BOWIE, Md. - The words "division champs" will be attached to this year's Curve team in a day or two, but they are not the two most important words associated with the club.
Those two words?
In minor league circles, those words mean that a team is filled with players who should be at a certain level, based on their age.
It doesn't mean having a bunch of 28-year-old veterans playing in Double-A.
That's what the Curve had during most of their four-year playoff run from 2003-06. And while those were fun teams to watch and teams that won consistently, they were, frankly, an illusion.
There were several good prospects, sure, but there were too many older guys on those teams who were counted on to be big contributors. Those guys were not prospects; they were fill-ins signed by the Pirate organization to help the minor league teams win.
To its credit, the current Pirates regime came in and from day one said that type of philosophy would no longer be in place. If the minor league affiliates were going to win, they were going to do so because they had better age-appropriate prospects at a certain level.
That's what this year's Curve team has.
The entire infield - Matt Hague, Jordy Mercer, Chase d'Arnaud and Josh Harrison - is first-year Double-A guys.
The same can be said for the bulk of the outstanding starting rotation - Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson and formerly Bryan Morris, who's now in the bullpen.
"It shows that what we set out to do when we first got over here is starting to bear fruit," Pirates farm director Kyle Stark said of the Curve's success. "I think it started to bear fruit last year, but I think you're seeing it obviously at Altoona this year and at other levels, as well.
"Ultimately, we said from day one that our job is to help players reach their potential and to develop guys to help us win in Pittsburgh. And if we go out and do that the right way by getting the right players and developing them the right way, then we're going to put a good product on the field at each of our affiliates and ultimately teach these guys how to win along the way."
Manager Matt Walbeck enjoyed great success in the Detroit Tigers' system before coming to the Pirates, winning a pair of league titles in A-ball. He understands the importance of a farm system winning with its own prospects.
"It's definitely a feather in the cap of the organization and especially the farm system when you can have an age-appropriate team, with all the infielders and then most of the starting pitchers," Walbeck said. "It's just really something to be said about the way we've been doing things."
Now, just having good prospects in the system doesn't mean they ultimately will be able to help the Pirates turn things around. The dominant 2004 Curve club was loaded with such players - like Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Brad Eldred - and that group was unable to make a dent in the Bucs' 18-year losing streak.
Many of the current Curve players someday will wear Pirates uniforms, and hopefully they can provide part of a foundation that helps the organization end its losing ways. The starting pitchers, in particular, will be counted on to play a big role in that.
"The name of the game is pitching, and you need a lot of it," Stark said. "It's a game of attrition, and there's going to be guys that develop and guys that don't and guys that get hurt.
"Our job is to try to maximize as much of it as possible, and I think that if you look at that [Curve] staff ... it shows that from a pitching standpoint our program is definitely advancing."
Stark, like general manager Neal Huntington last week, would not confirm if Owens, Locke and Morris would remain with the Curve for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, rather than go to Triple-A.
He did, however, offer up this: "I don't think that getting a guy a start in Triple-A necessarily prepares him that much more for next year."
As for the entire minor league system, it's clearly better off now than it was a few years ago under the former Pirate regime.
"I don't think it's really that close," Stark said. "I'll leave it to other people to evaluate those types of things. But I think if you look at just about any measure, whether it be objective performance, whether it be subjective evaluation, as you look up and down the chain I think that what we're doing is a lot further ahead than even where it was last year."
We've seen a perfect example of that with the age-appropriate players in Altoona this season.