8 prospects, 8 questions: An initial look at the Altoona Curve’s top prospects

One fun aspect of prospect analysis is that it truly is an adventure in ‘prospecting’— looking for gold amongst the less valuable pebbles. We deal in long shots, not sure things. We speculate and ask questions that we can’t assuredly answer, use information to make a projection, and then we wait and see.

Since I’ll be in Altoona periodically this summer to cover the Curve for Pirates Prospects, I’m starting to have questions about some of the prospects that I’ll be looking at, many for the first time. It’s been said over and over that the jump to AA is the most difficult in the minor leagues, and even the top prospects walk into AA with question marks about their true ceiling and long-term value.

Seven players in the top 40 of the 2013 Prospect Guide will begin the year in Altoona, and Stolmy Pimentel would have been number eight had he been traded before press time. Below is a list of these eight prospects and the one question I’m pondering most about each. I don’t include any would-be call-ups in the list, only those slated to start the year in AA, and surely many other questions could be asked about each player.

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Jameson Taillon: “Will the performance match the stuff?” (Pirates Prospects [PP] #2)

Virtually no one in baseball questions Jameson Taillon’s stuff. He was drafted with two plus pitches in his four-seam fastball and curve, and his change-up and two-seam fastball are both above average, the latter a possible third plus pitch. What has surprised some evaluators is that for as good as the stuff is, thus far he hasn’t consistently missed bats or been dominant. If the stuff is so good, why don’t we see it in the box score?

The Pirates, their fans, and this writer have high expectations for Taillon, and I expect him to impress this season in AA. For his past two seasons, the Pirates have been very careful with Taillon’s development, and this year he has a chance to put it all together. Unlike previous seasons where the focus was mechanical —shortening the drop in his delivery to create more angle on his fastball for one — Taillon will not have to focus so exclusively on his very good fastball and learning the change-up. Till now, they’ve focused on development and command, but this season the ‘kid-gloves’ should come off, and he’ll be using a more complete repertoire and increasing his innings. I expect his K-rate to increase and ERA to lower. The organization gave him back his two-seam fastball at the end of 2012, and when I saw it then I was impressed. The pitch is one he is confident in and allows him to aggressively attack the strike zone with good armside-run.

Stolmy Pimentel has just one year to jump from Double-A to the majors.

Stolmy Pimentel has just one year to jump from Double-A to the majors.

Stolmy Pimentel: “Can he consistently get AA hitters out?” (PP #NR)

The acquisition from the Joel Hanrahan trade with the Red Sox has seen his prospect status drop greatly in the past two seasons as he’s struggled in AA. Repeating the level for a third time and with only one option remaining, Pimentel will need to be effective early on in AA if he is to carve out a future role in the big leagues. After a disastrous 2011 in AA (9.12 ERA), Pimentel’s return to the level in 2012 showed some peripheral improvement—more ground ball outs, more strikeouts, and fewer walks—even though his ERA was still 4.59.

Pimentel has had a promising spring and the Pirates have clearly seen some potential in Pimentel that the Red Sox were not tapping. Part of his improvement last season was a better slider, and the continued development of that pitch since coming over is a good sign. To be effective, Pimentel will need to command the pitch along with his 90-96 MPH fastball. The change still needs some work, but if Pimentel can get hitters out in AA and make a move to AAA this year, he’ll position himself well in the organization moving forward.

Gift Ngeope: “Can he cut his strikeouts down?” (PP #22)

Baseball’s first international signee from South Africa, Ngoepe was understandably raw when acquired in 2008, lacking the baseball experience of many of his competitors. Slated for AA in 2013, it is now time for Ngoepe to show more polish. He is the best defensive infielder in the system and a fast runner, attributes that help his long-term future, but he has struggled at the plate, limiting his upside.

It is promising that the shortstop has shown flashes with the bat (10-23 to conclude his Arizona Fall League stint in 2012), but his big problem has been strikeouts, to the tune of a 28 percent K% in Bradenton in 2012 and a 33% rate in the AFL. A key difference for hitters in AA versus the lower levels is the ability of pitchers to command their secondary pitches, which could be a significant challenge for the switch-hitting Ngoepe. Although slick fielding and fast shortstops have some value at the big league level, the ability to get on base and impact the game with the bat is largely a point of separation for regulars and utility players.

Adalberto Santos: “Is his hit tool good enough to compensate for his other average tools?” (PP #27)

The crown jewel of position-players for scouting directors is the 5-tool talent—a player who hits for both average and power, can run, field his position well, and throw runners out. As we all know, these types of players are rare, and for many the hope is that one or two tools will be good enough to atone for deficiencies in other ones. This is the case with 2010 22nd round draft pick Adalberto Santos.

Santos doesn’t have a high-ceiling as a player because he lacks power (.093 ISO in AA 2012) and does not feature well at any one defensive position. What he can do is hit for average and get on base. A career .322 hitter with a .405 OBP, Santos has exceeded expectations with his hit tool, and generally, players who hit over .300 with a plus-.400 OBP have futures as everyday players in the majors. Since Santos has a lower ceiling in the other aspects of his game, he must continue to hit and get on base to secure his future with the organization. His .299/.413/.455 line in the AFL is a good sign, and so is the .340 average in AA in 2012 (clearly inflated by a .401 batting average on balls in play, but still a good sign). He’ll be repeating AA this year at age 25, so age is a factor, and to his credit, he’ll be adding third base to his cadre of positions played this season.

Casey Sadler: “Does he have a future as a starting pitcher?” (PP #32)

The 2010 25th round prep pitcher has largely been overshadowed by the over-slot prep arms taken by the Pirates in his draft year and prior, even though Sadler’s performance has merited attention. His pro career began in the bullpen, but he took over a starting role in Bradenton in 2012 when Gerrit Cole was promoted. In his new role, he showed the potential for three above-average pitches, posting a 3.93 ERA in 91.2 innings as a starter, inflated by struggles down the stretch when evaluators noticed some arm fatigue (he doubled his 2011 innings total in 2012).

To make it as a starter, Sadler will need three above-average pitches, solid command, and to keep the ball in the park. Based on 2012, he has the potential to do all three of these things with a back-end rotation upside, but the jump to AA will be a challenging one. His sinker sits 89-93, and gets a lot of ground ball outs. Consistency with his slider, which can be quite good, and development of his change-up are other keys that will determine if he’s a starter or reliever. Thus thus far his command has been good and he’s induced ground balls, off-setting an average strikeout rate.

Alex Dickerson: “Will he hit for power?” (PP #33)

This website has rated the 2011 3rd round draft pick lower in their prospect rankings than many other media outlets. Given his size, there are evaluators who expect Dickerson to add more power to his game, which is vital for his long-term potential since he defensively profiles as a first baseman, possibly a corner outfielder.

Dickerson was the Florida State League MVP in 2012, and he has shown flashes at the plate, including an OPS over .900 in June and July 2012, but his power has not come yet, at least to the extent he’ll need to remain a viable first base option. And although he’s big at 6’3”, 235 lbs., his body type isn’t ideal for a power hitter according to some. On the positive side, Dickerson’s hit tool is promising (.295 avg. in 2012), and he doesn’t feature problematic splits. However, Dickerson’s upside is in his power potential, which will need to increase for him to eventually be an MLB regular.

Matt Curry: “Will he hit for power?” (PP #34)

While Curry’s career path is different than Dickerson’s, he’s plagued with the same question—as a first baseman, can he hit for enough power to eventually play in the MLB? Curry returns to AA this season, where he’s already logged 700 at-bats, so it is a big year for his long-term future within the organization. Curry’s 2012 showed flashes of his upside, raking in the summer months (1.276 OPS in June, .868 OPS in July), but he struggled in the Arizona Fall League and finds himself back in AA looking for some improvement.

Raw power isn’t a big question for Curry (unlike Dickerson), but squaring up off-speed pitches is. This is not uncommon for power hitters, and what separates the best from the rest is the ability to make adjustments in AA and beyond to contend with good off-speed pitches. If Curry can make these adjustments in another tour of AA, the Pirates can hold out hope that he can have some impact at the big league level.

Mel Rojas, Jr.: “Does he have the polish it takes to succeed in AA?” (PP #37)

“Raw” and “polish” are antonyms in prospect language, the first pointing to players who have tools and potential that they have yet to harness into actual performance, and the second referring to the harnessing of those same tools on the field of play. Rojas, Jr., squarely falls into the “raw” category as he has yet to show the consistency and performance of a future MLB contributor, evident in his career .240/.307/.331 slash line and 22.9 K%. Nonetheless, I am wary to base my opinions solely on statistics, particularly for players prior to making it to AA, and Rojas, Jr.’s tools merit consideration.

The 2010 3rd round pick is a good runner and defensively profiles well at either centerfield or a corner spot, able to cover outfield turf and make strong throws. The questions for him come at the plate, where his anticipated power and hit tools have not come along as the Pirates would have hoped to this point. Rojas, Jr. shows periodic flashes of his pedigree and potential, only to fall into deep slumps. For example, in 2012 he followed a decent month of May (.306 BA) with a June batting average of .226 and sub-.600 OPS. Interestingly, in spite of these struggles, the Pirates have pushed him up to AA to start 2013 anyway, a sign that they still believe in Rojas, Jr.’s tools and upside. He turns 23 in May, and still has time to figure it out, but the aggressive promotion to AA will be a major test for the switch-hitting center fielder.

**Other Top 50 prospects in AA: SP Brandon Cumpton (#46) and RP Jeff Inman (#49)

Follow me on Twitter @John_Eshleman, where I’m happy to field questions and comments.

Author: John Eshleman

John Eshleman joined Pirates Prospects in 2012, providing live coverage of the State College Spikes and the Altoona Curve. He will return for the 2013 season to provide coverage of the Jamestown Jammers while they are in State College. He will also be providing coverage of the Altoona Curve throughout the year. John is currently earning a Ph.D in Rural Sociology from Penn State University, and he lives in State College with his fiance Allison. Also, he hates the designated hitter rule.

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