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Pirates' minor league rotations: Altoona

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The Curve will feature Tyler Glasnow and a bunch of hopefuls.

This is Part Two of a rundown of the possible rotations for the Pirates’ full season affiliates. Today it’s Altoona.

The Curve’s rotation may depend partly on what happens at Indianapolis. If the Indians are overloaded with starters, some pitchers could get pushed down. The Pirates also might want to start a pitcher who’s struggling for one reason or another in AA. Chris Volstad, for instance, has significant major league experience, but he’s coming off several bad seasons, including a miserable 2014 in which he got pummeled both in Korea and in AAA. A.J. Morris struggled with a forearm strain late in the 2014 season, which hampered him during his brief time in AAA after a strong first half in AA. Jeremy Bleich has been trying to recover his control since labrum surgery in 2010. He pitched well in AA in 2014, but got torched in AAA. Any of these pitchers could join the Curve rotation, or could move to the bullpen in AAA or AA.

One recurring theme you’ll notice, after the first guy, is extreme groundball pitchers who don’t miss bats. Altoona will be a big test of whether these pitchers are just minor league innings eaters or possible competitors for a Jared Hughes or Brandon Cumpton type of role.

Probable Starters

Tyler Glasnow obviously will be the marquee prospect at Altoona, in fact arguably the marquee prospect in the entire system.

After tying for the Florida State League lead in wins in 2014, Chad Kuhl (pictured) should move up from Bradenton. Kuhl is a groundball pitcher who doesn’t miss bats, a type that the Pirates probably have been encouraged to cultivate by their success with groundball pitchers at the major league level. He’s moving up quickly despite coming from the not-so-well-known University of Delaware; the Pirates jumped him over low A.

John Kuchno is an even more extreme version of Kuhl. He also put up solid numbers at Bradenton despite an extraordinarily low K rate; in fact, he fanned barely more per nine innings (3.9) than he walked (3.6). But he allows very few extra base hits (.323 opponents’ slugging average despite McKechnie Field being the best hitters’ park in the FSL) and induces huge numbers of double play grounders.  (Kuchno induced 31; even in the majors only one pitcher induced more and only two induced more than 24.)  Kuchno is not a soft tosser; he’s reached the mid-90s and has a good curve, so the Pirates may think there’s more to be had from him.

The Pirates gave Angel Sanchez a non-roster invite to spring training, but he didn’t pitch well in AA last year and should return there this year. In fact, he pitched at the level for four different organizations in 2014 and struggled for the other three before pitching somewhat decently for Altoona in five starts.

Others

There are a number of other possibilities for the Altoona rotation apart from pitchers who might get pushed down from AAA, including several lefties who might or might not be prospects. All of these pitchers could end up in the bullpen if there’s no starting spot.

Jason Creasy may be closer to a lock for the rotation than some of the other pitchers listed in this section. He had a solid 2014 season overall for Bradenton, but he struggled the last two months and got hit hard relative to the league. He got by instead by walking almost nobody. The Pirates didn’t add him to the 40-man roster and he went unselected in the Rule 5 draft. They may want to give him another shot at high A.

Finesse lefty Orlando Castro made noise with a big first half at Bradenton, but he went out with a sore shoulder almost immediately after a promotion to AA. If he’s healthy, the Pirates may want to see whether he’s for real, but given the injury and his slight build, they may decide he’s better suited to relief.

Another lefty, Thomas Harlan, made a surprise transition to starting in AA after spending a year and a half pitching in relief for West Virginia and Bradenton. Harlan is a 6’6" soft tosser who managed a solid ERA (3.71) and WHIP (1.27) despite the sudden move both to AA and to starting, and despite a 3.9 K/9. The Pirates were intrigued enough to send him to the Arizona Fall League, so they may want to give him more time in the rotation.

Yet another lefty, Zack Dodson, represents the last hope for the Pirates’ 2009 prep pitching draft. Dodson still has a good arm, but was erratic in AA last year and may have to try pitching in relief.

Free agent signee Wilfredo Boscan has pitched briefly (and unsuccessfully) in AAA, but he’s had shoulder problems the last two years and hasn’t been impressive in several shots at AA. He seems much better situated to try AA again than to move up. He also might be better off in relief.

Pat Ludwig did well as a swing man at both class A levels in 2013-14, but he got hit hard in 40 innings at Altoona last year. He appears to be an organizational pitcher and could start at Altoona if an arm is needed. It’s unlikely he’ll be in the Curve rotation to open the season.

Tyler Sample is a hard-throwing former prospect who’s had trouble finding the plate. Last year was no different, as he pitched himself out of a starting spot at Altoona and then later hurt his ankle. He seems better suited to relief.

As far as I can tell, Aaron Pribanic is still with the organization after missing most of 2012 and all of 2013-14 due to labrum surgery. I guess it’s possible he could resurface. He’s an extreme groundball pitcher who misses very few bats.