Expectations high for Curve

Next stop

Today: Akron at Altoona, 2 p.m.

Pitching matchup: Curve RHP Mitch Keller vs. RubberDucks LHP Sean Brady

Record: 2-1

By Cory Giger

cgiger@altoonamirror.com

There are 120 minor league teams playing right now, from low-A to Triple-A, and MLB.com ranked the Curve as having the seventh-most talented club throughout the minors.

That’s extremely high praise for the Curve roster, which features one of the best pitching prospects in the game in Mitch Keller, three former first-round draft picks (Cole Tucker, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Will Craig) and a slew of other quality prospects.

“It’s a very talented group,” manager Michael Ryan said following Saturday afternoon’s 5-1 win over Akron at Peoples Natural Gas Field. “I don’t worry about any of (those rankings). Our job is to get them better and get them to the next level and put them to work every day.

“It’s satisfying to know what they could be, so that makes it fun — let’s try to get them to that. You look 1-25 on the roster, of course it’s one of the most talented that you’ll see. You don’t win a lot of things on paper, so they just have to learn how to play together and want to become better players every day.”

The Curve trailed 1-0 in the sixth inning before Craig, the No. 22 overall pick in the first round in 2016, drilled a three-run homer to left that hugged the line but stayed just fair. That homer, Craig’s first in Double-A, and some excellent pitching were enough to send the crowd of 3,331 home happy on a frigid day.

“At first my hands stung a little bit because it was just so cold outside,” Craig said of his homer, “but it feels good to get the first one out of the way.”

Coming off Friday night’s sloppy game, in which the Curve blew a 6-0 lead and inexplicably lost despite taking a no-hitter into the seventh inning, Saturday’s contest was a clean one as the team improved to 2-1 in the early going.

“To have a clean game like that, it was good to see, especially on a cold afternoon,” Ryan said.

A lot of the credit, as the manager noted, went to lefty starter Brandon Waddell, who gave up just one run on four hits in 52/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked one.

Waddell is in his third season in Double-A, but he got to this level so quickly that he’s still just 23 years old and has a lot of upside.

Many players on the Curve roster have a lot of upside, including Keller, who will make his season debut today. He’s rated as the No. 15 prospect in the minors by MLB.com.

The website’s rankings of the 10 most talented minor league teams had this to say about Altoona:

“The Curve may have just one Top 100 Prospect, but they have one-third of the Pirates’ Top 30 prospects on their roster, headlined by right-hander Mitch Keller (No. 15), who is the best pitching prospect in Double-A. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, shortstop Cole Tucker, and outfielder Bryan Reynolds all have Top 100 upside and give Altoona a formidable lineup. Few left-handers can rival Taylor Hearn’s fastball, which creeps into triple-digit territory.”

Craig pointed out something else important about the Curve roster.

“Everyone talks about the prospects, but there’s a lot of guys that aren’t technically prospects that should be or could be easily,” he said. “We have a lot of guys that can hit in our lineup 1-9, even the guys on the bench can hit.

“Our pitching staff, most of our starters are low to mid-90s, and a few guys bump it upper 90s. … Being on this team is just fortunate for myself because I don’t have to face our pitching staff.”

Craig is a good prospect who hit .271 with six homers and 61 RBIs last season for high-A Bradenton. He hasn’t hit for a lot of power yet in two minor league seasons — just eight homers total coming into the year — but the potential for much more power is there.

“He’s been fun to watch,” Ryan said. “Just like Logan Hill, (the baseball sounds) loud off the bat, it’s different. I like what I see so far.”

Craig said he worked during the offseason on making consistent hard contact.

“It doesn’t mean I’m going to increase my contact ratio, but the way I do hit, I’m trying to barrel as much as possible, give myself an opportunity to … drive balls,” he said.

Asked about launch angle, the new fad in baseball, Craig said he hasn’t opted to focus on that.

“You can tell I have kind of an uphill swing anyways,” he said, “so it’s not me trying to create launch angle, it’s just kind of trying to make my swing as consistent as possible and being in the right spot, whether it’s timing or load or whatever.”

Waddell (1-0) got the win for the Curve, while Akron starter Michael Peoples (1-0) gave up the three-run homer to Craig and took the loss. Bret Helton worked 21/3 scoreless innings of relief for the Curve, then Sean Keselica finished it off in the ninth for his first save.

Game recap

Key player: LHP Brandon Waddell held Akron to one run on four hits and struck out seven in 5 2/3 innings for the win.

Key play: 1B Will Craig’s three-run homer in the sixth put Altoona on top to stay.

Key stat: The Curve are ranked the No. 7 most talented team in the minor leagues by MLB.com

How they scored

Top 6th: Haggerty doubled, scored on Paulino single (0-1).

Bottom 6th: Tucker walked, Alemais singled, both scored on Craig three-run homer (3-1).

Bottom 7th: Reyes singled, scored on Williams single (4-1).

Bottom 8th: Craig walked, scored on Reynolds triple (5-1).

Ryan humbled by his

very own bobblehead

Saturday’s giveaway was a bobblehead of Michael Ryan, winner of the fans’ vote on the all-time Curve team for manager.

“First one ever, so I’m happy with it,” Ryan said with a smile about his bobblehead. “It’s a little embarrassing. I’m just humble, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s well-deserving or anything like that. … I like how it’s small, so not much attention to it. Sort of like me, I don’t like all the attention.”

— Cory Giger

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