that he spent with the team, batting .302 with a .828 OPS while playing center field the majority of the time. He hit a respectable .273 in April, but he improved to hit .324 in May until his promotion. The month of May saw Broxton get on base more consistently and strike out less, something he was working to improve upon to be a strong leadoff hitter. He made adjustments mid-season by putting more weight on his back leg to stay within the ball, rather than swinging uncontrollably. It really was the intangibles that made Broxton a September call-up this season, with great base running skills and strong defensive play. Expect Broxton to begin next season as the center fielder at Indianapolis, with the ability to be a depth option throughout the year, if necessary. Of course, it will be tough for any outfielders to crack the Pittsburgh lineup in the next few years.
9. Angel Sanchez, RHP – After getting booted around multiple organizations in 2014, Angel Sanchez found a home in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and he may have been one of the organization’s best surprises until it was announced that he needed Tommy John surgery in early September. He came out of the gate on fire (like the whole Altoona staff) with a 0.40 ERA in four starts (22.2 IP) in April. He leveled out with a 2.79 ERA during his time with the Curve, but he showed the ability to pitch well in high leverage situations. Numbers all across the board were better for Sanchez in 2015 than in the past. He began throwing a curveball this past offseason to accompany a two-seam cutter, four-seam fastball, and a changeup. The development of the curveball was essential to his success. He was also a very emotional pitcher, and he had to learn to stay mentally grounded and not allow tough situations to get the best of him. Tommy John should claim his 2016 season, and Sanchez would have one more year in the Pirates system after he returns.
10. Jacob Stallings, C – Stallings has been known as a more defensive-minded catcher in the Pirates organization, but 2015 proved to be a great offensive year for him on top of his solid defense. He had a tough stretch in the middle of the season (July), but it was surrounded by strong offensive months and a tear as the season winded down. At the end of the year, Stallings took over the catching duties full-time, after splitting time all year with Sebastian Valle. He showed a very strong line drive approach, but he did not hit many extra base hits. He did come up clutch on multiple occasions towards the end of the season for Curve, most notably delivering a walk-off hit for the Curve’s lone playoff victory. Defensively, he rates high at pitch framing and blocking, and he has a plus arm. Comparisons to Chris Stewart are not far off, as he has a comparable frame (very tall and skinny) and similar results from both behind the plate and batting. He profiles as a defensive-minded major league back-up catcher.
Other Notable Players: Jose Osuna was held back from a promotion to Altoona at the start of the year due to Josh Bell playing at first base. Osuna stayed in Bradenton to re-learn the outfield spot, and got the call to Double-A after getting comfortable in right field. He has some raw power, but needs to show more of that in the future, as he is limited to being a starter at first base or a bench option for the corner outfield, with both positions requiring a bat-first approach. Dan Gamache had a breakout season at the plate, hitting for a .335/.377/.457 line in 245 at-bats, and getting a promotion to Indianapolis. Gamache can play second and third base, but isn’t a strong defender at second and doesn’t have the power for third, making his upside a utility player. Gift Ngoepe had a typical season in Altoona, showing off the best defense at shortstop in the system, but not doing much with the bat. He eventually moved on to Indianapolis, and will one day find himself in the majors as a backup shortstop. Jason Creasy entered the season with a similar upside to Chad Kuhl, but while Kuhl improved his stock, Creasy saw a decline. His biggest strength in the lower levels was a lack of walks, and that didn’t carry over to Altoona, where he walked 52 in 147 innings, compared to 22 in 148.2 innings last year. He could be a back of the rotation starter or see his stuff play up as a power reliever in the majors, but is likely going to need another season in Altoona. John Kuchno has a Jared Hughes type approach, with a strong sinker that he relies on almost exclusively, leading to the best ground ball rate in the system. He doesn’t have an out pitch, which limits his upside to a middle reliever.