The 2014 minor league season begins today. To prepare for the start of the season, we have previews of all four of the full season affiliates of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here are the previews for each team:
Altoona Curve – READING
Here is a look at the 2014 Altoona Curve, who will feature top prospects Alen Hanson and Nick Kingham on their Opening Day roster.
C – Elias Diaz
1B – Justin Howard
2B – Gift Ngoepe
SS – Alen Hanson
3B – Jarek Cunningham
LF – Keon Broxton
CF – Mel Rojas Jr.
RF – Willy Garcia
DH – Drew Maggi
The Altoona lineup is full of a lot of players who need to perform right away, at risk of becoming an organizational player or making their way out of baseball. The Pirates tend to push these types of prospects, forcing them to either move up and have success in Altoona, or move out of the system.
Alen Hanson is the one prospect who stands out, and isn’t a “move up or move out” type of guy. He’s one of the top prospects in the system, and the top shortstop prospect the Pirates have. There have been questions about Hanson’s defense, but people who see him live feel he has the skills to stick at shortstop. Hanson is an offense first shortstop, although his hitting wasn’t strong last year in his initial appearance with the Curve. He’s got the potential to be a leadoff hitter due to his speed and gap power. He could spend the entire year in Altoona, with the chance to move up to Indianapolis in time for the playoffs.
Outside of Hanson, there are a lot of question marks. Willy Garcia had a strong Spring, and has shown some impressive power at times in Bradenton and West Virginia the last two years. He has plate patience issues due to his inability to hit breaking stuff. He’s still young enough that he could break out and put it all together. It was only two years ago that he was seen as having the same or more upside as Hanson and Gregory Polanco.
Mel Rojas is another outfielder who has a lot of potential, but hasn’t put it all together yet. He has shown flashes throughout his career of strong performances, but usually lacks consistency, and follows up a few big games with a week of hitless games. His season in Altoona last year was one of his best performances, but he still needs work, which is why he’s back at the level. He’s a good defender with speed and raw power, and is another sleeper to watch.
The Pirates added Keon Broxton at the end of Spring Training. He was the number 15 prospect in Arizona’s farm system last year, according to Baseball America. They listed him as having plus speed and Major League defense with a plus arm. His bat hasn’t come along, and could eventually hold him back from the majors. With Garcia, Rojas, and Broxton, the Pirates have a very athletic outfield, and three guys who have yet to live up to their potential.
Justin Howard will start the season at first base, but will soon be replaced at the position by Stetson Allie. Allie had an oblique injury during Spring Training, and has been rehabbing in extended Spring Training. He is expected to make it to Altoona by the end of the week. He has the best raw power in the system, and the ball just explodes off his bat. His swing is much better this year, compared to last year in Bradenton when he struggled at the plate. Allie was crushing the ball early in camp, and was hitting well when he returned from his injury. He looks like the biggest breakout candidate in the system this year.
Altoona won’t have a set lineup at second and third base. Third base was played by a lot of different players during Spring Training, including Jarek Cunningham, Kelson Brown, and Dan Gamache. Those three could also play second base, splitting time with Gift Ngoepe. Gamache is currently out with a foot fracture, so Cunningham should get some extra time at third. Andy Vasquez can also play third.
Elias Diaz is a very athletic catcher with a strong arm and good raw hitting skills. He’s like the outfielders in that he’s more potential than results, and is running out of time. He does have the potential to be a good backup if he puts everything together.
Kelson Brown, Ralph Henriquez, Junior Sosa, Andy Vasquez
The bench players with Indianapolis have a shot at making the majors. The bench players in Altoona and below are mostly organizational guys. Brown should get time at second and third base. Sosa is a speedy outfielder who can play all three positions. Vasquez can play all over the field.
Zack Dodson*, Nick Kingham, Joely Rodriguez*, Tyler Sample, Adrian Sampson
Kingham is the top prospect here, but might not be in Altoona for long. He spent the second half of the 2013 season in Altoona, with great results. The Pirates have sent a lot of pitchers back to Altoona after having success in less than a full season. Some of those pitchers ended up making the majors by the end of the same season. Jeff Locke did it in 2012, and Brandon Cumpton did it in 2013. Kingham might be with Indianapolis before June, and could be in the majors by the end of the year. He’s got the upside of a number three starter in the majors, and could be in the major league rotation in 2015.
Joely Rodriguez had a nice breakout season in 2013. He’s always had good stuff, with a fastball that could work in the 91-94 MPH range, and a nice slider and changeup. He showed improvements with the changeup in 2013, but most importantly he started consistently throwing 91-94 MPH, and commanding his fastball in that range. Rodriguez was added to the 40-man roster over the off-season, and could end up being a Justin Wilson-type pitcher, with the ability to either be a dominant lefty out of the bullpen, or a starting option.
Adrian Sampson is a sleeper prospect to watch. He can get his fastball up to 94 MPH, and pairs that with a nice curveball. He wasn’t helped by a poor infield defense last year in Bradenton, but also struggled with the consistency of his stuff at times. The stuff is good enough to allow Sampson to eventually pitch in a major league rotation. This is the second year in a row that the Pirates have given him an aggressive push.
Zack Dodson is the only prep pitcher from the 2009 draft class who is still a starter. He’s another guy who is following the “move up or move out” approach, getting promoted to the next level, despite a lack of success at his previous level. There was a time when Dodson looked like he could have a future as a number three starter in the majors. That might be out now, but he still has a chance to make it as a reliever.
Tyler Sample will take the fifth spot in the rotation, but could be replaced early in the season by Pat Ludwig. The Pirates have Ludwig piggybacking with Ryan Hafner in High-A. That situation could change in a few weeks when Tyler Glasnow returns to Bradenton. Ludwig spent a lot of time this camp working as a starter against Double-A opponents.
Ryan Beckman, Matt Benedict, Emmanuel de Leon, Kenn Kasparek, Joan Montero, A.J. Morris, Jhonathan Ramos*
Just like the bench players, the bullpen options don’t provide a lot of future major leaguers. The Pirates do have a few hard throwers in this group. Emmanuel de Leon and Joan Montero can both work in the mid-90s, but each pitcher has struggled with control at times. Ryan Beckman was ticketed to be the Altoona closer two years ago, but went down early with an elbow injury that needed Tommy John surgery. He’s a sinkerball pitcher who throws from a sidearm motion, getting a lot of movement with the pitch.