Altoona had an impressive group of prospects throughout the year, although they didn’t start off with a good looking team. The breakouts of Andrew Lambo and Stolmy Pimentel, plus the mid-season promotions of Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Nick Kingham, turned the Altoona Curve into one of the most talented teams in the minors throughout the 2013 season. Below is a recap of the hitters and pitchers at the level, followed by the top ten prospects this year.
The biggest story among the hitters was Andrew Lambo. Prior to the 2013 season, Lambo had spent parts of five seasons at the Double-A level. He was once a top 50 prospect in baseball, but was rushed to Double-A at the age of 19, and never really lived up to his hype. This was the year where everything finally came together for the outfielder, and it happened at a still-young age of 24 (Lambo turned 25 by the end of the season). Lambo finally started hitting for power, blasting 14 homers in 220 at-bats, while also hitting for a .291 average. The numbers in Altoona came with the asterisk that he had a lot of experience at the level. However, Lambo proved his numbers to be legit by doing an even better job in Triple-A. He was called up to the majors, but didn’t get much playing time. As I wrote last night, Lambo should draw some consideration for a starting role next season. It’s hard to ignore a guy who hit 33 home runs in a season, especially when the Pirates have a need at the position Lambo plays.
Another breakout of sorts came from Alex Dickerson. The Pirates moved Dickerson to right field this year to get him playing time at the same level as Matt Curry. Curry went down with a hamate injury, but the Pirates left Dickerson in right, giving Justin Howard some starting time at first. Even though Dickerson played right field the entire season, he profiles best as a first baseman, and is the best option of those three players. Dickerson had a rough start in the first two months of the season, but caught fire in June and July. He combined for a .361/.397/.629 line in 194 at-bats, with 11 homers in that span. He faded in August, with a .667 OPS. That’s similar to what he did in 2012 in high-A. Dickerson looks to be the best option over the next few years as an internal first base candidate, but he’s going to have to show the ability to hit consistently in order to be a long-term solution.
Mel Rojas also had a bit of a breakout season at the plate. Rojas has always struggled with consistency, showing spurts of his hitting ability, but following those small stretches with long slumps at the plate. This year he had a .742 OPS, which wasn’t good, but was an upgrade over his .657 OPS in high-A. He was still inconsistent throughout the year, but his hot streaks were longer lived, and the cold streaks were less frequent than previous years. Rojas could develop into a strong fourth outfielder with the ability to play center field.
Gregory Polanco was promoted mid-season, and got off to a slow start in his jump to the new level. The jump from high-A to Double-A is the most difficult for a hitter, due to the quality of the pitchers at the new level, and their ability to command the strike zone, throw good changeups, and command breaking pitches. Polanco didn’t put up the best numbers at first, with a .725 OPS in his first two months at the level. He went on a hot streak in August, putting up an .833 OPS and showing some power with a .205 ISO during his final 83 at-bats. That was enough to get him a late season promotion to Indianapolis. Polanco’s overall stat line doesn’t look good, but his walk and strikeout rates looked advanced all year, and by the end of the season it looked like he figured out how to hit Double-A pitching. Despite the poor overall stat line, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Polanco start in Triple-A next season.
On that same note, Alen Hanson was promoted later in the season, and only saw a month in Altoona. Like Polanco, Hanson struggled at first, putting up a .679 OPS. He is getting extra at-bats against upper level pitching in the Arizona Fall League, but he should return to Altoona at least for half a season in 2014. It’s possible that Hanson could move up to Indianapolis if he starts hitting well in Altoona. However, a key difference between Hanson and Polanco is that Hanson needs to iron out his defensive game, while Polanco has very little to work on, other than adjusting to each level. Therefore, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Hanson spend most of the 2014 season in Altoona.
The Curve had a lot of other hitters who were one tool types. Carlos Paulino is one of the best defensive catchers in the system, but can’t hit. Gift Ngoepe is the best defensive shortstop in the system and has a ton of speed, but was completely overmatched at the plate in his time with Altoona. Jarek Cunningham has a ton of power at second base, but doesn’t have good strike zone discipline and plays poor defense. Adalberto Santos hits for average and gets on base, but doesn’t hit for power and plays poor defense, making him a utility player at best. Justin Howard and Charlie Cutler both had strong seasons at the plate. Howard doesn’t hit for the power you’d want from a first baseman, and Cutler is 27 years old and has spent a few years in Double-A, raising questions as to how valid his numbers are. He could be a depth option at catcher next year, but he would at least be the fourth or fifth best option if the Pirates don’t add anyone else.
Jameson Taillon got a taste of Double-A ball at the end of the 2012 season. He opened the 2013 season with Altoona, and put up some dominant numbers at the level this year. His overall stat line is a bit misleading, as it is heavily inflated by a bad start on July 13th. The right-hander gave up ten runs on 13 hits in 3.1 innings. Without that outing, Taillon had a 2.88 ERA in 109.1 innings, with a 104:35 K/BB ratio.
The important thing with Taillon was that he was promoted to Indianapolis for the final month of the season. That was similar to his timeline in 2012 — starting at one level, then going to the next for the final month. If it all plays out the same next year, he will be in the majors no later than the start of August. He could possibly arrive earlier, as his pitches have improved. There have been positive reports on his changeup, which is a pitch that has come a long way the last two years. He’s got a plus fastball and a plus curveball. Adding a good changeup to the mix is all he needs to live up to that number one starter upside. As far as his development in Triple-A, it will go a lot faster now that his pitches are developed. At this point he just needs to work on consistency, and continue to work on pitching rather than throwing, which is an area where Taillon has had more success than fellow pitching phenom Gerrit Cole.
Taillon wasn’t the only potential top of the rotation pitcher at the level this year. Nick Kingham raised his stock with a strong performance in his jump to the Eastern League. Kingham has slowly improved his game, and now features a fastball that sits 93-95 MPH and has touched 97, along with a good curveball and changeup. Some rate the changeup better, although I’ve always felt the curve is strong and a borderline plus pitch with a late, steep drop that makes it a true out pitch. Kingham also has plus command, which combined with his pitches gives him the upside of a number two starter. The more popular projection is a strong number three, innings eating starter. That’s a safe way to go, but Kingham has improved his game every year, and I don’t think he’s done making improvements yet. I could see him surpassing that safe projection.
Stolmy Pimentel also showed top of the rotation stuff in his time with Altoona, including two of the most dominant months of any pitcher in the system in his first two months of the season. Pimentel had a mid-90s fastball that was touching 98 at times, and a slider that he has been developing over the last two seasons, which looks like a plus offering. The problem with Pimentel is that he lacks consistency. While he has top of the rotation stuff, he profiles more as a number 3-4 starter since he can’t always command his pitches. Pimentel could get a shot at the rotation next year if A.J. Burnett doesn’t return. He’s out of options, so he will likely go to the bullpen in a Jeanmar Gomez type role if he doesn’t make the rotation.
The Pirates have shown a tendency to target heavy sinkerball pitchers, and they had several in Altoona this year. Casey Sadler was the most effective, putting up a 1.74 GO/AO ratio in his time with Altoona, leading to a 3.31 ERA in 130 innings. He was moved to Indianapolis for a start, and could begin the 2014 season at the level. It’s also possible he could be left back in Altoona at the start of the year due to a lack of space, although he should make it to Indianapolis at some point, and could make the majors if the Pirates need a lot of depth like they did in 2013.
Brandon Cumpton is another sinkerball pitcher who threw for Altoona. Cumpton actually struggled at the level, after a lot of success last year. He only threw 9.2 innings, then was promoted to Indianapolis out of need, due to the injuries in the majors that were depleting the Triple-A pitching staff. After one start in Triple-A, Cumpton got back on track, and eventually went on to make five starts in the majors. If Casey Sadler is looking for direction for his 2014 season, he probably doesn’t have to look further than Cumpton’s 2013 campaign.
Ryan Beckman is a relief pitcher who relies on a sinkerball thrown from a sidearm angle, giving him a lot of deception and movement. He was returning from Tommy John surgery this year, and pitched 19 innings in Altoona at the end of the year. Beckman could be a sleeper reliever down the line, but will probably start back in Altoona next season due to the missed time this year. Tyler Waldron is another sinkerball pitcher who hasn’t had the best numbers the last few years. However, the Pirates are high on him, sending him to the AFL for the second straight year, and giving him time in the Altoona rotation this season.
One of the most interesting stories was David Bromberg’s 2013 season. Bromberg was a minor league free agent who had an impressive 3.51 ERA in 136 innings, with an 8.4 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9. You could chalk that up to experience at the level, but it’s also possible that Bromberg could be the next Kris Johnson. Johnson had a similar season in 2012, having success in Double-A, making a few appearances in Triple-A, then having a big season in winter ball. It was after his time in winter ball that Johnson emerged as the pitcher we saw this year, eventually making it to the majors. Bromberg is now in winter ball, and could use that opportunity to build on what went right this season. Like Johnson, he probably won’t be more than a middle reliever/spot starter option. But that’s a big jump from what he looked like heading into the year.
The Double-A level is where you start to see pitchers turning into future major league relievers. Sometimes that involves moving a struggling starter to the bullpen. Other times it involves fixing something with a reliever who shows some potential. Altoona had some relievers with the potential to pitch in the majors. Jeff Inman has a great arm with plus velocity, but needs to stay healthy. Zack Thornton had an impressive season in Double-A and Triple-A. He doesn’t have dominating stuff, but could be a sleeper option as depth next year. If Nate Baker could fix his control problems, he could be a strong lefty reliever, and more than a LOOGY since his best pitch is his changeup. Quinton Miller switched to a two-seam fastball this year, leading to better numbers than he saw last year out of the bullpen. However, he needs to fix his control problems if he wants to advance beyond Double-A.
Top 10 Prospects
The cutoff for eligibility on this list was 140 at-bats, 40 innings pitched, or 20 relief appearances. Guys who are no longer in the organization were also excluded. The exclusions for Altoona didn’t provide as big of an impact as they did with Indianapolis. The key players who were left off were Alen Hanson (3 at-bats shy of eligibility), Matt Curry (missed time due to injury), and Brandon Cumpton (early season promotion).
1. Jameson Taillon
2. Gregory Polanco
3. Nick Kingham
4. Andrew Lambo
5. Stolmy Pimentel
6. Alex Dickerson
7. Casey Sadler
8. Mel Rojas
9. Jarek Cunningham
10. Adalberto Santos