2-21-23 By Craig W. Toth (aka @BucsBasement on Twitter)
One of my favorite things to do every summer is load up the family in the mini-van and head across 22-West; on our way to see the Curve take on any number of teams in the Eastern League, inside the Roundhouse.
As the mountains appear in the distance, the excitement of arriving at our familiar stomping grounds starts to build up within everyone of us.
Driving into the valleys in between the Brush Mountains, and seeing the train running along side of you; we all know that People’s Natural Gas Field is not too far away.
When we park, everyone grabs their gloves; ready to snag to ball as it lands in Home Run Junction, is thrown from one of the Curve player, or simply to play catch on grassy hill behind the left field walkway.
Each year the makeup of the team changes, but the experience remains the same.
Coming into last season, Altoona’s lineup was one of the most highly touted and talented groups in Pittsburgh’s Farm System; with many of the prospects coming off a run to the South Atlantic League Championship Series, where the lost in 5 games to Bowling Green Hot Rods.
Comprised of over 25 percent of the Top 30-according to MLB Pipeline-and at least 4 of the Top 10 to begin the year, with several others set to join in short order, the Curve looked to stroll through the competition.
Unfortunately, due to underperformance from some-but, more realistically because of the fact that these players rarely got to take the field together. From the jump, the injury bug infected the clubhouse, one top prospect at a time.
Sure, this allowed for the emergence of several that may not have otherwise gotten the opportunity; however, it ultimately lead to a somewhat disappointing season overall.
Still, I can’t help but be cautiously optimistic once again, as the 2023 Minor League Season approaches.
Yes, I know…typical fanboy behavior.
1) Henry Davis-C
Although he was not in the original group that arrived in Altoona, the Pirates 1:1 in 2021 would make his way north from Greensboro in short order, after 100 plate appearances in High-A; during which he slashed .342/.450/.585 with 5 homers and what would be 9 critical hit by pitches.
Regrettably this later trend would continue-even with the promotion-as he was hit by a pitch in his first Double-A plate appearance.
However, Davis would just shake it, and go yard two trips to the plate later.
Then two days later, he would be hit by a pitch yet again. Only this time he wouldn’t return to the field for almost a month, due to a non-displaced left wrist fracture. Eventually returning to the Curve lineup on June 11th. after two rehab starts in the FCL and Bradenton.
[It should be noted that he was hit by a pitch in each of these games.]
Over the next few weeks-and 15 games-Davis would struggle mightily by slashing .175/.299/.316 with a 75 wRC+; but, still hit a homer and 5 doubles before ending up back on the IL with wrist soreness.
This time it would be a month and half before he reappeared in Altoona; apparently fully healthy this go-around.
Over the final 18 games of the year he would bat .254 with a .778 OPS, 3 homers, 3 doubles and a 114 wRC+.
Due to missing significant time-once the season was over-Davis found his way to the Arizona Fall League; where he continued to perform by posting a .875 OPS, and walking (10) almost as much as he struck out (11)
Nevertheless, it should be no surprise that Davis will more than likely be back in Altoona; just like there should be no shock that there continue to be questions concerning his ability behind the plate.
The truth is he hasn’t been healthy long enough to work on his craft as much as he wants and needs to; which is something he has gotten to do during Spring Training.
Still-and once again-the future success of this former 1:1, Top Pirates Prospect will most likely come down to health; and maybe, just maybe, not getting hit by so many pitches.
2) Hudson Head-OF
Acquired from San Diego, as part of the Joe Musgrove Trade back in January of 2021, Head has flashed at time during his two seasons in Pittsburgh’s Farm System.
Over 855 plate appearances with the Marauders and Grasshoppers he has blasted 25 homers, and compiled 63 total extra base hits.
Unfortunately he has also combined for a 32.6% K-rate across levels. Although, I have to remind myself that he is only going to turn 22 in a couple of weeks; and, that he slashed .264/.355/.472 with a 125 wRC+ and 7 of those homers from July on this past season.
While I believe that Double-A would be somewhat aggressive promotion for this young man, it is likely that he sees time in Altoona by the end of year.
3) Connor Scott-OF
Built from a similar vein as Head in that he was a top high school draft pick, and was also acquired in a trade-from the Marlins for Jacob Stallings, along with Zack Thompson and Kyle Nicolas-Scott was given that advanced placement to Altoona at 22 years of age.
For him-much like Head once again-there were flashes, as he hit 7 homers, 25 doubles and 4 triples. But, there were also struggles, as evidenced by his 90 wRC+ and .697 OPS.
Unfortunately though, he did not see the same late season surge that Head did.
Yet, I don’t see this as a reason to give up on the kid.
4) Jared Jones-RHP
One of the examples I often use to illustrate the aggressive use of promotions by Ben Cherington and Company, is this young man from La Mirada High School in California.
Selected at 44th overall in the Five Round, 2020 MLB Draft, Jones would have to wait until his 19 year-old season in 2021 to put his arm to work in the professional ranks. And, considering the circumstances , he did little to disappoint.
As a starter with Bradenton, he posted a 4.76 ERA and a 1.449; which is almost to be expected from a former two-way player, who was almost 3 years younger than the average player in the league. He also struck out an incredible 103 batters in 66.0 total innings-7.1 as a reliever.
Then in 2022, rather than being given a second shot at Low-A, he was promoted to Greensboro to start the year; where he would start 26 games.
In these 26 starts, across 122.2 innings, Jones struck out 142 batters, while posting a 4.62 ERA and a 1.353 WHIP.
Clearly there is some work to be done concerning his command and control, because of the 85 combined walks-good for 4.47 BB/9-that accompanied all these strikeouts. However, the ceiling of his talent level is undeniable, thanks to two plus pitches-a 60 grade fastball and a 55 grade slider-and a quick developing change-up.
At worst he projects to be a shut down reliever, with the upside of a top of the rotation arm.
5) Matt Fraizer-OF
As Minor League Baseball resumed in 2021, there were several players who arrived on the scene with newfound power, an updated approach, a refined delivery, additional offerings, and/or improved defensive metrics from simply being able to workout and work on their craft during the shutdown.
Among the Pirates Prospects, Fraizer was one that fell squarely into the first two categories.
At the start of that season he found himself at High-A Greensboro, where in 75 games and 350 plate appearances, Fraizer slashed .314/.401/.578 with a ridiculous 20 homers; but more importantly for me his K rate sat around 21%, while his BB rose to 12.3% from 8.2% in 2019.
Ultimately for Fraizer this slightly surprising breakout would lead to him being promoted to Altoona at the beginning of August. Over the final month and half of the season Fraizer would tail off slightly as he slashed .288/.356/.492, while putting only three more balls over the fence. He did however manage to hit three triples and twelve doubles, which nearly matched his total for the Grasshoppers in less than half the at bats.
For his efforts Fraizer was named the Honus Wagner Player of The Year in the Pirates Farm System, and shot up several Top Prospect Lists headed into 2022.
Sadly, this success didn’t transfer over to 2022 as he slashed just .219/.284/.333 with 6 homers in 480 plate appearances in Altoona; although his season did start off with a bang.
Likely set to repeat Double-A, he absolutely has a lot to prove this year.
Even though the Curve may not have as many Top Rated Prospects set to take the field at PNG this season, there are still opportunities for some major storylines; where some players try to bounce back, others try to live up to the draft status and a few look to leave yet another mark on their way up through the Pirates Organization.
And no matter what happens, I will be there with my family as often as possible; soaking in the memories.