The Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve could have one of, if not the most talented rotation among all minor league affiliates in 2024.
Double-A is the level where you see the separation between the prospects and the minor league players. It’s the biggest jump in competition in the minor leagues. Even in some instances, Double-A teams are better than Triple-A teams, as Triple-A teams usually house depth players. The Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A team, the Altoona Curve, entered the 2023 season with a lot of talent, but most of the said talent has gotten promoted to higher levels.
But next year could be another big season for Altoona, specifically in their pitching staff. The Pirates’ Double-A affiliate could open the year with a staggering amount of talent in the starting rotation. There’s so much talent coming up through the system, and much of it could start the year at arguably the hardest level of the minor leagues.
There’s a very good chance that Altoona opens 2024 with Paul Skenes, Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler, and Thomas Harrington as four of their five starting pitchers. Not only could all four be in the Major Leagues by the end of the season, but all four could potentially be in the same Major League rotation within the very near future.
Skenes is the big name here. The Pirates’ #1 pick in the 2023 draft and the man who set the record for the highest signing bonus, Skenes, will likely get things started at Double-A, the level he last played at. In his College World Series winning run, Skenes pitched 122.2 innings with a 1.69 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 10.45 K:BB ratio. Skenes was next to untouchable. He had a 45.2% strikeout rate, as well as a 5.3 hits/9 rate. It’s not as if his command was spotty. He only walked 4.3% of opponents and allowed just seven home runs.
Skenes throws into the 100 MPH range with regularity, though he typically sits 97-100 MPH. His slider was arguably the best breaking ball of the draft class. Skenes’ third pitch, a change-up, isn’t an 80-grade offering like his four-seamer or slider, but it has the potential to be a plus pitch. Skenes has no trouble hitting his spots, and he’s also an athletic pitcher.
But just because Skenes is the big name doesn’t mean that the rest are poor prospects. Given his circumstances, Anthony Solometo has done relatively well at Altoona this year. The Pirates’ 2021 second-round pick, Solometo, has a 4.35 ERA, 3.83 FIP, and 1.22 WHIP. He has a 23% strikeout rate, 1.05 HR/9, but a minuscule 6.5% walk rate. Solometo is doing this in his age-20 season. He is the third youngest pitcher at Double-A and the youngest arm in the Eastern League.
Solometo isn’t like Skenes, throwing triple digits with regularity. The lefty sits 91-95 MPH but does so with carry through the zone. His slider is a second above-average pitch, while his change-up gives him a third pitch that he can rely on regularly. There might not be anything overpowering here, but Solometo has pinpoint control over three 55-grade pitches. Plus, he does it with a very low arm slot and a deceptive wind-up and delivery.
Bubba Chandler has broken out in 2023. It took him a while to settle in as he started to focus solely on pitching. But once he got his things in order, he’s been what Pirates fans expected from the guy who set the signing bonus record for a third-round pitcher. Since June 13th, Chandler has a 3.12 ERA, 4.30 FIP, and 1.17 WHIP. He is striking out over a quarter of opponents faced with a 27.4% K-rate but has paired that with a strong 6.8% walk rate. Home runs have given him some trouble, but Greensboro is a home run-friendly venue. His 1.3 HR/9 rate also inflates his FIP.
Chandler throws in the mid-90s. He also has an above-average slider and change-up. Chandler struggled with his command, both in 2022 and in the early parts of this season. His first 83 career innings saw him dish out a walk to 16% of the opponents he faced. But Chandler, given that he was athletic enough to be drafted as an RHP/SS by the Pirates has the ability to get his command in check. It seems like he’s been able to do so, at least to some degree, as he has a significantly better walk rate since the start of summer 2023.
Don’t sleep on Thomas Harrington. Just because he might be the least flashy of the top four doesn’t mean he’s a bad pitcher. Far from it, actually. Harrington owns a solid 3.53 ERA, 4.00 FIP, and 1.24 WHIP in 127.1 innings for Bradenton and Greensboro. He struck out over a quarter of the batters who stepped to the box against him (27.8%, to be exact). The righty only had a 7.8% walk rate and a 0.99 HR/9.
Harrington’s best pitch isn’t his fastball. That title belongs to his change-up, a pitch he throws with low-spin, tumbling action. His primary breaking ball is a slider, which is an above-average pitch. He also throws a decent curveball, but don’t sleep on his four-seamer. Harrington might not throw hard, only sitting around 91-94, but because of its ability to ride through the zone, he is able to make the pitch play above its velocity.
The last rotation spot could be up for debate, but as of right now, I’d say it’s Po-Yu Chen’s. Chen had an up-and-down year at Greensboro but pitched fairly well from May onward. Through his final 100.1 innings of the year, Chen owned a 3.77 ERA, 25.6% strikeout rate, 8.4% walk rate, and 1.33 WHIP. However, there were some worrying factors, like a 4.90 FIP and 1.44 HR/9 rate. But Greensboro is home run prone, and there was a noticeable difference between his ability to prevent home runs at home vs. on the road.
There is still a lot more talent coming up through the Pirates’ system. Later in the season, Hunter Barco could take a rotation spot, especially after one of Skenes or Solometo gets moved to Triple-A or the big league club. Barco was the Pirates’ 2nd round pick in 2022, and his return from Tommy John surgery has been promising. Next year, he will be 23, so he might not stick around at Greensboro for a while, if at all. J.P. Massey had a breakout 2023 campaign. He forced himself into the Pirates’ potential longer-term talks and could see both time as an SP and RP at Altoona.
Altoona might have the best rotation to open the year. Assuming the top four consist of Skenes, Chandler, Solometo, and Harrington, that might be the most talented rotation among all minor league affiliates. Skenes is not just arguably the best pitching prospect in baseball but might be a consensus top-three talent.
Both Solometo took massive steps forward this season and is a consensus top 100 by most outlets. Harrington might be a borderline top-100 prospect at this point, as well as Chandler. If the fifth-best pitcher at Altoona is only Chen, then something is going right for the Pirates. All five have a chance to make their debut by the end of the 2024 season.