Big league struggles could cost Curve

Commentary

As the Pirates’ freefall toward what may become a dreadful season continues, there’s a good chance it will have a negative impact on what otherwise could be another run at an Eastern League championship for the Curve.

The Bucs (40-48) are now eight games under .500 with three weeks left until the trade deadline, and if they continue to sink, you can bet several key pieces of the big league club will be dealt away. That includes potentially Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, David Freese and perhaps even Francisco Cervelli and Corey Dickerson, among others.

If some or all of those guys depart, they will be replaced primarily by Triple-A players, then Curve guys will have to be called up to Triple-A to fill holes. There also will be injuries along the way, meaning more Triple-A guys will be needed in Pittsburgh, expanding the trickle-down effect.

None of this is new in the minor leagues. It’s the way things work, to some degree, every year.

But this year is different than really anything we’ve seen in Altoona because it combines what looks like a major Pirates rebuilding year in the big leagues with a Curve team that’s probably good enough to win an EL title. It’s hard to have both of those things coexist within an organization in the same year, simply because raiding the Double-A club would inherently be a component of such a rebuild.

OK, this is where I take a step back and state the obvious: Minor league baseball is not about winning and losing. The primary goal is to get players ready for the big league club.

So, whatever happens to the Curve this season, good or bad, will pale in comparison if the Pirates lose 90-plus games.

Now, having said that, let’s be realistic about one other thing: Even if the Pirates are bad, fans in Altoona still want to see the Curve win. We’ve all been spoiled by seeing it happen so much, with eight playoff appearances in 19 seasons, including the last three years, and two EL titles.

The way things stand now, the Pirates could be forced to move numerous Curve players up to Triple-A earlier than they usually would simply because of the numbers crunch above.

One example could be shortstop Cole Tucker. If the Pirates trade Harrison and Mercer, they almost certainly would have to call up Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer from Triple-A. Tucker generally has gone up a level the same time as Newman, and that could happen again in a few weeks, even though Tucker (.245 average, .623 OPS) still needs more development time in Double-A.

In a typical year, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes and first baseman Will Craig would be with the Curve-A all season, since both are first-year Double-A guys. But if Indy loses a bunch of players to Pittsburgh, then both of those guys might go to Triple-A quicker than the Bucs usually would prefer.

Curve manager Michael Ryan fully understands how all of this works and the impact it could have on his team the rest of the season.

“That’s the reality, to be honest with you,” he said of balancing all the aspects. “As a developmental coach here, we try to develop players, (and) the No. 1 goal is to get them to Pittsburgh.

“All that goes into the equation each day,” Ryan added. “The goal is to make our team better in Pittsburgh, and if you have to trade guys away, especially at this time, that stuff’s going to come up, then that’s what happens. Do you want to trade any of our guys? Absolutely not. Do I want anyone in that room to get traded? No. Do I want them to go to Triple-A? Yes.”

The Curve already have lost ace pitcher Mitch Keller and pitching prospects Brandon Waddell and J.T. Brubaker to Triple-A. Those moves were expected, since all three had been in Double-A for parts of at least two seasons, and the same can be said for standout outfielder Jason Martin.

Despite those big losses, Altoona (44-39) has managed to remain in second place in the Western Division and in good shape for a playoff berth. For now at least.

The Pirates have had so many pitching problems at the higher levels that it has depleted the Curve staff, forcing relievers into unusual spots and even forcing the use of a position player to save a game on the mound in the 10th inning. The latter is absolutely absurd in pro ball but was necessary for this club.

As the year goes on, there undoubtedly will be more pitching issues at the major league level, so the Curve will be further impacted. It would be great if the Pirates would go spend a few thousand dollars to sign some independent ball pitchers to help out in the minors, something they have done in the past for the Curve but which has yet to happen this year.

It truly is a shame to see what’s happened in Pittsburgh over the past two months. The Pirates got off to such a promising start, and there was a lot of hope that everyone who predicted a rough season would be wrong. Now, all of those dire predictions appear to be coming true.

Sure, it may be a little selfish for people in Altoona to want to see the Curve continue to play well regardless of what’s going on in Pittsburgh, but that’s human nature when you’re still spending money to go out to the local minor league game.

If the Pirates plunder away too many more Curve players, it probably won’t have a major impact on the season in Pittsburgh, but it could derail the local club’s chances of doing special things.

Yes, that’s minor league baseball for you. But a lot of this could have been avoided had the Pirates made better moves at the big league level in the first place, preventing any sort of potential for a collapse from the top down.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

COMMENTS