Even without a Minor League Baseball season, over two dozen talented, up-and-comers in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization departed Peoples Natural Gas Field this week.
It brings a small sense of normalcy to an abnormal year. Every year since 1999, kids in Altoona go back to school and ballplayers return home right around this time. This year’s mid-September changeover has obviously been a tad different.
MLB’s plan for 2020 wiped out the minor league campaign by not allowing players to be sent to affiliates while a handful of minor league facilities, including the Curve’s, quickly pivoted their attention to hosting taxi squads. The Pirates and Curve announced on June 25 that Pittsburgh’s reserve battalion was coming to PNG Field.
Unless you were one of the die-hards that got a peek of the activity from the sidewalk next to Park Ave., what happened here was pretty secretive.
No fans were welcomed inside the park to watch the workouts. Media availability was limited to meetings on Zoom. And there were no official stats taken of the simulated games played at the end of each on-field workday.
The one stat that can be accounted for is this: the Altoona camp started and finished.
Confidence in completing a 60-game season may have been low when the entire operation got up-and-running at the start of July. That shaky confidence was certainly rattled when teams like the Marlins, Phillies and Cardinals experienced wide-spread outbreaks of the coronavirus.
However, here we stand with the mission accomplished.
Okay, let’s get to the baseball aspect of this and provide more insight of what the players and staff did on a daily basis.
The daily schedule was pretty straight forward. It looked a lot like the timeframe before a game takes place, one that fans don’t get to see either. Early work, batting practice and live reps.
A report time was set for one group of players to go through screening and testing. Next, they typically ate a meal cooked by the on-site staff from the Pirates before they got ready for work on the field. The next group would follow the same routine about an hour later.
Pitchers normally got on the field first with side sessions and bullpen work. All of that kicked off with their throwing program in the outfield.
After that work wrapped up, position players hit the field for defense and baserunning followed by a batting practice session.
In the day’s final act, two “teams” squared off in a simulated game. Most of the time, position players were split up to field their positions while others faced live pitching from the arms that were in line to pitch that day. Pitchers did indeed follow a schedule and rotation.
Games looked like real games. Crowd noise was pumped in. Pitchers and fielders teamed up to get three outs. After each half-inning, another pitcher would take the mound and the defense and offense would swap. There were times that starting pitchers had to simulate their rest with a timed break rather than wait for three outs depending how many arms the alternate site had on hand. The games were shorter at the beginning of camp until pitchers were lengthened out and those games became nearly a full game.
After the first couple of weeks and the MLB season began, everyone began to find a familiar routine, which is something everyone craved for during the months of uncertainly leading up to the team’s arrival.
“You want to have some structure,” said alternate site manager Brian Esposito on the Altoona Curve’s podcast, The Roundhouse, last month. “You need to put the bones to the skeleton and have times laid for different situations and different things we’re gonna do within that schedule. Within those bones, I really wanted to make sure that our staff and our players were finding opportunities to get what they need to maximize their time being here.”
The primary mission of the alternate site was the provide depth to the Major League club. A total of 18 out of 40 total players that were in Altoona throughout the summer played for the Pirates in 2020. Jameson Taillon and Joe Musgrove also came to face live hitters during a rehab stint. Six players came off the alternate site roster to make their MLB debuts as well.
However, the Pirates and several other organizations utilized the expanded roster size of 60 eligible players for player development.
By the time camp closed down, 17 of Pittsburgh’s Top 30 prospects (both MLB.com and Baseball America) trained at the Altoona camp at some point.
Outfielder Jared Oliva, Pittsburgh’s No. 10 prospect according to MLB.com, was one of a handful of players returning to Altoona to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Not a lot of guys probably expected to have this situation,” said Oliva on a recent episode of The Roundhouse podcast. “Everyone here is taking care of us really, really well to get us prepared to help the big league team. That’s why we’re here. I think everyone has done a really good job of showing up and helping the people around them to accomplish that goal.”
On the flip side, we saw a handful of players that might have spent the 2020 season in Altoona during normal circumstances. The two that stick out are Pennsylvania natives Max Kranick, a right-handed starting pitcher, and Deon Stafford, a catcher.
“Several of my buddies and obviously my family were really excited about this year because everything was so close,” Kranick noted on Episode 3 of the Curve’s team podcast. “It would have been really nice to see some familiar faces in the stands this season.”
Stafford shared a similar sentiment: “A lot of my friends and family were really excited about me playing for the Curve. Hopefully next year I get another chance to play in Altoona.”
One of the most unique aspects to the alternate site was looking around the diamond and seeing the wealth of talent on the field at the same time.
Remember the buzz around these observations by Ben Cherington?
Keep in mind that there was also infield of 3B Rodolfo Castro, SS Oneil Cruz, 2B Ji-Hwan Bae and 1B Will Craig in the other half of those innings.
Another piece to the puzzle was the wide array of experience on the alternate site roster.
Ages ranged from 19 to 30, some with Major League experience and one newly drafted player.
Liover Peguero and Quinn Priester (who turned 20 in Altoona on September 15) were the pair of teenagers in camp. Ji-Hwan Bae, Rodolfo Castro, Oneil Cruz, Nick Gonzales and Mason Martin were all age 21 during camp. They were competing against 30-year-olds Andrew Susac and Nick Tropeano, 29-year-old Guillermo Heredia, 28-year old Socrates Brito and a tribe of 27-year-olds. There is no other environment, other than certain spring training exercises, that you’ll see players with MLB experience mix with Single-A players with that level of competition.
“We had players that were around some players that they’d never been around before,” noted Esposito. “We had some younger guys around some older guys and they saw what their routines were like.”
“A couple of the guys here, Max Kranick and Braeden Ogle, they were in my draft class when they came out of high school,” said first baseman Will Craig, drafted by Pittsburgh in the first round in 2016. “I’ve known them for a couple of years but we never played with each other because of the age thing. So this the first time I was able to step in the box with one of them on the mound and have a normal at bat.”
No player faced the experience-gap reality more than 2020 first-round pick Nick Gonzales. He received rave reviews for his growth during a short period of time.
“It’s been really nice having some older guys helping me out,” said Gonzales. “also competing against some guys who have been up and down. That’s all you can ask for in the game of baseball is to face guys that are going to make you better.”
As campers go different directions, a handful will head to PNC Park in Pittsburgh to serve as reinforcements for the Pirates during the last 10 days of the MLB season. The remainder are ticketed for Bradenton for further developmental work this fall.
Regardless of where they all wind up in 2021, 12 crucial weeks in Altoona will be viewed as a big step toward Major League dreams.
The quotations in this piece are from podcast interviews that can be found in their entirety by listening to The Roundhouse: the official podcast of the Altoona Curve.
This contribution to the Around the Curve Blog is presented by Microtel. Plan your stay at one of Altoona’s three Lion Country Lodging locations. Click here to make a reservation today.