This is a hugely disappointing season for the Curve, but there are still several players on the team who look like they could be productive major leaguers at some point. Following are the top 10 prospects on the club:
1. CF Starling Marte
A no-brainer for the top spot given his all-around game. Marte can hit for average, has excellent speed and plays strong defense, although he hasn't been as good as expected in the latter department for the Curve. Plate discipline is an issue since he projects as a leadoff hitter, and a .342 on-base percentage in Double-A isn't great, particularly when his average is .305. He's 22 but still doesn't have a lot of experience because of injuries, so this is his first full season. His skills are still raw, but he will only get better with experience. If he turns out to be as good as the Pirates hope, he someday could take over in center field in Pittsburgh and move Andrew McCutchen to a corner spot. He probably won't reach the majors until next year and could be a mainstay by the beginning of 2013.
2. RHP Bryan Morris
He hasn't been able to reach his potential as a starting pitcher in Double-A, but he has been superb since moving to the Curve's bullpen. He has a 1.07 ERA out of the pen, while it was 6.04 as a starter. He has excellent stuff and a good, lively fastball, making him a potential weapon in the Pirates' bullpen as early as this season. If the organization plans to keep him in relief for the long haul, he could develop into a quality eighth-inning setup man or possibly a closer down the line. He's a member of the 40-man roster and appears to be in line for a September call-up.
3. RHP Kyle McPherson
A member of the 40-man roster, he was superb at high-A Bradenton (4-1, 2.89 ERA in 12 starts) before getting called up to the Curve in early June. He's handled the jump nicely so far, going 3-3 with a 3.26 ERA in seven starts. He has good control (37 strikeouts to 10 walks), and the only weakness he's had for the Curve has been giving up the long ball (five in 38 2/3 innings). The 23-year-old is one of several good, young arms in the high minors for the Bucs, and they all will be competing with each for opportunities in Pittsburgh over the next few years. McPherson has as good of a shot as any of them to be a key contributor for the Pirates.
4. SS Jordy Mercer
He's no longer with the Curve, but he deserves a spot on the list after putting together a stellar first half to earn a promotion to Triple-A. Mercer belted 13 homers and drove in 48 runs while batting .268 in 72 games for the Curve. He was among the Eastern League leaders in both home runs and RBIs, and the power surge was a pleasant surprise after he hit only three homers last season. He has continued to hit for power with Indianapolis, smacking three home runs in 14 games, giving him 16 total for the season. He helps himself with versatility as he can play shortstop, third base and second base. He doesn't excel at any of the positions, so it may be tough for him to crack an everyday lineup. But his bat should get him to the big leagues at some point.
5. C Tony Sanchez
This has been a disappointing season for the No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Sanchez's average had dipped all the way to .234 entering play Saturday before he went 2-for-4 to get it to .238. He has shown very little ability to drive the ball with only four homers and, even worse, just six doubles in 77 games. That equates to an anemic .314 slugging percentage. Sanchez's defense also has been suspect as he has struggled blocking balls and throwing. He entered the season ranked as the Pirates' No. 4 prospect, but that's based primarily on his draft status. Nothing he has shown on the field so far this season warrants even being in the Bucs' top 10, although he does have the second half to try and put things together and finish up strong.
6. 1B Matt Curry
He crushed the ball at low-A West Virginia, hitting .361 with nine homers, 34 RBIs and a 1.148 OPS in 46 games. The Pirates gambled and let him skip high-A ball to join the Curve, and the jury is still out on that decision. Curry surely could have used the experience he would have gained against high-A pitchers. He got off to a fast start with the Curve, hitting .300 his first 11 games, then slumped all the way down to .218 on June 29. He's figured things out the past couple of weeks to raise his average to .268. His good stroke and good plate discipline bode well for his future, but he will need to work on his defense.
7. RHP Phil Irwin
He got off to a fantastic start this season for Bradenton, going 5-0 with a 2.03 ERA. He held hitters to a .234 average and had 40 strikeouts to 12 walks. He joined the Curve a month ago and has been solid with a 3-1 record and 3.45 ERA. The control has been excellent (21 strikeouts to three walks), and he's shown no signs of being overmatched by the jump to Double-A. He can really make a name for himself if he puts together a strong second half with the Curve, which could help him get to Triple-A to start next season.
8. LHP Jeff Locke
He entered the season ranked as the Pirates' No. 8 prospect but hasn't had the kind of year he was hoping for with a 5-8 record and 4.67 ERA in 18 games for the Curve. He's shown good control and can dominate hitters at times, with 92 strikeouts to only 38 walks in 94 1/3 innings, but he's also allowed opposing hitters to bat .273. He's struggled most with consistency, looking sharp on most nights but really struggling on others. He's a member of the 40-man roster and could get a shot in Pittsburgh in September if the team needs an extra lefty.
9. OF Andrew Lambo
He had a miserable time in Triple-A, batting just .184 in 60 games before getting demoted to the Curve. In many instances, that kind of dropoff would be a death blow to a player's career, but Lambo is still just 22 years old. He has a good skill set and a lot of natural ability, so as long as he can right the ship with the Curve, he can remain a prospect. He's done OK so far in his return to Altoona, hitting two homers with 13 RBIs, but he's batting just .235.
10. 2B Brock Holt
He can flat out hit, and guys who can do that often find their way to the big leagues one way or another. He's batting .287 with 103 hits in 88 games, ranking near the top of the Eastern League in the latter category. He's also a gamer and does whatever it takes to get on base and be pesky to the opposing pitcher. He doesn't have great defensive skills at second, but as long as he can be steady there and make the routine plays, his bat can get him to the majors.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.