As we have noted in our season recaps, some of the lower level teams were really thin around the bottom of their top ten prospects list. We were filling out those lists with players of note, rather than making tough decisions that kept actual prospects off the list. Altoona on the other hand, had no trouble getting to ten prospects. They were a loaded team this season, boasting a couple of the best prospects in the system, along with plenty of depth. The list took a hit when both Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez were traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, but you will see below that even the “other notables” section has some top 50 prospects in the system.
The Bradenton top ten list included seven position players. Altoona has an even split of pitchers and hitters in their top ten, plus the notable section at the bottom has a nice mix of offense and pitching. You basically have a full pitching staff and every position covered. Four of the players listed below in the top ten ended the season with Indianapolis, and the other six could all make the jump there to begin the 2017 season. The Indianapolis list will be a strong one as well, giving the Pittsburgh Pirates a lot of young talent at the top of their farm system.
TOP 10 ALTOONA CURVE PROSPECTS
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. Those limits kept Frank Duncan and Elvis Escobar from qualifying for the list. We also didn’t include traded players, so neither Reese McGuire nor Harold Ramirez were considered for the list. Unlike the lower-level lists, this list factors in actual results a bit more than potential and upside. The latter is still factored in, but this is the level where we want to see players start producing on the field and showing their tools in games.
1. Austin Meadows, CF – Meadows didn’t last long with Altoona. A Spring Training eye injury caused him to miss the start of the season, and then he was promoted to Indianapolis after just seven weeks. In between that time, Meadows put up a .311/.365/.611 slash line, ending his time in Altoona with a 24-game hitting streak. Meadows showed everything you want to see from a prospect, doing it as one of the youngest players in the league. He hit for average and for power, with 30 extra-base hits in 45 games. He used his above average speed effectively on the bases and showed great range on defense in center field. The biggest concern with him now seems to be his health. His Spring Training eye injury was a fluke, but he suffered a hamstring injury with Indianapolis, then had an oblique injury at the end of the season. That last injury cost him a chance to make up time in the Fall Instructional League and the Arizona Fall League. It also isn’t the first time he has had a hamstring injury. If he can stay healthy though, then the sky is the limit for Meadows.
2. Kevin Newman, SS – Newman destroyed pitching in the Florida State League, staying there longer than most people expected so he could work on his defense. He was hitting well when he joined Altoona, though a late-season slump knocked him down to a .288/.361/.378 final line. That slump began when he was moved to the third spot in the batting order. Newman was picking up a lot of hits early in the games off fastballs. The move to the third spot meant he was seeing more breaking balls and the results weren’t as good. He was also bothered by a nagging groin injury, which caused him to miss a few games throughout August when he posted a .610 OPS. Newman showed an ability to use the entire field this season, flashing some gap power. While he only stole ten bases, his speed is above average. The defense at shortstop isn’t flashy, but he should end up at least average at the position. An average defensive shortstop with the ability to get on base at a high clip and steal bases is a valuable player. He shouldn’t have much trouble reaching that upside.
3. Clay Holmes, RHP – If all you did was look at stats, you would wonder why Holmes is rated so high. We talked about him a lot this season because there was always something to talk about. The Pirates threw results out the window this season with Holmes, worrying more about turning him into a better pitcher. Numerous times we mentioned that he went into starts with strict game plans that often times didn’t work out for him. He had starts where he was forced to throw his changeup often, once changing the grip on the pitch mid-game. He had another start where they had him throwing to the right-hand side of the plate all game. He introduced a two-seam fastball one game, worked on his curve in another game, then started throwing a slider/cutter late in the year. When they let him just go out and pitch, there were some dominating efforts. Holmes has a workhorse frame, with the ability to touch 96 MPH and a five-pitch arsenal. He gets good downhill plane on his fastballs, records a ton of ground balls and he breaks a lot of bats, often times resulting in weak contact. This was his first full season back from his 2014 Tommy John surgery and he showed the upside of a future middle of the rotation starter in the majors. His control would be the one thing that keeps him from reaching that upside.
4. Eric Wood, 3B – No one showed a bigger jump in their all around game among position players for the Pirates than Eric Wood. He showed strong improvements on defense and at the plate. Wood spent 2015 with Altoona, posting a .608 OPS and having trouble on the defensive end at third base. He was 22 years old, so age was still on his side. This year, Wood ended up hitting 16 home runs, one more than he hit during his first four seasons of pro ball combined. The best part about the power coming through is that he also improved his walk rate and cut down on strikeouts. On the defensive side, not only was he noticeably better to us, the coaches and managers in the league voted him as the best defensive third baseman. Wood went to the Fall Instructional league and added outfield to his resume for versatility. He then went on to the AFL and began playing some first base as well. With just a few games left in the AFL season, he has been one of the best hitters in the league. The Pirates will have to decide this week whether to protect him in the Rule 5 draft, or risk losing him.
5. Tyler Eppler, RHP – In his second full season of pro ball, the 23-year-old Eppler led the Eastern League with 162.1 innings pitched, then threw another six shutout innings in the playoffs. He profiles as a workhorse starter at the back of a rotation. Eppler is 6′ 6″ and has a fastball that sits 92-94 MPH (touching 96) with nice downhill action. When his command is on, it’s an effective pitch. The problem is that he tends to lean on the pitch and it’s always around the zone, so batters have learned to look for it early in counts. He started throwing a slider/cutter late in the year just like Clay Holmes (see link above for Eppler content). Eppler needs a stronger secondary pitch for more strikeouts, which is where that new pitch can come into play. He threw a slurve for most of the season, which was an inconsistent pitch. He’s a flyball pitcher, and that will get him into trouble at times. His changeup has the ability to get weak contact and some swing-and-misses. So if his new slider/cutter pitch comes along, a solid three-pitch mix will help him reach his upside.
6. Barrett Barnes, LF – On June 12th, Barrett Barnes finished play that day with a .659 OPS and had off the following day. From June 14th until the end of the season, he posted a .998 OPS over the final 73 games. It was the breakout we have been waiting to see from the 25-year-old Barnes since he was taken 45th overall in the 2012 draft. He was voted our Player of the Month for both July and August, the first position player to be named in back-to-back months. Barnes suffered plenty of injuries early in his pro career. That lost time means that his age isn’t as big of a factor because he’s making up for lost time. What did hurt him with the injuries is that he doesn’t quite have the tools he did when drafted. Barnes has lost a step, and while he still has decent speed, he isn’t a potential starting center fielder anymore and likely won’t steal many bases. His arm is also below average, making him an average left fielder. If he can remain healthy, get on base and hit for some power like he did this season, then he has the upside of a strong fourth outfielder.
7. Edgar Santana, RHP – Santana began the season in Bradenton and finished the year with Indianapolis, making a successful stop in between with Altoona. This was the second season in a row in which he shot up the system, going from the DSL in 2014, up to West Virginia last year. The Pirates have a reliever with a chance to be a closer in Santana. He throws mid-90s with his fastball, and mixes in a slider that is a strikeout pitch. He is learning to throw a changeup in the AFL to give him a third pitch. Santana has dominated during his stint in the AFL, throwing 13.1 shutout innings, while striking out 19 batters (includes Fall-Stars game) and showing terrific command. He has the ability to pick up strikeouts, as well as get quick ground ball outs. He is just one step away from the majors right now and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him show up in Pittsburgh early in the season.
8. Dovydas Neverauskas, RHP – Along with Edgar Santana, Neverauskas gives the Pirates two prospects with upside for their bullpen. The 23-year-old from Lithuania was able to post a 3.10 ERA over 58 innings this season, with 56 strikeouts, a .229 BAA and a 1.56 GO/AO ratio. He throws a tick harder than Santana, hitting 97 MPH often this season, topping out at 99 MPH. Neverauskas uses a slider as his out pitch, though he has two different versions. One sits high-80s and cuts in towards right-handed hitters, while the other one is a hard slider, which sits 91-92 MPH and goes down and in towards lefties. Neverauskas had better results with Altoona this year, plus he got into some late season trouble that cost him a shot at the majors and the AFL, so he might not be ready for the majors as soon as Santana. His one advantage could be that he was added to the 40-man roster last week, while Santana will likely go as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training and not get much of a shot to win an Opening Day job.
9. Brandon Waddell, LHP – Waddell skipped over West Virginia this year after being drafted in the fifth round in 2015. The Pirates take that route with some of the more advanced college pitchers in their first full season. What they don’t usually do is promote those pitchers to Altoona after just five starts, but that happened this season with Waddell. He wasn’t getting challenged in High-A, so Double-A seemed like the more appropriate level. He struggled with control at the higher level, issuing 61 walks in 118 innings, after walking just two batters with Bradenton. Part of the problem is that he was always trying to make the perfect pitch, rather than attacking the hitters. Waddell profiles as an innings eating starter in the majors. He had a high ground ball rate this season and a decent amount of strikeouts. He has a low-90s sinking fastball, pairing it with a slider that he uses as his out pitch. Waddell also had some success with a changeup, although it will need some work to get it to be a more consistent pitch. He also occasionally throws a curve, but it’s clearly his fourth pitch at this time. He needs to work on attacking hitters better, which would help with his walk totals, and allow him to reach his ceiling in the majors.
10. Jose Osuna, 1B/OF – Osuna had a breakout season in winter ball in his native Venezuela, then carried that success over into the 2016 season. He ended the year in Indianapolis, then was added to the 40-man roster last week so the Pirates avoided losing him to minor league free agency. Osuna led all Pirates with 37 doubles, also adding four triples and 13 homers. While he has never been one to take a lot of walks, he was more selective at the plate this season. He makes consistent contact, limiting himself to 80 strikeouts, while going to the plate over 500 times. Osuna, who turns 24 next month, has the upside of a solid bench player. He has been splitting his time between the outfield and first base the last two years. His glove is solid at first base, while he won’t hurt his team in the outfield. His arm is a plus tool. Osuna will open up the year in Indianapolis, and if he continues to hit well, then we could see him sometime next season in Pittsburgh.
Other Notable Players: We had a couple players just miss the bottom of the list and they weren’t far behind the last few players in the top ten, making Altoona a team with great depth. Jin-De Jhang and Erich Weiss were both considered for the top ten, coming up just short. Jhang puts up a nice batting average each year, though it comes with no power and a very low walk rate. His arm is solid, while the rest of his defense behind the plate needs work. He should see the majority of time behind the plate with Altoona next season. Weiss had a solid season and looks like a possible bench piece in the majors. His lack of any plus tools at age 25 makes it hard to project him any higher.
Edwin Espinal looked like he could be having a breakout season for a while during the summer. The 22-year-old first baseman finished with decent numbers, though his .953 OPS in June helped a lot. He finished with a career-high .735 OPS. He has advanced one level a year for six consecutive seasons, but I’d expect him to at least return to Altoona to begin the year. If he does, he will still be two years younger than the league average player.
Lefty Jared Lakind returned to the Pirates, signing a minor league deal to avoid free agency. He had solid results out of the bullpen, working low-90s with a fastball that has deception, to go along with a slider that is very tough on lefty hitters. Miguel Rosario became a very effective reliever this season by going with a submarine delivery that was hard for batters to pick up, plus he has a ton of movement on all of his pitches. That led to a .167 BAA and an 0.94 WHIP after being promoted mid-season from Bradenton.
Alex McRae had a nice run at the end of the year until getting hit around in the playoffs. He bounced back from an awful start with Altoona, to post a 2.47 ERA in his last ten regular season starts. After finishing 2015 with Altoona, Montana DuRapau struggled this year with leaving pitches up and a dip in velocity. As a flyball pitcher, he was helped by the big outfield in Altoona, leading to a 2.30 home ERA and 6.00 on the road. For years we rated Cody Dickson a little higher than he should have been. That was based on his pitches, rather than his pitching. He has the arsenal and ability to be much better, but he has never trusted his stuff. That has led to average results that are usually mixed with high pitch counts, and the occasional implosion start. The 2016 season was no different, so it’s tough to assume he will eventually pick up a bulldog mentality at this point and start attacking hitters.