Here's a list of the five players in the Pirates' minor-league system right now who are off to the most impressive starts. I'll stick to guys who are prospects, or at least might be prospects. Small-sample-size caveats apply, obviously, since the season is only a few weeks old, and really crazy trends tend to flatten after awhile. But here are the guys with the most eye-popping lines, with a couple of comments from Pirates farm director Kyle Stark.
Brooks Pounders, P, West Virginia. Pounders, a second-rounder in the 2009 draft, pitched neither especially badly nor especially well in the GCL in 2009 or at State College in 2010, so his line so far of 18 strikeouts and one walk in his first 12 innings certainly is interesting. I wondered if he had changed his delivery, or maybe the Pirates (who generally have pitchers focus on fastball command in the low minors) had allowed Pounders greater leeway to start using his secondary pitches. So I asked Stark. Here's what he had to say.
[Pounders] worked hard this offseason to get in better shape and that has carried over into a more repeatable delivery and more consistent quality of pitches. He has been [better] able to execute the delivery adjustments we have worked on with him. He's throwing 75-plus percent fastballs, so it is not a matter of tricking A-ball hitters with secondary pitches.
Kyle McPherson, SP, Bradenton. McPherson has 26 strikeouts and one walk so far this year, making the Pirates look good for adding him to the 40-man roster last winter. Here's Stark on McPherson:
We were very pleased with his progress last year, and he had a productive Spring Training. We expected him to perform well in High-A and move on to 2A at some point. He is certainly on track for that. He continues to make strides in pitching with consistent downhill plane to his fastball.
Matt Curry, 1B, West Virginia. Curry is now hitting .400/.489/.733. Of course, he came from a major college program, and had already proven he was capable of destroying pitches thrown by 20-year-olds. If he continues to hit like this much longer, there will be little reason not to move him up. Aaron Baker is Bradenton's first baseman and he has hit very well too, but there should be space for Curry at DH.
Robbie Grossman, OF, Bradenton. Grossman's climb through the minors has been slow and his improvements have mostly been pretty subtle, but they're there. In 2009, he had 164 strikeouts and 75 walks in West Virginia; in 2010, it was 118 strikeouts and 66 walks in Bradenton. This year, he has 22 strikeouts and 21 walks. It looks like he's really learning the strike zone, as opposed to just taking pitch after pitch. He now has a .423 OBP this year, and he's still only 21 and in Class A+. When I spoke to Stark in March, he said that Grossman needed to cut down his strikeouts in order to maximize his potential. That message appears to have reached Grossman, or at least it looks that way right now.
Jarek Cunningham, IF, Bradenton. Cunningham is now hitting .276/.330/.667 with nine doubles, two triples and seven homers in 87 at-bats. That's just ridiculous power for a 21-year-old. I was really impressed with the way the ball flew off his bat when I saw him at West Virginia last year; hopefully he's simply getting stronger. If so, he's going to be a menace. Controlling the strike zone is, obviously, still an issue (he has 17 strikeouts and four walks so far), as is his ability to hit breaking balls.