The 2011 minor league baseball season starts tomorrow. Pirates Prospects follows every team in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, from the start of the year in April, all the way until there is no more baseball to be played in September. The four teams that begin their play tomorrow are the Indianapolis Indians, Altoona Curve, Bradenton Marauders, and the West Virginia Power. To start off the season, we will be previewing every level, taking a look at some of the top prospects, some prospects who are a bit behind schedule, and our predictions for the top player, pitcher, and sleeper at each level.
2011 Altoona Curve Preview
Leading up to the season we’ve covered the all of the players who were projected to be at the level, along with the Opening Day roster. Here is that coverage:
Altoona won the Eastern League championship in 2010, although most of the players from that team have moved on. They will be replaced by guys who led the 2010 Bradenton Marauders to the Florida State League playoffs. The team will start out with several top prospects, including Tony Sanchez, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Starling Marte, and Brock Holt.
The biggest focus will be the performance of Sanchez, who is one of the few catching prospects in the system, and who is the catcher of the future, ideally arriving at some point in 2012. Sanchez still has some work to do on his defense, although there is Gold Glove potential there. He also needs to show that he can hit for average in the upper levels, which is something he’s done well at in West Virginia and Bradenton the last two years.
Starling Marte will also be a focus, as he answers the question on whether he can hit for average at the upper levels. Marte has great speed and defense, but his strikeout rates and low walk numbers are a concern, especially as he goes up against a higher level of pitching in AA. I spoke with Kyle Stark about Marte when I was down in Spring Training, talking about whether he can hit for average in the upper levels.
“I think you’re talking about a guy who can bunt for a hit. He’s fast, so I think he’s going to get hits regardless,” Stark said. “The question will be the overall production with it. There’s power in there. We’ve got to continue to help him learn how to use it. I think the average will be there. The overall production, those will probably be the things we learn about most this year.”
Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris will start the season out in Altoona, returning from the 2010 season. They could see a repeat of their 2010 season, where they both started in high-A, and moved quickly to the AA level after a great start. Aaron Thompson, acquired this off-season on a waiver claim, is also returning to the AA level. Joining those three in the pitching staff is Aaron Pribanic, who was one of the better starters in the high-A rotation in 2010.
One guy to watch this year is Quincy Latimore. Latimore has a ton of power, although that is negated a bit by a low average and a high strikeout rate. Kyle Stark mentioned that his biggest issue is his consistency with his approach.
“He has some power, makes him dangerous, and then gets outside of that approach and gets away from it,” Stark said. “And then it takes awhile for him to get reined back in. The biggest thing for Quincy is just staying with his approach and just trusting that in every pitch, every at-bat.”
A few weeks ago, Matt Bandi took a look at the typical minor league timeline for players who eventually went on to have successful major league careers. Using that timeline as a guide, here are some guys who are age appropriate for this level, and some guys who have fallen behind and need to step up this season.
Age Appropriate Prospects
Quincy Latimore – Latimore has some nice power, but struggles with his strikeouts, and struggles hitting for average. He’s still young enough that he can afford a full season in Altoona working on those issues.
Tim Alderson – His story has been a huge fall of the mighty, as he went from one of the top prospects in the game a few years ago, to a guy who might not even make the majors. Despite all of the struggles, he just turned 22 years old this past November.
Starling Marte – Marte has been given a bit of an aggressive push by the Pirates over the last two years, and it shows with his age, as he turned 22 in October.
Brock Holt – Holt was drafted out of the college ranks, and after an aggressive push to Bradenton at the start of 2010, he’s slightly ahead of schedule.
Tony Sanchez – Despite missing half the 2010 season due to a broken jaw, Sanchez is still on a good pace. He turns 23 in mid-May, and could move up to Indianapolis not long after that, depending on how he performs.
Jeff Locke – Locke is returning to Altoona, but is still young, only turning 23 this past November.
Now or Never
Bryan Morris – Morris has missed a lot of time with injuries, and while he’s still a top prospect, now is the time for him to make his run for the majors, especially since he just turned 24 a few weeks ago.
Aaron Thompson – Thompson has struggled at the AA level, and will return there in 2011. The Pirates have identified something with his delivery, and will work to fix that. He needs to make a change sooner if he wants to remain a prospect.
Jeremy Farrell – He hit well in high-A last year, although he plays poor defense, which leaves little room for error on the progression side. He can’t really afford a down year at the plate in Altoona this year.
Aaron Pribanic – Pribanic was drafted in 2008 out of college, just like Justin Wilson, who is currently in AAA. He’s still a prospect, although he turns 25 in September, so he can’t really afford to spend an entire season in Altoona.
Jordy Mercer – Mercer will return to Altoona at the start of the year, after seeing fellow 2008 draft picks Chase D’Arnaud, Matt Hague, and Josh Harrison move up to AAA. He could be in line for a promotion at some point mid-season.
Diego Moreno – Moreno is injured to start the season, after missing time last year due to a suspension. He’s a reliever who throws 98 MPH, so when he returns he could move quickly.
Brian Leach – He’s been moved to the bullpen this year, which should allow him to move quicker through the upper levels. Leach throws 94-96 MPH, and if he can throw with good command he could move to AAA by mid-season.
Eric Fryer – Fryer has been blocked by a lot of top catchers in his career, and that will continue this year in Altoona. He should get at-bats as a designated hitter, and could take over catching duties in Altoona if Sanchez moves on to Indianapolis. Ultimately his upside is a backup catcher in the majors.
Player of the Year
Tim: Tony Sanchez – Sanchez has been a surprise at every level so far, with an excellent average, and decent power. His defense needs some polishing, and his hitting will face the ultimate test in AA, but he should make the successful jump, and could end up in AAA by the end of the year.
John: Starling Marte – I think even if he plays well he will spend the whole season at Altoona, unlike other top choices like Sanchez, Morris and Locke, so I predict he will put up the best overall stats. Marte could hit .300 and steal 50 bases if he gets a full season in while showing why he’s a top flight defensive player with the best outfield arm in the organization.
Kevin: Starling Marte – In terms of pure tools and “wow” factor, Marte may have the most of any position player in the minor league system. His hamate bone removal last year will sap his power in 2011, but the good news is that he didn’t have a lot to begin with. Like when a man loses his sight and his other senses compensate, I believe Marte’s speed/contact ability/defense will rise up this year. I would not be surprised to see him at AAA in early July.
Matt: Tony Sanchez – I expect the hamate injury to keep Marte’s numbers down a bit, and Sanchez is the most talented player remaining. Sanchez will probably be in Triple-A by midseason, but I think he’ll do enough in that half a season to be considered Altoona’s top player. Marte is going to break out as a top prospect one of these years, but I don’t think it will be until 2012.
Wilbur: Starling Marte – Marte in my view has the highest ceiling of any position player in the system and, hopefully, will step up his game beyond being a guy who hits a lot of singles and gets hit with a lot of pitches. I’d pick Tony Sanchez, but with Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit both in the last year of their contracts (with options the team won’t want to exercise), the Pirates will probably be eager to promote Sanchez by mid-year. Catcher is the one position in AAA that won’t be occupied by prospects.
Pitcher of the Year
Tim: Aaron Pribanic – Morris and Locke would top Pribanic, except I don’t think either pitcher will be in Altoona for long. Pribanic has good stuff, with a 91-94 MPH fastball, and a great ground ball rate. If he can manage to record more strikeouts, he could propel himself up the list as one of the better pitching prospects in the system.
John: Aaron Pribanic – Just like Tim said, I think Locke and Morris will be better but they won’t be there long. Pribanic was amazingly consistent last year once he got going, nearly every start was a quality one after a rough start to the season, and he likely would have been called up if not for Altoona’s stacked rotation and the fact Bradenton was also in a playoff chase.
Kevin: Brian Leach – Much like my compatriots, I don’t see Morris and Locke being at Altoona enough to warrant consideration. That leaves a process of elimination, though, that leads me to Brian Leach. He is not starting, but he could be a rapid riser as a power reliever. At this time next year, we may be discussing Leach for a spot in the major league bullpen.
Matt: Jeff Locke – Management seems to be taking their time with Locke, so don’t be surprised if he spends most of the year in Altoona. He took a step forward in 2010, and I expect that improved performance to continue this season.
Wilbur: Aaron Thompson – If Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris pitch well, they’ll probably get promoted, so I’ll go with Thompson. His stuff is much better than his performance so far and he should certainly be ready to dominate AA, since he’s already spent all or parts of three years there.
Tim: Brock Holt – Holt has hit for a great average in two of the most pitcher friendly leagues in the minors so far. He also has decent pop for a middle infielder. His defense ultimately fits best at second base, and he will make the move to the position this year. If he continues his hitting at the AA level, he could become a top ten prospect heading in to the 2012 season.
John: Jeremy Farrell – If he can finally stay healthy and play everyday he could put up some nice offensive numbers. He always seems to get hurt when he’s doing well. He’s 24 now so this is his year to make a move towards being a prospect. I could see him hitting .280 with 20 homers.
Kevin: Quincy Latimore – Heretofore, I have not been a huge Quincy Latimore supporter. His lethal combination of a high strikeout rate (26.2% in 2010 at A+) and a low walk rate (5.8% in 2010 at A+) does not portend future success for me. But his jaunt Down Under to the Aussie Baseball League was encouraging. He has his supporters in the current Pirates front office and he has some of the best power in the system. It would be extremely helpful if Latimore would be successful, as he would be like a “bonus” prospect for the system.
Matt: Jeremy Farrell – Farrell was my gut pick as a sleeper last year, and he made me look smart in the first half of the season. Unfortunately, he was one of numerous Bradenton Marauders that battled injuries in the second half. I’m going with him again this year.
Wilbur: Jordy Mercer – Mercer has a higher ceiling than he gets credit for. He’s a major league quality defender and he has power potential with the bat, if he can adjust to breaking balls. He had a respectable season in 2010, making better contact than he had previously at the cost of some power, so it won’t take a large improvement for him to start getting some of the attention that goes to Chase d’Arnaud now.