Saturday, September 25, 2010

Altoona Post Season Wrap

The Curve won the 2010 Eastern League championship with many players that were key pieces of the 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats title team. The guys are winners. Whether that translates into MLB careers or not has yet to be seen, although this is the level where the chaff starts to separate from the wheat.

The rotation is the glue of the team, and it's possible that they could move en masse to Indy next year; a couple could pop up in the Pirate rotation by the summer of 2011. The staff ace was the repeat Pirate Minor League Pitcher of the Year, 22 year old LHP Rudy Owens.

He went 12-6 with a 2.46 ERA in 26 starts, with 23 walks and 123 K's in 150 innings, and was named to the EL's midseason and postseason All-Star teams.

He's often compared to an early Zach Duke, but that's shortchanging him. Owens has more velocity - the throws in the low nineties - to go with a curve and change. The lefty has pinpoint control, a greatly improved ground ball rate, and proved he could eat some innings, the perfect recipe for a mid-rotation starter in the show.

His stuff isn't lights out, but he gets it over the plate, challenges hitters, and works both sides of the dish. Owens needs added to the 40-man roster this winter; he's a lock to make the list.

The guy considered to have the best stuff is 23 year old RHP Bryan Morris, the last man standing from the Jay Bay deal. After a mechanical make over to go with injury and disciplinary woes last year, he started off in Bradenton, where he dominated and showed the brass that his arm and head were both screwed on tight, earning him a promotion to the Curve.

He went 6-4 with a 4.25 ERA at Altoona, working 89 innings with 31 walks and 84 whiffs, showing signs of fatigue as the season wore on. Morris features a lower-to-mid 90's heater and a sharp curve. The righty spent the end of the year in the pen, as the Bucs limited his innings; he ended up with 133-2/3 frames combined.

If he can maintain his mechanics and avoid the injury bug, he has the potential to become a number two starter in the majors. But we're not entirely sold on him yet; he needs to build his stamina and have a breakout year in the upper levels. He's already on the 40-man roster.

The most pleasant surprise was 23 year old LHP Justin Wilson, winner of the final game of the 2008 College World Series for Fresno State. Throw in his 13 scoreless innings stint over two starts in the playoffs, and he's gaining a rep as a big game pitcher.

The fifth-round draft pick of 2008 went 11-8 with a 3.09 ERA during the season, and his prospect status jumped. The highlight was in mid-August, when he was named EL Pitcher of the Week after he threw eight shutout innings with 11 K's against New Hampshire, the league's top offensive club.

He throws a low 90's fastball with a curve and slider. Wilson's job is to show consistent command of his pitches and keep the free passes and deep counts down; he's at his best when pounding the strike zone. In 142-2/3 innings for the Curve, he struck out 134 batters - and walked 71.

Wilson is another guy whose stuff isn't overpowering, but does have swing-and-miss ability along with a good ground ball ratio, and projects as a mid-rotation starter in the show. He'll pitch in the Arizona Fall League over the winter.

The deep prospect part of the Nate McLouth deal was the young but highly regarded 22 year old LHP Jeff Locke. Starting out in Bradenton, he made a late move to Altoona and put together a solid season. He went 3-2 in ten starts with a 3.59 ERA, and in 57-2/3 innings struck out 56 batters and walked twelve.

His fastball is in the low-to-mid 90s, he has a sharp curve and an average change. His stuff is pretty strong; he may have the most upside on the staff outside of Morris. Locke has always been, even with the Braves, a pitcher with great control that keeps the ball down in the zone. He needs a little more consistency with the hook; when it's on, he's a challenge to hit.

Our guess is that he'll remain, at least early in 2011, with the Curve before he moves on to Indy, although it's possible that the entire staff may move up a level, given the injury and options situation - Donnie Veal, Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio - for the Tribe. But Locke does have upside; he's projected as a mid rotation arm with the potential to be a number two starter.

None of these guys are expected to break camp with the Pirates in 2011, but we'd be surprised if a couple of them don't pop up on the 25-man roster after June. We also caution that for all four to make it, the stars have to align just so; it's the nature of the beast for pitchers to hit the wall at some point through performance or injury.

The major prospect disappointment was Tim Alderson, who had a complete meltdown and was shipped down to Bradenton. He had high maintenance mechanics when the Bucs got him from the Giants; whether he can reinvent himself is the question.

The FO thinks they've got him on the right track, to the point where he's accepting adjustments instead of fighting them. The RHP is only 21, so there's still hope, but he's at a crossroads in his young career.

There are several bullpen prospects, though most are fringe players or question marks. Daniel Moskos, Diego Moreno, and Ramon Aguero are all power arms who are looked on as potential back end relievers, and all have had their struggles this year.

LHP Danny Moskos, 24, was a killer at Altoona, where he had 21 saves and an 1.52 ERA while showing off a 97 MPH heater. He was toast in a brief call to Indy, though. The Pirates believe his AAA performance was a mental, not physical, breakdown, and brought him back to Altoona where he again dominated.

He has to go on the 40-man roster this year, and seems a safe bet to make it. Potential lefty set-up or closing arms with serious heat aren't everyday finds for an organization.

RHP Diego Moreno had discipline problems, and was sent to Bradenton to do penance. But the 24 year old Venezuelan throws as hard as anyone in the system (consistent mid-90s, hitting 97), and is Rule 5 eligible; he's likely be added to the 40-man roster, replacing:

Ramon Aguero, a 25 year old Dominican, missed much of the season with an elbow problems and a back strain, and was torched in the few games he did pitch after a strong 2009 season. The RHP is on the 40-man roster, and will probably be DFA'ed off it, 96 MPH heat or not.

Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, and Michael Crotta all worked as starters in Altoona (Crotta moving up to Indy), and all three are seen as long bullpen arms in the majors and spot starters.

RHPs Hughes and Crotta are in the Jeff Karsten mold, while LHP Watson is an interesting case; he had a strong year as a starter, but is seen by many as a LOOGY.

And with the problems that Wil Ledezema and Justin Thomas have had in the show, that could make him a guy worth watching. Working out of the pen, Watson he had a 1.84 ERA, averaged more than a strikeout per inning, and held lefties to a .131 BA. He'll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft this year, and while a long shot to make the Pirate roster, someone looking for a lefty may roll the dice on him.

Other Curve pitchers who are marginal MLB talents are 24 year old RHPs Michael Dubee and Tom Boleska. Both are Rule 5 eligible; neither will be protected.

The position players' crystal balls are a lot hazier.

The Curve's best hitter was Pirate Minor League Player of the Year OF Alex Presley, who made the jump from Altoona to Indy to Pittsburgh. And he got his chance only because of injuries and a dearth of outfielders in the organization. You all know his story by now; he'll remain on the 40-man roster this year.

Another interesting outfielder is 22 year old Gorkys Hernandez, a Top Hundred prospect when the Bucs got him from Atlanta. He started off slowly, but improved his slash line every month until he broke his finger in July, ending his season.

That killed his predicted 2010 timeline; he was expected to be in Indy sometime this year and then join the September call-ups. Hernandez is on the 40-man roster and will stay there; right now he's the closest prospect to filling the Tabata/McCutchen backup role in Pittsburgh with Starling Marte still at least a couple of season away.

OF Andrew Lambo, 23, was one of the top prospects in baseball prior to the 2009 season, and is trying to resurrect his career in Pittsburgh, arriving as part of the Octavio Dotel deal.

Losing 50 games to a PED offense is probably the reason why the Pirates pried him loose from LA. His production has fallen off in the last two years (.275/2/10 in 102 Altoona at-bats), and he was streaky at the dish. It's hard to predict what turn his career will take, with so little time played this season.

Another problem is that he's another big lug, lefty corner player that the Buc FO loves to stockpile; his glove projects that he'll likely play as a 1B'man in the show, joining Garrett Jones, Jeff Clement, John Bowker, et al.

But it's too soon to sell him short; he played AA for the Dodgers at age 20, which is awfully young, and that, along with the suspension, may have slowed his development. Lambo will play in the Arizona Fall League this off-season, where he can pick up some of the at-bats he missed this season.

The Curve's infielders are Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer, all prospects of varying pedigree.

Jordy Mercer and Chase d'Arnaud are joined at the hip, having been the Bucs' third and fourth round picks in the 2008 draft, and both being groomed as the shortstop of the future.

d'Arnaud, 23, was considered to be the internal front runner for shortstop, but had a rough go of it this year for the Curve. He played poorly during the first two months of the season, fighting through a draining pneumonia-like illness. He picked it up mid-season, and then slacked off again toward the end. d'Arnaud's line was .247/6/48, with 91 runs scored and 33 stolen bases in 40 attempts.

His play in the field fell off, too, though he's considered to have average to above average physical tools, and he was occasionally bumped to second to give Mercer a little time at short. Right now, he's entrenched in the shortstop mix, perhaps still the top internal candidate, but he'll have to put 2010 in the rearview mirror and post a stronger 2011 campaign to keep that status quo.

Jordy Mercer, 24, had a line of .282/3/62, and played a lot of second and third base. Though his BA was considerably higher than d'Arnaud's, his OBP was actually a few points lower.

Both the middle guys will have to pick it up, or they'll find it tough to overtake Brian Friday, Argenis Diaz and Pedro Ciriaco in the system. Diaz and Ciriaco were brought in specifically to address the Pirate concerns in the middle infield, which isn't a good sign for the Curve duo.

1B Matt Hague, 25, has put up good offensive numbers. He's not much a gloveman, and the Pirates have only moved him along a step at a time, passive movement for a college player that shows they don't have expectations of him other than an organizational player. Still, he hit .295/15/86 with 90 runs scored, and may have a role as a bench bat somewhere along the line; he doesn't K often and will draw a walk.

3B Josh Harrison, 23, is a 5'8" infielder whose line of .300/4/75 doesn't really play well for a corner. His bat profiles as a middle infielder, which is what he was advertised as but isn't. His jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none glove, offset somewhat with his gap power, puts his ceiling at organizational player with a chance to become a utility guy at the MLB level.

C Hector Gimenez, 28, hit .305/16/72, while OF Miles Durham, 27, batted .257/10/59. Both are organizational players, although catchers are notoriously late bloomers; Gimenez could conceivably be a 40-game MLB reserve.

The youngsters are starting to rise to the top, part of the growth from within plan of the FO. The next wave looks pitching strong, which is a good news, but outside of an outfielder or two (and they're not sure things) the position players are far removed from offering any help to the big club.

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