Altoona will feature a lot of players returning from the 2011 team. Tony Sanchez, Matt Curry, Brock Holt, Jeremy Farrell, Quincy Latimore, and Andrew Lambo were all in the lineup for Altoona last year. Michael Colla, Aaron Pribanic, and Phil Irwin will all return to the Altoona rotation, with Tim Alderson and Duke Welker returning to the bullpen.
C – Tony Sanchez
1B – Matt Curry
2B – Jarek Cunningham
SS – Brock Holt
3B – Jeremy Farrell
LF – Quincy Latimore
CF – Robbie Grossman
RF – Andrew Lambo
DH – Ramon Cabrera
Sanchez struggled with his hitting last year, and had very little pop in his bat. He showed some improvements in that area this spring, and will need to get off to a strong start in Altoona in order to make the jump to Indianapolis. Because Sanchez is back in Double-A, Ramon Cabrera is limited to designated hitter duties, and Carlos Paulino is left back in high-A.
Cabrera will move up from Bradenton this year, and will get his plate appearances as the designated hitter, while getting a few starts behind the plate when Sanchez needs a break. Cabrera won the Florida State League batting title last year with a .343 average, along with a .410 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging.
Matt Curry made the aggressive jump to Double-A last year, skipping over high-A in the process. He struggled at the Double-A level, with a 30 percent strikeout rate and a .694 OPS. The struggles aren’t a big surprise considering the jump he made in his first year. He’ll have some pressure coming from high-A, as Alex Dickerson looked dominant against high-A pitching in the spring. If Curry doesn’t turn his numbers around in Double-A, and Dickerson gets off to a strong start in Bradenton, the two could switch places.
Jarek Cunningham will make the jump to Double-A, which is a bit of a surprise considering his plate patience issues and injury history. Cunningham missed a lot of time last year with concussion-like symptoms, and has missed time in the past with a knee injury. He hits for good power from the middle infield spot, with a .516 slugging percentage last year in Bradenton. However, he struck out 26.5 percent of the time, and walked in about five percent of his plate appearances. Cunningham also has some speed, which leads to a lot of extra base hits.
Brock Holt is another speedy middle infielder. He profiles more as a second baseman, but his speed allows him to handle the shortstop position better than Cunningham. Holt hit for a .288 average and a .356 on-base percentage last year in Altoona, profiling well as a leadoff guy. He also stole 18 bases. Long term he profiles more as a utility player in the majors, although he could change that by adding some power and improving his .099 ISO from 2011.
Jeremy Farrell has dealt with an injury in each year of his pro career. Last year he had a .713 OPS when healthy. He doesn’t have strong defense at third, due to a lack of range.
Quincy Latimore has some of the best power in the system, but has struggled in the past with his plate patience, with a high strikeout rate and a low walk rate. Last year he had a 30.6 percent strikeout rate, and a 6.5 percent walk rate. Latimore has worked over the off-season on improving his plate patience. If those improvements carry over to the regular season, he could see his prospect status take a jump.
Robbie Grossman was named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year last year after a breakout season which saw him become the first minor leaguer to walk 100 times and score 100 runs since Nick Swisher in 2004. Grossman hit for a .294 average, added some power with 13 homers, and put up an .869 OPS. His hitting will be put to the test at the Double-A level. He got his first taste of upper level hitting in the Arizona Fall League, where he was one of the best hitters in the league when healthy. However, he went down with a hamate injury, which could impact his hitting this year. Grossman doesn’t believe the surgery will impact him, chalking the year-long power sap that the surgery usually brings to a mentality issue.
Andrew Lambo was once one of the top prospects in the game, but has seen his stock fall over the last few years. He started in Triple-A last year, and was eventually demoted to Double-A after struggles with Indianapolis. Lambo rebounded at the end of the year with Altoona, and will look to turn things around in Altoona this year. The primary concern comes with his struggles against left-handers last year.
Kelson Brown, Charles Cutler, Elevys Gonzalez, Adalberto Santos
Gonzalez had a good year at the plate in 2011 with Bradenton. He doesn’t profile well at any specific defensive position, although he should get most of his playing time at third base, sharing time with Jeremy Farrell.
Adalberto Santos will get some time in the outfield, as well as some time as the designated hitter. Santos had a big year at the plate in Bradenton last year, although the jump to the Double-A level is the hardest to make for any hitter, and will be the test for Santos.
Brown served as a bench infielder in Bradenton last year, and will move up in the same role with Altoona in 2012. Cutler was taken in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. His presence on the roster will allow the Curve to use Ramon Cabrera in the DH role.
Nathan Baker, Michael Colla, Brandon Cumpton, Aaron Pribanic, Phil Irwin (DL), Aaron Poreda
The Altoona rotation doesn’t feature any top pitching prospects, with the majority of this group looking like potential 4-5 starters or bullpen arms.
Nathan Baker will make the jump to Double-A this year after spending the 2011 season in high-A. The left-hander features a good change-up and a good curveball, but needs to improve on controlling his fastball and keeping the pitch down in the zone.
Michael Colla made the jump to the Altoona rotation last year after being a reliever his entire career. He fared well in the role, although his upside in the future is a middle relief prospect in the majors.
Cumpton got off to a bad start last year with West Virginia, giving up 21 earned runs in his first ten innings. He was removed from the rotation and really embraced pitching inside, to the point where he often had catchers lining up almost behind the batter. The right-hander immediately turned his season around, eventually getting promoted to Bradenton. He might be better long-term as a reliever, with a fastball that can touch 96 MPH in shorter outings. However, he will remain as a starter for now, showing good command over his 90-93 MPH fastball, and continuing to own the inner half of the plate.
Aaron Pribanic is a sinker ball pitcher who threw 153 innings in Altoona last year, with decent results. He’s similar to Jared Hughes in that he throws his sinker harder in shorter outings, and has a better upside as a reliever.
Phil Irwin will start the year on the disabled list with a forearm injury, and will be replaced with Aaron Poreda at the start of the year. Irwin made big strides last year, finishing the season with decent results in Double-A. He added a sinker in high-A, and really leaned on the pitch once he made the jump to Double-A. He pounds the strike zone and gets a lot of ground balls, giving him a shot at being a back of the rotation starter one day.
Poreda used to be a top prospect, once being a key piece in the Jake Peavy trade between San Diego and Chicago. The Pirates added him as a Rule 5 pick after control issues derailed his top prospect status. The left-hander throws hard, touching 95 MPH with his fastball, and pairs that with a plus slider. He’s 25 this year, so he still has the chance to turn his control issues around.
Tim Alderson, Ryan Beckman, Victor Black, Kyle Cofield, Kris Johnson, Matt McSwain, Duke Welker
The Altoona bullpen has a few interesting prospects. Victor Black is getting an aggressive push to Double-A, after just 6.2 innings in high-A last year. The Pirates focused on getting Black used to pitching out of the bullpen last year, throwing every four days, then every three, then every two, and then mixing in a multiple inning outing towards the end of the season. Black has a great fastball, which touched 98 over the off-season, but the command of the pitch is poor. He also has an injury history, with last year being his first year healthy as a pro. He’s got late inning relief stuff if he can stay healthy and improve his fastball command.
Duke Welker is in a similar situation as Black. He’s got a fastball that has touched 98 in the past, and sits consistently in the 95-96 MPH range. He also throws a sharp slider that he uses as a strikeout pitch. Welker made big strides with his control last year, cutting his walk rate in half. He still had a high rate, although his stuff is good enough that he can have success even with a high walk rate. If he cuts that rate down even further, he could be a dominant reliever.
Tim Alderson returned to his old long toss program over the off-season, and carried the program in to camp. He’s been throwing 90-92 MPH consistently, and has his sharp curveball working well. The big question is whether he can keep it up all year. Last year he started off the season throwing in the upper 80s, and put up strong numbers. In the second half he dropped to the mid-80s with his fastball, and the numbers took a hit.
Ryan Beckman served as the closer for Bradenton last year. He’s a sidearm pitcher who throws in the low-90s and has good movement on his fastball. Last year he broke out with an 8.0 K/9 ratio in 52 innings.
Kyle Cofield, Kris Johnson, and Matt McSwain will give the bullpen some minor league veterans who have started in the past and can handle a lot of innings. Eliecer Cardenas could join the team during the season, but will start the year on the disabled list. The Pirates got Cardenas from Atlanta for Matt Diaz.