Altoona featured a lot of breakout players this year, including two of the biggest breakout stories in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system in Adrian Sampson and Elias Diaz. They also had their share of top prospects throughout the year, including Nick Kingham at the start of the year, and Josh Bell at the end of the year. Below is a recap of the hitters and pitchers at the level, followed by the top ten prospects this year.
Joining Hanson for the full season in Altoona was fellow Dominican position player Willy Garcia. The outfielder had a big season from a power standpoint, with a .207 ISO and a .478 slugging percentage. The power was impressive, ranking among the best numbers seen in Altoona this year. However, Garcia posted some alarming strikeout numbers, and didn’t draw many walks. John Dreker outlined the issue here, noting that the odds of Garcia working out in the majors aren’t big, despite the impressive power. On the defensive side, Garcia brings a lot of value, with the best arm in the Eastern League, and the best outfield arm in the system.
Elias Diaz was the third Dominican prospect to play in Altoona from day one, although he played well enough to get a promotion to Indianapolis by the end of the season. Diaz was one of the big breakout players in the system, posting an .823 OPS in 326 at-bats. That showed huge improvements over what he did in Bradenton last year, continuing a progressive trend from his struggles in West Virginia two years ago. Diaz always had strong defense — perhaps the best in the Pirates’ system and named the best in the Eastern League. The added offense put him on the map as a Major League option, and has us putting him ahead of Tony Sanchez on future depth charts.
Two young guys who didn’t play full seasons in Altoona are Dan Gamache and Josh Bell. Gamache joined the team late, after missing four months with a broken foot. He came back and showed off some nice power. He was drafted as a strong defensive third baseman, and the Pirates tried him at second base, where the defense struggled. He played both positions in Altoona, and could have a future as a utility player. However, the lack of third base depth should give him more looks at third, especially if this limited sample of power is legit.
Bell is one of the top prospects in the system, and got a call to Altoona in the second half after crushing High-A pitching in the Florida State League. He didn’t post great numbers in Altoona, with a .652 OPS. This was mostly due to a lack of power. Bell had a .287 average and a .343 OBP, but struggled with a .309 slugging percentage. It was a very small sample size, and the scouting reports on Bell easily out-weigh that sample. He should return to Altoona at the start of the 2015 season, where he will hopefully be better adjusted for the upper levels after his 2014 experience, and after spending time in the AFL this off-season.
Stetson Allie returned to Altoona this year, and had much better results, showing off some nice power. He also showed a good ability to draw a walk, but struck out a lot in the process. This resulted in a Three True Outcomes stat line, which isn’t a bad thing in the majors. The problem is that three outcome guys in Double-A don’t usually make the majors. Allie will get every opportunity to make the majors, as he has some of the best raw power in the system. He has shown some good trends with his strikeouts, although that will have to continue, and he will have to start hitting for average in order to reach the big leagues.
Two outfielders really stood out this year in Mel Rojas and Keon Broxton. Both have similar back stories — drafted in the third round, lots of tools, previously highly rated on their original team’s prospect lists, and have struggled in the past at the Double-A level. Rojas has always been with the Pirates, showing off a lot of tools and potential, but never putting things together in a consistent way. He finally did that this year, putting up an .825 OPS and earning a promotion to Indianapolis. He should be a candidate to go on the 40-man roster this off-season, and could be outfield depth next season.
Broxton was acquired in a trade from Arizona in Spring Training for cash considerations. He struggled in Double-A last year for the Diamondbacks, but had a bit of a breakout year for Altoona, with an .853 OPS. That made him the hitter of the year at the level, and should get him a look at Indianapolis next year.
Both Rojas and Broxton project as fourth outfielders in the future. The Pirates had some other future bench players in Altoona this year, with the notable one being Gift Ngoepe. He’s the best defensive shortstop in the system, although he doesn’t have much of a bat. Ngoepe showed potential at times this year, but ended up with a .699 OPS. He will eventually reach the majors due to his defense, but his bat limits his upside to a strong defensive backup, likely working as depth out of Triple-A.
Nick Kingham was the top pitching prospect at the level coming into the year, and finished as the top prospect at the level this season (although Josh Bell probably beats him out if he qualifies). Kingham returned to Altoona this year after spending half a season at the level in 2013. He struggled with his control at times, but ended up fixing those issues by the end of his run through the level. Kingham was promoted to Indianapolis at mid-season, where he had an amazing start, followed by a few rough stretches. He should be an option for the Pirates in mid-2015.
The other starting pitcher who was expected to do well was Joely Rodriguez, who had great results in West Virginia and Bradenton in 2013. Those results didn’t carry over to Altoona this year, as Rodriguez was hit around a lot, and didn’t see a lot of strikeouts. He eventually was moved to the bullpen, where his struggles continued. The Pirates moved him back to the rotation at the end of the year, but that didn’t fix the problem. Rodriguez has good stuff for a lefty, with a fastball that can hit mid-90s, a sinker in the upper 80s, and a slider and changeup in the low-t0-mid 80s with good movement on each pitch. Because of his struggles this year, and because of the success from other pitchers around him, it looks like his future with the Pirates will be in the bullpen, as there are better starting options ahead of him on the depth charts.
The rest of the Altoona pitching staff was filled with question marks, with a lot of guys who show potential, but lack one big thing that holds them back from prospect status. Zack Dodson keeps getting opportunities as a starter, since he has good stuff as a left-handed pitcher. The 2014 season was just another example of Dodson’s numbers not matching up to the stuff, which features a low 90s fastball and a big breaking curve. Tom Harlan earned a look in the AFL, and posted good numbers in Altoona, although he doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, and doesn’t strike many guys out. The Pirates claimed Angel Sanchez off waivers and gave him a look at the end of the year. He’ll probably be waiver wire fodder in the off-season, with the hope that he can clear waivers and remain in the system. Jeff Inman had good results this year, but lacked control, and has dealt with injuries all throughout his career.
Perhaps all of these guys can draw inspiration from John Holdzkom, who started his incredible story in the Pirates’ system with Altoona. Holdzkom pitched just six innings with the Curve, striking out ten batters, walking two, and giving up just one hit. He did this at the age of 26, which is very old for the level. The Pirates didn’t need to see any more, and moved him up to Indianapolis, before his eventual move to the majors as the current 7th inning guy. Holdzkom is just a reminder that a lot of these guys with talent but no results might be just one small adjustment away from breaking out.
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 biggest exclusions for Altoona were Josh Bell, Dan Gamache, and John Holdzkom. Bell would have definitely made the top 10, and might have challenged for number one, despite struggles at the level. Gamache had a shot at the final spot on the list.
1. Nick Kingham
2. Alen Hanson
3. Adrian Sampson
4. Elias Diaz
5. Stetson Allie
6. Willy Garcia
7. Mel Rojas
8. Joely Rodriguez
9. Keon Broxton
10. Gift Ngoepe