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Pirates’ minor league recap: Altoona

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Altoona had an eventful season from a performance and prospect standpoint. On the performance side, the Curve won the Eastern League title, sweeping through the playoffs without a loss. On the prospect side, Altoona was the scene of several breakouts and several significant promotions. The roster went through significant changes over the course of the season.

Hitters

The most prominent prospect on the Altoona roster at the start of the season was shortstop Kevin Newman, but it was second baseman Kevin Kramer (pictured) and outfielder Jordan Luplow who made the most noise. Newman got off to a terrible start, batting .172 in May before rebounding to hit .307 in June and July, up until a July 20 promotion. Kramer, on the other hand, got off to a blistering start, with power he hadn’t previously shown. He had an OPS of 1.091 in April and was still at .880 when a broken hand on June 10 cost him the rest of the season, until the playoffs. Luplow had the biggest breakout in the system and eventually reached the majors. He’d always had good plate discipline, but the over-the-fence power finally came around and he hit 287/368/535 with 16 HRs in 73 games before a promotion to AAA.

The Curve had four different 1B/OF/DH types at various times. Connor Joe struggled, got hurt and then got traded, but the others all put up good numbers. Edwin Espinal finally started hitting for power, with a .474 SLG (but only a .322 OBP) and 15 HRs before a late July promotion. Jerrick Suiter missed the first five weeks with a hand injury (there was an epidemic of those), then also started hitting for power for the first time, with an .819 OPS. Jordan George stayed with Bradenton until late July, putting up a .887 OPS there and .768 with Altoona. All three of these guys have somewhat interesting bats, and Espinal and Suiter are good defensively at first, although Espinal is eligible for free agency. It’ll be interesting to see whether the Pirates make anything of any of them.

The Curve got two other significant, late-season promotions. Shortstop Cole Tucker replaced Newman after taking a big step forward with his hitting at Bradenton. He got off to a slow start, but got red hot over the last several weeks and also produced some defensive highlights. His season ended in the second game of the playoffs due to a broken hand (he’d earlier missed time with a broken finger). Outfielder Logan Hill, who’d been leading the Florida State League in HRs, came up at the beginning of July. He didn’t hit for the power he had in the FSL initially, but did hit well and show much better plate discipline, than he had previously, before missing the last month with . . . yep, a broken hand.

Not many players were with the Curve all year, but two were third baseman Wyatt Mathisen and utility player Pablo Reyes. Mathisen hit well for much of the year, but never showed much power and slumped late to a .722 OPS. Reyes, who doesn’t seem to get taken seriously as a prospect, did what he always does, showing good plate discipline, a little power, good speed, and good defense at second and in center. He hit 274/356/410. Catcher Jin-De Jhang was with the Curve from the time he returned in late May from an oblique injury. He struggled at the plate to a .591 OPS, although he played well defensively.

Pitchers

Altoona’s rotation was unusually stable. Three college draftees from early rounds (in parentheses) spent more or less all season in the rotation. Austin Coley (2014 - 8) and Alex McRae (2014 - 10) had solid seasons without dominating, finishing with ERAs of 3.01 and 3.61, respectively. J.T. Brubaker (2015 - 6) showed better stuff than the others — a mid-90s fastball and a good change — but didn’t get the results, with a 4.44 ERA and 1.50 WHIP.

Two other college draftees played significant roles. Lefty Brandon Waddell (2015 - 5) went out twice with a forearm strain and eventually had a PRP injection. He made 15 starts and finished the season with seven good starts after returning. Tanner Anderson (2015 - 20) -- he of the Bronson Arroyo leg kick — spent the majority of the season in the rotation, but pitched better out of the bullpen.

The most noteworthy pitcher in the rotation at the start of the season was Yeudy Garcia. He had a very rough time, struggling to throw strikes and throwing only in the low-90s instead of the upper-90s velocity he’d shown two years earlier. After missing time to a back injury, he moved to the bullpen and started pitching better late in the year, with his velocity sitting at 95-96, although control remained an issue.

The most noteworthy starter at the end of the season was the team’s top pitching prospect Mitch Keller. After focusing on improving his change at Bradenton, Keller went back to a more standard mix and got his K/9 up to 11.7 while pitching well through six starts. He then threw two dominant games, including the title clincher, in Altoona’s playoff run.

Altoona had two closers who put up very good numbers without impressive stuff. Montana DuRapau was repeating the level and improved to the point where he got a promotion two-thirds of the way through the season. He had a 1.49 ERA and 9.7 K/9 for Altoona. Tate Scioneaux took over the closer role and had a 2.39 ERA. The advanced metrics weren’t buying it in either case: DuRapau’s xFIP was 3.67 and Scioneaux’ was 3.95.

The Curve had several interesting lefty relievers, although Daniel Zamora only got into two games after an end-of-season promotion. Sean Keselica was with the Curve all year and threw a lot of innings — 73.2 IP — for a reliever. He struck out almost exactly one per inning, but had control issues at times. Jake Brentz brought his 100 mph fastball up from Bradenton at mid-season. He had significant control problems at first and also missed three weeks with a minor injury. (For some reason, the Pirates kept Brentz’ workload very light throughout the season, anyway.) Brentz pitched much better over his last six outings.

Finally, there’s Luis Heredia, who was in his last season before free agency, unless he’s added to the 40-man roster. Heredia’s season got a late start due to a medical issue. He looked good at times, getting into the mid-90s with a sharp breaking ball, but he walked 5.3 per nine innings.