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Pirates minor league preview: Altoona

The Pirates have had a gap moving upward through their farm system. West Virginia didn’t have a lot of prospects on its roster in 2017, then last year Bradenton had an overage team with very few players of any promise. This year, it’s Altoona’s turn. By itself, this doesn’t have any broader implications for the system. The teams above and below this gap have generally had a lot of prospects. It’s just that the ideal level for the prospects in the system has always been a level up or a level down.

The result is a Curve team that won’t be too interesting this year. There are a lot of players returning to the level, especially on the pitching staff. The team only has two real position prospects, one of whom is repeating AA. The pitching staff has one very interesting starter and two interesting relievers, both of whom are hurt for the moment.

Catcher

The catchers will be Arden Pabst and Jason Delay. They’re both potential, Jacob-Stallings-type prospects, i.e., good defensive catchers with questions about their bats who could become major league backups. Delay was a fourth-round pick in 2017 and will be in AA after getting only 342 at-bats at lower levels. Pabst was a 12th-round pick in 2016 and actually did hit well, for surprising power, in the first half of 2018 with Bradenton. He struggled at Altoona in the second half, in very brief action.

Corner Infield

Jerrick Suiter will move down from AAA to play first; the Pirates needed a first baseman for the Curve after losing Jordan George in the minor league Rule 5 draft and Albert Baur to retirement. Suiter put up just a .597 OPS for Indianapolis last year and he’s now 26, so his prospect days are behind him, but he should be a good hitter at the AA level. The third baseman will be Hunter Owen, who had a big second half last year at Bradenton and tied for third in the Florida State League in home runs. There are two big caveats: He had a 6:1 K:BB ratio and he’s now 25.

Middle Infield

Altoona will have Mitchell Tolman at second and Stephen Alemais at short. Tolman shot himself in the foot last year with a suspension for a drug of abuse. That may have gotten him sent back to Bradenton when he returned. He has good on-base skills, but he’ll be 25 in June. Alemais will be returning to the level, but will be moving back to his original position with Cole Tucker gone. He’s a plus defender, but will have to do better than last year’s .692 OPS to be more than a defensive sub at the major league level.

The infield backups will be Alfredo Reyes and Brett Pope, both of whom were originally shortstops. Reyes is a minor league veteran who plays well defensively at any position. Pope was a late-round draft pick in 2017 and also features a good glove.

Outfield

Altoona’s best position prospect will be Jared Oliva (pictured). He’s a legitimate center fielder and has also been a very good base stealer. Drafted in the seventh round in 2017, he had a semi-breakout last year at Bradenton, hitting for solid power (especially by FSL standards) for the first time. The corners will have Bligh Madris and Logan Hill. Madris, selected two rounds after Oliva, had a disappointing showing last year at Bradenton, but will move up anyway. It’s possible that getting out of the FSL will help him, as it has some other prospects. Hill has a lot of power, but has suffered from contact problems and will be 26 in May. This will be his third try at AA. The Pirates gave Hill some time at first in camp, so he could back up Suiter there. The Curve will also have Bralin Jackson, whom the Pirates signed as a minor league free agent a year ago. He can play center, but put up only a .557 OPS with the Curve last year.

Rotation

Certainly the best story among the Curve starters will be Gage Hinsz. He was an above-slot prep draftee back in 2014, but struggled through an injury-plagued season at Bradenton in 2017 and missed all of last year due to heart surgery. He returned with a very strong showing in winter ball in Puerto Rico and now will move up to Altoona.

The other starters will all be returning to the level. Eduardo Vera pitched very little until his sixth pro season in 2017, partly due to Tommy John surgery, but moved up quickly the last two years. He was a free agent last fall but re-signed with the Pirates and pitched well in spring training. He doesn’t miss many bats but throws strikes. The same could be said of Dario Agrazal, who was removed from the 40-man roster recently following a sharp drop in velocity in 2018. Cam Vieaux is a finesse lefty who got mostly good results in about two-thirds of a season with the Curve last year, but he’s had a tendency to get hit hard at times. James Marvel is yet another pitch-to-contact starter who got good results in AA last year, although he was only there briefly. Altoona’s rotation has a lot of pitchers who can put up solid outings at the AA level, but apart from Hinsz it’s hard to see a great deal of upside.

Bullpen

Possibly the two most interesting pitchers in the Altoona bullpen, both of them left-handers, will be out at the beginning of the season, although hopefully not for long. Blake Weiman was an 8th round pick in 2017 and moved up through three levels last year. He’s more of a finesse guy than the usual, hard-throwing reliever, but he’s been very effective so far. Elvis Escobar was converted from the outfield last year when the Pirates discovered he can throw in the mid-90s with a big curve. He’s obviously a lottery ticket, but pitched well in the South Atlantic League last year after making the conversion.

Altoona will have a couple of relievers who’ve had some success as starters and could still return to that role. Scooter Hightower doesn’t throw hard, but dominated last year at both Bradenton and Altoona. The fact that he’s returning to Altoona and moving back to the bullpen may indicate the Pirates have doubts about his ceiling. Pedro Vasquez has solid velocity, but reached AA last year on the strength of great control. He got hit hard with the Curve, though, and was sent back to Bradenton.

Altoona will have several relievers who’ve struggled, despite very good stuff, due to command issues. Yeudy Garcia will return to Altoona for the third time. Despite mid-90s velocity and a swing-and-miss slider, he’s been undermined by walk rates well over five per nine innings. Angel German has hit triple digits, but he struggled even more last year at Bradenton than Garcia did in AA. He’ll move up anyway. Lefty Jake Brentz has hit triple digits many times, but has really severe control problems, which got him demoted from Altoona last year. He tried dialing down the heat this spring and will return to AA.

The Curve will have a couple other relievers returning from last year. Matt Eckelman had a great ERA for Altoona last year, but walked nearly as many as he struck out. Tate Scioneaux has been a closer for the Curve for much of the last two years, but got hit very hard last year, so he’ll try it for a third time. Finally, Vicente Campos is a formerly well regarded prospect who’s struggled with injuries much of the time since 2013. He’ll try it again with Altoona after signing with the Pirates as a free agent.

Regulars

C: Pabst, Delay
1B: Suiter
2B: Tolman
3B: Owen
SS: Alemais
OF: Oliva, Madris, Hill
Rotation: Hinsz, Vera, Agrazal, Vieaux, Marvel
Key Relievers: Weiman, Escobar

Top Prospects: Oliva, Alemais, Hinsz

Breakout Candidates: Hinsz, Escobar