In 2015, the Curve were probably the most interesting and talent-packed team within the minor league system to begin the year. Tyler Glasnow and Josh Bell headlined the 2015 Curve roster; however, the team was fortunate enough to see breakout seasons from the likes of Max Moroff, Adam Frazier, and Dan Gamache in the field, as well as Chad Kuhl and Steven Brault on the mound. With Willy Garcia, Gift Ngoepe, and Jacob Stallings all graduating to Triple-A to begin 2016, the Curve roster feels wide open after a few key returnees.
We will get into the new players in just a minute, but let’s start with the returning players to Altoona. Outfielder Barrett Barnes (#23 prospect in the system) and OF/1B Jose Osuna (#37) made the move to Altoona early in 2015, and they return as starters. Erich Weiss (#46) was a late season call-up last year, and he will return to be the Curve’s everyday second baseman. Eric Wood will return to play third base after a tough 2015 campaign. In the outfield, 2010 second round draftee Stetson Allie and Jon Schwind will return and presumably take on bench roles. Lastly, Jason Creasy will be the lone returnee to the starting rotation after making the 2015 Eastern League All Star Team, but struggling in the second half of the season.
Now for those players making the trip north from Bradenton this season for the first (or almost the first) time. Austin Meadows (#2) and righty Tyler Eppler (#22) both made extremely late season appearances for the Curve and contributed down the stretch, and they will be essential pieces this season. Harold Ramirez (#6) and Reese McGuire (#7) join Meadows as the other players in our top 10 prospect list. Pitcher Clay Holmes (#19) moves to Altoona for his first full season since 2013 (Tommy John surgery), and Cody Dickson (#33) joins him moving up from Bradenton. Lastly, catcher Jin-De Jhang (#39) will split time with McGuire behind the plate, while Chris Diaz will play shortstop, and Edwin Espinal will split time at first base.
The 2016 edition of the Altoona Curve come north with six players (including Meadows) in the top 25 of our prospect rankings, compared to only four in the top 25 of our rankings last season. The best thing about the beginning of each season is the hope for great things to come. This team isn’t headlined with Glasnow and Bell, but it is loaded with prospects up and down the lineup. Austin Meadows, Ramirez, and Barnes are arguably three of the best outfield prospects in the system. Reese McGuire will be exciting to watch as he continues to develop behind the plate. Clay Holmes, Eppler, and Dickson all have the upside of being major league contributors. Add in Jose Osuna after his enormous winter in Venezuela and the intrigue of Jin-De Jhang, and the Curve should be a team worth following this season.
The Curve should be a very strong hitting team this year with a lot of players that hit for average. They will need some of the players with power potential to tap into that this year to provide a spark. Overall, though, as the saying goes, “you’re only as good as tomorrow’s starting pitcher”. The starting rotation looks like it could be good, but there is also a level of uncertainty that is attached to the starters. If the young pitching prospects continue to develop well, it could be a fun season in Curve, PA.
2016 ALTOONA CURVE TOP 10 PROSPECTS
1. Austin Meadows, CF – Meadows made the late season trip to Altoona in 2015, and his impact was immediately felt, as he essentially led the Curve in hitting down the stretch. He will miss approximately the first month of the season this year because of surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone, but that should have little impact on his progression as a prospect through the system. Last season, Meadows greatly improved his strikeout numbers after shortening his swing up to focus on rhythm in the box. His 2015 season was highlighted by hitting a two-run home run to help the Curve comeback from being seven runs down to Bowie in the first game of the Western Division Series. He also hit a huge home run in the AFL Fall Stars Game, garnering him a lot of national attention as a top prospect. Obviously, Meadows should be the best player on this Altoona team once he returns, but the Pirates will probably take their time with him since there is no immediate need for his services above the Double-A level.
2. Harold Ramirez, OF – When Ramirez was signed by the Pirates in 2011, many teams were not sold on him because of his lack of power from a corner outfield position. Although it has yet to translate into home run power, and might never do that, Ramirez impressed last season with a .458 SLG while playing in a hitter-friendly league. His overall hitting ability, combined with improved speed and arm strength, give the Pirates a lot to be excited about with the 21-year-old prospect from Colombia. Expect him to hit and hit and hit without striking out very much. If the young man can stay healthy, something that has been difficult for him so far in his career, he has the ability to be an impact major league outfielder.
3. Reese McGuire, C – McGuire was the youngest player invited to major league camp in Spring Training, and he seemed to reap the benefits from his time spent around his elder teammates. When an MLB player came to Pirate City to pitch, Reese McGuire was the guy behind the plate catching, and he was praised for his work by every pitcher. He is the best defensive catcher in the system, and one of the best in the minors, if not the best. The offense has yet to completely catch up to his ability behind the plate; however, he made adjustments to his hitting in the AFL which led to better results, and he looked good hitting in the spring. He rarely strikes out and drives the ball to the gaps, but he has yet to hit anything more than a double above West Virginia. The hope is that those results change after the hard work with the bat last fall and this spring.
4. Clay Holmes, RHP – Clay Holmes enters 2016 with no restrictions to begin the season after his 2014 Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2014 and most of 2015. The Pirates were aggressive with his promotion to Double-A after the lack of innings and experience under his belt, but his improvements in a small dose last season gave them confidence to do just that. Holmes put up strong numbers in Bradenton last season while improving his walk rate. His fastball came back with a little more velocity than pre-surgery, sitting between 92-95 MPH, and he features a sharp curveball in the upper 80s. Holmes still has the upside of a mid-rotation starter, and he should come out feeling like he has a lot to prove this season.
5. Tyler Eppler, RHP – Tim Williams recently wrote that Eppler was working on his breaking pitch, and that pitch would make him a prospect to keep an eye on this season if he is able to follow through with those improvements. A 2014 Draft pick, Eppler is moving quickly through the system, already spending some time in Altoona at the end of last season and the AFL in the off-season. A tall right-hander, Eppler sits 92-94 MPH with his fastball with the frame to add more velocity. He came into the system with a curveball and slider, but he dropped the curve ball and changed his slider from a hard cutter to a slurve. Eppler, like Chad Kuhl last season, should have plenty of opportunities to work with Pitching Coach Justin Meccage this season to improve on that breaking pitch, making him another legitimate pitching prospect.
6. Barrett Barnes, OF – Barnes will be a familiar face to the Altoona crowd, as he spent the second half of 2015 with the Curve. Before 2015, Barnes struggled to stay healthy during any of his professional years; however, he was able to stay on the field last year, and the bat finally showed off some. Barnes still has a lot of upside, and he will continue to develop this season. He has a lot of speed and range in the outfield, with the ability to play center field. He can hit for average and get on base, never looking overmatched at the plate. The power numbers have not really been there yet for the 24-year-old, but he’s got some great raw power, and flashed some of that power late in the season for Altoona.
7. Jose Osuna, 1B/OF – I recently wrote about Osuna’s success over the winter in Venezuela, and John Dreker did a fantastic job keeping us all updated throughout the winter on how well Osuna was hitting. Osuna comes into 2016 with a great amount of confidence, and he should be able to bring that north with him after hitting will in Spring Training, as well. Tim Williams has noted that Osuna did a better job hitting to the opposite field this spring. He will find playing time at first base as well as the outfield this season, as the Pirates seem to want him ready at both positions if the bat continues to be good enough for a quick promotion. He does have an extremely strong arm from the outfield, and his fielding would be considered average at first base. The outfield and first base positions are crowded in Indianapolis, but Osuna should push for a mid-season promotion at some point in 2016.
8. Cody Dickson, LHP– Dickson is a power lefty arm with a strong curve ball and good changeup, but he has been inconsistent with fastball control problems so far as a professional. His FIP was almost a run better than his ERA last year, and he did cut down on his walk rate in Bradenton, as well. His stuff is electric, but he will need to control the fastball to be able to find success as a starting pitcher. The Pirates sent Dickson to the AFL last year as a reliever, and he was able to capture some of those control elements. The hope is that he can continue going into 2016, as he will be a cog in the Curve starting rotation, and an interesting prospect to watch as a lefty who can sits low 90s and can hit mid-90s.
9. Jin-De Jhang, C/DH – Jhang will split time behind the plate with Reese McGuire, and he should find some time as a designated hitter in Altoona when he is not catching. Jhang has been rated as one of the best pure hitters in the system, as he makes solid contact and doesn’t strike out often. He is a large man, but he is surprisingly quick and fleet for his size, showing off surprising agility behind the plate. He also features a strong arm, which makes him an asset defensively. His biggest issue will be his body size as he moves forward, as it may be difficult for him to progress through the system with his body type, especially if he continues to grow.
10. Erich Weiss, 2B – Weiss will return to Altoona after a mid-season promotion in 2015, and he will take over the everyday job at second base. He had some initial struggles after the promotion, but he did show flashes of hitting projectability that the Pirates saw when they drafted him out of college in 2013. For the Curve last year, most of his hits were singles, but he did show some raw power to gaps and wall late in the season. Weiss doesn’t look like a player that jumps off of the board to most, but he should hit for average, add some power, and control the strike zone. That has become a typical profile for drafted Pirates hitting prospects in recent years. Converted from third base, his defense is average at second base, but he holds his own.
Other Notable Prospects
Montana DuRapau, RHP – DuRapau was moved to Altoona late last season and had success in the bullpen in limited action. His schedule this spring was strange, as he frequently rode the bus back and forth from Pirate City to big league camp as a relief option (when all else fails in MLB games). He is a small pitcher, but he had a lot of success last season in a relief role sitting low 90s with his fastball, and showing off an improved cutter.
David Whitehead, RHP – Whitehead was acquired in the Charlie Morton trade, and he will begin the season in the rotation. He is a sinker ball pitcher who gets a lot of movement on his pitches, and relies primarily on that pitch and a pitch to contact approach.
Jason Creasy, RHP – Creasy returns to Altoona for a second season after a successful first half and not-so-successful second half. He saw more walks and hard hit balls last season than in the past, but he was able to make some adjustments extremely late in the season that should provide some confidence heading into this year. He will be the Curve’s 2016 Opening Day starter.
Edwin Espinal, 1B – Espinal provides a very intriguing bat, with advanced plate patience and hitting for contact, but he has yet to hit for much power, even with his large frame. Should he find his power stroke, he could be a legitimate prospect. He will get time at first base and third base this year.
Wyatt Mathisen, 3B – Mathisen will not begin the year in Altoona, as he is out with a sore shoulder. He will begin throwing this week at Pirate City, and he has the opportunity to move to Altoona when ready, although that move will largely depend on how his shoulder progresses. He hasn’t hit as much in the lower levels, but doesn’t look overmatched at the plate, and has shown signs of potential with his ability to drive the ball to the gaps.