That the Curve now finds itself playing for the Eastern League championship is due mostly to the depth of its roster - Altoona hasn't had a lot of great players this year, but it's had tons of good ones, and very few bad ones. Like I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the only real flops they've had are Tim Alderson, Jose de los Santos, and some relief pitchers. And more importantly, all of their major contributors except catcher Hector Gimenez and pitcher Derek Hankins are at least fringe prospects.
The Curve's best hitter was Alex Presley, who emerged from obscurity and made his way to Pittsburgh by September. It was very lucky for Presley that the Curve didn't have a ton of outfielders. If Andrew Lambo had been in the organization from the start of the year and if, say, Starling Marte had been a year older, Presley probably wouldn't have gotten much of a shot after hitting .257/.305/.379 in Lynchburg in 2009.
Anyway, as it happened, Presley, Gorkys Hernandez and Miles Durham got most of the outfield at-bats at the start of the season. Durham, an organizational player, put up workmanlike numbers. Hernandez, one of two oft-criticized players from the Nate McLouth deal (along with Charlie Morton) finished the year with a .668 OPS after breaking a finger in July. That doesn't sound like much until you consider his monthly splits:
It could be that after a year in the wilderness, Hernandez has finally returned to civilization. He'll only be 23 next year, so he might yet have a future. Anyway, here's a video of him from last July, in which he clearly seems to be struggling with his timing:
The team's key infielders included Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, Chase D'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. Hague has put up decent numbers throughout his minor-league career, but he played most of this year at 24, the Pirates have moved him very slowly, and he doesn't have much defensive value, so he's hard to take seriously as a prospect. Harrison is younger and is probably a better prospect for that reason, but he's still a small infielder who doesn't play shortstop, so he'll have an uphill battle.
D'Arnaud and Mercer are sort of a matched pair, having been the Bucs' fourth- and third-round picks in the 2008 draft, respectively. Last year it looked like D'Arnaud was the better prospect, but this year both were at the same level and had similar seasons - Mercer had the higher batting average, but D'Arnaud had more walks. D'Arnaud is probably still a bit more interesting, because his .247 average this year was a lot lower than his career norms.
Outfielder Lambo joined the Curve after the Bucs acquired him in the Octavio Dotel, and got a bunch of quick attention with a fast start. He finished the regular season in a funk, and the .705 OPS he posted overall was pretty similar to his numbers for the Dodgers' Class AA affiliate. Still, as a 21-year-old in AA, he has considerable upside.
On the pitching staff, Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson stayed in the rotation the whole year. Owens' season was very successful, obviously - in 2009 he was the Pirates' minor-league pitcher of the year, and his 2010 was statistically similar, but with many more ground balls, and at a higher level. When I see a minor-league pitcher with outstanding control, I often assume he's a soft-tosser, but Owens really isn't, and there's no reason his stuff can't play well in the majors. He'll probably lose some strikeouts as he moves up, however, like Zach Duke did.
Wilson was very effective as well, but he did walk half a batter an inning, which is too much. About half his walks for the year came in his last 50 innings, though, so it's possible he was just a bit tired after pitching about 25 more innings than he did last season. He also did an outstanding job keeping the ball on the ground, allowing just four homers all year, and had starts where his stats were so ridiculous (like his 11-strikeout, zero-walk gem against New Hampshire August 14) that it's easy to wonder if he might be even better if he could command his pitches more consistently from game to game.
The Curve's pitching staff featured two aging Dave Littlefield draftees who might have made themselves into marginal prospects with surprisingly good seasons. Jared Hughes probably won't ever be a starting pitcher for the Bucs, but he pitched reasonably well in Altoona's rotation this year and even better in the bullpen; it's not too much of a stretch to imagine him making it to Pittsburgh as a long reliever. Tony Watson also started a bit but was a revelation in the bullpen, where he had a 1.84 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning. He was ridiculously tough on lefties, holding them to a .131 batting average, so I see no reason he couldn't make it as a lefty specialist.
Other key Curve pitchers (who we haven't discussed elsewhere) included Michael Dubee (who's young enough to be a prospect and posts consistently good numbers but whose stuff might not play well in the majors) and Danny Moskos (who pitched brilliantly for Altoona before completely falling apart at Indianapolis). Tom Boleska is another reliever worth watching - he has posted consistently good numbers throughout his minor-league career despite battling injuries. He's eligible for the Rule 5 draft and he probably won't be protected or selected, but his baseball age this year was 23, and we'll probably be thinking about him a bit more if he can get to Indianapolis at some point next summer.