Last night I posted part one of my interview with Neal Huntington, and several times throughout the interview he mentioned how upper level decisions could trickle down and impact the placement of players in the lower levels. On Monday, Cory Giger of the Altoona Mirror reported that Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris are slated to return to Altoona for the start of the 2011 season, similar to what each player did at the start of the 2010 season when they returned to high-A.
Locke returning to Altoona isn’t a surprise, as he was assigned to the level after being cut from Major League camp. Morris, on the other hand, was optioned to AAA, so his assignment to Altoona reflects a change in the plans from when he was cut from big league camp. There also hasn’t been a decision made on Justin Wilson yet, as he is a guy who could also return to Altoona, due to his control issues.
So how do these moves impact the trickle down effect to the lower levels?
Back when I previewed the potential Altoona rotation, I predicted an opening day rotation of Morris, Locke, Wilson, Aaron Pribanic, and Brian Leach. Having Morris and Locke return doesn’t really do much to block anyone, since Pribanic and Leach are the only two guarantees to arrive from high-A at the start of the season. However, this could make things tight for Tim Alderson, or could hold Nathan Baker back in high-A for the start of the season.
About two weeks ago, I looked at Tim Alderson’s future, after the news that he wasn’t guaranteed a rotation spot in 2011. Last week I watched Alderson pitch, and broke down his unorthodox delivery. He was throwing in the upper 80s, which is an improvement over last year, but it would be hard to see him improve on that velocity due to the way he throws.
Nathan Baker pitched 44.2 innings in high-A last year, with a 3.02 ERA, a 6.2 K/9, and a 3.4 BB/9 ratio. The Pirates have promoted guys with less experience. Rudy Owens pitched only 23.1 innings in high-A in 2009 before going to Altoona for the entire 2010 season. However, it’s not about the innings pitched. Jeff Locke pitched 81.2 innings in high-A in 2009, with a 4.08 ERA, then returned for 86.1 innings in 2010.
Justin Wilson will be the key here. With Morris and Locke now in the rotation, and Pribanic and Leach expected to move up, there is only one spot. If Wilson starts out in AAA, that spot would either go to Baker or Alderson. I could see Alderson getting the spot, just to give Baker a little bit of extra time in high-A, before moving him up. I could also see Baker getting the call once either Morris or Locke gets promoted to AAA.
With Baker and Alderson potentially being left off the AA roster, that could create a bigger crunch in Bradenton. Quinton Miller, Kyle McPherson, Phillip Irwin, and Brett Lorin are all candidates to start in the Bradenton rotation at the beginning of the year. Hunter Strickland is also a candidate. If one of Baker or Alderson gets left in high-A, that would round out the rotation, and could potentially put Lorin or Strickland back in low-A. If both Baker and Alderson are left off the Altoona roster, it could create the scenario where Alderson wouldn’t be placed in the bullpen, or would make it harder for Lorin or Strickland to pitch out of the Bradenton rotation.
Beyond the high-A level, there’s not much of a trickle down effect at the start of the season. However, there is an impact throughout the year. Guys like Miller, McPherson, Baker, and Irwin will have to wait for Locke, Morris, and possibly Wilson to advance to AAA before they can move up to Altoona. That creates a crunch in high-A, potentially preventing guys like Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson, or even Jameson Taillon from moving up to Bradenton before the final months of the season.
Overall, I’d say players impacted the most by Morris and Locke returning to Altoona will be Nathan Baker and Tim Alderson. For Baker, it could mean he won’t get the same aggressive promotion to Altoona that Rudy Owens saw after the 2009 season. For Alderson, it could mean that he will be on the outside looking in for a rotation spot.