The Depth At Triple-A Forces Some Position Changes and Returns in Altoona
The cuts from major league camp left the Pittsburgh Pirates with a lot of options at the Triple-A level. Those options ended up holding a few players back in Altoona for the 2013 season. Early in minor league camp, the Pirates were playing Matt Curry, Adalberto Santos, and Andrew Lambo with the Triple-A squad. After the late cuts, all three were pushed back to Altoona. That created a roster jam in a few cases, as the Pirates had guys coming up from Bradenton at the same positions. As a result, a few of the returning prospects in Altoona will be playing at new positions this year to get their playing time in.
Matt Curry and Alex Dickerson in the Outfield
The Pirates had Clint Robinson and Matt Hague in Triple-A for most of camp. Robinson was playing first, Hague was at third, and Matt Curry was the DH, while switching off at first with Robinson. Once Jared Goedert was sent down, the order shifted. Goedert went to third, and Hague and Robinson split time at first and DH. That pushed Curry to Altoona. It’s not known whether Curry could have a shot at making the jump to Indianapolis if Robinson isn’t retained. The Pirates designated Robinson for assignment on Wednesday, and he’d have to clear waivers to go to Indianapolis. For now, Curry is with Altoona.
Alex Dickerson had been playing the entire Spring with Altoona, and will be making the jump to Double-A this year. Last year the Pirates kept Dickerson in high-A and Curry in Double-A so that both could get work at first base. This year they both need to be in Double-A, leaving a challenge for playing time. They could alternate between first base and DH, but another option came up in the last week: outfield. Curry and Dickerson have been rotating at the corner outfield spots this week in games at Pirate City, adding some flexibility that will allow them both to remain in the lineup.
The position isn’t new for Dickerson. He played outfield his entire career until joining the Pirates. He was drafted as an outfielder, but immediately moved to first base due to a lack of range. He can play a corner spot, although he’s going to struggle defensively, putting emphasis on his bat.
“It is pretty comfortable,” Dickerson said. “I didn’t feel too out of place out there. I played there for my whole life pretty much. Right now we’re just getting my feet under me, and hopefully it works out, out there.”
Curry has played in the outfield before, but only for about ten games at the JuCo level. Like Dickerson, he doesn’t have the range to be strong defensively, which puts more emphasis on the bat. Even though he hasn’t played much outfield in his career, Curry always left that window open.
“I’m comfortable out there,” Curry said. “I’ve always taken balls in BP out there. I have an outfielder’s glove. I’ve always kept it ready to go. I knew one day that it could be a chance I could jump into one of the corner outfield spots. I’m ready for it.”
Adalberto Santos Getting Time at Third Base
Adalberto Santos was an outfielder throughout college, but has been playing second base with the Pirates at times in the last few years. He’s athletic enough that he can handle the position, and he’s getting more comfortable there with more playing time.
“Everything takes reps, with any kind of position, any kind of move,” Santos said about second base. “With the reps [at second], coming from Arizona to here and doing the reps from early camp to now, I feel a lot more comfortable. Clean up some things, and it’s starting to become second nature now. It’s been a good move.”
The Pirates didn’t have any space for Santos in Triple-A, despite him hitting for a .340 average and an .858 OPS with Altoona last year. Second base in Indianapolis will go to either Jordy Mercer or Ivan De Jesus Jr. The outfield is blocked by Jerry Sands, Felix Pie, and Alex Presley.
Space is also a problem in Altoona. Jarek Cunningham will return to the level to play second base. Drew Maggi is also an option at second, and could get some time in the outfield. Mel Rojas Jr. will make the jump to Altoona this year, and will be joined in the outfield by Andrew Lambo and Dan Grovatt. When you add Maggi, plus the occasional playing time for Curry and Dickerson, there’s not much of a spot for Santos.
The solution? Third base.
Third base is a weak spot in the Pirates system. The only third baseman on the Altoona roster is Stefan Welch. He has some good power, but only hit for a .761 OPS last year with Altoona, and doesn’t profile as much more than upper level depth. Santos has been a great hitter throughout his pro career. He doesn’t have the power you’d want from a third baseman, and it’s not known if he could make up for that with his defense. He’s looked like a future utility player, so adding third base will help his value in the long run. In the short-term, it will give him some playing time with Altoona.
“I played a couple games there in Arizona,” Santos said of the position. “The transition I don’t think would be too much of a problem. I’m looking forward to it.”
Andrew Lambo Returning From Multiple Hand Injuries
Andrew Lambo won’t be changing positions. He will still be in the outfield, competing for time with Rojas, Grovatt, and guys like Santos, Curry, Dickerson, and Maggi who could get occasional time. UPDATE: A correction here. I learned today that Lambo will be getting some time at first base this year, rotating with Curry and Dickerson between first, left field, and DH. Lambo is coming off a year where he suffered from multiple hand injuries. He tore two ligaments in his Triangular fibrocartilage complex (TFCC) in his hand. He also broke his hamate bone, which seems like a rite of passage for Pirates hitting prospects.
The hamate injury is usually a pretty big one for a hitter by itself. It can sap power for a year. Lambo’s bigger focus was the torn ligaments. He was in a cast for two months, which is longer than the recovery time after hamate surgery alone. He noted that the extra rest could have helped the hamate heal, avoiding the loss in power.
“The hamate, you’re back in like a month,” Lambo said. “The hamate surgery is quick. With tearing my ligaments, it was in a cast for two months. So I think that the hamate healed really good, to where the focus was more the ligaments. I didn’t feel anything. When I came back the only thing I was feeling was the ligaments, but the hamate was fine.”
The outfielder had a change this off-season. He did nothing. In previous years he’s played some form of winter ball, or participated in the Arizona Fall League. This time around he had a full off-season. He worked with his trainer, did some hitting, and focused on his mechanics. So far he’s looked good at the plate in minor league Spring Training games, getting a lot of hits.
“This is Spring Training, but compared to my recent Spring Trainings I felt like I’ve been a lot more comfortable locked in at the plate, and also physically,” Lambo said. “It’s a long season. I’ve seen a lot of guys have unbelievable Springs, go into the season, it’s nowhere to be found. But I’d say whether the hits are coming or not, mentally right now just where I’m at, at the plate, I feel like I’m really more prepared than I was the last couple of seasons.”
This will be the sixth year in which Lambo has spent time at the Double-A level. That’s a surprising number. What’s even more surprising is that he’s only 24 years old. He’s a few weeks younger than Curry, and he’s about a year younger than Santos. He first made the jump to the level at the age of 19, and has remained ever since. Lambo was one of the top prospects in the game heading into the 2009 season, and was the top prospect in the Los Angeles Dodgers system. The Dodgers ended up trading him and James McDonald in 2010 for Octavio Dotel. He hasn’t exactly torn up the Eastern League in his time with Altoona, hitting for a .782 OPS in 2011, and a .781 OPS in 2012. He made the jump to Indianapolis in 2011, but it came with poor results. For most of Spring it looked like he might have a shot at moving up to Triple-A, but the late cuts prevented that from happening.
“You gotta work hard and stay focused, and everything is going to come into play,” Lambo said about returning to Double-A again. “You’ve got one goal, and it’s not to make the Indianapolis squad. It’s to help Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh at PNC Park. That’s my goal. I believe I can do that, and so now it’s time to show them I can. Coming into Spring, physically and mentally where I’m at, I think they’re really excited to see the kind of season that I’m capable of and that they’re ready to see. The ultimate goal is to help the big club win.”
The Brock Holt Path
When I was talking with Matt Curry about returning to Altoona and whether that was disappointing after his 2012 season, he brought up a good point: Brock Holt. In 2011, Holt hit for a .288 average and a .743 OPS with Altoona. He returned to the level in 2012, mostly because he was blocked in Indianapolis in the same way that Curry is blocked now. In 2012 he hit for a .322/.389/.432 line with Altoona. He moved up to Indianapolis, where the hitting continued with a .432 average and a 1.013 OPS in 95 at-bats. The season ended with Holt in the majors, hitting for a .292 average and a .682 OPS in 65 at-bats. Curry noted that, even though he’s back in Altoona, he could still take the same path.
“I’m still one call away from the big leagues,” Curry said. “I’m not going to try and let it affect me. I’ve just got to go in there and keep swinging the bat.”
Curry’s situation is similar to Holt’s heading into the 2012 season. Aside from being blocked in the same way, Curry also had numbers that could use some improvement. He hit for a .285/.352/.480 line with Altoona. Those are good numbers, but not the numbers you want to see from a power hitting first baseman in Double-A. An .832 OPS and a .285 average would be good in the majors, but players don’t usually carry the same Double-A numbers to the majors. That doesn’t mean Curry is going to come back and see the improvements that Holt saw. It just means he’s in the same situation, looking for improvements that will make it impossible for the Pirates to keep him in Altoona.