Altoona Curve 2021 Preview

The most interesting thing about this roster is the large number of players who are at something of a crossroads.  To some extent that’s part of the nature of AA; scouts consider high A to AA to be the toughest jump in the minors.  The Pirates, though, will have a bunch of players at Altoona who have impressive tools and therefore considerable ceilings, but who haven’t put it together yet.  There are also going to be some players making big jumps.

Catcher:  Deon Stafford, Arden Pabst, Raul Hernandez

Stafford is the most interesting of the catchers.  He hit for a lot of power in college, but the bat hasn’t really come around as a pro.  His defense needs a lot of work, so he’ll have to hit a lot more than he has to this point.

Pabst was one of three interchangeable, good-glove/no-bat catchers the Pirates had at the upper levels in 2019, the others being Christian Kelley and Jason Delay.  All you need to know is that the Pirates added two minor league veterans to catch this year at Indianapolis, where Delay will probably be the third-string catcher; released Kelley; and sent Pabst back for his second try at Altoona.

Hernandez is an organizational guy.

Infield:  Rodolfo Castro, Oneil Cruz, Ji-Hwan Bae, Mason Martin, Josh Bissonette, Ethan Paul, Brendt Citta

The Altoona infield could be the most exciting “unit” in the organization (the Greensboro rotation is probably the top competition).  Four players, each with one or more loud tools, three with the potential to hit for power and one with elite, leadoff speed.  And there are some interesting differences.

Martin and Castro have roughly the same issue, which is making contact.  Martin is a classic, three-true outcome hitter who sells out for pull power.  He had a huge year at a young age in 2019 (which seems to have attracted oddly little attention), so he just needs to do the same at higher levels.  Castro is more of a free swinger who needed time to adjust to low A, then less time to adjust to high A.

Cruz and Bae are a sharp contrast, and not just physically.  Everybody drools over Cruz’ tools, but he hasn’t really put it together at the plate.  In fact, he didn’t get to his power much in games in AA in 2019 and struggled badly in spring training.  The fact that he’s returning to Altoona probably isn’t a great sign, although Cole Tucker’s presence at Indianapolis may have played a role.  Bae, on the other hand, hit the ground running (literally and figuratively) in 2019 (once he got over his off-field problem) and is now skipping high A.  The Pirates are pushing him aggressively.

It’ll be especially interesting to see who plays where, and how often.  Martin, of course, will play first.  I’m guessing the default configuration will be Bae at second, Cruz at short (the Pirates have said recently that they still want to develop Cruz as a shortstop) and Castro at third.  I’d expect Bae and Castro to see time at short, and Castro’s already played a lot at second.  Then there’s the possibility of Cruz getting outfield time.

The other three players were college draftees and are making a big jump from short-season ball.  The big jump is interesting.  With the elimination of two short-season teams, the Pirates can’t just send players who haven’t established themselves as legit prospects back to Bristol or West Virginia.  There’s likely to be more of an up-or-out reality for later-round draftees.

Citta was selected in 2018 and spent two years in short-season ball, hitting well in the second year.  He can play outfield or first.  Bissonette and Paul were 2019 draftees.  They both hit decently, Bissonette at Bristol and Paul at West Virginia.  Paul plays short and Bissonette second, but both profile as utility infielders.

Outfield:  Cal Mitchell, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Daniel Amaral, Jonah Davis, Bligh Madris

The big names here are Mitchell and Smith-Njigba.  Mitchell gets high marks from scouts for his swing, but has yet to produce the way he needs to.  He’s got too much swing-and-miss and is prone to long, dismal slumps.  His bat has to carry the load, as he’s a fringy defender.  Smith-Njigba came in the Jameson Taillon trade and is skipping high A.  He’s a patient hitter who looks for a pitch to drive.

Davis has been through some extreme ups and downs.  He was the best hitter in the Appalachian League in his debut, then struggled so badly in low A that he got demoted.  He went back later that year and hit well.  Now he’s skipping high A.  He’s an all-or-nothing pull hitter.  If he’s in the outfield with Mitchell and Smith-Njigba, he’ll probably play center, but it’s not a great fit for him.

Madris and Amaral are likely organizational players at this point.  Madris will be repeating AA; he’s hit only passably so far.  Amaral is speedy and gets on base at a good rate, and can play center.

Pitcher:  Max Kranick, Cody Bolton, Roansy Contreras, Osvaldo Bido, Noe Toribio, Travis MacGregor, Brad Case, Yerry De Los Santos, Cam Alldred, Will Gardner, Shea Murray, Oddy Nunez, John O’Reilly, Jeffrey Passantino, Hunter Stratton

This staff is a lot easier to break down between starters and relievers than the lower level staffs.  The guys who profile as starters are Kranick, Bolton, Contreras, Bido, Toribio, MacGregor, Case and Passantino.

It’d help if the Pirates could get more actual starting prospects up to AAA soon.  The best candidates here are Kranick, Contreras and, maybe, Bolton.

Kranick has always seemed just a little short of breaking out, partly due to some injury problems.  The Pirates think his stuff has taken a step forward, though, obviously enough to put him on the 40-man roster.  Contreras, who came in the Jameson Taillon trade, was a significant signing for the Yankees in 2016.  He probably looks more like a 4th/5th starter, as he doesn’t miss a lot of bats.

Bolton’s situation isn’t clear.  He’s been one of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects for a couple years.  He was in camp in spring training, but didn’t pitch in any games, except maybe at Pirate City.  An article listed him as a reliever, but that may not be official.

MacGregor looked like he was breaking out back in 2018, but he got hurt and ended up having Tommy John surgery.  He’s skipping high A.  He hasn’t pitched in game action for nearly three years, so it’s hard to know what to expect.

Bido and Toribio have both moved very quickly, for different reasons.  Bido was 21 when he signed and is now 25.  He throws four pitches and has good velocity, but hasn’t established an out pitch.  Toribio is still only 21 and was signed as a hard thrower, but he’s more of a finesse righty now.  He’s thrown only 38 innings in low A and none in high A, so the Pirates are pushing him aggressively.

Case is a 6’7″ righty who was a 17th-round pick and has been something of a dark horse.  The Pirates pushed him to high A in just his second pro season.  He’s more of a finesse pitcher and was a late addition to the Altoona roster.

The Pirates added Passantino in the minor league phase of Rule 5.  He doesn’t exactly fit any common profile:  He’s a 5’9″ righty who throws only in the upper-80s, but he seldom walks anybody, and generally strikes out a batter an inning thanks to good breaking stuff.  He could start or relieve.

The big relief prospects are probably De Los Santos and Murray.  De Los Santos spent several years trying to get healthy, then dominated low A in 2019.  He looked fairly good in spring training and now is skipping high A.  Murray is a big guy with upper-90s velocity who may be the least hittable pitcher in the system.  He was mainly an outfielder in college and had elbow surgery right after being drafted.  Wildness has been his main problem.

O’Reilly signed as a non-drafted free agent, then hiked his velocity up to the mid-90s.  He started his first full season (2019) in low A and finished it in AA.

Alldred, a lefty, and Stratton were drafted in 2018 and 2017, respectively.  Both have put up just passable numbers.  Gardner, another 2018 pick, has gotten better results, striking out over a batter an inning, but with a lot of walks.

Nunez is a 6’8″ lefty who seemed to be breaking out in 2017.  Since then he’s been dogged by reduced velocity and back problems.

Potential Starters

C:  Stafford
1B:  Martin
2B:  Bae
3B:  Castro
SS:  Cruz
OF:  Smith-Njigba, Mitchell, Davis
Rotation:  Kranick, Contreras, Bolton, Bido, Toribio, MacGregor

Top Prospects:  Cruz, Bae

Sleepers:  Kranick, Smith-Njigba