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Pirates’ minor league recaps: Altoona Part 2

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The prospect talent on the Curve was weighted toward the hitters, especially after Mitch Keller moved up to Indianapolis. Then the other high-ceiling pitcher on the team, Taylor Hearn, got traded. What remained was a lot of pitchers who might edge their way into the majors for a cup of coffee or two. With marginal prospects like that, AA is often a make-or-break level, and some guys broke.

THE GOOD

Scooter Hightower, RHP: Drafted back in 2015, Hightower (pictured) didn’t get out of short season ball until the Pirates sent him to Bradenton to open this year. He dominated in relief there, so the Pirates moved him up to Altoona for the last two months and he spent most of that time in the rotation. He continued to pitch very well, including a scoreless streak of 23.2 IP. He doesn’t have great velocity, but he’s 6’6”, and tall pitchers sometimes don’t seem to need it. The advanced metrics weren’t totally buying his AA performance, as his xFIP was 4.25 there, compared to an ERA of 2.41.

Eduardo Vera, RHP: Vera came out of nowhere after losing two years to Tommy John surgery. He made it from rookie ball to AA in a season and a half, on the strength of a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a good curve. He divided 2018 between Bradenton and Altoona, more of it at the latter stop. It’s questionable how far he’ll go as he doesn’t miss bats, but he tends to get deep into games and doesn’t walk many. The advanced metrics seem to regard his success as BABIP-driven (.239 at Bradenton and .252 at Altoona), as his xFIPs (4.31 at Bradenton and 4.35 at Altoona) were much higher than his ERAs.* With all the missed time, Vera was eligible for minor league free agency, but he just signed (sub. req’d) a minor league deal with the Pirates for next year. He’ll be eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but I doubt he has the ceiling to get selected.

*Some of Vera’s success may have resulted from the Altoona infield. If you trust the scouting reports on Ke’Bryan Hayes, the Curve had three shortstops playing in its infield, all of them good ones. It wasn’t just Vera, either. Cam Vieaux and James Marvel both immediately started getting better results when they moved up from Bradenton, although that’s not exactly what happened with Vera. And Brandon Waddell, after scuffling for parts of two seasons at Altoona, made a lot of progress there in 2018, but didn’t do well after moving up to Indianapolis. These are all pitch-to-contact guys, so it’s possible the 2018 Curve were effectively what the Pirates tried to be.

Cam Vieaux, LHP: A sixth-round pick out of Michigan State in 2016, Vieaux is a standard finesse lefty who relies on good command. He got hit around quite a bit at Bradenton in 2017, then returned there in 2018. He made progress and moved up to Altoona after about two months and pitched better there, with a 1.10 WHIP. His K rates improved at both levels — 8.3 K/9 at Bradenton and 7.4 at Altoona. He’s had moderate trouble with the longball.

THE BAD

Yeudy Garcia, RHP: A few years ago, Garcia looked like one of the Pirates’ best prospects, thanks to upper-90s velocity and a wipeout slider. Shoulder problems caused a sharp velocity drop and he’s continued to have command issues. Now a reliever, he’s mostly gotten the velocity back, but the command problems continue. He fanned 11.5 per nine innings this year, but walked 5.4. He also had trouble with left-handed hitters and was plagued by BABIP issues (.362). To top it off, he got suspended at the end of the season for violating team rules. Garcia has major league stuff, but there are missing ingredients. He’s still eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Pedro Vasquez, RHP: Vasquez features very good control and solid velocity, but he doesn’t have a swing-and-miss pitch. He’d gotten good results going into this year. He missed the start of the season with an illness, then struggled at Altoona. Opponents slugged .488 against him and, after he missed three weeks with an arm injury, the Pirates sent him back to Bradenton. He may not have been healthy, as he had trouble throwing strikes in 25 innings there before the season ended.

Sean Keselica, LHP, and Tate Scioneaux, RHP: The Curve had a good bullpen in 2017, so with some guys coming back, including Keselica and Scioneaux, it seemed like they should have a good one again. They didn’t, partly because Keselica walked 6.6 batters per nine innings and Scioneaux gave up a .482 opponents’ slugging average. Going into this year, both guys looked like they could reach the majors at least briefly, especially Keselica, who dominated left-handed hitters last year. Now, not so much.

THE IN-BETWEEN

Mitch Keller, RHP: Keller’s story isn’t news here. He came into this season with big expectations and pitched well for the Curve, but didn’t dominate. He had trouble at times with the strike zone, which he hadn’t previously. After 14 starts in AA, the Pirates moved him up to Indianapolis and got torched in his first two starts. He mostly recovered after that, but still had problems with big innings and high pitch counts. He remains a top prospect, but he’s not ready for the majors.

Dario Agrazal, RHP: Agrazal got on the 40-man roster on the strength of mid-90s velocity, very good control and an ability to get deep into games. He lacks an out pitch and does not miss many bats. He missed two months in 2017 an oblique strain and another two months in 2018 with a shoulder strain. He pitched pretty much as he had previously, at least before the shoulder strain. He had four solid to good starts after the injury, but two bad starts at the very end of the season inflated his numbers. I don’t know whether the shoulder might have been a factor.

Geoff Hartlieb, RHP: Hartlieb is a 6’6” righty whose background was mostly in basketball before the Pirates drafted him out of Lindenwood College. He throws in the upper-90s and has reached 100, with a three-quarters motion that should be tough on right-handed hitters. (He was death on them in 2017 but had a reverse platoon split in 2018.) The Pirates moved him to Altoona quickly and he had a good season, but didn’t dominate. He had a rough time in May and June, then pitched well the last two months, with periodic control problems. Hartlieb still isn’t very experienced and has enough potential that he could reach the majors. He’s not eligible for Rule 5 yet. It’ll say a lot when we see whether the Pirates send him to Indianapolis to start the 2019 season.

Elvis Escobar, LHP: I don’t really know whether Escobar is a legitimate prospect. He was an outfielder until a couple of months into this season, when he showed mid-90s heat when he came in to pitch for Altoona in a blowout. The Pirates converted him to the mound and he pitched well at West Virginia, apart from some control problems. He finished the season with a couple outings for Altoona. Apart from the mid-90s fastball, he throws a big curve and a change. He would have been a free agent, but the Pirates signed him to a minor league deal for next year. He’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft.

Matt Eckelman, RHP: I put Eckelman in here because, after a very strong half-season at Bradenton this year, he moved up to Altoona and had 11 saves and a 1.82 ERA. His xFIP, though, was 4.82, as he got by on a very low BABIP and walked nearly as many as he struck out. He throws in the low-90s and mostly manages with good command.