Minor League Primer: The Altoona Curve
The Minor League season has officially kicked off. I will be doing primers for each level over the next week. This should be a very exciting year for the Pirate’s minor leagues affiliates as they start to see many of their top prospects reach the upper levels. This is the true test to see if these top prospects really deserve to be considered in that category. I have always said that the biggest jump in the minors for hitters is from High-A to AA and for pitchers from AA to AAA. The Pirates will see many prospects do that this year. I have already done my Triple-A Primer see the link at the bottom of the page.
The Altoona Curve (AA):
Altoona’s team is not as strong as AAA Indy, however they do have talented prospects to watch this year. The Curve may not have the pitching rotation AAA has, but they definitely have the superior outfield. In fact, this is could be the most dynamic outfield across baseball at the AA level. The outfield will be led by top 25 prospect Austin Meadows. The former #9 overall pick will not be joining the team right away as he fractured his orbital during Spring Training. I expect Meadows to be back around early May. What can we expect from him when he comes back? During the 2013 draft, Jonathan Mayo called Meadows the most advanced high school bat in the draft. He said he expected him to be the quickest prep player to reach the majors. Unfortunately, this injury will be setting him behind. Meadows got a taste of Altoona last year playing in 6 games. In those 6 games he hit .360 with 3 triples and 2 doubles. Although a small sample size, Meadows seemed to transition well into AA. Between High-A and AA he hit .310 with a slash line of .360/.420/780 (OBP/SLUG/OPS). A very impressive stat line for the 20-year-old. With all things said, Meadows projects to be an all-star caliber player at the MLB level. He will be 21 in May and could find himself at AAA by the end of the year. Many think he will be Andrew McCutchen’s replacement in center field in 2019, or if Cutch is traded before then. My biggest concern is that Meadows is a big athlete. He is 6’3” and over 200lbs already. I do not think that Meadows will be a center fielder at the next level as he possesses just average foot speed already. He projects more as a left fielder. However, the Pirates will use him all around the outfield this year and get him experience playing all the positions. Meadows is considered the Pirate’s top hitting prospect and the #2 overall prospect in the system.
Joining Meadows in the outfield is a player who caught the attention of many this spring when he went 11-19. Harold Ramirez is a talented outfielder who is finally being noticed on the prospect scene. Many of the more in-depth readers know about Harry. He signed with the Pirates in 2011 out of Colombia for 1.05 million dollar bonus. The Pirates do not handout 7 figure bonuses often, therefore the Bucs knew the potential talent he possessed. He has not let them down. From 2014 into 2015 he carried a hitting streak past 25 games. Last year he played 80 games at High-A. In those games he batted a stellar .337 with a line of .399/.458/.857. He also swiped 22 bags. This caught
the attention of ESPN’s prospect insider Keith Law, who ranked him as the #50 prospect in baseball. Harold Ramirez is an intriguing outfield prospect who is now ranked as the Pirate’s number 5 prospect. He should bring good speed and pop to the top of any lineup, while bringing good defensive speed and solid defense in the outfield. Ramirez started in CF for the Curve last night. This is the position that I think he best suited for. He is small and compact at 5’11” and 215 pounds. He should not physically fill out anymore which means he will keep his foot speed and be able to cover center field. The biggest issue with Harry is that he has trouble staying on the field. In 2014 he only played in 49 games due to a hamstring issue. He followed this up by only playing in 80 games in 2015. If Ramirez can stay healthy the Pirates may find themselves in a real outfield logjam by next season.
The last spot in the outfield looks like it will be split up between a few players. The first is AA veteran Stetson Allie. We all know the story of Stetson, and I do not expect him to get much playing time in the outfield with the next two options. Next is Barrett Barnes. Barnes was a 2nd round pick in the 2012 draft and is considered the #20 prospect in the Pirate’s system. Like Ramirez, Barnes has had trouble with injuries, in fact even more so. Since 2012, Barnes, has only played in 196 games, or just over one full season. With this being said there are some positives about him. The Pirates love the athlete in Barnes. He runs well and was a great hitter at Texas Tech. He can produce line drive power while knocking some out as well. The issue is he has not been on the field enough to develop and to gain consistent at-bats. In his minor league career he is a .263 hitter with a 775 OPS. He hit 9 home runs These are not bad numbers, but they are not outstanding either. I believe his ceiling at this point is a 4th outfielder at the next level. The player who started in left-field for the Curve last night was Justin Maffei. Maffei was a 25th round pick in 2013 and had a mini-breakout season last year. Maffei player in 83 games at High-A and produced a solid .284 batting average with a .377 OBP. One negative is he only slugged at a .385 clip. It will be interesting to see how they use these 3 outfielders when Meadows comes back.
The most intriguing prospect in the infield is the player who was taken right behind Meadows in the 2013 draft, Reese McGuire. The former #13 overall pick has long been considered the top catching prospect in the Pirate’s system. Even with the emergence of Elias Diaz, most ranking lists have him ahead of Diaz. Coming out of high school, McGuire was considered advanced on the defensive side of things. He possesses an above average arms,
blocking ability, baseball IQ, and ability to receive pitches. Many scouts said he had a projectable lefty bat, but it would take time to develop. I think this will be the most important year for McGuire on the offensive side of things. He has hit for a decent average at .271 so far in his career, but has not produced any power. In fact in 247 games in the minors, McGuire has only hit 4 home runs with a measly .323 slugging percentage. With this he is only 21 years old and still growing into his body. I think this year we could see his power numbers jump some. At the end of the day scouts are still high on McGuire and consider him one of the top 10 catching prospect in all of baseball. With Elias Diaz ahead of McGuire in the system, the Bucs have no reason to rush McGuire past AA. They can continue to develop him physically and offensively.
The two pitchers to watch this year are Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler. Holmes has been a top 20 prospect for the Pirates over the last 4 years. He has always been overlooked by the average fan due to the pitchers like Taillon, Glasnow, and Kingham. Holmes missed all of the 2014 season due to Tommy-John surgery, but rebounded well last year. In total, Holmes started 9 games last year, 3 being rehab in the GCL. In his six starts at High-A, Holmes threw to a solid 2.74 ERA and struck out 3.25 batter per 1 walk. The Pirates decided to be somewhat aggressive this year with starting him at AA. Holmes only threw 36 innings in High-A, but with missing all of 2014 the organization decided to move him along to AA. I like Holmes’ make up, he is 6’5” and weighs 230lbs and is ranked the Pirate’s number 15 prospect. He throws a sinker that sits 92-94 mphs, and he possesses a plus change-up which he has strong command of. One thing to watch this year is if he can develop a more consistent curveball. If he can do this, he has a legitimate shot at being a middle of the rotation arm. If not, he could be a back-end of the rotation candidate or an above average bullpen option.
Tyler Eppler finds himself ranked in the Pirate’s top 30 prospects for the first time. Eppler was a 6th round pick out of Sam Houston State in 2014. Eppler will be intriguing to watch in his second full minor league season. He has a solid build at 6’6” and 220lbs. His fastball sits 92-94 and he has a plus slider already. He has very strong command of both pitches and does a good job of pounding the strike zone. One pitch that he is still working on is his change-up. His change-up looks to be a plus pitch at times, but he still needs to learn to be more consistent with it. If he can do that he could find himself being a rotation arm by the middle of next season. However, with starting pitching depth in front of him he may be used as a relief pitcher. With a strong fastball and slider mix he could be an ideal candidate to do so.
Other prospects to watch at the level include a former teammate of Eppler’s, Cody Dickson. Dickson, a left-handed starting pitcher, was a 4th round pick in 2013. He has done okay since being drafted accumulating a 3.73 ERA over the last 3 seasons. Dickson at one point was considered a top 30 prospect, but he fell out after posting an ERA over 4 in 2015. Another interesting pitcher is Montana DuRapau. He has been one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the Buc’s organization over since being a 32nd round pick in 2014. In that time has posted a 1.76 ERA over 133 innings and across 4 levels. Last year he made two appearance in AA, so he will spend most of this season with the
Curve. Jose Osuna is to be the first baseman this year at AA. He had a nice year in 2015 playing at High-A and AA. He posted a strong .286 average and slugged .435. He is a player who has improved every season that has not been discussed much. Erich Weiss was a 11th round pick in 2013. He is not going to blow you away with any peripherals, but has put together a solid .282 average and .361 OBP in his minor league career. He could be a decent bench option in a few years. The last prospect is catcher Jin-De Jhang, a 22-year-old from Taiwan. Jhang is a sleeper prospect. After starting his career in 2012 by hitting .305, he took a step back as he saw his average dip to .219 in 2014 at High-A. He was sent back to High-A last year and played 99 more games at the level. The extra year there did him wonders. Jhang boosted his average up to .292 last year. Many question whether Jhang will be able to stick behind the plate, but regardless it will be interesting to see if he regresses at the AA level the way he did when he first got moved to High-A.
The Altoona Curve may not be as loaded as Indianapolis, but they still could be a very good team. They have the best two outfield prospects in the system and a catcher who is considered one of the top prospects at his position. They also have a few intriguing right-handed pitchers who could find themselves in Triple-A as soon as June. I really believe that AA is the best level to get a good read on a prospect. At this point you are facing guys who have produced in the lower minors. Players who have not produced in the lower levels typically never make it to AA. You also see players who are veterans and have success at the level that creates trying competition against the younger prospects. Let us hope that our main prospects produce at AA, because if they do we could see them in Black and Gold shortly.
Related Story: AAA Indy Primer?
All Numbers provided by MILB.com and Baseball Reference.
Prospect Rankings were pulled from mlbpipeline.com