First Pitch: How Far We’ve Come Since The Altoona Four

It wasn’t long ago that the hope for the future of the Pirates’ rotation rested on four pitchers who were pitching in Altoona during the 2010 season. We called the group The Altoona Four, in a bit of a nod to the show LOST. The pitchers were Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Bryan Morris, and Rudy Owens, and they helped lead the 2009 Lynchburg Hillcats and the 2010 Altoona Curve to championships. The hope was that they would eventually do the same for the Pirates.

This was during a very weak time for the organization. The team finished dead last in the majors in 2010. There were very few top pitching prospects in the system until they drafted Jameson Taillon and signed Luis Heredia. Heading into the 2011 season, we had The Altoona Four ranked in the 6-12 range of the top 50 prospects.

Bryan Morris was ranked sixth overall. At the time, Morris was seen as a future reliever, with a chance to be a middle of the rotation starter if he could fix his control problems. He ended up a reliever who has been replacement level, and was traded for the competitive balance pick that was used to draft Connor Joe.

Rudy Owens was ranked seventh overall. We were high on his upside, calling him a potential number 2-3 starter due to his increase in velocity in 2010. That didn’t return in future years, and the Pirates traded him to the Astros as part of a three prospect trade for Wandy Rodriguez. Owens suffered multiple injuries with the Astros to derail his career.

Jeff Locke was eighth overall, and has been the most successful of the bunch so far. He was seen with the upside of a 3-5 starter, and eventually settled in as a strong number four option.

Justin Wilson was ranked 12th, with the upside of a 3-5 starter or a late inning reliever, with his upside depending on his control issues. He’s been a solid reliever, and was traded for Francisco Cervelli prior to the 2015 season.

The hope at the time was that the Pirates got a few badly needed rotation options from this group. They got one, and two bullpen arms. They turned Owens and two other prospects into another starter (Owens was the middle ranked prospect in that deal, with Robbie Grossman being the key). They turned Morris into Connor Joe and Wilson into Francisco Cervelli, with an obvious spread in value at the moment in those results.

The Pirates ended up making up for the lack of prospects with reclamation projects. That’s not a total knock on The Altoona Four, as expecting them to go 4-for-4 in turning those guys into MLB starters would have been expecting too much. You would have hoped for one more guy to step up as a starter, but that wouldn’t have done much in a system that had very little starting pitching talent in the upper levels.

Fast forward to the 2016 season. The MLB rotation isn’t loaded with homegrown options. They’ve got Gerrit Cole, who was drafted first overall in 2011, and Jeff Locke is still around. The Tommy John outbreak in Triple-A last year led to the need for Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong to be added this off-season, bridging the gap until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon arrive. Those are two pitchers who make The Altoona Four look like minor league depth options in comparison. And to prove that, you only need to look at the guys behind them in the rankings.

There are some talented pitching prospects who should be in the top two levels in 2016. Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams have a shot at Triple-A at some point this season. Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler should be in Altoona at the start of the year, while Stephen Tarpley and Yeudy Garcia could make the jump to that level by the second half of the 2016 season. There you’ve got seven pitchers who rank anywhere from 12th to 24th in our rankings. And if The Altoona Four were prospects today, they’d probably rank in this group.

More importantly, the expectations are much different for these guys. The current dream rotation includes Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon at the top, with Nick Kingham eventually taking over the fourth spot. Just like The Altoona Four, the Pirates won’t go 4-for-4 with the upsides of this new group. But they’ve got plenty of help behind them, with the seven pitchers I mentioned above, plus guys I didn’t mention like Cody Dickson, Austin Coley, JT Brubaker, Brandon Waddell, and others who could be in Bradenton and Altoona this year. That doesn’t include high upside guys in the lower levels, which is something the Pirates also had in 2010-11.

Pitching is a game of attrition, and the Pirates weren’t set up well back in 2010 and 2011. They were just starting to get top of the rotation guys in their system at the time, and didn’t have many back of the rotation options in the system. Now they’ve got several potential top of the rotation guys about to be in the majors, and plenty of back of the rotation guys to help fill in.

It made sense that the Pirates had to rely on so many reclamation projects the last few years when you look at how little they had in the system in terms of pitching prospects. In the future, if their rotation isn’t almost fully home-grown, it means something went alarmingly wrong. Not every pitcher will work out, but it’s reasonable to expect one of Glasnow, Taillon, or Kingham to join Cole, and at least two of the guys from Altoona or Indianapolis to join that group in the future, giving the Pirates a mostly home-grown rotation. If they get more than that, then the future teams will be in great shape.

**Pittsburgh Pirates 2016 Top Prospects: #14 – Stephen Tarpley. We resume the top 20 countdown, and will be rolling out a player per day during the week from here on out. If you buy your copy of the Prospect Guide, you’ll get all of the reports, along with our grades, and the reports of the 21-50 prospects and every other player in the system. It’s the most information you can find on the Pirates’ system, and the cheapest price you can find for a prospect book this time of year, especially with the Top Prospect and Annual discounts.

**Tyler Glasnow Named Among Top Right-Handed Pitching Prospects. No surprise here. I do think Taillon could surprise some people, as his injuries have dropped him off the list, but the talent definitely hasn’t gone away.

**Details of Chris Stewart’s Contract Extension With Pirates. The Pirates got a great deal here, getting two years of Stewart for $3 M guaranteed (and they’ll probably get $6-9 M worth of value from him during that time).

**Pirates Claim RHP A.J. Schugel, DFA Yoervis Medina. Shuffling the final spots on the 40-man roster. It would be good if they were able to keep Medina in the system.

**Buster Olney Ranks Pirates Ninth Overall. If those rankings held up, the Pirates would be the second Wild Card, playing in St. Louis.

**Reese McGuire Named Top Defensive Catching Prospect. Add in the same award for Elias Diaz from Baseball America earlier in the off-season, and the Pirates have two of the strongest defensive catchers in the minors.

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ArthurDayne

I don’t have the massive problem with Locke some others have. Sure they could do better, and hopefully the young arms can replace him eventually. But for what their paying him, the fact he’s LH? Jeff Locke will in MLB for a few more years as a starter.

emjayinTN

Maybe we will have the opportunity to have a better #4 in the future, but we have been damn lucky to have Jeff Locke in the Rotation for 81 starts and a 25-24 record since 2013. He looks like he should get ripped, and some times he does, but his numbers have been better than expected, and especially for a guy we were paying, as you mentioned, the league minimum for those 3 years.

Also, I am anxious to see how he throws next year, because he surprised me when he was hitting 93 and sometimes 94 in 2015. Very good article, Tim. I was one of those Rudy Owens guys, but injuries took a toll on him – I think he pitched in the DR this Winter. And I would have also been dead wrong about Grossman.

ArthurDayne

Glasnow and Taillon aren’t throwing up all kinds of goose eggs. At least right away.

Catch22

I don’t have a problem with him. I have a problem with him being labeled as a “strong number four option”

NMR
Catch22

Huh?

NMR

Replied to the wrong comment, sorry!

ArthurDayne

For a contender, yes. For 15-20 teams that have no chance, he is.

NMR

Exactly!

John W

Locke looks like a solid #4 if you look at starters who have pitched 100 innings a season or more the last 2 or 3 seasons based on FIP.

FIP of 4.1 over last 3 years ranks 92 out of 132 pitcher who have pitched 300 innings over that 3 year span. Better than Estrada, Jason Hammel, and Pelfrey. Not far off from Mike Leake at 4.03.

David A

And there are 150 rotation spots in MLB. Of that numebr 132 are accounted for in your criteria, some number are decent looking rookies/guys coming back from injuries to get under the innings criteria and then a lot of guys who are marginal MLB pitchers.

So out of the 150 notional MLB rotation spots, the #4 range is 91-120 and an above average #4 is 91-105… Locke probably is picked somewhere between #91 -105 against all projected Opening Day 2016 pitchers if there was a draft without regard to contract for a 2016 one time only projection.

Catch22

Just to put it into perspective the Mets 4th is Metz, SF is Peavy, DC is Ross, LAD is Ryu, Ari is De La Rosa, Cubs is Hamels, STL is Garcia, PGH is Locke.

I would rather have any of those 4th starters over Locke. I guess and argument could be made with Hamels and De La Rosa.

John

And Peavy, who misses 2 months every season, and Ryu who is never healthy and Matz, who has pitched in 6 career MLB games and Hammel who was terrible in August and September.
Locke is not great and I would love for him to be our five instead, but he’s not so awful that he’s a season killer.

Kevin J

John, comparing Matz and locke is like Tallion or Glasnow or Locke. yes, little experience, but a world of potential

Darrell Jones

Hamels plays for Texas, man. Jason Hammel is the Cubs 4th. There is a large difference in those two, talent-wise.

Blaine Huff

Hammel has an extra ‘M’…and that ‘M’ stands for Money. I’d take him any day of the week over that slob down in Texas.

🙂

NMR

Prospect inflation of the Altoona Four can be excused due to inexperience; PP was just starting out and got a bit ahead of themselves after seeing actual warm bodies showing up instead of the previous regime’s mess of organizational filler.

There is a lesson here, however, and that’s just how far the odds are stacked against a pitcher who cannot miss bats in the minors. The margin of error for a prospect without an out pitch is *extremely* thin, and that absolutely should be remembered when ranking the Kuhls, Holmes, Epplers, etc of the prospect world.

The emergence of Yeudy Garcia and Stephen Tarpley was important because in all likelihood, the Pirates have staggeringly little pitching depth below the guys in AAA. This was the reason the Big Three ’14 HS arms were so important, and they’ve already lost one of those.

There looks to be a small window where most or all of the rotation may be home grown, but the reclamation process has simply been too valuable to give up. If that strategy is truly as repeatable as some claim, you sure as hell don’t want to be passing up Lirianos and Burnetts because your have some Steven Braults ready to go.

leowalter

You have it wrong. The reason those guys were looked at in that way is due to the fact that from 1999, when the Curve moved into Altoona, there wasn’t much in the way of true prospects in the system. Snell, Duke, Gorzelanny & Maholmn in the mid 2000s were the few bright lights as far as pitching was concerned. Then it was dead space till ’10.

NMR

“…instead of the previous regime’s mess of organizational filler.”

It helps to read the words I write every once in a while, Leo.

leowalter

I read what you said and you still had aspects of the discussion wrong. It also would help if you figured out that you don’t know as much as you think you do. Several prospects did come through the organization prior to the 2010 seasons, including those guys I mentioned along with Matt Capps, Sean Burnett and Mike Gonzalez a few years earlier. It was the 5 years in between Duke t al where there was nothing that had those 4 plus Watson, Hughes, and even Moskos look like there might be light at the end of the tunnel.

NMR

Ha!

Coming from the self-appointed professional scout of the blog, that comment could not possibly be more hypocritical.

NMR

Anyone projecting Rudy Owens as a potentially #2 starter *at any point* in his prospect path was most certainly inflating his value, Tim.

Bill W

Can someone give me a valid rational why the Dodger’s obtained Joe Blanton and did not attempt to retain Juan Nicasio? This move by the Dodgers baffles my little used mind.

michael t

Blanton tells better jokes and knows how to handle the menu and wine list when the boys go out.

dr dng

Not a good sign for us?

Bill W

No I just can’t see why they would let Nicasio go and then sign Blanton. I think Nicasio has more upside, but just looking at this from a signing standpoint can’t grasp it. More for the Dodger’s than us.

NMR

Some noted it was strange from the start; essentially why he immediately was thought of as one of the best pitchers to be non-tendered.

I don’t think it’s really a question of Blanton > Nicasio, though. Just timing. If Aroldis Chapman doesn’t lose his mind, Joe Blanton probably isn’t a Dodger and nobody would be questioning why they chose Chapman over Nicasio.

Bill W

Thanks

leefoo

Tim…I agree with what you said in that last paragraph. It’s a shame it has taken this long, but when every one of those trumpeted ’09 HS pitchers fail, this is where we’re at.

I give credit to NH and Ray the Wizard for keeping us afloat.

Now, let’s all pray that Glasnow, JT, et al are all they are ‘cracked up to be’.

Catch22

Locke is not a strong #4 for a contender.

Catch22

You look at this differently than I do….You look at it like Metz is a #2 or #3 . i look at it where they’re slotted in the rotation.

Catch22

I guess my point gets back to teams that are contending for a WS don’t have Locke in the 4th spot and if they do, they wouldn’t call him a strong 4. He would be a strong 4 for the Phillies, not a contender.

Catch22

Literally has nothing to do with calling Locke a “strong number four option”

SF won their WS because MB had a historic run and he pitched as often as he could because of SF’s lack of quality at the back of their rotation. KC just needed their back end 5 innings and not give up more than 3 runs, then hand it off to a historically good BP.

Mike

How dare you use that amount of logic in this discussion….

Wabbit_Season

I’m enjoying watching this.

-Wabbit

Catch22

MB and KC’s pen saved their weak links….The back end of their rotations. Both were historically good and had to be in order to cover up said weaknesses.

PGH doesn’t have Bumgarner or KC’s pen. At least I don’t think Cole is ready to go on a run like MB in 2014, nor do I believe PGH’s pen will be able to duplicate KC’s pure dominance.

michael t

Doesn’t Locke have terrible stats for the second half three years in a row and if so can one of you wizards post them for the rest of us?
Personally I think Locke has very good stuff when he is throwing strikes. When he nibbles and doesn’t get the calls he gets horrible results.
Maybe the Pirates are banking on another strong first half and then a move to the pen or a trade if the young arms prove to be ready. Locke, in my mind, has not shown the consistent mental toughness to be in the plans as a starter.

NMR

I love how people cite those Royals pitchers without mentioning the little part where Kansas City thought so much of them that they went out and found replacements in the second half. How is that helping the argument again?

Luke S

I agree with part of that, but it does help the argument is its an argument defending the notion that a team can contend with that level of production….because KC was in contention and leading their division most of the year (both with and without various names mentioned above).

Kozy21

Matz.

NMR

Besides that, who in the baseball world has ever called Jeff Locke a “strong #4 ”?

Is there one other outlet that agrees with this interpretation of “the stats”?

NMR

We’re talking about a guy who has lost his rotation spot in two of his three years as a Major League starter.

I think he has the *ability* to be a solid #4 starter, but you don’t hand guys status they haven’t earned. Jeff Locke, in no way, has earned the reputation as a solid #4 starter.

Put a full season together and we can talk.

NMR

“The Pirates demoted Locke to Altoona on Wednesday after the 2013 All-Star posted an 8.10 ERA over his last six starts while allowing an opponent OPS of .951. “

Catch22

No, because it’s simply not true.

NMR

LOL.

leefoo

I agree….strong #5 maybe.

Which is why the addition of Vogelsong has underwhelmed me. He is, however, a ‘strong’ #7 , lol.

jamminjoe66

I don’t care what the overall numbers are. He had a quality start in 10 out of 30 games. That’s below Morton by 2 & neither is good. He had just a handful of starts that made his overall #vs look better then he actually was. Horrible inconsistent.

Catch22

Your numbers are skewed, because you put labels on pitchers. Why not do a study of where these pitchers are in their respective rotations. Cards 5th starter(s) had a better collective ERA than 4.15.

Catch22

Thanks Tim….Additionally, where can I find the study?

Bruce Humbert

He is the best you get if the BMTIBB has a $100M salary cap and likes to waste money on guys like Sean Hurdle.

leefoo

I like Sean Rod’s versatility. Good signing, imo. He was over exposed last year because of “E-dro”.

NMR

I don’t know, Foo. He’s versatile, except for the position with the least depth and greatest need (SS) and if the entire point of the super utility guy is to avoid the awful, i.e. replacement level or worse players, then I’m not real sure Rodriguez qualifies at this point.

Stephen Brooks

This. Of all the moves made this offseason, to me the most indefensible by a country mile is resigning S-Rod, particularly at his not insignificant salary. If the Pirates wanted a guy who can competently play 2B/3B/LF/RF, Kelly Johnson was available until 2 weeks ago, has a stronger bat, signed for less money and even hits left handed. Other options (Mike Aviles, Emilio Bonifacio) provide the same offensive production for less money AND have a solid secondary skill (Bonifacio’s speed/Aviles can play SS).

But I guess he’s a good clubhouse guy, so there’s that.

NMR

Hell, I’d have taken Stephen Drew for even money. A lefty shortstop with above average defense is absolutely a role that could complement Mercer, who is slightly better than awful against RHP.

michael t

Bruce…. We have to have a guy with a headband and long hair to act lack a wild man during the bench clearing pushing matches. There is no one better in all of MLB at performing the “hold me back” dance. Serpico’s wild-eyed lunges and multiple attempts to break free from a one armed hold are worthy of an award. To follow that with a perfectly posed for TV boxing match with the cooler takes real talent. It also helps everyone forget his little league performance at shortstop in the second half of a key doubleheader.

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