I had a chance to watch Altoona’s three-game series in Harrisburg from April 22-24. It was a tough test for the Curve, as the Senators came in with a 14-2 record, largely on the strength of a pitching staff that’s been by far the Eastern League’s best. The Curve lost the first two games, 1-0 and 5-4, but handily won the third, 10-5.
We knew Altoona wouldn’t have a lot of prospects this year, as you can see in our preview. That makes the team a little tough to watch in an unusual way: Despite some early struggles on offense, it’s not a bad team, but the amount of upside is questionable. That’s especially apparent watching some of the pitchers, who can look very good at times. But let’s start with the hitters.
The closest thing to prospects among the Altoona position players are center fielder Jared Oliva and shortstop Stephen Alemais. Both have very good defensive ability but will need to prove themselves with the bat.
In the first two games, Oliva and Alemais both looked tentative at the plate. They both have good swings and tried to work the count, but didn’t seem to pick up breaking balls well. The result was taking fastballs for strikes and swinging at breaking balls in the dirt at times, without much hard contact. In the third game, against pitchers who weren’t as effective, Oliva hit the ball hard every time up, going 2-4. He also got good jumps on two steal attempts, both easily successful. Alemais singled his first time up, but got hurt stealing second.
On defense, Oliva has good but not great speed, and his jumps and routes in this series were very efficient. Alemais didn’t get a lot of action at short, but his actions are very quick and he’s very fast at getting rid of throws. His glove alone could get him to the majors in a limited role.
The other position player on the Curve who could have some breakout potential is right fielder Bligh Madris. He has a good line drive bat and had seven hits in the series (although one was a pop fly that dropped and another should have been scored an error). He makes a good amount of hard contact, but he’s not patient — in fact, he hasn’t drawn a single walk this season — and he may not drive the ball enough to make up for a marginal OBP with power. I didn’t get a good sense of his defense; the one time he had a chance to make a throw to the plate on a single, he got too anxious and dropped the ball.
What power Altoona gets will have to come from OF/1B Logan Hill and third baseman Hunter Owen. Both are old for prospects at this level; Owen is 25 and Hill will be 26 in a month. Hill is a big guy with a lot of strength, but he’s had contact issues. He seemed in this series to be toning down his swing and he got the barrel on some balls, including three hits in the third game, but he still has a lot of swing and miss. Owen looks to pull the ball on each swing. He’s having a very good year so far, with a .953 OPS. That’s encouraging because he had a terrible first two months last year at Bradenton, so he may be adjusting much more quickly to this level. But he’s struck out 25 times in 64 ABs, and has only six walks, so pitchers are able to exploit his pull-heavy approach.
Dario Agrazal started the first game and probably had the best game of his career. Things went the wrong way for him when, possibly due to shoulder issues, his velocity dropped last year to the low-90s from the mid-90s, which in turn got him removed from the 40-man roster. In this game, he threw the four basic pitches and pounded the strike zone, getting 57 strikes out of 79 pitches. His fastball topped out at 91-92 and was often in upper-80s. In stark contrast to the Pirates’ consistent approach in past years, Agrazal mixed his pitches continuously from the first batter he faced. I don’t have his pitch mix, but I very much doubt he threw the fastball more than half the time. He got a lot of weak contact. He didn’t get many swings and misses early, but fanned 6 of last 11 batters as they seemed to have more trouble picking up his pitches as the game went on, which is the opposite of what I’ve seen from him in the past.
Cam Vieaux started the second game. Like Agrazal, he threw the standard four pitches, but he threw a lot more fastballs. He didn’t get much swing and miss, but occasionally the hitters would be behind the fastball, which never topped 89, so he has a little ability to be sneaky fast. He moved ball around a lot, staying around the edges of the strike zone; like most pitchers who have to work around the edges, he had brief stretches where he he wasn’t getting it over. He sometimes was able to get the ball in on RH hitters, resulting in some popups to the right side. When he got too much of the plate, as he did in the fifth inning, he got hit hard.
Jake Brentz threw one inning in the second game and allowed the winning run. He used to hit triple digits regularly, but had massive control issues. He’s toned it down a lot. In this game, he was throwing 88-89 at first, but quickly got up to 94. He also has good break on his slider and his control has improved markedly, but he got hit hard in the one inning, as he’s much easier to hit now than he was.
Scooter Hightower started the third game and lasted only three innings. He leaned very heavily on the fastball, which he was throwing mostly in the 85-88 mph range. (I saw one 92 and nothing else above 88, although the gun wasn’t working much of the time.) Hightower is 6’6″ and pitched up in the zone, or above the zone, a good deal of the time. No doubt because of this, he’s always been an extreme flyball pitcher. Somehow, he made that work last year, when he had a 2.41 ERA in 11 games with Altoona. In this game, his approach led to a lot of hard contact. He does seem to have a solid change, but he didn’t throw it a lot.
Beau Sulser followed Hightower with two quick innings, throwing only 23 pitches, 19 for strikes, and fanning four. He doesn’t throw exceptionally hard, just in the low-90s, but he kept the ball down and showed a very effective change in this game.
Blake Weiman made his first appearance of the season and threw a nine-pitch inning. His fastball was 89-91 and he threw several mid-70s breaking balls. He threw strikes and located his pitches well, but it was a quick inning, so it’s hard to form much of an impression.