By Rob Egan
Jameson Taillon is part of the “one-two punch” that new Altoona Curve manager Carlos Garcia described this week when talking about the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ rotation. The hard-throwing right-hander, who won all three of his starts with the Curve late last season, will return to the Double-A club to begin 2013. He will lead a pitching staff that looks to be the strength of Altoona at the outset of the coming season.
According to Pirates’ Director of Player Development Larry Broadway, Taillon will be joined by newly-acquired Stolmy Pimentel, returnee Tyler Waldron, and Double-A rookie Casey Sadler on the Curve’s starting staff. The fifth starter will likely come from a group that includes Minor League Rule 5 draft pick Ethan Hollingsworth, recently-signed free agent Luis Sanz, and two pitchers who spent the bulk of last year in Bradenton in Jhonathan Ramos and Eliecer Navarro. Of all of the potential starters, six are right-handed, including the four already slotted in the rotation. Ramos and Navarro are the left-handed options.
With just nine days to go before the Curve heads north, Broadway rattled off five relievers that are good bets to be a part of the pitching staff. That list is headed by a member of the Pirates’ 40-man roster, right-hander Hunter Strickland. Fellow right-handers Jeff Inman and Jason Townsend, who, like Strickland, spent time in Altoona in 2012, are expected to be back to begin this campaign. Zach Thornton, a right-hander acquired from Oakland in exchange for Chris Resop in late November, could be the Curve’s closer in 2013 after racking up 16 saves for the Athletics’ high Class A club in Stockton last year. Nathan Baker, who began last year in the Altoona rotation before finding his niche in the bullpen, will give Garcia a left-handed option in relief.
The projected roster of position players will blend a fair amount of speed, a little bit of power, and plenty of versatility. Broadway identified only four players as being “everyday players”. First baseman Alex Dickerson and second baseman Jarek Cunningham will be relied on for extra base hits and RBI, while center fielder Mel Rojas, Jr. and shortstop Gift Ngoepe will keep things moving on the bases. Dickerson, a third-round pick in 2011 out of Indiana, avoided a sophomore season jinx in Bradenton last year by socking 13 home runs, driving in 90, and batting .295 en route to being the first Marauder to earn Florida State League Player of the Year honors. The left-handed hitter also showed a bit of speed with 12 steals for the Marauders.
Cunningham will be looking to improve upon his 2012 stint with the Curve (.217, 6 HR, 45 RBI in 105 games) and provide some right-handed pop in the middle of the order. Rojas, son of the former Major League relief pitcher of the same name, stole 16 bases and rapped 12 triples while patrolling center field in Bradenton last season. Meanwhile, Ngoepe (pronounced en-GO-pay) hails from South Africa, speaks British-accented English, and is noted for his excellent glove work. In 2012 with the Marauders, Ngoepe sported a solid .330 on-base percentage, stole 22 bases, and flashed power with nine home runs. He followed that up with an even better Arizona Fall League performance – hitting .261 and getting on base at a .370 clip.
The other four positions on the diamond aren’t as clear cut at the start of 2013 for Altoona. Carlos Paulino will be one of two catchers to split time with the club. The right-handed hitting backstop was acquired in a 2011 spring training trade from the Marlins in exchange for former Curve infielder Jim Negrych. Paulino hit .251 with four home runs and 35 RBI in 84 games. He will be joined behind the plate in Altoona by either returnee Charlie Cutler (.296, 2 HR, 19 RBI, .407 OBP) or waiver wire pick-up Ali Solis (.283, 6 HR, 40 RBI with Double-A San Antonio in the Padres’ system in ’12).
Third base, right field, and left field will be manned by a collection of players competing for at-bats, said Broadway. Those corner infield/outfield-types will probably consist of Stefan Welch, Oscar Tejeda, Justin Howard, and Dan Grovatt. Andy Vasquez is likely to make the Curve as an outfielder with Carlos Mesa, a Cuban defector, also a possibility for one of those spots. Kelson Brown, who was solid as a reserve third baseman and shortstop in 2012, is trying to win a similar spot on this year’s edition.
While there may be a surprise or two joining the Curve’s 25-man roster before the March 30 exhibition game against the Pirates at Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona, Broadway seemed fairly firm on 20 players – nine pitchers and eleven position players. Three of the four pitchers in the running for the final rotation spot will make the club, at least as a long reliever. The last two spots may come down to who will join Paulino at catcher and a reserve infield position.