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Minor league preview: Altoona

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MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Apart from Kevin Newman, who will clearly be the big prospect for the Curve to open the season, the Altoona roster will be somewhat similar to last year’s. There will be a lot of players with some ability who’ll look to break out and establish themselves as prospects. In some cases, that’ll mean position players escaping from the offense-deadening environment of the Florida State League. Players like Kevin Kramer, Jordan Luplow and Connor Joe put up respectable but not exciting numbers last year. Altoona is a rough park for right-handed power, but it’s roughly a neutral park overall and other hitters, like Adam Frazier and Max Moroff, have put up strong numbers there after weak seasons in the FSL. The pitching staff also will feature some players who had some struggles last year but who have shown some ability.

Things could change significantly partway into the season for the Curve. Newman will be hoping to earn a promotion and several players at Bradenton will hope to move up. These include former first-round picks Cole Tucker (who could replace Newman if he goes to AAA) and Will Craig. It’s also possible that Mitch Keller will move up during the season.

One interesting aspect of the Curve roster is that it won’t have a single player currently on the Pirates’ 40-man roster.

* = Left-handed
# = Switch-hitter

Catcher: Zane Chavez*, Tomas Morales, eventually Jin-De Jhang*

Jhang ultimately will be the starter, but he’s going to miss the first month or so due to an oblique injury. Bad timing with injuries seems to be a thing for catchers, as Elias Diaz showed. This should have been Jhang’s first season completely free of Reese McGuire; in five seasons in the minors, he’s reached 300 plate appearances only once and had only 227 last year. He’s one of the more puzzling players in the system, as the Pirates have treated him more like an organizational guy than a prospect despite a good, left-handed hit tool and an arm that’s at least average. Maybe he’ll make an impact this year.

In Jhang’s absence, the regular will be Chavez, an independent league veteran who’s shown a solid bat. Morales is an organizational catcher with good defensive skills who started to hit a little in a very limited role at Altoona last year.

Corner Infield: Connor Joe, Wyatt Mathisen, Edwin Espinal, Chase Simpson#, eventually Jerrick Suiter

The regulars here should be Joe at first and Mathisen at third, with Espinal getting time at both spots and at DH. Between back problems and the Florida State League, Joe hasn’t shown the bat the Pirates thought they were getting when they picked him in the supplemental first round in 2014. He did hit well over the last three months of 2016, especially by FSL standards, so he’s a player to watch for signs of a breakout. Joe could also see some time at third and in the outfield. Mathisen has also never quite hit the way the Pirates hoped, although he had easily his best season last year in very limited time; he missed most of the season due to shoulder problems. He came to camp in exceptional shape and is still only 23, so he’s one of several Altoona players who could take a step forward. Espinal has always had good hitting ability, but he’s never shown the power he’d need as a bat-only corner player. He’ll be repeating AA.

Simpson also will be available to back up at the corners and at DH. He’s often hit as well as, or better than, the college players who were drafted in the same year he was, but he’s remained in a utility role. Suiter has never shown much power despite being a big guy, but he makes consistent contact and he’s a good defensive first baseman. He’ll miss the start of the season due to a hand injury and could go back to Bradenton, as there isn’t likely to be much playing time for him at Altoona.

Middle Infield: Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer*, Pablo Reyes, Chris Diaz

It’s not outside the realm of possibility that Altoona’s keystone combination could someday be starting for the Pirates. Newman, of course, is the team’s top position prospect below the AAA level. He’ll try to earn an early promotion, which could start a chain reaction if Cole Tucker and Stephen Alemais are playing well. Kramer has very solid all-around skills and put up better hitting numbers than they appear on their face last year. Reyes also has good all-around skills, but he keeps getting stuck with middle infielders who are higher on the depth chart than he is. His best position is second, but he’ll probably play all over the place for the Curve. Diaz is a good defensive shortstop who hasn’t hit much. He’s not on the roster to start the season, but will probably appear at some point.

Outfield: Jordan Luplow, Elvis Escobar*, Michael Suchy

These three will be the Altoona outfield, left to right. Luplow has made steady progress at the plate, but slower than you’d like to see from a college corner player. He played third two years ago, but seems to have settled in left. Escobar has played well enough to get to AA, but he’s managed a .700 OPS only once (2015) in four years since rookie ball. Suchy is a big guy with power potential that hasn’t shown up much in games so far. Even in the FSL, his .355 slugging average was one point below average, which won’t do for a corner outfielder. Reyes and the team’s corner infielders will probably fill out the outfield picture for the Curve.

Rotation: Yeudy Garcia, Brandon Waddell*, J.T. Brubaker, Alex McRae, Tanner Anderson

The Altoona rotation (projected starters from Pirates Prospects, sub. req’d) won’t be on a level with the ones at Indianapolis or Bradenton. The headliner here should be Garcia, but he hasn’t been able to find the upper-90s velocity he had two years ago. He threw in the low-90s last year and was hampered by a sore shoulder. The shoulder reportedly is fine now, but he was still throwing only in the low-90s in camp. He has a good slider, but his command has also been an issue. Waddell, a finesse lefty, also ran into some problems last year after earning a quick promotion to AA. Hitters stopped chasing his pitches out of the strike zone and he had trouble with high walk totals and hitters taking advantage of hitter’s counts.

Of the other starters, Brubaker probably has the most promise. He combines 91-94 mph velocity with a change that was good enough to produce a lot of strikeouts in low A last year. He struggled after a mid-season promotion to high A, but the Pirates will move him up again this year. McRae and Anderson are pitch-to-contact righties. McRae got a mid-season promotion to Altoona last year and finished strongly after a terrible start. Anderson will move his old-style leg kick from the bullpen to the rotation.

Bullpen: Jared Lakind*, Miguel Rosario, Montana DuRapau, Austin Coley, Tate Scioneaux, Sean Keselica*, John Kuchno, Buddy Borden

The Altoona bullpen should be solid but is probably short on breakout potential. The two lefties may be the most interesting. Lakind pitched well for the Curve last year despite having limited experience on the mound, none of it above low A. He wasn’t, however, able to win a spot in AAA to start the season. Keselica will make the jump from low A, where he put up excellent numbers last year despite not having outstanding stuff.

The most prominent righties are probably Rosario and DuRapau. Rosario is a sidearm thrower who pitched well at Bradenton and Altoona last year. DuRapau pitched well most of last year as Altoona’s closer, but struggled late. He tends to work up in the zone and does not have overpowering stuff, which can be a risky combination.

Of the others, Coley is another righty who relies mainly on location. He’s been a starter so far, but lost out on a rotation spot. Scioneaux is an extreme flyball pitcher who’s nevertheless gotten very good results in the low minors without having great stuff. Kuchno is an extreme groundball pitcher who spent most of last year in AAA, but struggled. Borden once looked like a decent prospect as a starter, went to Tampa Bay for Sean Rodriguez, then fell apart last year. He continued struggling after the Rays released him and he signed with the Pirates. The Pirates are promoting him anyway, so maybe the move to the bullpen will help.

Top Prospect: Kevin Newman.

Breakout Candidates: Kevin Kramer, Connor Joe.