The Pirates' minor league season, which ended this past weekend for most affiliates, was marked by awful injury luck at all levels, two diminutive hitters rising to unexpected levels, three key promotions to the most important level and, maybe the most striking aspect, a new level of quality pitching.
None of that was seen in Pittsburgh, of course.
Not really with Class AAA Indianapolis, either.
Game: Pirates vs. Cincinnati Reds, 7:10 p.m., Great American Ball Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Season: Reds, 8-5.
Pitching: LHP Paul Maholm (7-14, 5.43) vs. RHP Homer Bailey (3-3, 5.00).
Key matchup: When Bailey faced the Pirates May 12 at PNC Park, he shut them out on four hits and an incredible 90 pitches.
Of note: Although the first-place Reds are having their best season in more than a decade, Cincinnati's average attendance of 25,658 ranks 20th of Major League Baseball's 30 teams. The Pirates are 27th at 19,892.
But the organizational ERA for the starting pitchers of all the full-season affiliates was 4.18, ranking 10th lowest among Major League Baseball's 30 systems. Class A Bradenton's 3.64 ERA among the starters was 15th lowest in all of minor league baseball, despite pitching in hitter-friendly McKechnie Field, and Class AA Altoona's 3.66 ERA was 18th lowest. Both teams made their respective playoffs.
"Pitching is a game of attrition, and our philosophy is that you need a lot of it," director of player development Kyle Stark said. "That's starting to play out here."
The downside is that little help is on the immediate horizon. The top two prospects already in the system, Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris, are with Altoona, and general manager Neal Huntington said neither is expected to open 2011 in Pittsburgh, though both could arrive later in the year.
The upside is that the Altoona contingent could graduate to plug the hole in Indianapolis and that Bradenton's staff will move to Altoona, and so on.
Individually, no one in the system performed better, pitcher or position player, than Owens, a 22-year-old left-handed starter with Altoona. He went 12-6 with a 2.46 ERA in 26 regular-season starts, with an outstanding ratio of 132 strikeouts to 23 walks.
"Every time we've challenged Rudy, he responded," Stark said. "Just in the past month, we've limited his innings to five or six, Rudy gets mad, so he goes and shuts everyone out."
One facet of development that Stark has stressed is competition among individuals, whether battling for jobs or simply for better results. As he put it, "Guys will either respond, or it will reveal their warts." Altoona's rotation probably provided the best example with Owens, Morris, Justin Wilson, Jeff Locke and Jared Hughes all faring well.
"It meant a lot to me to have good pitching around me because it pushed me to do my best each time out," Owens said. "It's just competitive nature that made us all want to try to one-up the other guy."
Morris, the highest-ceiling acquisition in the Jason Bay trade, went 9-4 with a 3.03 ERA and another outstanding ratio of 124 strikeouts to 38 walks. He was dominant for Bradenton, but the ERA increased to 4.25 in 16 starts for Altoona, and mechanical issues and fatigue moved him to the bullpen. Still, management is as excited about Morris as any pitcher in the system.
Wilson, winner of the final game of the 2008 College World Series, went 11-8 with a 3.09 ERA and rose markedly in management's eyes despite inconsistent control. Locke moved up from Bradenton to Altoona and went a combined 12-5 with a 3.56 ERA.
The Pirates' top 10 prospects, as compiled by Post-Gazette beat writer Dejan Kovacevic with input from the team's management.
1. Jameson Taillon, RHP
2. Tony Sanchez, C
3. Starling Marte, CF
4. Stetson Allie, RHP
5. Luis Heredia, RHP
6. Bryan Morris, RHP
7. Rudy Owens, LHP
8. Jeff Locke, LHP
9. Andrew Lambo, OF
10. Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP
Not all pitching developments were positive: Aside from Indianapolis having little to show for Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen, as well as Donnie Veal's season cut short by Tommy John surgery, there were backward steps by high-profile prospects Daniel Moskos and Tim Alderson.
Moskos, the first-round draft pick in 2007, was exceptional as Altoona's closer, producing 21 saves, a 1.52 ERA and a .179 opponents' batting average, his fastball reaching 96-97 mph. But he crumbled upon his June promotion to Indianapolis -- 10.38 ERA, .351 opponents' batting average -- and was sent back.
Alderson, the only player acquired in the trade for three-time All-Star Freddy Sanchez, went backward from Altoona to Bradenton, going a combined 11-9 with a 6.03 ERA, .308 opponents' average and 15 home runs. His fastball dipped to 85 mph, and his already-complex delivery unraveled.
"Those are the two that stand out for us," Stark said. "But I'll say this: If you're talking about Moskos in Double-A, people would be raving. He didn't make the mental adjustment to Triple-A, and that's on us. He thought he had to do more, and he didn't. With Alderson, we inherited a foundation we didn't think would translate for the long term and initially left him alone, but now we're working through some new things. He's gotten better, and he's starting to smile again."
A far larger disappointment was the abject lack of a position-player prospect making a bold move, though much of that was due to injury.
Catcher Tony Sanchez, the first-rounder in 2008, was off to a .314 start for Bradenton -- as well as a .416 on-base percentage and a third of his hits for extra bases -- and was a fast-track candidate for Pittsburgh, not just because of his advanced defense. But he was hit in the face by pitches twice in a month, the second breaking his jaw June 22 and ending his season.
Center fielder Starling Marte, the system's best Latin American prospect in more than a decade, needed hand surgery May 18 and missed two months. It was a minor procedure that can sap a hitter's power for a year -- Pedro Alvarez had it two years ago -- but Marte returned to bat .319 with a third of his hits for extra bases, 26 steals and often-scintillating, if raw, defense.
"We're very happy with both, and we'll work to make sure they stay on course," Stark said.
Those two were not alone: Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, third baseman Jeremy Farrell, catcher Eric Fryer and shortstops Brock Holt and Brian Friday had fluky injuries that cost significant time. This was on top of more standard injuries for pitchers Victor Black, Hunter Strickland, Colton Cain, Quinton Miller, Brett Lorin, Jeff Inman, Phillip Irwin and Ramon Aguero.
That opened the door for a couple of smaller-stature prospects to come up big.
Outfielder Alex Presley, 5 feet 10, had batted .257 in a second full season at high Class A in 2009, but he reported to Altoona revitalized after what he called "a really big offseason for me" and rose to Indianapolis, then Pittsburgh in the system's only Steve Pearce-type story. He batted .320 with 12 home runs and 85 RBIs, his 166 hits the most in the system.
Third baseman Josh Harrison, 5 feet 8, was what Altoona manager Matt Walbeck called "our mainstay on offense" with a .300 average and an RBI total of 75 that was remarkable in light of only four home runs. His bat profiles better for the middle infield, but that has not worked out.
"Our focus is on helping every individual, not worry about who's regarded as a prospect and who's not," Stark said. "That's how you get players like these to surprise you."
Other hitters who fared well: Altoona first baseman Matt Hague and left fielder Andrew Lambo, Bradenton left fielder Quincy Latimore, and there were strong debuts at short-season State College by two June draft picks, right fielder Adalberto Santos and first baseman Matt Curry.
Still, the position-player field is not nearly up to that of an average system. And it did not help that Chase d'Arnaud, seen as that long-awaited legitimate shortstop prospect, regressed with Altoona for a .247 average and six home runs -- though other metrics held up well -- in addition to often sliding over to second base.
This shortcoming might take a while to improve, too, given that the 2010 draft and international classes focused on pitching, notably elite right-handers Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie. Best chance for an offensive upgrade could come from Bradenton outfielder Robbie Grossman, West Virginia second baseman Jarek Cunningham and rookie-level outfielder Exicardo Cayonez.
Ultimately, of course, the system will be only as good as the top prospects it graduates to Pittsburgh, and the record there could be seen as 3-1: Neil Walker and Jose Tabata have been exceptional, Alvarez has followed the standard power-hitter script, and Brad Lincoln was a mess and needed to be sent back.
"Our goal is to help players get right out there," Stark said, pointing to PNC Park's field the other day. "What I focus on is the processes. The Altoona team is a great example. When we came in, we said this was how we were going to do things, everybody was excited ... and we get our heads kicked in that first year, everybody's like, 'This stinks.' And now, it's, 'Hey, you're doing it the right way,' and everybody's on board. But we've still got work to do."
CHAT: Dejan Kovacevic and PG+ readers will have an online chat about the Pirates' minor-league system today at noon. Dejan Kovacevic: firstname.lastname@example.org .