By Wilbur Miller
The Pirates are trying something new with their Altoona affiliate this year. Instead of overloading the roster with minor league free agents, they’re going to rely mainly on products of their own system. No more Brett Ronebergs and Jason Roaches brought in to bolster the W/L . . . well, at least not as many of them as before. This isn’t to say, though, that the Curve will be either young or all that talented. Most of the “prospects” will be marginal and at least a little old for the level. What major league potential the team has will be mainly in the outfield and bullpen. The offense may struggle, as the Curve may get little or no offense from several positions, especially catcher, shortstop and thirdbase.
Catcher: One place where the Curve will have to rely on minor league veterans is behind the plate. With Steve Lerud playing too poorly at Lynchburg in 2007 to merit a promotion, the regular catcher will be Miguel Perez. He previously spent six years as a weak-hitting organizational catcher in the Reds’ system. The backup will be one of the Pirates’ own organizational catchers, Milver Reyes. He’s an even weaker hitter than Perez, but a very good defensive catcher.
Infield: The right side of the infield will be set with Jason Delaney at first and Shelby Ford at second. Delaney had a big start in 2007 at Lynchburg, but tailed off after a promotion to Altoona. Since he’s very limited defensively, he’ll have to increase his power output and do it in a hurry; he’s also 25. Ford struggled in the first half of last season but had a big second half interrupted by a muscle strain in his back. He profiles as an offense-oriented secondbaseman.
The other starting infielders will be free agent signees. Luis Cruz is a good-field, no-hit refugee from the Padres’ system. He’ll start at short. The starter at third will be another weak hitter, Melvin Dorta. He played in three other organizations, mainly as a shortstop, and has spent parts of two seasons in AAA. He even got a brief callup to the majors in 2006. The infield backup will be returning veteran Jason Bowers. He had a good season for Altoona in 2007 and is a far better hitter than Dorta or Cruz. In the event of injury, the Pirates will probably promote one of their organizational backups, like Anthony Mansolino, Greg Picart, or Cameron Blair.
Outfield: The Curve outfield, left to right, will be Jonel Pacheco, James Boone, and Brad Corley. After signing as a minor league free agent, Pacheco surprised with a huge year at Hickory in 2007. The Pirates apparently will give him a chance to show it was for real by jumping him up to AA. Boone has solid all-around talent, including some power, but has seldom been healthy during his three years as a pro. At 25, he badly needs to stay healthy and move up quickly. Corley is a toolsy player with power and a strong arm, but atrocious plate discipline. Even worse, he’s openly rejected the idea that he needs to start trying to lay off pitches out of the zone. At 24, he’s also a little old for a guy who’s made only a token appearance in AA.
The outfield backups will be Pedro Powell and Anthony Webster. Powell is probably the fastest player in the organization, but hasn’t shown enough of a bat to qualify as a prospect. Webster was considered a good prospect just a couple years ago with Texas, but he struggled in 2007 and his assignment to AA is not a good sign for him. At some point, Jamie Romak could appear with Altoona. He hit for good power and drew a lot of walks in 2007 with the two class A teams, but he has severe trouble making contact. He's currently injured and it's not clear where he'll be assigned once he's ready to go. It’s also possible that Albert Laboy or Alex Presley could earn a mid-season promotion from Lynchburg.
Rotation: The Altoona rotation will include two 40-man roster members, both of them struggling prospects who’ll be repeating AA: Jimmy Barthmaier and Yoslan Herrera. Barthmaier was one of the Astros’ top prospects, but had a dismal 2007 season and was placed on waivers. Herrera, a Cuban defector, represented Dave Littlefield’s attempt to show the Pirates were really trying in Central America. He displayed mediocre stuff last year, possibly due to the two-year layoff associated with defecting. Two other starters, Derek Hankins and Kyle Bloom, are coming off back-to-back weak seasons at Lynchburg. The fact that they’re being promoted shows that the new regime is more committed to pushing the team’s own players than to loading up on veteran roster filler, as was the practice under Littlefield. Bloom, the lone lefty in the rotation, was slated for the bullpen until the Pirates traded Todd Redmond. The other starter will be Josh Hill, who was picked up in the AAA phase of the Rule 5 draft. He’s an Australian who’s put up middling numbers in the Twins’ system. Overall, the rotation could be very weak.
The Pirates are no doubt hoping that their last two first round draft picks, Dan Moskos and Brad Lincoln, will earn promotions to AA at some point during the year. It may be tougher for Lincoln, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery. Moskos is making the move from the bullpen to the rotation. It’s also possible that Adam Bernero could join the rotation at some point. He’s a veteran trying to come back from Tommy John surgery and is not on any roster to start the season.
Bullpen: The Altoona bullpen will include two pitchers who narrowly missed making the Indianapolis roster due to the number of available relievers. Dave Davidson is a left-handed breaking ball pitcher who made big strides in 2006-07 after struggling with injuries for three years. A member of the 40-man roster, he spent part of 2006 and most of 2007 in AA, so it’s puzzling that he’d be sent back to that level again. Chris Hernandez has pitched well for the organization for five years but has gotten only a token chance in AAA. He may serve as the closer.
Other than Davidson, the primary prospects with the Curve will be Pat Bresnehan, Kevin Roberts, and Ronald Belisario. Bresnehan, a fastball/slider pitcher, is a 2006 draftee who had an impressive first season, then was having a good season last year at Lynchburg until he apparently tired towards the end. Roberts was obtained from Milwaukee in the Salomon Torres trade. He’s had good K rates and started to emerge as a prospect in 2007, but he needs to work on his control. Belisario was once a highly regarded prospect with Florida, but missed two years with injuries. He mostly struggled in his comeback effort with the Pirates in 2007, but they added him to the 40-man roster due to his ability to throw a mid- to upper-90s fastball.
Other relievers will be Justin Vaclavik, Wardell Starling, and lefty Josh Shortslef. Vaclavik, a former college closer, looked like a good prospect going into 2007, but he had a dismal season in AA. Starling is a struggling former prospect who hasn’t been able to adjust to AA and apparently was close to being released at the end of spring training. Shortslef also has been considered a prospect at times, but has missed parts of nearly every season with injuries. He’s also had problems staying in shape. He wasn’t ready to go at the end of spring training, but once he’s ready he’ll make the move from the rotation to the bullpen.
The Curve will have two relievers going in the wrong direction. Finesse pitcher Brian Rogers lost his spot on the 40-man roster last year and now he finds himself all the way back in AA. Lefty Corey Hamman has spent most of the past two years in AAA, but didn’t pitch very well and will move down a level. He could move into the rotation if needed, as could Starling or Shortslef. Veteran Mike Burns could appear with the Curve at some point. He’s not currently assigned anywhere, so he may not be healthy.
Finally, it’s possible that a prospect like Olivo Astacio or Charles Benoit could earn a promotion from Lynchburg. Astacio is a hard thrower who’s had very high K rates but has poor control. He’s been assigned to Lynchburg, but will open the season on the disabled list. Apart from Astacio, the lefty Benoit was about the only pitcher on the 2007 Hickory staff who pitched effectively. He’s also assigned to Lynchburg for now.