Altoona Season Recap: A Team Loaded with Prospects Makes it to the Playoffs

The 2018 Altoona Curve roster was loaded with prospects and they were also the only affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates to make the playoffs. They did that despite losing all five of their starting pitchers during the season. That led to 18 different pitchers making at least one start, with 12 pitchers making five or more starts. The offense stayed the same for most of the season. Eight batters had over 300 at-bats, while only 11 hitters total played 50+ games. That offense helped them to a first place finish and a 78-60 record.

Below you will find a recap for all of the significant players used during the season. The Curve used a total of 51 players, but rehab players and brief fill-ins accounted for nearly 25% of those players. The rest was a strong group of prospects as you will see below. The Altoona top ten prospects list will be posted tomorrow.

We start with the Opening Day rotation that included five top 30 prospects. That group was led by Mitch Keller, the top prospect in the system. Due to some early season struggles with control, he ended up staying with Altoona later than many people anticipated. Keller finished his time in Double-A very strong, giving him a final ERA of 2.72 in 86 innings over 14 starts. He had 76 strikeouts and a 1.12 WHIP.

Early in the season, Keller was getting out-pitched by everyone in the rotation. The top of that group was JT Brubaker, who surprisingly returned after a solid finish to 2017, followed by a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League. Brubaker proved quickly that he belonged in Indianapolis, moving up after a 1.80 ERA in six starts. Brandon Waddell wasn’t far behind Brubaker with his performance in April/May and didn’t last long in Altoona. He was another pitcher who we thought might begin the season in Indianapolis. Waddell lasted nine games, posting a 2.68 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 53.2 innings.

Taylor Hearn made 19 starts and pitched 104 innings, which both led the Curve. He also led the club with 107 strikeouts. The low inning total for the team leaders shows just how much turnover they had during the season. Hearn was dealt to the Texas Rangers at the trade deadline. After Hearn, Eduardo Vera had the most starts (17) and he began the season in Bradenton. Vera pitched great at the end of the season, helping Altoona to their first place finish, then putting up an outstanding performance in the playoffs. He had a 3.62 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP in 97 innings.

Dario Agrazal was pitching strong early in the year when he suffered a right shoulder strain. He returned late and had a lot of trouble with some very poor outings, including his playoff start. Agrazal finished with a 3.99 ERA in 15 appearances. Pedro Vasquez was supposed to begin the season with Altoona, but a Spring Training illness kept him out early and he appeared to never recover. Vasquez had a 5.12 ERA in 12 starts and one relief appearance with the Curve before being demoted to Bradenton.

The Curve got help from Bradenton in Cam Vieaux and James Marvel, who were both part of the playoff rotation. Luis Escobar also joined the Curve late and posted a 4-0 record in seven starts, but that was deceiving. He had a 4.54 ERA and a 1.43 WHIP. Both Vieaux and Marvel pitched well, while limiting base runners. Vieaux had a 3.59 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP in 15 starts, while Marvel had a 3.00 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP in five starts.

The bullpen saw struggles from returning players in Sean Keselica, Tate Scioneaux and Yeudy Garcia, but many new pitchers did well. That group was led by Jesus Liranzo, a waiver pickup in early April, who needed just nine dominating performances with his triple digits fastball and strong slider to move up to Indianapolis. Scooter Hightower was our Pitcher of the Month in August after not allowing an earned run in his last 23.2 innings of the season. He was switching between starting and relieving. Matt Eckelman was promoted from Bradenton in late June and he posted a 1.82 ERA in 23 appearances, while picking up 11 saves. Geoff Hartlieb was in the bullpen all season. He had a 3.24 ERA in 58.1 innings, with 56 strikeouts and ten saves.

On offense, the team was loaded with solid prospects, especially in the infield. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes is now the second best prospect in the system after hitting .293/.375/.444 in 117 games. He was an Eastern League All-Star, an EL postseason All-Star, he played in the Futures Game and he was given the Gold Glove as the best third baseman in all of the minors.

Shortstop Cole Tucker rates right behind Hayes in the system as the third best prospect. He had a rough first half at the plate, but finished well and contributed on the bases with 35 steals, while playing solid defense all season. Tucker finished with a .689 OPS in 133 games, with a .777 mark after the All-Star break, followed by two homers in the playoffs.

First baseman Will Craig showed off power for the first time as a pro, though it came with a much lower on base percentage. He was a key in the middle of the lineup, driving in 102 runs. He hit 30 doubles and 20 homers. Craig also showed better defense, keeping up with the rest of the infield. Stephen Alemais moved from shortstop to second base full-time and had a solid overall season. The coaches and managers in the league voted him as the top defensive second baseman. Alemais hit .279/.346/.346 in 120 games.

In the outfield, two new players in the system were both very impressive. Jason Martin was the best hitter in the system for the first half of the season, earning a promotion to Indianapolis. While in Double-A, he hit .325/.392/.522 in 68 games. Martin was playing center field until he was promoted, then Bryan Reynolds took over the spot. After an early season surgery for a broken hamate bone, he finished with a .302/.381/.438 slash line in 88 games. Reynolds showed some power late despite the fact that hamate injuries usually sap power.

The catching trio was a very strong group on defense with Christian Kelley seeing the majority of the time, while Jin-De Jhang and Arden Pabst split the rest of the time. Kelley had a .675 OPS, which is his career high. Jhang had a .783 OPS in his limited time, while Pabst was hitting great in Bradenton before his promotion in July, then struggled at the plate in limited time with the Curve.

As for the bench, most of the extra playing time was in the outfield due to four regulars in the infield playing almost every day. Logan Hill saw a lot of playing time and drove in 72 runs, though it came with a very low OBP. Jordan George did a nice job of getting on base, though it came with limited power. Tyler Gaffney made the jump from Bradenton early in the year and posted a .611 OPS in 124 at-bats over 51 games. Not a great OPS, but it’s coming from someone who took five seasons off from baseball, then saw sporadic playing time.

The final player is Elvis Escobar, who had a lot of trouble at the plate through late May, with a .382 OPS in 40 games. A mop-up pitching performance where he hit 94 MPH led to a switch to the mound. While most of his pitching came with West Virginia, he finished the season with Altoona and showed some impressive stuff for such an inexperienced pitcher.




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