Pittsburgh Pirates 2021 Minor League Recaps: Altoona Curve

Altoona in 2021 fielded a lineup holding great significance for the Pirates’ future.  With the major league team badly needing to upgrade nearly every spot on the active roster and Indianapolis largely a prospect wasteland, the Curve came the closest to holding answers to baseball’s worst offense.  The Altoona offense did underperform its talent level, mainly because many key players missed large chunks of the season.  The pitching staff, and especially the bullpen, was more of a patchwork, partly because the signature pitching prospect also missed half the season.  The team finished with a 58-59 record.

The Altoona hitters were the league’s youngest, a full year under the average.  They finished eighth in the 12-team league in scoring, sixth in average, ninth in OBP and eighth in slugging.  Walks weren’t their thing, as they were comfortably below the average walk rate.  Their struck out slightly more often than the average rate.  They were eighth in home runs, which isn’t bad considering that their home park sharply suppresses homers.

The pitchers were the league’s second-youngest, almost a year below the average.  They were tenth in ERA, eighth in walk rate and last in strikeout rate.  The defense was last in fielding percentage.

Catchers

This position spurred a lot of interest with the Pirates’ two class A teams.  Altoona . . . not so much.  Let’s get this over with.  Arden Pabst caught half the team’s games.  He batted 194/220/330, which is bad.  He threw out 18% of base stealers, which is also bad.  (League average was 28%.)  The rest of the catching was done by players who handled 17 or fewer games.  Jason Delay filled in briefly at Altoona and Indianapolis, batting 117/150/117 while throwing out just one of 18 base stealers.  Grant Koch got a late promotion from Greensboro and hit 130/161/222 while throwing out two out of 12 base stealers.  The one prospect was Carter Bins, who came from Seattle in the Tyler Anderson trade.  He had a breakout year in High A but struggled in 11 games after Seattle promoted him to AA.  He also struggled at Altoona, batting 200/333/236 while throwing out one of 13 base stealers, but he got into only 16 games due to a wrist injury.  The team’s best catcher was longtime organizational guy Raul Hernandez, but he got into only nine games before going out for the year with an injury.

Infielders

Now things get better.  The regular infield, first to third, was Mason Martin, Ji-Hwan Bae, Oneil Cruz and Rodolfo Castro.  Sadly, this infield wasn’t together much.  Cruz missed half the season with a forearm strain.  Bae missed nearly a third of the season with a knee injury.  Castro missed nearly half the season for a much better reason:  He was in the majors.  Martin, at least, stayed healthy.

The headliner here obviously is Cruz, whose massive tools are increasingly coming together.  For Altoona, he hit 292/346/536, with a reasonable K rate.  He also stole 18 bases in 21 tries, an aspect of his game that doesn’t get much attention.  In eight late-season games at Indianapolis, he just tore the place apart.  And in the Pirates’ final game, he adjusted to a low changeup by going to one knee, flicking the bat out and hitting the ball into the seats in right center.  Cruz played only short this year, so the Pirates seem determined to keep him there.  His error totals remain high, but that might be a small price to pay to have this kind of offensive potential at the position.

Castro also made his major league debut, in his case around mid-season after a hot stretch had left him with impressive numbers in AA.  He became the first player ever whose first five major league hits were home runs.  The adjustment period settled in after that and he struggled while spending a little over a month as more or less the Pirates’ starter at second.  For some reason, the Pirates sent him back to Altoona and not AAA, and he went into a dismal slump — 6-for-75 (.080) — in his last 19 AA games, which left him with a weak line there of 242/295/425.  But then he went to Indianapolis and posted a .999 OPS in eight games.  Castro played second and third, more often the latter, at Altoona.

Martin had a big season through the end of July, but he slumped in August and September, finishing with an OPS of .799 and 22 home runs.  He hit 14 of those on the road and his OPS was almost 200 points higher there than at home, so the Altoona ballpark may have worked against him.  He hit three more bombs in eight end-of-season games at Indianapolis.  His walk rate was down from prior years and his K rate up a bit.

Bae was making the jump from Low A.  He struggled in May, but hit .302 after that.  The oddest thing about his season is that, at the time of his knee injury in early June, he had no career home runs.  A month later, in a two-game rehab in the FCL, he hit his first.  Then he went back to Altoona and hit seven more in less than half a season.  He definitely changed his swing to get more loft.  Bae played mostly at second, but since he’s an infielder the Pirates couldn’t resist playing him in the outfield some.  He was very erratic at second, with way too  many errors, so it’s possible they’re unsure he can play in the infield.

At the trade deadline, the Pirates added Diego Castillo.  He played second, third and short, and was impressive at the plate.  He batted 282/342/445 with a 10:9 BB:K.  He then put up a .914 OPS in 54 ABs in AAA.

The main infield backups were Josh Bissonette and Connor Kaiser.  Bissonette was a 31st round draft pick who was making the jump all the way from Bristol.  He usually played third.  Kaiser was a third round pick who hasn’t hit much, although he’s very good defensively.  He usually played short.  They both hit like utility infielders.

Outfielders

For the majority of the season, the outfield, left to right, was Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jonah Davis and Cal Mitchell.  About two-thirds of the way through the season, Davis traded places with Matt Fraizer, who came up from Greensboro.  Smith-Njigba missed most of the second half of the season with leg injuries and was ultimately replaced by trade acquisition Jack Suwinski.

Mitchell and Smith-Njigba had solid rather than outstanding seasons.  Mitchell’s been highly regarded for his swing since the Pirates drafted him in 2017, but he’s never broken out, mainly due to poor plate discipline and a tendency to have long slumps.  This year he seemed to be having that breakout.  Two months into the season he had eight home runs and was slugging .535.  Over the last three months, four homers and .357 SLG.  He cut his K rate almost in half, but didn’t hit LHPs at all.  Smith-Njigba similarly didn’t quite put things together, but he was skipping a level and missed all that time.  He drew a ton of walks, but only hit for modest power, with a line of 274/398/406.  Both Mitchell and Smith-Njigba are eligible for the Rule 5 draft now.

Davis did what he does, with a three true outcomes season.  He hit 211/321/405, with eight homers and strikeouts in exactly half his ABs.  Considering that he was skipping a level, it doesn’t seem that awful, but it probably doesn’t bode well that, after the demotion, he hit 196/348/439 and struck out even more often.  So he seems stuck in the same gear.  So does Fraizer, but it’s a different gear.  He continued his big season, dropping off a bit to an .848 OPS, but moving from an extreme home run park to a strong pitchers park probably accounts for that.

Suwinski, when the Pirates acquired him, was having a breakout season in AA, with a .949 OPS, a ton of walks and 15 home runs.  In a little less time with Altoona, he had a .750 OPS with four homers.  He’s also eligible for Rule 5.  Unlike Mitchell and Smith-Njigba, he didn’t not get a late-season promotion to Indianapolis, which may or may not say something.

The other outfielders were Daniel Amaral and Brendt Citta.  Amaral has been a good fourth outfielder in the system since 2018.  He fell off some to 218/302/368 in 2021.  Citta was making his debut in full season ball and handled it well, batting 294/347/413 before missing the last half of the season with an injury.  He served mainly as a DH and played a little at first.

Pitchers

The Altoona rotation went through a lot of disruption, starting even before the season.  Cody Bolton and Aaron Shortridge missed the whole year, Bolton with a knee injury and Shortridge due to Tommy John.  The initial rotation was Roansy Contreras, Max Kranick, Osvaldo Bido, Jeffrey Passantino, Noe Toribio and Travis MacGregor.  That group didn’t last long, as Kranick moved up to Indianapolis after three starts and didn’t return.  We’ll catch up with him next time.  Kranick was replaced by Greensboro reliever Trey McGough, who’s the only lefty in this group.

Contreras made such a big impression that the term “Roansy day” was coined.  His stuff took a sudden leap forward, including velocity that jumped from 92-95 up to 96-97.  He blew hitters away, posting an 0.90 WHIP and 12.6 K/9.  Of course, this is the Pirates, so Contreras went out at the end of June with forearm tightness.  But in an un-Piratelike turn, it didn’t lead to . . . you know.  Contreras came back in September and did well in one start each with Indianapolis and the Pirates.

Bido and Toribio were both signed out of the Dominican and have moved very rapidly through the system.  Toribio is a finesse guy who didn’t turn 22 until late August.  He had a rough time, with a 5.35 ERA in eight starts, and then he got hurt.  He returned in August and moved to the bullpen, where he had a 1.84 ERA.  Bido throws 93-96 and signed at age 21, so he’s 24 now.  He had some extreme ups and downs with the Curve, with some awful stretches and some very good ones, adding up to a 5.09 ERA.  His problems were entirely with left-handed hitters, who just torched him.  He made two starts for Indianapolis at the end of the year, one of which went very badly.

MacGregor and McGough have contrasting back stories.  MacGregor was a 2nd round pick who hadn’t pitched since mid-2018 due to Tommy John surgery.  Even then, he hadn’t pitched above Low A, so Altoona was an ambitious assignment.  He got off to a good start, but struggled very badly in July and August before pitching well in September.  His ERA was 6.25, but he led the Curve in starts and finished third to McGough and Bido in innings, so the Pirates stuck with him through some serious struggles.  McGough was a 24th round draft pick who looked like an organizational reliever, so his promotion and move to the Altoona rotation came out of the blue.  And it worked.  McGough is mainly a finesse guy who throws strikes and keeps the ball in the park.  He put up a 1.16 WHIP and 3.41 ERA, had only one really bad start, and led the Curve in innings.  It’ll be interesting to see him in Indy next year.

Another interesting starter came to the Curve from Greensboro in late June.  Lefty Omar Cruz, acquired in the Joe Musgrove trade, made seven starts there and 14 with the Curve.  Cruz doesn’t throw hard, but has a motion so fidgety that you may want to take Dramamine before you see him pitch.  For some reason, he had high walk and K rates at Greensboro and low ones at Altoona.  Yet he had a 3.45 ERA with the former and 3.44 with the latter.  He had a bad month in July for the Curve, but otherwise pitched well.  The analytics didn’t really buy it, though, as he had an xFIP of 4.76 before the promotion and 5.14 after.

The other two starters for the Curve were Passantino and Cam Vieaux.  The Pirates got Passantino in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft.  He was very solid, finishing with a 4.62 ERA because of a bad month after he came back from an ankle injury.  He certainly deserved better than the 1-8 W/L record he ended up with.  Vieaux opened the season in the bullpen, but made five starts for the Curve and eight for Indianapolis.  He split the 2019 season between the same two teams and he followed the same pattern.  He pitched well for Altoona (3.68 ERA, 1.16 WHIP) and got pummeled in AAA (7.67 ERA, 2.01 WHIP).  Vieaux is a finesse lefty and the problem he seems to run into is that he can get AA hitters but not AAA hitters to chase his pitches.  This year his walk rate doubled when he moved up.

The Altoona bullpen featured an odd assortment of pitchers representing a wide variety of attempt to find useful relievers.  In most cases, the attempts weren’t successful.

In three cases, though, things worked out to at least some extent.  The most interesting reliever at Altoona was Yerry De Los Santos, who essentially missed three years early in his career to Tommy John.  Unfortunately, he lost most of the season to a forearm strain.  When he pitched, including four scoreless outings for Indianapolis, he performed very well.  He’ll be a minor league free agent if the Pirates don’t add him to the 40-man roster; he certainly seems like a better gamble than, say, Kyle Keller.  Hunter Stratton, a late-round pick in 2017, suddenly started dominating, posting a 15.6 K/9 for the Curve, nearly twice his K rate in 2019 with Bradenton.  Stratton had a high walk rate, but opponents batted only .182 against him.  The Pirates moved him up to Indianapolis for the season’s second half and he pitched pretty well, but not like at Altoona.  Finally, lefty Cam Alldred, a late-round pick in 2018, had a good season with the Curve, posting a 2.18 ERA that was aided by a .203 WHIP.

The Curve had a couple of hard-throwing relievers who struggled with control.  Shea Murray, an 18th round pick in 2017, has generally been extremely hard to hit, but has struggled to walk less than a batter an inning.  He got his BB/9 down to 7.8, but that’s not going to do it.  Cristofer Melendez can hit triple digits, but he’s bounced around through four organizations and is now eligible for free agency.  He moved up to Altoona after six games with Greensboro, possibly so the Pirates could evaluate him for roster purposes.  He walked five per nine and had a 4.41 ERA.

They also had a pair of struggling prospects trying to regain their status.  The Pirates took Steven Jennings in the second round in 2018.  He wasn’t making it as a starter and moved to relief this year.  He went through three levels this year, pitching well at Bradenton and Greensboro, but struggled in a little under two months with the Curve.  Opponents there hit .313 against him.  Lefty Nathan Kirby was a supplemental first round pick for the Brewers in 2015.  The Pirates got him at mid-season for Kevin Kramer and he struck out 17.2 per nine innings, but also walked 7.0 and had a 6.52 ERA.  He’ll be a free agent.

And then there were the guys who just got bombed:  Brad Case, John O’Reilly, Oddy Nunez and Will Gardner.  Collectively, they pitched in 111 games and had a 6.49 ERA.  They had a lot to do with the Curve finishing third from the bottom in staff ERA.

Analysis
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