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Pirates minor league preview: Altoona

Nick Kingham and Alen Hanson highlight a roster with some high-risk, high-upside prospects.

Altoona will feature some potentially explosive position players as well as a couple of the Pirates' top pitching prospects in 2014.  Stetson Allie and Willy Garcia both bring plus power -- probably plus-plus in Allie's case -- along with significant contact issues to a team that already has Jarek Cunningham returning.  The top position prospect, Alen Hanson, is a high-risk, high-reward player in his own right.  The pitching staff will feature righty Nick Kingham and lefty Joely Rodriguez, but otherwise lacks interest.  The lack of pitching prospects is a continuing after-effect of the struggles of the team's prep-pitching-heavy 2009 draft.

Catcher: Initially, the starter will be Elias Diaz and the backup will be veteran signee Ralph Henriquez.  Once Tony Sanchez joins Indianapolis, though, somebody will probably move down, most likely Carlos Paulino.  Diaz and especially Paulino are strong defenders.  Paulino has hit very little the last two years, but Diaz had a solid offensive season at Bradenton in 2013.

Infield: Allie was hampered by an oblique issue in camp and will open the season in extended spring training.  Judging from the bombs he was hitting at the end of the exhibition season, he won't be there long.  He isn't exactly an impatient hitter, as he's willing to take walks, but he needs to close up some sizable holes in his swing.  When he arrives, he should take over at first from Justin Howard, who has a good bat but lacks the power for a corner position.  Howard has seen a lot of time in the outfield and could do so again this year, as well as serving as a DH.  Cunningham seems to have won the third base job from Dan Gamache, who isn't currently on the roster.  He'll move over from second, where he's spent the last two years with the Curve.  Like several others on the team, he brings good power and significant strike zone issues.  Matt Curry could also appear at some point after missing most of last season due to hamate surgery.  I don't know what his current status is.

The middle infield will be Hanson at short and Gift Ngoepe at second.  Hanson will try both to show he can stick at short and to pick up his hitting from a weak showing after a late promotion to AA last year.  Ngoepe will move from short, where he has the defensive ability to reach the majors.  He needs to make progress on his serious problems with off-speed and breaking stuff.  Kelson Brown, Drew Maggi and Andy Vasquez will all return as utility players.

Outfield: At the start of the season, the Altoona outfield looks to include Garcia, Mel Rojas, Jr., and new acquisition Keon Broxton.  This is a tools-heavy outfield that could prove to be boom or bust.  Garcia has good power and a powerful arm, but he's had horrific BB/K ratios.  Rojas is another toolsy outfielder with a good arm.  He had his best pro season last year, but he'll return to the level just the same.  Broxton is an outstanding athlete and good defender -- he'll probably play center -- but he's hit very little as a pro.  The backup will be organizational speedster Junior Sosa.

Rotation: Of the two prominent starters, Kingham will be vying for an early promotion to AAA, while Rodriguez will be debuting at the level after spending just half a season in high A.  He flew a bit under the radar, at least until the Pirates added him to their 40-man roster.  Still, he has good command and above-average velocity for a lefty, and he generates a lot of groundballs.  The most interesting of the remaining starters are lefty Zack Dodson and righty Adrian Sampson.  Dodson will get a chance at AA despite struggling the last two years in class A.  Sampson is a 2012 draftee who struggled after an aggressive promotion to high A last year, but he'll get another aggressive promotion this year.

Possibilities for the final rotation slot include:  former Nationals' prospect A.J. Morris, a minor league Rule 5 pickup; former Royals' prospect Tyler Sample, a hard thrower who's had control issues; organizational swing man Jhonathan Ramos, a lefty; and Matt Benedict, to whom the Pirates keep giving opportunities despite weak results.  At some point, Aaron Pribanic, who missed most of 2012 and all of 2013 following shoulder surgery, could appear.

Bullpen: The most interesting pitchers slated for the Altoona bullpen are Emmanuel De Leon, Joan Montero and Ryan Beckman.  De Leon and Montero both throw hard but have struggled with command issues.  Beckman is a sidearm righty who had a strong 2011 season, but missed all of 2012 and part of 2013 following Tommy John surgery.  Another sidearm thrower, 6'10" Kenn Kasparek, rounds out the bullpen to open the season.  Former prospects Quinton Miller, Jason Townsend and Nate Baker are still with the organization at this writing and could appear at some point, but they're not on any roster now.  Jeff Inman is also still around, but he'll be recovering from Tommy John until some point during the season.


Prospect-wise, Altoona may be the weakest team in the system, and it may also be the weakest from a performance standpoint.  The lineup is likely to be feast or famine, with the most raw power and the most contact issues among the full-season affiliates.  Good seasons from  Hanson and Rojas would help a lot.  Kingham, for as long as he's on hand, and Rodriguez should be mainstays in the rotation, but all of the other starters may struggle.  The bullpen also could be a problem, as it was in 2013, unless De Leon and Montero harness their stuff and Beckman returns to his pre-TJ form.

Probable Regulars

C: Elias Diaz (later possibly Carlos Paulino)
1B: Justin Howard (later Stetson Allie)
2B: Gift Ngoepe
SS: Alen Hanson
3B: Jarek Cunningham
OF: Mel Rojas, Jr., Willy Garcia, Keon Broxton
1B/OF/DH (later): Howard

Starters: Nick Kingham, Joely Rodriguez, Adrian Sampson, Zack Dodson, Ramos/Morris/Sample

Key Relievers: Emmanuel De Leon, Joan Montero, Ryan Beckman

Top Prospects: Hanson, Kingham

Darkhorse: Sampson