Minor League Season Preview: 2022 Altoona Curve

Every one of the Pirates’ full season affiliates will have a lot of prospects this year, even Indianapolis.  But nobody will be as loaded as Altoona.  The Curve don’t have a roster up yet, but it looks like they’ll have half of the team’s top ten prospects and 11 of the top 30.

Another interesting facet of the Curve this year is that they should have something close to a set lineup, especially in the infield.  That’s unusual in an organization that’s followed the practice, at all levels, of playing everybody everywhere.

Catcher

Henry Davis won’t open at Altoona, but like the rest of the system, excluding Indianapolis, catching prospects won’t be hard to find.  The two principal ones will be Carter Bins and Blake Sabol.  Bins came from Seattle in the Tyler Anderson trade, in the midst of a breakout season.  The Mariners promoted him after a big showing in High-A and he cooled off significantly in AA, both before and after the trade.  He has good all-around hitting ability and a strong first half would be nice, as a mid-season promotion would give the Pirates an actual catching prospect at AAA.

Sabol also had a breakout season in 2021, at both class A levels.  His season was a bit of a puzzle.  He wasn’t assigned to Bradenton until late May; Sabol was drafted as an outfielder, although he had some collegiate catching experience, and it’s possible he was getting extra work behind the plate.  Even after he was activated and started mashing the ball, though, Sabol sat out a lot of games for some reason.  Whatever that was, he had an OPS of 1.051 at Bradenton and .933 at Greensboro.  He also has the added advantages of playing the outfield and batting left-handed.  He’s still seeing time at both spots, so getting playing for both he and Bins shouldn’t be a problem.

The Curve will no doubt have a third catcher at least some of the time.  It could be either Eli Wilson or Grant Koch.

Infield

This is the big surprise:  Altoona should actually have regulars at the infield positions instead of four utility players!  Well, mostly anyway.  Tucupita Marcano could be the wild card, as he’s not on the Indianapolis roster.  Marcano played in AAA after coming over as the ostensible main piece in the Adam Frazier trade.  He put up just a .604 OPS, so this appears to be a demotion if he is in fact headed to AA.  He’s likely to play all over the field.

Still, most of the time the infield, first to third, should be Will Matthiessen, Nick Gonzales, Liover Peguero and Jared Triolo, with Aaron Shackelford probably seeing some time at first and Matthiessen in the outfield.  The 6’7″ Matthiessen has huge power, but can go long periods without making much contact at all.  He improved a lot at Greensboro over the course of his time there, so he’ll be interesting to watch.  Shackelford hit 22 bombs at Greensboro, but his approach of selling out for pull power wore thin as the season progressed.  He also got a lot of help from the home park.

Gonzales and Peguero could eventually become the Pirates’ double play combination, depending on what develops with Oneil Cruz.  Gonzales had a huge finish at Greensboro, after he got over the effects of a broken finger.  Between the injury; his very large home/road split; and the odd, post-pandemic scheduling that may have skewed his splits, you can spend all day parsing Gonzales’ numbers.  Altoona will be a good test for him.  Peguero had a good season for a 20-year-old skipping Low-A, although he also was helped by the Greensboro ballpark.

Triolo may be the most underrated prospect in the system.  He won the minor league gold glove at third and hit better and better over the course of the 2021 season.  He also hit better on the road than at home, so it’ll be especially interesting to see what happens in Altoona, which is very tough for right-handed power.

It’s not clear yet what other infielders may be with the Curve.  Andres Alvarez and Francisco Acuna are both possibilities.

Outfield

The Altoona outfield will have four good prospects:  Matt Fraizer, Jack Suwinski, Connor Scott and Lolo Sanchez.  Fraizer and Suwinski will both be returning to the level despite strong 2021 seasons.  Fraizer was the big breakout prospect in the system last year, as well as the position player of the year.  After moving up from Greensboro last year, he didn’t tear up AA quite as much as the lower level, but he still had an OPS of .848.  Suwinski spent all last season in AA, although he didn’t show nearly the power after arriving in the Frazier trade that he showed before that.  Still, analysts are high on his hitting metrics.  If both don’t get to AAA by mid-season, it’d be hard to see that as anything other than a setback.

Scott came from Miami in the trade for Jacob Stallings.  He was chosen 1-13 in the 2018 draft, but scuffled through two weak seasons and then, of course, missed the pandemic season.  He had a solid season in High-A last year, so the question is whether he can build on that.  Sanchez is in about the same position.  He has great speed and very good plate discipline, but his swing never seemed to work until last year.  He surprised with 17 home runs and hit better on the road than at Greensboro.  Despite his speed, the Pirates seldom play him in center any more.  Fraizer will probably play there in what should be a very good defensive outfield, apart from Suwinski.

Daniel Amaral will probably return as a backup.

Starters

It’s not clear yet exactly who’ll be in the Altoona rotation, but that rotation should have even more star power than the infield.  It’ll include three of the team’s top dozen prospects from our list:  Quinn Priester, Michael Burrows and Carmen Mlodzinski.  Priester, of course, was chosen 18th overall in 2019.  His 2021 season was a little uneven early, but he finished very strongly.  Burrows had a huge 2021 season at Greensboro . . . well, half a season, as he missed a chunk of time with an oblique injury.  He’s had scouts and analysts raving about his stuff for a year now.  Mlodzinski was nearly unhittable in the first half last year, but struggled in short stints after returning from a sore shoulder.  Hopefully, he’ll be back to where he was before the shoulder problem.

The rest of the Altoona rotation could be especially interesting once we found out who’s in it.  It’s likely there’ll be a lot of piggybacking, especially early in the season.  There could be two returning starters, Omar Cruz and Travis MacGregor, neither of whom is on the Indianapolis roster.  Cruz, a lefty, came in the Joe Musgrove trade and gets by with upper-80s velocity and an incredibly fidgety motion.  He had good ERAs and bad xFIPs at Greensboro and Altoona last year.  MacGregor finished with very bad numbers in a full season with the Curve, but he’d been out for two and a half years due to Tommy John and the pandemic, and he was skipping High-A on top of that.  The bad numbers resulted from two nightmarish months; he pitched well the rest of the time.

Two other possibilities are J.C. Flowers and Tahnaj Thomas, although it’d be easy to see both pitching 2-3 innings at a time.  Flowers was considered raw for a college player when the Pirates drafted him, partly because he was a two-way player, and then his first full season fell victim to the plague.  The Pirates like his stuff a lot and he dominated in the early season in 2021 at Bradenton.  His numbers at Greensboro were just OK, but the main culprit there was the home park.  Thomas was shut down for a while to work on his mechanics last year, but he has a great arm and only limited experience, so in no way should he be written off.  It’s not clear where he’ll be to open the season, but he was with the AA players in the minor league exhibitions.

The list of possibilities here goes on, including Kyle NicolasLuis Ortiz and Ricky DeVito.  Nicolas, who came in the Stallings trade, spent the last half of 2021 in AA and allowed just a .167 average while fanning 11.4 per nine innings.  He also pitched for the AA team in exhibitions and he isn’t on the Indy roster.  Ortiz dominated in the last couple months at Bradenton last year and drew attention from some prospect observers.  He’s not expected to be in the Greensboro rotation, but whether that means he’ll be in Altoona, or there’s some other explanation, I don’t know.  I saw him a lot last year and a jump to AA wouldn’t surprise me.  DeVito came in return for Richard Rodriguez.  He was impressive in five starts in High-A last year, but missed the rest of the season with an ulnar nerve problem.  He’s another guy who’s not expected to be in the Greensboro rotation, but might or might not be in Altoona.

Two final possibilities, maybe a little ways into the season, are Luis Oviedo and Aaron Shortridge.  Oviedo was hampered this spring by an ankle sprain and Shortridge is coming off Tommy John.

Relievers

We all know relievers are very volatile.  Bullpen assignments are, too.  Guys skip levels, they repeat levels, sometimes they come out of nowhere.  So without a roster, I don’t have much idea who’ll be in the Altoona bullpen.  There are some reasonably good guesses, though, apart from pitchers above who aren’t starting, especially because we have the Indy roster.

Several relievers appear likely to return to AA.  Noe Toribio scuffled as a starter for the Curve last year, but missed some time and then pitched much better in short relief.  Shea Murray has always been hard to hit, but still walks a batter an inning.  Lefty Zach Matson pitched for Colorado in AA last year and may have more upside than the usual minor league Rule 5 pick.  He fanned 15.5 per nine, but still needs to sort through some control issues.

Greensboro last year had a more interesting bullpen than you’d think if you just looked at ERAs.  The pattern was huge home/road splits despite high K rates, due to gopher ball problems at the home park.  Austin Roberts and Bear Bellomy both followed this pattern and are worth watching this year.  Colin Selby had a different set of problems, only one of which was homers at home.  He was coming off Tommy John and had a terrible first couple months, but he pitched very well after that.  Will Kobos dominated everybody everwhere, with a K/9 of 14.7 and opponents’ average of .130.  He missed the last month, though, and I don’t know his current status.

A couple other pitchers who possibly could move up this high are Cam Junker and Tyler Samaniego.  Junker fanned 14.3 per nine last year, mostly at Bradenton, but missed the last two months with an unknown injury.  Samaniego, a college lefty drafted in round 15 last year, dominated in brief action at Bradenton.

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