Williams: What Does an Altoona Championship Mean For the Future of the Pirates?

My very first season covering this organization, I watched the Lynchburg Hillcats win the Carolina League championship. The organization was pretty grim at the time in terms of prospects, and seeing that young team with most of the prospects in the organization winning it all was a sign of hope.

The next year, many players from that same team went on to repeat their success, winning a championship with the Altoona Curve.

The Pirates’ system has gotten much better since the 2009-2010 era. It peaked during the 2013-2014 years, but is still a strong group, with a lot of highly projectable guys in the lower levels. And history is starting to repeat itself in the upper levels, with the High-A and Double-A teams going back-to-back once again.

Last year the Bradenton Marauders won their first Florida State League championship, and the first High-A championship for the Pirates since Lynchburg in 2009. And last night, many of those same players went on to help Altoona win the Eastern League title, which was the first one since that 2010 championship.

Minor league team results don’t always give an indicator of the talent on the team. You can load a minor league team up with organizational players and watch them steamroll over the legit prospects who are a few years younger and still developing. You can put a loaded prospect group on a team and see them get destroyed as they work to develop their game.

The thing that’s encouraging about this group is that they’re mostly made up of legit prospects with a shot at reaching the majors. It was the same deal in Bradenton last year, and the same for the handful of players who were on the 2015 Morgantown championship team.

It was also the same way with the 2009 Lynchburg/2010 Altoona teams. They weren’t teams from the Dave Littlefield days, loaded with age-25 and 26 guys in High-A. They had legit prospects who could, and eventually did, help in the majors.

So what did that last group provide?

Not every prospect is going to make it to the majors, even from Double-A. So many of the players on that 2010 team either washed out, or made it to the majors in smaller roles.

Matt Hague, Andrew Lambo, Daniel Moskos, and Rudy Owens were a few guys who made it to the majors for a brief amount of time. Owens was actually traded to Houston in the Wandy Rodriguez deal, then saw his career derailed by injuries.

Chase d’Arnaud and Gorkys Hernandez still find themselves sticking around with various teams as bench depth options in the majors.

The results from that team largely came from the Altoona rotation. Tony Watson and Jared Hughes were starters on that team. Hughes went on to be a reliable middle reliever for a few years, while Watson became one of the best relievers in baseball for a stretch. Bryan Morris became a middle reliever, and still holds that role in the majors. Justin Wilson turned into a strong reliever, and the Pirates eventually traded him for Francisco Cervelli.

The only pitcher to have lasting starting success on that team was Jeff Locke, who made some legit contributions to the 2013-2015 Pirates run, putting up a combined 3.98 ERA and 4.02 xFIP in 466 innings during that three-year stretch.

On the position player side, there were two lasting contributors from that 2010 championship team. Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer played for both the Lynchburg and Altoona champions, and then went on to become the starting middle infield in Pittsburgh. At their best, they are average starters at their positions. We’re seeing close to the best from Harrison this year, and saw him provide a big boost in 2014 during his breakout season. Mercer is also having a relatively strong year this year, which puts him just below average for big league shortstops.

That 2010 Altoona team didn’t provide lasting star power. But it would be hard to imagine the Pirates having the same type of success from 2013-2015 without the contributions of Mercer, Harrison, Locke, Watson, Hughes, Wilson, Morris, and others from that group.

This doesn’t mean the 2017 Altoona team will follow the same suit. This is a much different team, with some of the top prospects in the organization. This championship team was led by Mitch Keller on the mound, while the 2010 group didn’t have a prospect of the same caliber. The current team also had Cole Tucker, who is higher rated and has more upside than anyone from that 2010 position player group.

Beyond those two, this championship team has prospects similar to that 2010 group. You might get a back of the rotation starter and a few relievers from guys like JT Brubaker, Brandon Waddell, Alex McRae, Tanner Anderson, Austin Coley, and so on. The position player group could provide an additional starter beyond Tucker, with the lead candidate being Kevin Kramer. There could also be some bench players from guys like Mitchell Tolman, Jin-De Jhang, Wyatt Mathisen, and so on.

The group of prospects from the Bradenton/Altoona champions aren’t going to build the next winning Pirates team single-handed. That wasn’t the case with the 2009/2010 group contributing to the 2013-2015 success. But this is a group that can help, providing some players who will be key to that next successful Pirates team. And that help might start arriving in the second half of 2018, with hopes that some of the bigger prospects will be able to contribute in the majors for most of the 2019 season.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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candyfan

My praise for Altoona is cautioned by the lack of any sure fire star players on the team (excluding Mitch Keller, who came up late from High A). This seems to be a trend with the Pirates minor league system of late. There’s lots of “good” players who make up winning teams (up and down the top five levels) but you don’t see any Kris Bryant’s or Anthony Rizzo’s or Andrew McCutchen’s or Garret Cole’s.

In other words, too many Jordy Mercer’s and Josh Harrison’s. Lots of good support players but every year end contending team needs about four players having Hall Of Fame type seasons, Cubs this year example: Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Hendrick. Pirates don’t even have one player on the MLB team in that category this year!

Kerry Writtenhouse

When the Pirates were picking high, they went Cole and Taillion. The last hitter taken high was Meadows because of Appel not signing. The philosophy is draft pitching because buying pitching is impossible. Of course, buying anything other than utility guys or guys coming off down years seems to be their limit.

Looking ahead, if this team hopes to contend, they’ll need improvements. If they aren’t willing, then they should be looking to trade McCutchen and Cole at least.

RobForsyth

My rule of thumb continues to be that for a team’s top ten prospects three will make it to the majors.

leowalter

Proof of that ” theory ” is ?

thecrow124

Last time Altoona won a championship, didn’t they fire their manager for that team?

leefoo

Yes…Matt Walbeck.

David N

Too much winning! And not the right way.

leowalter

Walbeck won in spite of himself. He was a fool. fired by several orginizations post Curve.

Kerry Writtenhouse

Lousy catcher too!

REEBS

The names you mentioned are a couple years worth of draft picks….Harrison and Mercer Watson and Wilson I guess….solid big leaguers, the rest? Again, you look at drafting and player development and ask where are our drafted stars? Cole (the #1 pick in draft)…and umm…help me out? (please dont mention international players…one is not allowed in country and 2 others are injured, underachieving. HOPING TALION…

REEBS

Im sorry, I dont consider the #1 Pick in the country a great pick or great development…I totally agree on Bell ( a GREAT pick and PHENENOMAL developement. How they made him a 1B is almost a miracle..kudos to all involved. But every other player you mentioned and I mentioned previously are pumped out on a regular basis by almost every other organization in baseball. The Pirates have to be superior in drafting/player development and every player you mentioned is not special. They are OK or slightly above and when your owner is NEVER gonna spend a penny over his self imposed salary cap, being OK in player development makes the Pirates who they are….MAYBE a wild card contender. Take a look 2 hours away and you will see an example of an organization with OK player development BUT here is the key….a willingness to trade prospects and making the proper key signing when team is close. Yes, and wait for it….the owner has to be willing to maybe break even or lose a little money one year….and re-cap it in the future….I know fantasy world there. Thanks for letting me vent a little. Now you can tell me I just don’t get it, which is fine lol….I do love Pirates Prospects!!!

John W

Over 10 years on the job… the list of draftees contributing(or even almost ready to contribute) is less than overwhelming.

Alex Rutkowski

Holy jesus John. Why so hostile?

John W

It is tough to give them no credit for Cole

It’s not tough to say:
Tony Sanchez was horrible pick

Not drafting Machado over Taillon was big mistake

Appel was horrible- thank goodness he didn’t work out

Barnes horrid pick- could have had Winker

Mcuire either bad pick or bad trade(you decide)

Newman looking iffy(low power, contacthitter when game going complete opposite direction)

Will Craig looking like very bad pick

Yeah they’ve found some Frazier and Kuhl’s along the way over the last decade.

John W

LOL life is good my friend. You should know Gajtka and others already ran pretty detailed draft analysis that shows how poorly Pirates have done drafting in NH era. I know… you are going to run your own analysis soon. Spoiler alert- I’m going to take a wild guess and predict your analysis shows NH’s drafts have been just fine.

John W

But to be clear- as of today you don’t really have an opinion of whether or not NH has drafted well? You won’t have an opinion until you do your study/analysis?

John W

So YOUR analysis is going to answer all the important questions while the other analysis has failed to do so?

AttyMike

It’s nice to win in the post season. I think the most significant take away from the season is that the success wasn’t the result of older organizational players (as was the case with Indy). Beyond that, its anyone’s guess what the win means. If this group has the same success that the 2010 group did, the organization would probably be pretty happy with that. Many of those 2010 players were not drafted by he current front office.

cabbo80

Mike are you an attorney?

AttyMike

yes.

La Pirate

A very relevant article. Yes we need to make some moves but things quickly look a lot better if Glasnow can find it. I think he will

jaygray007

Tim, what is your current opinion on Pablo Reyes? I got Dreker’s thoughts yesterday.

he has hit/got on base every year, walks enough, avoids Ks enough, is reportedly good at defense (while not having the arm for short), runs well, and is age appropriate for his level. That scouting report is basically a fast version of Kevin Kramer, pre-200-plate appearance-power-breakout.

what does he need to do differently in order to be in the… i dunno… top 30 prospects?

if he pops another .270/.350/400 at AAA next year, wouldnt it be time to start to kinda believe in him?

jaygray007

thanks for the answer!

NMR

Fun article, Tim. I enjoyed the look back.

John W

I’d say basically it means nothing. Does winning a championship or even the best performance in small sample size of the playoffs improve anyone’s scouting grade in a material way?

It’s a a great accomplishment these guys can relish all their lives. Does Jhang’s big hit or performance mean he has a higher chance of contributing at MLB level.

How many prospects on Altoona would grade as 50 or higher by Longenhagen or Baseball America?

Keller
Tucker(who was injured for some of playoffs)
maybe Kramer?

rjgrinde

My perpetual cynicism tells me it is press conference material for Huntington to point to when we suck again next year. But establishing a winning culture is a big deal the problem is with that is the culture stops at PNC Park and the guys look at the awful veteran lattled starting roster sheet. I used to think there were nothing slower than Jordy Mercer’s feet but, then I started to pay attention to his bat. He’s got at least 3 more years of starting games he shouldn’t even though there are better options on the bench and maybe even the bullpen to play SS. 3rd base is the same way unless they can Dark Knight Kang out of Korea. I have to count on Polanco growing hamstrings next year and decide not to go 0 for 20 every other week. A new training staff is in order, they can’t stop their top guys and prospects from pulling or tearing hamstrings or having oblique issues. Believe it or not that starts with something as simple as hydration, maybe the Bucs will figure that one out soon because, as of right now, the frequency cannot be blamed on bad luck…it’s bad training and game prep.

NMR

A tip from someone who should use it himself more often…sometimes there are things that don’t need said, even if they’re true. 😉

John W

Ha! Yes you are correct. I probably took a rhetorical question in headline too literally. Anyway, good for the guys at Altoona. Loved the photos- brought me back to why baseball is best game in the world.

dcbuccofan

Always Mr. Sunshine!

John W

It’s a great story and I really enjoyed the games. Really happy for the guys and it’s neat to see guys like Jhang(or even Hellweg) play a big part in game winner. Winning is never a bad thing and I’m sure there is some small intangible benefit one can’t measure. I simply don’t think it really does much to change the future trajectory of the Pirates at the MLB level. Call me crazy.

pierogieking

To me the organization is better off as a whole, even if just a little bit, by winning a championship. Even if it feels meaningless when you apply it to the MLB club.

This group of guys went to battle together and came out on top. The brotherhood and exposure to high leverage baseball has to be a plus, and at the very least it doesn’t mean “nothing”.

Darkstone42

It’s good training for reaching the Majors, too. It’s easy to fall into a trap of trying to do too much, or thinking you have to drastically change process in the Majors. The more experience they get, just being the players they are in pressure situations, the better they’ll be equipped to avoid that failing when they get to Pittsburgh.

It’s not the most important part of development, but it’s nonzero. Alen Hanson is a good example of how failing to develop that can ruin a career. It’s good to see a team win a championship since it means they’re likely already learning how to play within themselves.

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