Pirates’ general manager switch will impact Curve in big ways

Firing GM Neal Huntingdon was the appropriate move for the Pirates, without question, but it may not have been the best thing for the Curve.

That might not mean much to a lot of fans who only care about the success of the big league club. But if you’ve become spoiled by watching a great product on the field in Double-A over the years, it’s worth noting that there will be some huge changes in store beginning next season.

The Curve made the playoffs five times and won their only two Eastern League championships (2010 and ’17) during Huntington’s tenure as the Pirates’ GM. Regardless of what happened in Pittsburgh, make no mistake about it, the development philosophy Huntington and assistant GM Kyle Stark employed paid off in a huge way in Double-A when it came to winning and losing.

No, their philosophy ultimately didn’t help the big league club achieve its goals, but that’s not really pertinent to this particular discussion. Point is, you can criticize Huntington and Stark for many things, but they knew how to get the job done in Double-A. (Sarcasm alert!)

Winning isn’t supposed to be the most important thing in minor league baseball, but it sure does make things a lot more fun to watch at Peoples Natural Gas Field, especially if you attend a lot of games.

We have to assume that Stark, Huntington’s right-hand man, will be fired, as well, although that hasn’t happened yet. Farm director Larry Broadway also probably will be out.

That means the next GM and his staff will bring an entirely new development philosophy to the minor league system, and that could go in a bunch of different directions with regards to the Curve.

What Huntingdon and Stark did exceptionally well was that they won in Double-A with age-appropriate players for this level. In a nutshell, that means players typically ranging from 21 to 23 years old.

The Curve won the EL title in 2010 with a slew of outstanding age-appropriate guys, many of whom have gone on to enjoy long careers in the majors (i.e. Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison, Justin Wilson, etc.).

The 2017 Curve title team featured pitching ace Mitch Keller and another big group of young players.

Watching a winning team is enjoyable, and it’s even more so when you know you’re actually watching young prospects who have a good chance to achieve major league success. In recent years, the Curve have been one of the youngest teams in the Eastern League, and they’ve still won at a high level.

Not all organizations do things that way. Many teams sign a bunch of veterans — players in their upper 20s — and assign them to Double-A to fill holes because they don’t have a lot of prospects. In the EL, Bowie (Orioles) and Erie (Tigers) have rosters every year filled with a bunch of older players.

You can win that way, too. Absolutely you can.

The Curve did just that when they made the playoffs four straight years from 2003-06. Brian Graham, the farm director at the time under GM Dave Littlefield, wanted to win in the minor leagues, so he made sure to stock the farm teams with a number of older players to help out the younger prospects.

Graham carried that same philosophy over to the Orioles for many years, so it was no surprise that Bowie’s roster makeup was very similar to that of the Curve when Graham was with the Pirates.

By the way, Curve fans never would have heard of Adam Hyzdu had the Pirates not used the veteran philosophy 20 years ago. They had to at that point because the farm system was so depleted that there was no way they could fill a Double-A roster without signing a bunch of older guys.

The Pirates also promoted players quickly to Double-A in recent years under the old regime. They weren’t afraid to send Cole Tucker to Double-A at 20 years old in 2017, or Ke’Bryan Hayes at 21 years old in 2018.

The Cardinals, by comparison, often have a good number of 23- and even 24-year-olds at short-season State College, which is three levels below Altoona. The Cardinals don’t feel the need to rush younger players through their system for many reasons, namely that they win consistently in the majors, can attract free agents and will make big trades.

I’m burying the lede in a major way here, but it will be very interesting to see if the new Pirates GM and his staff even want to win in Double-A. They may not — at least not to the extent of previous Pirate regimes, which felt that winning in the minors went a long way to developing a winning culture once the players get to the big leagues.

You’d think the next GM would see things that way, too, but that’s not a given. He may opt for a minor league system where the affiliates don’t win consistently, don’t make frequent playoff appearances and don’t win championships, if he feels doing things in a different way can help out more in Pittsburgh.

So, will we see young players or veterans with the Curve moving forward? Will the young guys be promoted to Double-A as quickly as before? Will they stay here longer? Or shorter?

Will the Pirates want the Curve to win consistently?

All of these are unknowns right now, but it will be fascinating to watch how everything plays out in these areas in the coming years.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.


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