The 2013 minor league season begins on Thursday. In the days leading up to the opener, I will be previewing the full season affiliates of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Here is a look at the 2013 Altoona Curve, who will feature top prospect Jameson Taillon on their Opening Day roster.
C – Carlos Paulino
1B – Matt Curry
2B – Jarek Cunningham
SS – Gift Ngoepe
3B – Stefan Welch
LF – Alex Dickerson
CF – Mel Rojas
RF – Andrew Lambo
DH – Adalberto Santos
The Altoona lineup will be crazy this year, with players playing multiple positions all over the field. Perhaps the most stable positions are the ones up the middle. Carlos Paulino should get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate. Gift Ngoepe and Jarek Cunningham will play primarily shortstop and second base, respectively. Mel Rojas will handle center field. Outside of that, the corner positions will be a game of musical chairs.
At first base, Altoona could see Matt Curry, Stefan Welch, Alex Dickerson, and Andrew Lambo throughout the year. Welch will get most of his time at third base, also giving time to Adalberto Santos. Santos will be playing second base and left field. Dickerson and Curry will also get time in left, with Dickerson getting most of the time in the outfield between the two. And all of these guys will be options as designated hitters.
There are a lot of interesting hitting prospects here, but not really any standout hitting prospects. The consensus favorite seems to be Dickerson. He was highly rated coming out of the draft for his power, but didn’t show that power last year in the Florida State League. He’s been plagued by back problems the last few years, and seems to have found a solution this Spring by wearing orthotics. Dickerson wore them prior to college, and after he stopped wearing them the back issues started up. If that turns out to be the root of his back issues, and what was holding his power back, then Dickerson could be in line for a good season in Altoona.
Matt Curry, Adalberto Santos, and Andrew Lambo were all held back in Altoona due to the cuts from major league camp. Curry had a good season at the plate last year, although not a great season in terms of first basemen. You’d like to see more power and a higher OPS, especially this year in his second time around. Santos had a great half-season at the plate, hitting for a .340 average. He also had good results in the Arizona Fall League. He profiles more as a utility player, and will add another position this year by learning third base. He doesn’t have much defensive value, so the key will be getting him at-bats and seeing if he can continue his hot hitting. Lambo has been in Double-A for several years now, although he’s still young for the level. He had multiple hand injuries in 2012, but was hitting well this Spring.
Mel Rojas was a third round pick in 2010, and was considered a potential five tool talent. So far Rojas hasn’t shown consistency at the plate. There have been stretches where he’s shown his potential, absolutely crushing the ball with multi-hit games and long homers. Then there have been stretches where he’s gone hitless over a span of multiple games. The latter stretches have come more frequently than the former. Rojas was looking good this Spring, and the Pirates must still believe in him if they gave him the push to Double-A. He only had a .245/.303/.354 line in 497 at-bats in Bradenton last year. If he puts it all together in Altoona it wouldn’t be a total surprise. He’s shown his potential in each of the last two years, and has shown that he can hit. He just hasn’t shown any consistency.
The rest of the prospects in the lineup are guys with one or two tools. Gift Ngoepe is the best defensive infielder in the system, and might be the fastest in the system. Stefan Welch has some power in his bat. So does Jarek Cunningham, and his power comes at a position where you don’t usually expect power. Carlos Paulino is strong defensively, with possibly the best arm behind the plate in the system. If any of these guys make it to the majors, they’re looking at being bench players.
Charles Cutler, Drew Maggi, Justin Howard, Andy Vasquez
The bench will also see some rotation throughout the lineup. Charles Cutler returns for the second year to be the backup catcher. He will stay in one position for obvious reasons. Drew Maggi will spend time backing up the middle infield spots, although he played left field last year and could be an option there. Justin Howard is an option at first base, right field, and designated hitter. Andy Vasquez is athletic enough to play all over the field, including third base, center field, and shortstop.
Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Casey Sadler, Brandon Cumpton, Tyler Waldron
The highlight of the rotation at the start of the year will be Jameson Taillon. The top pitching prospect made the jump to Altoona at the end of last season, and looked great in three starts. That came at the end of a season where Taillon had some rocky starts down in Bradenton. The right-hander struggles at times leaving balls up in the zone, but overall he’s got the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter. If he performs the same way he did at the end of last season, he could see Indianapolis by the end of the year.
One guy I was impressed with this Spring was Stolmy Pimentel. The Pirates added Pimentel as part of the Joel Hanrahan trade. In the past they’ve added former top prospects who have lost some value, with hopes that those top prospects will bounce back. Watching Pimentel, there seems to be no reason why his value has dropped. He was pitching well, with a 90-96 MPH fastball and a slider that was working as a strikeout pitch. That slider could be the key to his season, and the reason why he looks better than his previous Double-A numbers. He switched to the pitch last year, and in the second half of the season he saw a big increase in strikeouts, and a decrease in his ERA. Pimentel will be a starter, and only has one option year remaining. He needs to have success quickly and move on to Indianapolis, since he’ll have to be in the majors next year.
The rest of the rotation profiles as guys who could have a future in the majors, although the most likely scenario for each guy is as a reliever. Casey Sadler is the one sleeper of the group who could make it as a starter. He throws his sinker in the 90-93 MPH range, getting a lot of quick ground balls. He pairs that with a hard breaking slider which gets strikeouts, and a changeup that is good enough to keep him as a starter. Brandon Cumpton and Tyler Waldron have both hit the mid-90s in the past as relievers, and both have more of an upside taking the relief pitching path in the long run. For now they’ll be worked as starters, getting as many innings and as much experience as possible.
Nate Baker, Tim Alderson, Jeff Inman, Kenn Kasparek, Jason Townsend, Ethan Hollingsworth, Luis Sanz
Jeff Inman is one of the highlights of the Altoona bullpen. He’s hit as high as 98 MPH in the past, and pairs the fastball with a good curveball. Inman has dealt with a lot of injuries in the past, and struggled in Altoona last year. That fastball/curve combo keeps him on the radar as a sleeper relief prospect.
Jason Townsend is also a good relief pitching prospect. He’s thrown in the mid-90s in the past, but works now in the lower 90s with good control and good movement on his fastball. He also throws a low 80s slider which he uses as an out pitch.
Tim Alderson is a former top prospect, and one of the guys who the Pirates acquired when he was on the decline. He’s shown some improvements since then, getting his fastball up to the 90-93 MPH range, and getting his curveball back to being an out pitch. At this point he might have a shot at being a sleeper relief prospect, but his future as a starter is pretty much done.
Nate Baker is a good left-handed relief prospect. He was drafted as a starter, and moved to the bullpen last year after some control problems. The numbers were much better out of the bullpen, and he’ll look to repeat that success this year in Altoona.