CURVE, Pa. - Armed with two of the most powerful young arms in all of Minor League baseball, a dynamic offense featuring a future Eastern League batting champion, and fans that witnessed, again, the future of their Pirates, the road to Pittsburgh burned brightly for the Altoona Curve in 2012.
Though their years didn't begin on the mound at Peoples Natural Gas Field, the 2012 Altoona Curve season may well be defined by the leaps forward made by the Pirates' top two prospects. Right-handed pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon (below), the top pick in the 2011 MLB Draft and second overall pick in 2010, respectively, each elevated themselves to Double-A this summer after beginning the season at Advanced-A Bradenton.
For Cole, 2012 offered his first taste of full-season professional baseball after the right-hander appeared only in the Arizona Fall League following his signing with the Pirates last year. The UCLA product began the year with the Bradenton Marauders and made 13 strong starts in the Florida State League, going 5-1 with a sparkling 2.55 ERA and 69 strikeouts against just 21 walks in 67 innings. Promoted to the Curve on June 20th, Cole made his Double-A debut that night, dazzling a boisterous Altoona crowd over five strong innings, striking out six and allowing just two runs on five hits while not walking a man. Cole never allowed more than three earned runs in a start while with the Curve and finished on an outstanding run, posting three scoreless outings in his last six in an Altoona uniform. After a 1-3 July that saw him post a 3.12 ERA over five starts, the 21-year-old dominated in August, going 1-2 but with a 1.67 ERA in 27 innings, one more than his prior month. On the strength of his brilliant finish, Cole earned a promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis at season's end where he is currently helping the Indianapolis Indians in their pursuit of a Triple-A crown. He struck out seven and earned the win while allowing three runs on six hits over six innings for Indy in the Tribe's 8-4 win over Toledo on September 1st.
Cole's rotation mate for the first half of the season in Bradenton, Taillon arrived in Altoona with just two weeks to go in the 2012 campaign and made an immediate impact. Rated as the second-best prospect in the Bucs organization, behind only Cole, entering this year according to Baseball America, Taillon asserted himself from the start in Curve, Pa. Through his first two Double-A outings, the tall righty was completely lights out. The 20-year-old shut out the Trenton Thunder and Richmond Flying Squirrels in his first two starts, tossing a dazzling 11 combined scoreless innings and striking out 13 opposing hitters while not issuing a walk and surrendering just five total hits. For his efforts in his first two starts, Taillon was named the Eastern League's Pitcher of the Week for the period of August 20-27. He made his final Curve start on August 31, earning his third win in as many tries by recording a quality start, allowing three runs on six hits in six innings to beat the Erie SeaWolves.
While Cole and Taillon headlined their team's pitching staff, Altoona got outstanding contributions from many others. Joining the pair in the rotation, Ole Miss product Phil Irwin, Altoona's Pitcher of the Year, finished his time in Double-A on a terrific run, posting a 4-2 record and 1.24 ERA in a nine-start stretch that included three consecutive complete games from July 15-27 and a subsequent promotion to Triple-A. Kyle McPherson also starred, putting up a 3-5 record and a 4.07 ERA in nine starts during an injury-shortened campaign that saw him make his debut in June and exit Altoona in August for a quick ascension that led to Indianapolis and then to Pittsburgh.
Out of the bullpen, season-opening closer Duke Welker posted a 2.31 ERA and a perfect 5-for-5 line in saves over 15 appearances in April and May before receiving his call to Indianapolis. In his stead, 2009 first-round pick Vic Black (right) shined, taking over as Altoona's starter and utilizing his blazing fastball to go 13-for-16 in save opportunities. Black was named the Curve's Fireman of the Year out of the 'pen.
The Curve's 2012 campaign may have been apt for a team that plays its home games in a ballpark with a landscape dominated by a roller coaster looming over the right field wall. Though the team had five losing streaks of five games or more, they matched that number with five winning streaks of the same, including a six-game run of victories to end the campaign that pushed Altoona over the .500-mark at 72-70.
The one constant through the vast majority of the season came from two offensive performers from Texas universities. Rice University product Brock Holt posted his second straight breakout campaign, claiming the Eastern League batting title despite being promoted to Triple-A on August 7 with nearly a month left to go in the season. Holt batted .322 for the Curve while holding down one of the top two spots in the order and manning shortstop. For his outstanding efforts at the plate and in the field, Holt was named the Curve's Most Valuable Player for 2012. The infielder has already made the jump to Pittsburgh where his red-hot start has turned heads for the Pirates as they push further into their playoff chase.
Texas Christian University's Matt Curry (below) was the centerpiece of the Altoona lineup all season long and the Curve's offensive run-producing engine. Altoona's regular cleanup hitter finished third on the team in games played (111) while finishing the year with a .285 average, third-best among team regulars, and a team-high 76 runs batted in. Curry missed a stretch of games in June while on the disabled list with a right hamstring injury but came back to bat .385 in ten games that month. He finished with a flurry, as well, driving in 41 combined runs over July and August. Curry closed out his campaign with a promotion to Triple-A after the Curve's win over Akron on August 30, the team's final home game at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Curry was tabbed Altoona's Unsung Hero for the season, rounding out the club's season-end awards.
Altoona's offense showed many other bright spots in 2012, as well, like All-Star catcher Ramon Cabrera who, on the strength of a .346 post-All-Star Break average, finished the year at .276. Quincy Latimore rebounded from a slow start to again lead the club in home runs, hammering 15 out of the yard while finishing second to Curry in the RBI chase at 71. Latimore's fellow outfielder Adalberto Santos would have been very much in the hunt for the league's batting title had he not been injured at the end of April and missed all of May, June, and the first half of July. In limited action this year, Santos batted .340 over 68 games, including a .386 clip in front of his home fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
In addition to all of the successes from the 2012 Curve, many former Curve players from recent years also made news in making their big league debuts. The Curve had 10 different players from past seasons get called up and placed on an active MLB roster in 2012 with nine of them coming around to make their debuts. Starling Marte probably made the biggest splash in his debut, homering in his first MLB at bat in Houston after his promotion from Indianapolis. Other former Curve that got the call this season in addition to Holt, McPherson and Marte were Matt Hague, Gorkys Hernandez, Steve Lerud (Philadelphia), Jordy Mercer, Todd Redmond (Cincinnati) and Justin Wilson.
With 10 more Curve players having made their debut and a host of others graduated to Triple-A waiting in the wings, another season comes to a strong conclusion in Curve, Pa.