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Up and down year for Curve

Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski Curve's Mason Martin leaps onto home plate after bringing home Cal Mitchell (5) and Jonah Davis (14) on his 3-run homer to right field in the 3rd inning

By Cory Giger

For the Mirror

This was a highly successful very disappointing season for the Curve. And if that doesn’t make sense at first, it will.

This year’s Curve team had a lot of highly rated prospects who will be counted on to help the Pirates turn things around over the next few years.

Many of those prospects enjoyed solid development this season, and since that’s what Double-A is really for, then one can find a lot of success from the Curve campaign.

Because when all is said and done, the fact that so many key players got better during their time in Altoona is the most important thing.

Still, the Curve finished with a losing record. It’s almost unthinkable, given all the talent and prospects the team had, that the club not only finished below .500, but also played some pretty terrible baseball down the stretch.

The Curve were a season-high 10 games over .500 on Aug. 5 at 44-34. Then they collapsed and went 14-25 the rest of the way, while still fielding a lineup with a bunch of good prospects.

That’s the highly disappointing part.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team in Curve history that had more talent and yet underachieved record-wise more than this year’s club.

With that, let’s break down the season.

Fan support

Even more important than the bevy of Pirates prospects or team record is that the Curve franchise had a successful season, averaging 4,032 fans per game.

I still remember the conversation with Jim Lane and Neil Rudel back in 1999 about what a successful Curve franchise would look like. We all talked about averaging 4,000 fans per game as the barometer, and how long the club could pull that off — in a small city, after the honeymoon period ended.

Well, here we are 22 years later, and the Curve have never had a season averaging less than 4,000 fans. A late-season surge assured that streak would continue this year, when crowd sizes were limited early because of COVID restrictions.

Bravo to GM Derek Martin and his hard-working staff, which was reduced and faced a lot of obstacles this year but still found a way to make everything seem normal and fun at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

SUBHD: Best player

On to the baseball, this one is easy: Oneil Cruz.

The shortstop is one of the best prospects in the minor leagues and proved it with the Curve, batting .292 with 12 homers — including some massive tape-measure shots — 40 RBIs and an .882 OPS in 62 games. He had to miss nearly two months with a forearm issue, which was unfortunate because it cost him a chance to get some experience in the outfield.

I still do not believe Cruz, who is 6-foot-7, will ever be an everyday shortstop for a long period of time in the major leagues. The outfield is his future.

SUBHD: Best pitcher

The 21-year-old got off to a fantastic start before missing two months with a forearm issue, so we didn’t get to see how he would handle a full season.

Contreras wasn’t as good when he came back but was still solid, and he finished 3-2 with a 3.48 ERA in 12 starts. He struck out 76 and walked only 12 while allowing just 37 hits in 54 1/3 innings.

If Contreras can stay healthy, he’ll have a chance to be a mainstay in the Pirates’ rotation for several years.

SUBHD: Best national story

Infielder Rodolfo Castro went from the Curve to the Pirates and became the first major leaguer ever to have his first five hits go for home runs. That was incredible.

He couldn’t stick in the majors because he batted just .198. His Curve numbers actually weren’t all that great, as he hit .242 with 12 homers, 47 RBIs and a .719 OPS in 72 games.

Castro has a lot of pop in his bat, so we’ll see if he can put everything together as a hitter.

SUBHD: Best local story

Another easy one. Trey McGough became the first Johnstown native to play for the Curve, and he made the most of his opportunity.

The lefty went 6-5 with a 3.41 ERA in 18 starts and was one of the team’s most reliable pitchers the second half of the season.

It was cool to see all the family and friends who came over to watch him pitch.

SUBHD: Biggest disappointment

Travis MacGregor, a second-round draft pick in 2016, had a really, really rough season. He finished 4-9 with a whopping 6.25 ERA, and most of his key numbers across the board were bad.

MacGregor is in the discussion for most disappointing players in Curve history. You just don’t expect to see a second-round pick struggle like he did.

SUBHD: Mashing and missing

Mason Martin has a ton of power, which he showed off by hitting 22 homers. But he did struggle in the power department late in the season, although he has belted two long balls since getting called up to Triple-A.

The issue with Martin is that he struck out 161 times in 414 at-bats, which is 39 percent. We’re in a new era where high strikeout rates are acceptable for sluggers, but Martin is going to have to cut that figure down, or else show he can hit 40-plus homers.

SUBHD: Biggest issue

The Curve’s pitching was lousy this season. Even with a number of quality hitters in the lineup, the team was unable to overcome the poor pitching.

The Curve finished 10th out of 12 clubs in the Northeast League in team ERA (4.66), while giving up the second-most runs (591).

The pitching was downright painful to watch many nights.

SUBHD: Manager grade

Miguel Perez is a good manager who makes good in-game decisions and treats players well. He was dealt a tough hand because he had a lot of good players but poor pitching.

The roster also was in constant flux, with key players moving up frequently or, in the case of Cruz and Contreras, missing significant time with injuries.

Perez probably did about as well as he could, but the bottom line is the Curve finished below .500 despite having a lot of really good players. So, it’s really tough to give the manager anything more than a C+.

Cory Giger has covered the Curve since the team’s inaugural season in 1999. He can be reached at cgsports12@aol.com.

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