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Pirates minor league preview: Altoona

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Altoona will feature legitimate prospects at most regular spots. At least a couple should be vying for promotions by mid-season. And one former first round pick will be trying to re-establish some sort of prospect status.

Catcher

The regular catcher initially will be Christian Kelley, who’ll be moving up from Bradenton. The Pirates like his defensive work, as shown by the fact that he’s been invited to major league spring training the last two years. He hasn’t, however, hit much. The backup will be Jackson Williams. Eventually, Kelley will probably share the catching job with Jin-De Jhang, who’ll return to Altoona after a rough year last year. Jhang has been hampered all spring by an elbow injury he sustained in winter ball, but should be ready before long. Kevin Krause will also see a little time behind the plate.

Corner Infield

The infield corners will be manned by the same players who handled them at Bradenton last year. Both will be looking to add one missing element to their game: power. The difference, of course, is that Will Craig plays first and doesn’t bring a lot beyond his bat. Ke’Bryan Hayes is a plus defender at third and last year suddenly became a plus baserunner, which isn’t a tool that usually appears a few years into a pro career. Another difference is that Hayes turned 21 just this year, while Craig is 23. Both have good hit tools and plate discipline.

Last year’s third baseman, Wyatt Mathisen, will transition to utility player. Mathisen had a solid season in 2017, batting .272, but he didn’t hit for much power and is blocked at AAA. Jerrick Suiter ultimately will back up Craig at first and could also see time in the outfield, as well as at DH. (The Eastern League uses the DH unless both teams are NL affiliates.) Suiter hit well for Altoona last year, but is blocked from moving up, although that could change if the Pirates call up Jose Osuna. For now, though, Suiter will be in AAA, probably until Clay Holmes gets sent back down.

Middle Infield

The Curve will complete a prospect-laden infield with Cole Tucker at short and Stephen Alemais at second. Tucker showed flashes of breaking out with the bat last year, with a big month after a slow start at Bradenton, then a strong finish after being promoted to AA. He also improved both in the field and on the bases; in fact, he led the Florida State League in steals despite spending only half the season there. Alemais had an injury-riddled 2017 season, but continued to be the best defensive infielder in the system. He also improved his hitting after a mid-season promotion to Bradenton, as he stopped trying to hit for power and batted .317.

Alemais’ path to Altoona was cleared when second baseman Mitchell Tolman got suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a drug of abuse. Tolman had a solid season last year with Bradenton and could face a position crunch when he returns. Meanwhile, the Curve’s utility player will once again be Pablo Reyes, who gets my vote for the most underappreciated player in the system. Reyes does everything at least reasonably well, even hitting for a little power. He runs well, is a good second baseman and can play short if he’s not left there too long. He’s also a competent center fielder and will probably see some time there. Hopefully, Reyes will make it to AAA, because he deserves to. Mathisen could see time at second as well; he was playing there most of the time in camp.

Outfield

Altoona will eventually feature two outfielders who were recent trade acquisitions: Bryan Reynolds, who came from San Francisco, and Jason Martin, who came from Houston. Reynolds gets good marks from some scouts even though he hasn’t started hitting for power yet. He’s also shown very marginal plate discipline, so his skill set as a hitter isn’t necessarily very appealing unless the power arrives. Martin was scuffling along in the Astros’ system until he started hitting for good power two years ago. He spent most of last year in AA, so he should be a candidate for an early promotion, although it’d help if he improved his own weak plate discipline. Martin is out with a minor injury right now but should be ready soon.

The other outfielders will be Elvis Escobar, Logan Hill and Krause. Escobar has never hit quite well enough to get on the prospect map and will be returning to AA after posting just a .677 OPS there last year. He is a good defender in center, but Martin and Reynolds have also played center, so it’s likely the Pirates will move all three around the outfielder. Hill is strictly a corner outfielder and not an especially good one. He had a big power breakout in the first half of last year at Bradenton, then missed a chunk of the second half with a broken bone in his hand, suffered less than a month after a promotion to Altoona. Krause is a curiosity; he hit for good power with only slightly fewer walks than strikeouts last year at Bradenton, but the Pirates seemed disinclined to play him every day. Drafted as a catcher, he doesn’t really have a defensive home, playing mostly right field these days. He may not get regular playing time at Altoona.

Rotation

Obviously, the headline starter, in fact the headline player, at Altoona will be the Pirates’ top prospect, Mitch Keller. He already pitched well in the Eastern League late last year and dominated in the playoffs. The main question now is how long it’ll take for him to move up to AAA.

The rest of the rotation will consist of Taylor Hearn, Dario Agrazal, J.T. Brubaker and Brandon Waddell. Hearn may have the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the organization other than Keller, with velocity that reaches the upper-90s and a good change. He’s working on a slider and command remains an issue. Waddell, the other lefty in the rotation, is returning for a third season at Altoona. He’s had trouble falling behind hitters and missed some time last year with a forearm strain, for which he got PRP injections.

The two other righties are also returning to Altoona, sort of. Agrazal had a mini-breakout at Bradenton, then strained an oblique in his first game in AA after a mid-season promotion and missed the rest of the year. He throws a lot of strikes but lacks an out pitch. Agrazal is on the 40-man roster. Brubaker has good stuff, with mid-90s velocity and a good change, but he mostly struggled at Altoona last year. Eventually Pedro Vasquez should appear with the Curve, but he’s out now due to illness. Vasquez was outstanding for three months last year at Bradenton, then seemed to tire. He has decent velocity but relies mainly on very good command.

Bullpen

Altoona currently has a lot of relievers listed on its roster. There will probably be some shuffling back and forth, with not everybody active at any one time.

The most prominent relievers are Yeudy Garcia, lefty Jake Brentz and new pickup Jesus Liranzo. They all present pretty much the same story of excellent stuff and poor control. Garcia has made the most progress so far. Two years ago he was one of the team’s top starting prospects, but he’s spent that time working back from shoulder issues and lost velocity. He’s back to the mid-90s now, sometimes higher, and has a nasty slider. The strike zone is probably the only thing standing between him and Pittsburgh. Brentz is a lefty who can hit 100 mph and who was passed over in the Rule 5 draft. That probably tells you all you need to know about his control. Liranzo has a mid-90s fastball and a record of getting swings and misses, but the Orioles and Dodgers both declined to keep him on their 40-man rosters in the last few weeks due to his control issues.

Of the other relievers, Geoff Hartlieb is the most intriguing. The 6’6” Hartlieb is a former basketball player who still has just limited experience on the mound. His velocity has climbed to the mid-90s as a reliever and he’s hit 100 mph. He had success without dominating at both class A levels last year.

The Curve will have two returnees from last year, Tate Scioneaux and Sean Keselica. Scioneaux had a strong year as the Altoona closer, but he gets by more on deception than stuff. The lefty Keselica dominates same-handed hitters, but has some control issues.

Three other relievers will move up from Bradenton, two of them — Logan Sendelbach and Bret Helton — likely to serve in swing or long relief roles. Both of the two got similar, solid results last year without missing many bats. Also moving up is sidearm Australian Sam Street. He pitched very well in short and long relief roles for Bradenton, also without missing a lot of bats.

Regulars

C: Kelley, eventually Jhang
1B: Craig
2B: Alemais
3B: Hayes
SS: Tucker
OF: Reynolds, Hill, Escobar, eventually Martin
SP: Keller, Hearn, Brubaker, Agrazal, Waddell, eventually Vasquez
Key Relievers: Garcia, Brentz, Liranzo, Hartlieb

Top Prospects: Keller, Hayes, Tucker, Hearn, Reynolds, Martin

Breakout Candidates: Reynolds, Hartlieb