Looking Ahead at the Pirates’ 2022 System: Altoona Curve

This is the big one.  There are good prospects throughout the Pirates’ system, but probably no place will have the concentration of top ones that Altoona will have.  If you go by Baseball America’s rankings, and if the Pirates assign players where I’m hoping they will, the Curve should have four of the team’s top six, and six of the top ten.  The Bucs will have a ton at stake with the infield and rotation, in particular.

HITTERS

We should mostly see the strong 2021 Greensboro lineup move on up.  It’s going to be a challenge for these guys, shifting from a homer-happy environment to the pitcher’s park in Altoona.  A lot of the Grasshoppers’ hitters, but not all, had significant home/road splits.  I don’t think we can ignore that, especially because it had a readily identifiable source:  the Hoppers’ ballpark is very short in left- and right-center.  But single-season minor league splits can be tricky.

Catchers

The big question, of course, is whether the Pirates will move Henry Davis straight to Altoona.  I don’t see much of an argument against it.  If he’s the hitter he appears to be, he should handle it fine.  The question, if there is one, seems to be his receiving, but is that a reason to hold him back?  You hold a guy back when his bat isn’t ready so he can face less difficult pitching.  Receiving, though, isn’t a directly competitive skill.  If anything, it might be better to have Davis catch more advanced pitchers.  Or that’s my theory, anyway.

Even without Davis, the Curve should be deep in catching.  Carter Bins, who came in the Tyler Anderson trade, struggled in AA both before and after the trade.  He also got only 87 ABs at the level, so he should return there.  Blake Sabol made the transition from outfield to catching (he also caught some in college).  Or at least he mostly transitioned, as he still played left a little.  He played the equivalent of less than half a season; I’m not sure why.  Anyway, when he played he torched the ball at both class A levels and played reasonably well defensively.  He also hit better on the road while he was with the Hoppers.  Sabol still seems to be flying under the radar for some reason, but it’s hard to see why a guy who had a .933 OPS in High-A should go back there.  The position could be crowded at Altoona, but Sabol can play the outfield and, hopefully, somebody will earn a quick promotion to AAA, which will be prospect-free otherwise.

Blake Sabol

Infielders

The Greensboro infield should be moving up as a group, which is nice to see.  From third to first, it should be Jared Triolo, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales and some permutation of Will Matthiessen and Aaron Shackelford.  Well, maybe not at first, because Peguero’s first official act as a member of the 40-man roster was to be locked out.

The prospective first basemen are both contact-challenged power hitters.  Matthiessen had a truly strange 2021 season.  I’ll just crib from my writeup on his player page:

He started off as the first baseman at Bradenton. In his first 17 ABs, he struck out 12 times. In his last game for the Marauders, though, he hit two doubles and a home run, and drove in six; that one game accounts for his good batting line at the level. He was promoted to Greensboro when Nick Gonzales got hurt. He started there 1-for-21 with 13 strikeouts. He put up a .541 OPS in June, but in July he started hitting. He had a .941 OPS in August and .809 in September. In 23 August games, Matthiessen hit eight home runs and drove in 32. So his whole season was a succession of spells where he either struck out constantly or hit for a lot of power. To add to the quirkiness, in a wild, 12-inning game in August, he entered as a pitcher in the 12th. He got bombed for six runs, but Greensboro scored seven in the bottom half to win, 15-14, with the final blow being a walk-off grand slam by Matthiessen. So he also got the win.

Shackelford hit 22 bombs, but his season followed a more recognizable path.  He had two strong months, then the pitchers started catching on to his pull-heavy approach and he struggled for two months.  Matthiessen also plays the outfield, and Shackelford can play second or third.

The keystone combo is the biggest feature of the lineup after Davis.  Gonzales, of course, had a strong season despite a broken finger that didn’t fully heal until about a month after he returned.  He had an extreme home-road split, but it may have been partially skewed by circumstance.  He played a disproportionate share of his games on the road during the period when he wasn’t fully healthy, and a disproportionate share of his home games before he got hurt and after the injury ceased bothering him.  Peguero had a solid rather than outstanding season, but he was skipping a level and was the league’s second-youngest position player with 117+ ABs.  He should be interesting to watch in spring training, if it ever happens.  He didn’t look at all out of place there a year ago, as a guy who’d never played full season ball.

Liover Peguero

Triolo put himself on the map with a strong 2021 season in which he improved steadily all year.  He hit for average and power, with solid plate discipline.  And he won a minor league Gold Glove.  He probably can play anywhere; he’s played some short as a pro, so maybe he could fill in there if Peguero isn’t available for a while.  Altoona could be a particularly tough ballpark for him, so that’s something to watch.  He actually hit a lot better on the road with Greensboro, so that’s helpful.

Two missing persons could resurface with the Curve.  Apart from a dozen games in 2019, Stephen Alemais has lost three seasons to shoulder injuries and the plague.  He can be a spectacular defender at short, but the bat hasn’t come around yet.  Robbie Glendinning lost two years, the second one to Tommy John surgery.  He’s more of a utility guy, but he was picking it up at the plate before the missed time.  The Pirates protected Glendinning, but not Alemais, from the minor league Rule 5 draft, which may or may not tell us something.

Robbie Glendinning

Outfielders

The Curve had four outfield prospects last year in Matt Fraizer, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Jack Suwinski and Cal Mitchell.  If they all go to Indianapolis, it’s going to be very crowded, but they all played well enough in 2021 to merit promotion.  It’s hard to guess which, if any, will stay in Altoona, so I won’t try.  The outfielders who probably will be with the Curve are all players with ability who haven’t quite put things together yet.

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One who got a start toward doing that in 2021 was Lolo Sanchez.  He’s always been highly regarded for his speed and defensive ability, but the bat lagged behind.  Last year, though, he hit 17 home runs, which was more than he’d hit in his career previously, and had very good walk and K rates.  The power spike didn’t result from the home park, as he hit slightly better on the road.  Hopefully, he won’t be lost in the Rule 5 draft.

Matt Gorski also improved last year, hitting 17 home runs as well, but his contact issues remained as he struck out in well over a third of his ABs.  Defensively, Gorski is good enough that he was the primary center fielder, rather than Sanchez, after Fraizer was promoted.

Matt Gorski

The new guy will be Chad Scott, a former 13th overall draft pick whom the Pirates acquired from Miami for Jacob Stallings.  He struggled for two years before putting up a solid season in High-A last year.

One likely returnee is Brendt Citta, who should serve as a 1B/OF/DH.  He made a big jump in 2021, from short season ball to AA, and handled it well, batting .294.  Unfortunately, he missed over half the season with leg injuries.  He didn’t show a great deal of power and it’s hard to see any space for him in Indianapolis, at least for a while.

PITCHERS

The pitchers for the Curve present the same challenge as the hitters.  They mostly played at Greensboro in 2021, so their home numbers were skewed by the home run park.  Or at least most were.  Again, putting too much emphasis on single season, minor-league splits is hazardous, but there sure were some extreme ones.

Starters

The premiere prospects here should be Quinn Priester, Michael Burrows, and Carmen Mlodzinski.  Priester’s 2021 season seemed mildly disappointing because expectations got out of hand when he was throwing in the upper-90s in one- and two-inning stints at the 2020 alternative site.  The fact is, he had a good year despite some inflation from the ballpark (opponents had a .544 OPS against him on the road).  Burrows wasn’t entirely on the map before 2021, but he drew a lot of attention for a guy who threw only 49 innings due to an oblique.  Some of that was from being a spin monster and some because the new administration seemed to be very beneficial for him, including a 12.1 K/9 and very impressive numbers in the difficult home park.  Mlodzinski dominated for the first couple months in 2021, then ran into shoulder problems and wasn’t as effective when he pitched.  Hopefully he’ll be healthy and get back to where he was.

The Curve could have several other pitchers with high-risk, high-reward profiles.  I’m guessing that Tahnaj Thomas will move up from Greensboro if he’s not lost in the Rule 5 draft.  His 2021 season at Greensboro was interrupted by a stint at Pirate City to work on his mechanics and he returned with better control, but still had a disappointing season.  The Pirates are still high on him; it shouldn’t be forgotten that he was making a big jump from Bristol and was a late convert to pitching.  J.C. Flowers was considered relatively raw as a fourth round pick out of Florida State in 2019.  He dominated at Bradenton in 2021 and the Pirates moved him up after 17 innings.  He had more trouble at Greensboro, a lot of it in one bad, five-game stretch, and he also had trouble at home, but his season overall was encouraging.  Kyle Nicolas, who came in the Stallings trade, could be the most interesting pitcher at Altoona.  He was the 61st overall pick in the 2020 draft and can reach triple digits, but needs work on his other pitches.  He threw 39.1 IP in AA last year, so it’s conceivable the Pirates could send him to Indianapolis, especially if they decide to try him in relief.  I think he’s more likely, though, to remain a starter and return to AA at first.

J.C. Flowers

Another wild card for the Curve could be Aaron Shortridge.  A fourth round pick in 2018, he had a strong season in High-A despite a very low K rate, as he’s more of a control pitcher than a guy who dominates.  He apparently impressed the Pirates quite a bit at the alternate site in 2020, but had Tommy John surgery in January 2021.  He’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft, but it’s hard to see him getting selected.

Relievers

A lot of the bullpen innings for the Curve are likely to come from college draftees who were at Greensboro in 2021.  Many of them had some problematic numbers, but the home park took a big toll with some of them.  They’ll be in a pitchers park this time and they’re worth watching.

The most interesting of the college guys may be Austin Roberts, a 2019 eighth round pick.  He fanned 13.6 per nine innings at Greensboro, then fanned all four batters he faced in a late-season cameo at Indianapolis.  His ERA wasn’t good, but he had severe gopher ball problems in the Hoppers’ park.  The same draft also produced Grant Ford (5th round) and Bear Bellomy (28th).  Ford served as a swing man and struggled more than Roberts, mainly with walks and homers.  Bellomy’s season was more like Roberts’, only more extreme.  He dominated on the road but got torched at home.  Overall he fanned 11.4 per nine.

Austin Roberts

A couple of 2018 draftees could also be with the Curve.  Will Kobos was practically unhittable for Greensboro last year, including a 14.7 K/9, but he missed the last month with an unknown injury.  Colin Selby was coming off Tommy John and essentially had two separate seasons.  He had an 8.53 ERA the first two months and 2.43 after that, so the return from TJ must have had an impact.

Finally, the Curve should have Enmanuel Mejia and Oliver Garcia.  Mejia allowed no earned runs as the Bradenton closer for about two-thirds of the 2021 season, then had a 1.10 ERA at Greensboro the rest of the way.  That’s probably a bit misleading, as he gave up a lot of unearned runs.  He also walked well over five per nine innings at both levels, but he did seem to have a knack for getting hitters out one way or another.  Garcia got a velocity boost when he moved to relief.  At Greensboro, he had a severe home/road split.

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