This begins a four-part series previewing the Pirates' full-season minor league affiliates. Altoona goes first because their roster is the first that's been reported, a result of their exhibition against the Pirates today.
The Curve will feature easily the least interesting roster, prospect-wise, of the four teams. This is primarily linked to the failure of the team's 2009 draft, in particular the universal flameout of the numerous prep pitchers the Pirates took in that draft. The roster will be heavily comprised of struggling prospects, many returning from the 2012 Curve, and organizational players. The marquee player, obviously, is Taillon, although Stolmy Pimentel gives Altoona at least one other player who might have a decent ceiling.
(Bold indicates the players I think will be regulars. An * indicates a left-handed hitter or pitcher. A # is a switch-hitter.)
Catcher: Carlos Paulino, Charlie Cutler*
Paulino had a strong 2011 season at Bradenton, got sent back there and struggled in 2012, and now gets promoted. His calling card is defense; Baseball Prospectus in a recent article included him among the four catchers they considered for best arm in the minors and one of three considered for best defense. He spent a lot of time with the major league team this spring even though he'd never played above class A. The backup will be Cutler, an organizational player.
Infield: Alex Dickerson* (1B/DH/OF), Matt Curry* (1B/DH/OF), Jarek Cunningham (2B), Gift Ngoepe# (SS), Adalberto Santos (2B, 3B, OF), Stefan Welch* (1B/3B), Drew Maggi (UT)
Dickerson and Curry will be expected to carry the power load for the Curve. They've both hit reasonably well so far, but neither has shown the kind of bat teams want from a player limited to first. Dickerson is moving up from Bradenton while Curry is returning to Altoona for the third time due to the numbers game at Indianapolis. AA teams don't always use the DH, so both players have seen a little time in left during training camp. Dickerson played there in college, although he really doesn't belong there. I hope I never see Curry play the outfield.
Cunningham and Ngoepe will man the middle infield and try to work on their strike zone issues. Cunningham has good raw power, but it largely disappeared during a weak 2012 season at Altoona. Ngoepe is an excellent defensive player who struggles mightily with offspeed stuff. Like Paulino, he probably needs to hit just a little to reach the majors as a bench player. Maggi will back them up. He seems to have settled into an organizational role very quickly for a draftee who received an above-slot bonus.
Third base will probably be manned by a committee. Santos replaces Brock Holt in this season's installment of The Prisoner. (He even wore Number Six in camp.) He'll be returned to The Village despite hitting .340 there last year. I can't tell whether that's due to the AAA logjam or because the Pirates don't regard him that highly. He played in the outfield corners last year, but spent a lot of time at second in camp. Cunningham blocks him there, so he's expected to see time at third and could also play in the outfield. Welch is an organizational player who can man either infield corner, but there isn't likely to be much time available at first.
Outfield: Mel Rojas, Jr.#, Andrew Lambo*, Justin Howard*, Andy Vasquez*
Two struggling prospects will head the outfield, with Rojas in center. He's never been able to capitalize on what appear to be very good tools, mainly due to poor pitch selection. He didn't have a good 2012 season in Bradenton, but the Pirates will throw him into the deep end anyway. He looked good in camp this year, but then, he did last year, too. Lambo will head to AA for the fifth time after missing most of 2012 with a hamate injury. Minor league free agency beckons in the fall. Howard is a solid hitter who really belongs at first, but lacks power. He could share time in the outfield with Santos. Vasquez is an organizational player who's played just about every position, but he seems to be primarily an outfielder now.
Rotation: Jameson Taillon, Stolmy Pimentel, Brandon Cumpton, Casey Sadler, Tyler Waldron
Taillon needs no introduction. The biggest question with him will be how soon he can pitch his way to Indianapolis. Once highly regarded, Pimentel seemed a curious addition in the Joel Hanrahan trade, as he had just one option left and has yet to pitch well in AA. It's possible, though, that he could qualify for a fourth option, assuming somebody can locate the Necronomicon and interpret the option rules. More importantly, he pitched very well in minor league camp. He's a guy who seemed to struggle after a growth spurt and it could be he's finally getting his delivery under control, or so we hope. Cumpton had a solid year as a starter for the Curve in 2012, although he was never dominant. He has a history of throwing much harder out of the bullpen, so he could return there at some point. Sadler was moved from the bullpen last year in Bradenton and pitched very well as a starter until he seemed to wear down late in the year. Waldron has struggled increasingly as he's moved up and had a poor year at Bradenton in 2012. The Pirates gave him a late-season promotion anyway, and he'll apparently return to the Curve as part of their rotation.
Bullpen: Tim Alderson, Nate Baker*, Jason Townsend, Jeff Inman, Luis Sanz, Ethan Hollingsworth, Kenn Kasparek
The Altoona bullpen will be made up of returnees and pickups from outside the system. Alderson will have his fifth go at AA. He was throwing 90-92 in camp and still has a good curve, but it's never come together for him. Baker has been far surpassed by his college teammate, Phil Irwin, who was drafted 16 rounds later. Control problems forced him to the bullpen, but he does reach the low 90s and he has a good change. Townsend a couple years ago was hitting the mid- to upper-90s, but he throws in the low-90s now. He's always been effective but hasn't dominated. Inman throws hard but hasn't developed an out pitch. Sanz and Kasparek were signed as minor league free agents, while the Pirates added Hollingsworth in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. All three figure to be organizational pitchers and all three could see time in the rotation.
Possible Reinforcements: If they get off to good starts at Bradenton, OF Gregory Polanco and SS Alen Hanson will have fans clamoring to see them promoted. Polanco is the more advanced of the two and probably the more likely candidate for a move up at some point. RHP Nick Kingham could be a candidate for a late-season promotion. RHP Aaron Pribanic, out due to shoulder surgery, is expected back late in the season, while OF Evan Chambers is expected back around mid-season from a broken foot. RHP Zach Thornton, acquired from Oakland for Chris Resop, could join the bullpen at some point. C Devin Ivany, signed as a minor league free agent, could appear if the team needs another backstop.
Top Prospects: Taillon.
Breakout Candidate: Pimentel.
UPDATE: The Pirates' loss of Clint Robinson on waivers to Toronto means there's a good chance Curry will move up to AAA after all.