The Pirates are trying something new this year by fast-tracking several of their better but inexperienced prospects to Double-A, basically seeing if they will sink or swim.
It's risky, but it's also appropriate with this particular group.
The Curve's starting infield is made up of four players who made their minor league debuts just two years ago: first baseman Matt Hague, second baseman Josh Harrison, shortstop Chase d'Arnaud and third baseman Jordy Mercer.
Another player, starting pitcher Justin Wilson, made his pro debut only last season. Then there's starter Rudy Owens, who's in Double-A despite pitching in just six regular-season games for Single-A Lynchburg in 2009.
In years past, there would have been very little chance these guys would have started this season in Double-A. The plan would have been for them to get some more seasoning in A-ball and join the Curve either later this summer or to start next year.
Owens was drafted in 2007, so it's not all that unusual for him to be in Double-A by now. As for the other five players, they are in Altoona for two reasons:
I'm going with 73-69 this season. Last year's record prediction was embarrassing, and I have no excuse. I don't know which was worse, the Curve's play or my prediction. Here's how I've fared over the years:
Year Prediction Actual Gms. off
2009 70-72 62-80 9.0
2008 64-78 65-77 1
2007 75-67 73-68 1.5
2006 69-73 75-64 7.5
2005 73-69 76-66 3
They all were very high draft picks in 2008, meaning they should have superb skill sets. They also are old enough, because of their extensive college experience, that they fit right in line age-wise with the better prospects in the Eastern League.
n Mercer, 23, was a third-round pick
n d'Arnaud, 23, was a fourth-round pick
n Wilson, 22, was a fifth-round pick
n Harrison 22, was a sixth-round pick (by the Cubs, who traded him to the Pirates last year)
n Hague, 24, was a ninth-round pick
All five players have terrific pedigrees and have enjoyed success as pros, so there's no reason for them to spend more time in A-ball.
College stars often get buried in the low minors for years because organizations don't want them to feel overmatched. But if a guy spent a few years as a college standout and was worthy of being drafted in the top 10 rounds, he should be able to step right in and succeed in Double-A.
If he can't, then it was a mistake drafting him that high.
These five players, and Owens, will play a huge role in what kind of season this will be for the Curve. Expect them to look very good at times and very bad at others, simply because Double-A is a tough jump and it takes time for even elite prospects to get acclimated.
Remember, Pedro Alvarez started 3-for-25 upon joining the Curve in June last season, while Andrew McCutchen started 0-for-15 in 2007 and was batting .178 a month and a half into the season.
The young prospects have enough upside that, as long as they reach expectations, they can lead the Curve to a good season.
Here's I see things playing out:
Record prediction: 73-69. The prospects should get better and better as the season progresses, so even if they struggle early, the second half could be very good.
Playoffs?: No, but in the hunt down the stretch.
They'll be better if: Most of the young players get off to good starts.
They'll be worse if: The team has very little power but does have a lot of speed. If the Pirates don't take advantage of it by stealing or hitting and running - things the Curve have rarely done over the years - then the offense could struggle.
Biggest strength: Speed
Biggest weakness: Power
A good sign would be: Owens and Wilson pitching well early and proving they can handle Double-A hitters.
A bad sign would be: Any injuries to the young players. The Pirates do not have enough depth to fill the holes, and they are unlikely to go out and sign quality free agents as fill-ins.
First player promoted: I did nail this one last year with reliever Juan Mateo. I'll go with reliever Jeff Sues, who has enough experience to warrant a call-up to Triple-A if a pitcher goes down.
Most exciting new player: d'Arnaud
Most exciting returning player: Center fielder Gorkys Hernandez could have a big year after learning some tough lessons last season.
In closing: No way this team will be anywhere near as bad as last year's squad. A lot of the players won a Carolina League championship a year ago at Lynchburg, so they know how to play good, solid, winning baseball. The club also had a strong spring training, losing just a couple of its exhibition games. It may not be a great team early and could hover at or just below .500 for a while. But it will not start 0-8 like last year. Guaranteed.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and email@example.com.