I’ve always thought of AA as a crossroads on the route to the majors. It’s the first level of the minors at which the game closely resembles the major league game. Most of the shortstops can make plays in the hole. Most of the hitters can punish any type of mistake. Most of the pitchers have some sort of useful secondary pitch. High draft picks seem to make it to high A just on reputation alone, but I don’t think most organizations promote players to AA unless they’ve shown they really can play at a high level. The result is, at least in my opinion, that AA is where you first get a pretty good idea of what sort of major-leaguer a player may be, if he makes it that far.
Altoona had a lot of players like that. In contrast to prior years, the team had only a small number of minor league veterans. The Curve had the league’s youngest hitters and the fourth youngest pitchers. Most of the players had at least a little prospect potential, even if most weren’t premium prospects.
Of course, the two marquee names were Gerrit Cole, who arrived at mid-season, and Jameson Taillon, who made three AA starts at the end of the year. Cole performed like his background suggested. He showed top-of-the-line stuff and improving command that isn’t quite where it needs to be. He fanned over a batter an inning, but didn’t always dominate and sometimes ran up high pitch counts, leading to early exits. His control (3.5 BB/9) wasn’t a big problem, but it did cause him trouble at times. Taillon, after a disappointing season in high A, dominated in his brief stint (0.71 WHIP, 9.5 K/9), showing that he still has a good chance of becoming the front-of-the-rotation starter the Pirates envision.
Several other pitchers showed that they’ll likely reach the majors, at the least. In fact, Kyle McPherson already did. His stay in Altoona was basically a rehab after he missed the first half of the season with a sore shoulder. Phil Irwin, who also missed a little time due to injury, built on a good half-season at AA in 2011, posting a 2.93 ERA and 1.09 WHIP. Despite being a finesse guy, he commands his pitches well enough that he had a solid K rate (7.2), and he’s willing to work inside (he walked only 17 batters but hit 15). He then went up to AAA and fanned 28 in 21 innings. He should be added to the 40-man roster this fall. The team had two high-velocity relievers in Vic Black and Duke Welker. The latter moved up to AAA at mid-season after showing upper-90s velocity. Black stayed healthy all year for the first time and used mid-, sometimes upper-90s velocity and a nasty slider to produce a 12.8 K rate over the full season, 14.9 in the second half. He still has control issues, but his stuff may be the best in the system after Cole and Taillon.
Other pitchers didn’t fare as well. Tim Alderson, forever trying to regain his top prospect status and his velocity, pitched well early out of the bullpen, but finished with mediocre numbers (1.36 WHIP, 6.6 K/9) in a season interrupted by elbow problems. Lefty Nate Baker lost his rotation spot when he couldn’t throw strikes, although he pitched better out of the bullpen. Like his former college teammate Irwin, he’s eligible for the Rule 5 draft but he’s much less likely to be added to the roster. Jeff Inman, like Black, stayed healthy all year for the first time, but had only a 6.2 K/9 pitching in short relief.
The hitting prospects at Altoona produced a mixed bag, and probably the best one, Robbie Grossman, went to Houston for Wandy Rodriguez. Two players hit for very high averages. Adalberto Santos hit .340 with nearly as many walks as strikeouts, but missed half the season after hurting his knee in a home plate collision. He’s a corner outfielder with modest power, but could profile as a bench bat. Brock Holt hit .322 with very good plate discipline, then went up to AAA and hit .432 over 24 games. He finished the season in Pittsburgh and hit well at first, before disappearing into the void in Clint Hurdle’s head known as the Ciriaco Zone.
Altoona was in the unusual position of having two catching prospects. Tony Sanchez had a peculiar season. He hit for a decent average with good plate discipline at Altoona (277/370/390), but didn’t hit a single HR, although he had a lot of doubles. After 40 games he went to AAA and hit eight HRs, but had a low average (233/316/408). Ramon Cabrera didn’t get regular time behind the plate until Sanchez’ promotion and he struggled at the plate for most of the season. He finished hot, though, leaving his overall numbers at 276/342/367, with nearly as many walks as strikeouts. Both Sanchez and Cabrera improved defensively.
Some of the other hitters trying to restore or retain prospect status were Matt Curry, Andrew Lambo, Oscar Tejeda and Quincy Latimore. Curry had a solid season, hitting 285/352/480, but he didn’t dominate, he’s limited to first and he hit only 11 HRs. He still needs to step it up to avoid the Matt Hague career path. Lambo missed nearly the entire season due to a hamate injury, although he hit well when he returned. Tejeda was a puzzling waiver claim—although he’s off the 40-man roster now—who was originally a shortstop prospect but now plays left field. Unfortunately, he still hits like a shortstop ... a backup shortstop, that is. Latimore got off to a terrible start, but hit 266/338/468 after April and improved his plate discipline to the point where it’s only weak and not awful. Surprisingly, Latimore’s still only 23.
A couple of hitters just bombed out. Jarek Cunningham improved significantly in two areas—defense and his walk rate—but he had only a .637 OPS and the power he’s shown in the past never appeared. Elevys Gonzalez hit .322 last year in high A, but he couldn’t top the Mendoza line in AA and got demoted to Bradenton, where he didn’t hit well, either.