CARY, N.C. -- Speaking on the MLB.com broadcast of the Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP) League Showcase on Tuesday, Team Gray coach Denard Span had a simple message to his players.
“I’m always telling these kids to be aggressive,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about, especially in an event like this. It’s a showcase. They’re trying to make a team, but at the same time, they’re trying to impress and showcase what their ability is. If they have speed, go.”
Derek Curiel is taking that instruction to heart. Or rather to feet.
Batting as Gray’s leadoff man Wednesday in a 4-0 loss to Team Navy, the 18-year-old outfielder swiped three bases to give himself an event-best five steals through the first two games of PDP League play. He’s yet to be caught stealing through those five attempts.
“Speed kills,” Curiel said. “At my high school, we say that, and here with all the boys, we’re trying to put pressure on the catcher and the pitcher and be able to score because we want to win the whole thing.”
That type of mentality comes at the perfect time in baseball.
Major League Baseball rules changes for the 2023 season -- namely pickoff limits and the increased size of bases -- were done to encourage more action on the basepaths, and they’ve had the desired effect. Entering Tuesday, MLB clubs had averaged 0.72 successful stolen bases per team game, up from 0.51 per game in 2022 -- a 41-percent increase year-over-year. That has also been the highest steal-per-game average since 1997 (0.73). Steal attempts have been successful 79.3 percent of the time this season, the highest rate since back in 1937 (79.9).
The next generation has taken notice.
“I think MLB is getting really nice now because [Esteury Ruiz] and [Ronald] Acuña [Jr.] are showing how many bases you can steal,” Curiel said. “They’re about to have 40 bags before the All-Star break, which has been pretty crazy. That hasn’t been a thing since Rickey Henderson played. Hopefully, I can bring that to the game as well.”
Speed is certainly a key part of the California native’s profile. A left-handed batter, Curiel can jump out of the box well and use the long limbs of his 6-foot-2 frame to eat up ground. He’s considered hit-over-power for now -- one scout compared him to 2016 No. 1 overall pick Mickey Moniak at around the same age -- but his plate discipline and ability to protect the zone with good barrel control makes him a prime future leadoff candidate.
To that effect, Curiel walked twice from the top spot in the Gray lineup Wednesday, helping lead to the three steals, which included a pair during the same at-bat in the sixth inning. Through his first two games, he’s gone 3-for-5 with two walks, leading to an early on-base percentage of .714 against some of the best 2024 arms the country has to offer.
“I’m always in attack mode,” Curiel said. “If they give me a good pitch to hit early, I'm going to swing, but I like to work counts. I would say I'm a little hard to strike out because I like to foul pitches off. I'll just keep working counts until either I get a walk or get a hit and get a pretty good barrel on it. I think I'm a power/contact [player], so I think I can do it all.”
Even if scouts differ from his opinion on his pop, Curiel’s combination of skills could certainly place him comfortably in the first round of the 2024 Draft. However, should he choose to go the college route, he’s committed to LSU, a notable distinction this week after the Tigers captured their first NCAA title since 2009.
Whether Baton Rouge or pro ball is Curiel’s next stop after his senior year of high school at Orange Lutheran, he’ll pass more than a few green lights to get there.
“Coach said we’re here to showcase ourselves,” he said. “Obviously, don’t be a fool on the basepaths. But if you can get it, get it. So every time I’ve been able to get it, I’m getting it.”