Altoona season review

USA TODAY Sports

The 2013 season was a tough one for Altoona.  It wasn't a huge surprise, as the Curve didn't figure to get much help from a weak 2012 Bradenton Marauders team.  The Pirates have something of a hole in their system, resulting from the failure of the high school pitchers who made up a significant part of their 2009 draft.  Altoona also isn't helped by the tendency of the current Pirates' front office to give opportunities in AA to prospects who may not have had a great deal of success, rather than load up the roster with minor league veterans, as the previous regime did.  It's an approach that worked out for players like Alex Presley and Jared Hughes, at the expense of having some players on the Altoona roster who probably aren't up to the challenge of AA.

The Curve struggled pretty much from the start of the season, especially in May.  They started the month with a six-game losing streak and finished it by losing 11 of 13.  Altoona struggled severely to score runs early in the season and had bullpen problems throughout.  They finished last in the 12-team Eastern League in runs and fifth in ERA.  This led to a 63-79 record, just one game better than the league's worst team.  There were some bright spots, though, as several of the Pirates' marquee prospects spent parts of their seasons with the Curve and a couple of players revived flagging prospect status with big performances.

The Hitters

The most prominent hitters to appear with Altoona didn't show up until the season's second half.  The Bucs' top hitting prospect, outfielder Gregory Polanco, got a mid-season promotion and performed respectably in AA, hitting 263/354/407.  His walk rate roughly doubled, suggesting he probably was feeling his way a bit against the more advanced pitching.  Shortstop Alen Hanson came up in late July and hit 255/299/380.  Maybe more importantly, he didn't suffer the error outbreak he did when he moved up to high A, although he did commit seven in 35 games.

Altoona opened the year with an over-abundance of 1B/OF/DH types, four to be exact, all of them left-handed hitters.  Matt Curry opened his third AA season with the Curve, but suffered a hamate injury and missed most of the year.  Alex Dickerson, by contrast, overcame a slow start to finish at 288/337/494, with 17 HRs.  Dickerson played right field, which probably had a negative impact on the pitching staff.  Justin Howard, who appears to be more of an organizational player, saw limited time early, but for parts of the season was the team's best hitter, finishing at .314 and starting to show some power.  The big sensation, though, was Andrew Lambo.  Making his sixth appearance in AA, Lambo launched 14 longballs in a little over a third of a season before continuing his breakout in AAA.

Much of the Altoona lineup was made up of struggling prospects, some of whom were repeating the level.  Second baseman Jarek Cunningham relocated his missing power in his second AA season, leading the team with 19 HRs, but his contact and on-base issues continued.  Catcher Carlos Paulino moved up from Bradenton and continued playing outstanding defense, but didn't hit at all, posting a .562 OPS.  Another defensive specialist, shortstop Gift Ngoepe, struggled so badly at the plate (.560 OPS, 32% K rate) that he finished the season at Bradenton.

Several other hitters performed well.  Outfielder Mel Rojas, Jr., didn't light up the Eastern League, but he had by far his best pro season, hitting 274/332/410 and leaving the Pirates with a decision to make prior to the Rule 5 draft.  His season is a good example of the benefits of current management's approach; the previous front office would have returned Rojas to Bradenton after a poor 2012 season.  Adalberto Santos repeated the level, probably due to a numbers crunch, and hit .281 despite a severe slump following his return from an injury.  He also stole 21 bases, but struggled defensively at third, which he hadn't played previously.  C/DH Charlie Cutler, the only position player brought in as a minor league veteran, spent his second season at Altoona and hit his way into semi-regular playing time by batting 298/397/420.

The Pitchers

The highlight of the Curve rotation was the presence, at different points in the season, of three of the Pirates' top pitching prospects.  Jameson Taillon, now the team's top pitching prospect with Gerrit Cole's ascension to the majors, pitched for the Curve until the last month.  He had an uneven season, going 4-7, 3.67.  With a WHIP of 1.34, he allowed a surprising number of baserunners for a pitcher with his stuff, but as we've seen with Cole, development and performance at the minor league level aren't the same thing.  Scouting reports on Taillon were generally glowing.  Trade acquisition Stolmy Pimentel made dramatic strides after his struggles in AA with Boston.  He had control issues at times, but pitched well most of the time.  He showed impressive stuff, including a mid-90s fastball, and continued to improve after a mid-season promotion.  Finally, Nick Kingham earned a mid-season promotion from Bradenton and posted a 2.70 ERA while striking out nearly a batter an inning.

The Altoona rotation otherwise was a patchwork of struggling prospects and veterans, and one potential prospect.  David Bromberg and Ethan Hollingsworth pitched mostly well as swing men.  Lefty Eliecer Navarro struggled to a 4.52 ERA after a mid-season promotion.  Probably the Curve's steadiest starter all year was side-arming Casey Sadler, who was converted from the bullpen in 2012.  He doesn't dominate, but he finished 11-7, 3.31.

The Altoona bullpen was another mixture of mostly journeymen and struggling prospects, and generally had problems.  The Curve used veteran Luis Sanz as a closer.  He struggled in the role, although his 4.94 ERA was inflated by several very bad spot starts. 6'10" veteran Kenn Kasparek did much better.  Prospects Nate Baker and Jason Townsend posted ERAs over 6.00, and lefty Jhonathan Ramos came in at 4.72.  Another struggling prospect, Quinton Miller, managed a 3.75 ERA but walked nearly six batters per nine innings.  Two prospects, Ryan Beckman and Jeff Inman, pitched only 25 AA games between them due to injuries.  The team's best reliever, for just 19 games, was Chris Resop trade acquisition Zach Thornton, who dominated at three different levels.  During his AA time, Thornton had a WHIP of 0.86 with a walk rate of 1.8 per nine innings and a strikeout rate of 11.2.  He finished the season in AAA and will present the Pirates with another interesting Rule 5 decision.

Biggest Surprises: Lambo, Pimentel

Biggest Disappointment: Ngoepe

Top Five Prospects (Min. 50 IP, 25 games pitched or 150 PA)

  1. Jameson Taillon, RHP
  2. Gregory Polanco, OF
  3. Alen Hanson, SS
  4. Nick Kingham, RHP
  5. Stolmy Pimentel, RHP

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