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Altoona Curve 2015 preview

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Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s edition of the Curve should, in some ways, be very similar to last year’s.   The 2014 Curve led the Eastern League in HRs and finished near the top in slugging, but also finished second (by just ten) in strikeouts.   This year’s team could have even more power, because last year’s top power hitters will return and other power sources may have been added.  The team should have a great deal of depth, due to multiple candidates for several positions, and will have at least marginal prospects at nearly every position.  The rotation will have the team’s top prospect and several pitchers with much more modest ceilings.  The bullpen, which let the team down regularly last year, could be good, bad, or in between, but does have some interesting pitchers.

Catcher

This is the one position that won’t be manned by a prospect, at least not a current prospect.   Sebastian Valle will be the starter, backed up by Jacob Stallings.  Valle is a former top Phillies’ prospect who hit a wall at AAA due to poor plate discipline.  He’s still only 24 and could re-establish himself, and he gives the Pirates even more depth behind Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart, Tony Sanchez and Elias Diaz.  Stallings is a strong defensive catcher whose bat may keep him from advancing much farther.  It’s conceivable that Valle could be needed in AAA due to injuries and promotions.  If so, the Pirates would probably call on an organizational catcher like Kawika Emsley-Pai or Francisco Diaz.

Infield Corners

Josh Bell, who is making the transition from the outfield, will play first and will be the team’s top hitting prospect.   He’ll face two questions:  his ability to play the new position and whether his power will reappear after completely evaporating during a one-month stay in AA last year.  Altoona will have two candidates to play third, Edward Salcedo and Eric Wood.  Both of them have significant power potential.  The Braves gave up on Salcedo, a former big bonus recipient, but the Pirates will try to get him back on track.  He did have a good spring.  Wood is coming off a solid season at Bradenton, but his raw power hasn’t shown up much yet in games.  Both Salcedo and Wood have had significant defensive issues.  Most likely, one of the two will serve as a DH some of the time.

The backup at both positions will probably be Dan Gamache.  He’s played second so far as a pro, but he played third in college and was spending time both there and at first in spring training.  Justin Howard also could see playing time as a backup at first and in the outfield corners, although he’s not on any initial roster.

Middle Infield

The Curve also will have a glut in the middle infield, at least eventually.  Both Adam Frazier and Max Moroff will move up from Bradenton, but Frazier will miss the season’s first month or so with a broken finger.  Last year, Frazier played short exclusively and Moroff second.  Neither hit especially well and both probably profile best as utility players, so it might make sense for them to alternate positions.  The intention, though, apparently is for Moroff to play second primarily.  While Frazier is out, Gift Ngoepe should be the shortstop.  Ngoepe seems to be transitioning to utility player, an indication that he may have topped out at AA.  Gamache can back up at second and Kelson Brown can back up nearly any position, although he’s not on any of the season opening rosters.  The Pirates had Salcedo spending a little time at short near the end of spring training, so he could possibly see time there, too.

Outfield

The outfield will be made up of returnees from 2014.  Stetson Allie, though, will be new to right field, having moved to make way for Bell at first.  Keon Broxton will be in center and Willy Garcia, who’s now on the 40-man roster, will be in left.  All three have had significant contact issues, but Allie and Garcia offer exceptional power potential, while Broxton is coming off an outstanding season.  One interesting question may be whether Garcia, who had the best outfield arm in the organization, will even have the best arm in this outfield given Allie’s move. Broxton also has a plus arm, so the Curve’s outfield will be difficult to run on.  All three outfielders had good or better seasons at Altoona last year, but are blocked in AAA by players like Hunter Morris, Jaff Decker and Gorkys Hernandez.  Of course, there are reasons, mainly the ability to make contact, for the Pirates to think all three need more time in AA.  There's also the fact that Allie and Broxton both went unselected in the Rule 5 draft, which says a lot about other teams' assessments of them.  It'd be nice to think, though, that Garcia especially will get a chance to move up if he earns it, regardless of the presence of any "depth veterans."

The backups will be organizational players Jonathan Schwind and Junior Sosa.  Schwind was originally a catcher and still plays behind the plate at times.  Sosa is a speedster who resembles Juan Pierre.  Altoona fixture Andy Vazquez also could serve as a backup if he’s not in AAA due to Jaff Decker’s injury.

Rotation

Obviously, the headliner in the rotation will be Tyler Glasnow, one of the top pitching prospects in the minors.  He’ll hope to make continued progress in command consistency, the one thing standing in his way.  The rest of the rotation initially is expected to be Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, Angel Sanchez and Zack Dodson, the only lefty.  Kuhl is a strong groundball pitcher who doesn’t miss a lot of bats, and who tied for the Florida State League lead in wins last year.  Creasy also doesn’t miss a lot of bats and isn’t a groundball pitcher, but he walks very few hitters and had a solid season last year in the FSL.  Sanchez has a live arm and a 94-mph fastball, but he hasn’t shown a lot else so far.  He was claimed off waivers three times last year, but the Pirates were able to get him through after the season and outright him.  With Zack von Rosenberg and Colton Cain being released recently, Dodson is the last remaining survivor of the Pirates’ prep-pitching-dominated 2009 draft (except for Brooks Pounders, who pitched in the low minors for the Royals last year).  Dodson still has good stuff for a lefty, but the command to make it work has escaped him so far. He’ll be eligible for minor league free agency after this season.  Apart from Glasnow, there are no high ceilings in this group, unless you still think Sanchez could come through, but Kuhl and Creasy could potentially become fifth starters.

At some point, finesse lefty Orlando Castro might join the rotation.  He was promoted after a strong first half at Bradenton last year, but got hurt almost immediately and had labrum surgery.  He won’t return before May at the earliest.

Bullpen

Two of the most interesting relievers for Altoona will probably be John Kuchno and Yhonathan Barrios.  Kuchno is an extreme groundball pitcher who misses remarkably few bats.  He had a solid season as a starter last year, but now will move to relief.  The Pirates may think he can be similar to Jared Hughes.  Barrios, a converted infielder, throws a fastball that sits in the upper-90s.  He hasn’t yet developed much command or a good secondary pitch (he throws a slider), though, which is no doubt why he went unselected in the Rule 5 draft.

The other relievers will be Jhondaniel Medina, Matt Benedict, Tyler Sample, and lefties Tom Harlan and Josh Smith.  Medina throws in the low-90s and has struck out well over a batter an inning at times, although not last year in Bradenton.  He’s also had some very low ERAs, including 0.78 last year.  He’s had high walk rates, though, and I’m always suspicious of pitchers who’ve moved up through the minors strictly as relievers.  Benedict returns to Altoona after a rough season there last year.  The Pirates seem to like him, as they keep giving him chances despite some very poor numbers.  Sample is a former Royals’ prospect with good stuff, but he’s had severe control problems that he didn’t overcome last year, which he split between Bradenton and Altoona.  Harlan is a tall soft-tosser who appeared to be a prospective lefty relief specialist, but who pitched decently when pressed into service last year in AA as a starter.  Smith looked like an organizational reliever until last year, when he put up strong numbers at Bradenton, largely because left-handed batters found him nearly unhittable.

Other pitchers who could see time with the Curve at some point, although they’re not on any opening roster, are Pat Ludwig and Jeff Inman.  Ludwig has been effective as a swing man in class A, but he struggled when the Pirates moved him up to fill an opening in Altoona last year.  Inman is a perennially injured Stanford product from the 2009 draft class who’s never been able to take advantage of his mid-90s velocity.  He has one more season left before minor league free agency.

Projected Regulars

C: Sebastian Valle

1B: Josh Bell

2B: Max Moroff

3B/DH: Edward Salcedo, Eric Wood

SS: Gift Ngoepe (later Adam Frazier)

OF: Willy Garcia, Keon Broxton, Stetson Allie

Rotation: Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Jason Creasy, Angel Sanchez, Zack Dodson

Key Relievers: John Kuchno, Yhonathan Barrios, Jhondaniel Medina

Top Prospects: Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Willy Garcia

Sleeper: Chad Kuhl, John Kuchno