When Altoona Curve manager Miguel Perez needs to call on the bullpen this season, his options will include two pitchers from Northeast Tennessee.
Right-handers Hunter Stratton (Sullivan East) and Will Gardner (Morristown West) will both begin the 2021 campaign with the Double-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates after sterling spring training performances.
Stratton only gave up two hits in five preseason outings and continues his climb up the minor league ladder. He is 11-11 with a 4.32 ERA in 67 games (34 starts) during previous stops in the minors with the rookie-level Bristol Pirates, Low-A West Virginia Power and High-A Bradenton Marauders.
After the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic canceled the 2020 season for minor leaguers, Stratton used the break to recharge, refocus and reevaluate.
“I’m kinda glad I got the extra time away from baseball,” Stratton said. “I really needed it so I could fix some things mechanically and that’s the main reason I made the Double-A team. I mostly did dry rep drills to get my arm in a repeatable pattern and did a lot of throwing into a wall or screen. Altoona was the goal for sure this spring.”
The last time Stratton pitched in a game where there was a large crowd in the stands, the statistics counted and the outcome was reflected in the standings was Aug. 25, 2019, in Bradenton, Florida.
“I’m pretty excited to be back in front of fans,” Stratton said. “They seem to give you those extra miles-per-hour you’ve been looking for all spring. What I think will be the biggest help for a successful season is staying focused on what I can control and not allowing outside things to distract me from my target.”
Stratton will be reunited with Perez, his skipper during his first professional season with the Bristol Pirates in 2017.
“Miggy is one of the best managers the Pirates have,” Stratton said. “Everyone who plays for him knows he truly cares for you on and off the field.”
Stratton will share a clubhouse and field with a fellow Northeast Tennessean in Gardner. Both are 24-years-old.
“Will is great and is going to be a good arm for our bullpen,” Stratton said. “We have a few friends in common so it’s nice to have something to talk about from back home.”
Gardner was 3-3 with seven saves and a 2.57 ERA in the previous two seasons with the Bristol Pirates, short-season advanced West Virginia Black Bears and Low-A Greensboro Grasshoppers.
“After losing the season in 2020, I knew I needed to have a strong spring to be able to skip High-A,” Gardner said. “This was probably the most beneficial spring training I’ve had because I really needed to see hitters and work through some stuff with the huge time gap in the last time I’ve played in a game. Success in 2021 for me is going to be cutting down the walk rates and staying healthy.”
Altoona opens the season on Tuesday against the Bowie Baysox, a Baltimore Orioles farm team featuring pitcher Reed Hayes. Hayes was a star at Science Hill High School.
Another familiar face in a league that will be referred to as Double-A Northeast is former Tazewell High School and West Virginia University slugger Chase Illig. Illig is a catcher for the Somerset Patriots in the New York Yankees farm system.
Right-handed pitcher Will Carter (Science Hill) has been assigned to the Birmingham Barons, the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. Carter was 1-0 with an 18.00 ERA in five spring training outings with the big-league club.
The Triple-A ranks will include first baseman Will Craig (Science Hill) with the Indianapolis Indians in the Pittsburgh Pirates chain and pitcher Andrew Lee (Morristown West) with the Rochester Red Wings in the Washington Nationals system. Craig made his MLB debut with the Pirates last season and is trying to hit his way back to another stint in the bigs.
Craig’s brother-in-law and fellow Science Hill grad, Landon Knack, will pitch for the High-A Great Lake Loons in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. Knack had a 4.91 ERA and one save in four outings with the big-league team in spring training. Trey Cabbage (Grainger) will start the season with the High-A Cedar Rapids Kernels in the Minnesota Twins system.
Ex-Elizabethton High School star Evan Carter will make his pro debut with the Low-A Down East Wood Ducks. Carter, an outfielder, was the 50th overall selection in the 2020 MLB Amateur Draft by the Texas Rangers.
Justin Grimm is with Mariachis de Guadalajara of the Mexican League as the veteran right-handed pitcher tries to work his way back to the majors. Manager Benji Gil said that Grimm will be the closer for the squad.
Chase Cunningham (Tennessee High) will pitch for the Southern Illinois Miners of the Frontier League, while ex-East Tennessee State University ace Micah Kaczor will do so for the New Jersey Jackals in the same league.
Clinton Freeman (David Crockett) will return to the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League, where he both pitched and played the infield during the 2019 season.
Meanwhile in Altoona, Stratton and Gardner are ready to go.
“I actually met Stratton at a Pirates pre-draft workout in 2017,” Gardner said. “It’s really cool to see a couple of guys from really small towns continue to creep closer to the big leagues.”
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