By Wilbur Miller
Unlike Indianapolis, which will benefit from Neal Huntingtonís efforts to increase the upper level depth in the system, Altoona may suffer from the gaping hole in the middle of the farm system left by the poor drafts and non-existent international scouting efforts of Huntingtonís predecessor. The Curve will have some interesting hitters, but their pitching could be a problem.
Catcher: Steve Lerud, Miguel Perez, Hector Gimenez, Milver Reyes. Possible Promotion: Kris Watts.
The starter behind the plate will be Lerud, a recent 40-man roster addition. Although it seems like heís been around, and struggling, forever, heís still only 24, which isnít all that old considering that catchers tend to develop slowly. He should give the Curve good defense and occasional power. Perez, a minor league vet who was Altoonaís starter last year when he wasnít hurt and before Lerud moved up, will be the backup. Former Astros prospect Gimenez could spend time at Altoona. Long-time organizational catcher Reyes, who brings a decent glove and no bat, will also be available in case of injuries, which were plentiful last year among the systemís catchers. Watts has a solid lefty bat with a little power, but heís not good defensively. The availability of so many veterans means heíll probably return to Lynchburg, but he could be a candidate for a promotion at some point. On the whole, the Altoona catching should be solid.
1B: Jamie Romak.
2B: Jim Negrych.
3B: Angel Gonzalez.
SS: Brian Friday.
Utility: Kent Sakamoto, Josh Bonifay, Ray Chang, Eddie Prasch, Pedro Lopez, Anderson Machado. Possible Promotions: Pedro Alvarez, Matt Hague, Jordy Mercer.
The infield will feature three prospects in Romak, Negrych and Friday. Romak will try to show he can make enough contact to succeed at higher levels after being left unprotected and passed over twice in the Rule 5 draft. Negrych can be counted on to hit line drives all over the field. Heíll move back to his original position after a failed experiment at third. Friday hopefully will rebound from the back problems that plagued him last year. With a wave of infielders coming up behind him, he needs to establish himself quickly as a superior alternative to Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz. Gonzalez is too weak a hitter to play short, so heíll obviously be a serious liability at third. The Pirates no doubt are hoping that heíll only be keeping the position warm for Alvarez. If heís the real thing he should arrive in AA before mid-season. Until Alvarez arrives, the infield could be weak offensively unless Romak and Friday have breakout seasons.
The Curve have no obvious candidates to back up in the infield, so itís hard to say how theyíll fill out the roster. Sakamoto had a mediocre 2008 season at Lynchburg, but he could back up at first in AA if the Pirates decide to play somebody else there in high A. Bonifay also could serve as a backup at first or an occasional DH, but heís expected to serve primarily as a coach. Chang got six at-bats with the Curve in 2008 before getting hurt, but he has experience at AAA and AA, so he could be the primary utility infielder. Prasch could move up from Lynchburg after a decent 2008 season in which he made the transition from prospect to utility guy. Lopez or Machado could move down from AAA if the roster there is too crowded. Itís also possible that one or more of the numerous AAA firstbasemen could see time in AA. Under Huntington, however, the Pirates have largely stopped the practice of pushing players down levels to boost performance. Finally, some of the Piratesí college draftees from 2008 could earn promotions with good first half showings. The most likely candidates would be Mercer and Hague.
Outfield: Jose Tabata, Brad Corley, James Boone, Jonel Pacheco. Others: Jared Keel, Alex Presley. Possible Promotion: Miles Durham.
The featured outfielder will be Tabata. The Pirates want to keep him in center, so heíll return to Altoona and wait for Andrew McCutchen to earn a promotion to the majors. Boone and Corley will be trying to salvage what little remains of their prospect status by overcoming past struggles, Boone with injuries and Corley with a tendency to seing at everything. Pacheco is a solid but unspectacular hitter. One of these four outfielders will probably fill the DH role when itís in use. Keel is an interesting player who combines power and good plate discipline. Unlike Romak he doesnít strike out too much, but just the same he has long periods when he doesnít hit. He salvaged a poor 2008 season with a huge final month, so he could end up either in AA or back at Lynchburg. Both he and Presley, whoís coming off a mediocre season with the Hillcats, could be moved up to AA due to a large number of candidates for the Lynchburg outfield. Finally, Durham could earn a promotion if he adjusts better to high A pitching than he did in 2008. Since heíll be 26 when the 2009 season starts, he needs to move up.
Rotation: Brad Lincoln, Tony Watson, Derek Hankins, Yoslan Herrera, Josh Hill. Others: Mike Crotta, Jared Hughes, Corey Hamman, Paul Mildren.
The featured starters will be Lincoln and Watson. The Pirates will be looking for Lincoln to justify his status as the fourth pick in the draft now that heís fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Watson will have to show that his underwhelming stuff will play at higher levels. Hankins, Herrera and Hill will all return from last yearís staff. Itís conceivable that Herrera, who was removed from the 40-man roster last fall, or Hankins could make the AAA squad, but most likely theyíll be back in AA. Hill is a journeyman minor leaguer. Itís possible that Crotta or Hughes could be in the Altoona rotation, but neither pitched well at Lynchburg last year and the Hillcats will be getting little or no pitching talent through promotions, so the most logical solution is for Crotta and Hughes to return to high A. They could, however, pitch for the Curve at some point. Hamman and Mildren are journeyman lefties who figure to serve as swing men in AA and, if needed, AAA. Some of the minor league vets signed for this year, such as Jeremy Powell, Sean Smith or Virgil Vasquez, could end up in AA if they lose out in the numbers game in AAA. As I noted, though, the teamís current management doesnít generally assign players to affiliates that are below their experience level. Most likely, the rotationís success will depend on Lincoln and Watson, as the rest are merely solid pitchers at best, there isnít much depth, and there isnít likely to be any help arriving from Lynchburg during the season.
Bullpen: Dan Moskos, Eric Krebs, Pat Bresnehan, Dan Haigwood, Moises Robles, Jean Machi, Kevin Roberts. Others: Edwin Walker, Eddie Pena, Christian Castorri. MIA: Wardell Starling, Justin Vaclavik. Possible Promotions: Ronald Uviedo, Tom Boleska, Harrison Bishop.
The Altoona bullpen could be anywhere from awful to good. The most prominent pitchers are Moskos, Krebs and Bresnehan. Moskos needs no introduction. The Pirates havenít definitively stated heíll be a reliever, but after the 2008 season he had itís hard to see him moving up AND moving back to the rotation. Krebs has a good arm but has had trouble with consistency and injuries. Bresnehan is another erstwhile prospect coming off a bad season, although his problems occurred at AA. Of the other potential mainstays, Haigwood is a lefty with a good arm but control problems. Robles was acquired after being dumped by the Mets. The Pirates like him for reasons I canít figure out. He could open at Lynchburg. Machi had an erratic career with the Jays and was probably signed mainly to scarf up some innings. Roberts was supposed to be the centerpiece of the Salomon Torres trade, but he couldnít handle AA last year and didnít do all that well after being demoted to Lynchburg. He could end up back in high A. The Curve could get some overflow from AAA, such as Dave Davidson, Juan Mateo or Lincoln Holdzkom. Some of the potential starters, such as Hamman and Mildren, could serve as relievers as well.
The Altoona bullpen could get much more interesting if pitchers like Uviedo, Boleska and Bishop earn promotions. Uviedo is a recent 40-man addition with a very good arm. He could conceivably even open in AA. Boleska and Bishop have both been impressive in brief opportunities at the lower levels, although Boleska will miss the start of the season as he recovers from an oblique strain. If the Curve have a need for bodies, Walker, Pena and Castorri could fill in. Walker and Pena are signees from independent ball, so theyíre unknown quantities. Theyíre more likely to help with a very needy Lynchburg staff. Castorri is an organizational pitcher who filled in at need last year. He was effective in high A but overmatched in AA. Finally, Starling and Vaclavik, both of whom were once well regarded, could resurface after missing all of 2008. I havenít been able to find out yet whether theyíre still in the organization. Between all the journeymen and guys coming off bad seasons, Altoona wonít know what to expect from its bullpen until it happens.
This Altoona team will illustrate the difference in approach between the teamís current management and its incompetent predecessors. Dave Littlefield and Brian Graham signed minor league veterans with a view toward bolstering the minor league rosters to assure good W/L records. Huntington and Kyle Stark do it primarily to provide depth for the major league team. As a result, Indianapolis will be able to fill in around the prospects with solid-or-better AAA vets, but Altoona will have to rely on prospects to win games. That means the W/L record will depend primarily on guys like Tabata, Negrych, Romak, Friday, Lincoln, Watson and Moskos. Thatíll make the team more interesting but less predictable.