When the minor league season begins later this week the Double-A Altoona Curve will have a roster that features plenty of power
While the Pittsburgh Pirates have put together one of the best farm systems in all of baseball, one area the farm system could still use a boost is power. The Pirate farm system does not lack power but it is also not heavy on power.
Well, when the minor league season begins this week one minor league team that will be heavy on power is the Double-A Altoona Curve. The rosters for Low-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona were announced on Friday, and plenty of balls should be soaring out of People’s Natural Gas Field this summer.
Arguably the biggest name that will start their season at Double-A Altoona is Oneil Cruz. The left-handed hitting slugger has a 70 raw power future value according to FanGraphs and has as high a power potential as just about any prospect in baseball.
This will be Cruz’s second taste of Double-A pitching after playing 35 games with the Curve in 2019. Cruz hit for a .269/.346/.412 slash line to go wit ha 120 wRC+ in 136 plate appearances with the Curve. While he struck out in 25.7% of at-bats he posted a strong 11.0% walk rate. Cruz and the Pittsburgh Pirates will be hoping to see increased power from him with the Curve this season.
One interesting thing to watch with Cruz will be what position he will play. He is a shortstop but there has long been speculation about him changing position. This spring he started to play in the outfield so it will be interesting to see what positions he sees playing time at and how much time he sees at each position.
Another big power bat set to begin the season at Double-A Altoona is first baseman Mason Martin. The 2019 season was a breakout one for Martin. He accumulated 556 plate appearances in 131 games between the Low-A and High-A levels. In these 556 PAs, his power began to explode.
Between the two levels Martin hit 35 home runs, 32 doubles and 4 triples. He hit for a .254/.351/.558 slash line to go with a .304 isolate power (ISO) and a wRC+ of 161. However, his 30.2% strikeout rate was a big red flag.
2021 will be a big test for Martin. While his power is undeniable, his hit tool has just a 30 FV according to FanGraphs. There are also plenty of concerns about his aforementioned strikeouts. The jump from High-A to Double-A can some times be the most difficult for young hitters. The Pittsburgh Pirates and their fans will be watching Martin closely this season.
Another lefty power bat that will start the season at Double-A Altoona is outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba. Smith-Njigba was acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Jameson Taillon trade and could move quickly through the farm system.
Smith-Njigba has a raw power FV of 60 according to FanGraphs. In 2019 he hit for a healthy .307/.405/.465 slash line at the High-A level. He walked at a healthy 14.0% clip, while striking out just 20.5% of the time. He posted a 154 wRC+, .158 ISO and collected 46 extra base hits.
Another notable hitter who will begin the season with Double-A Altoona is infielder Ji-hwan Bae. Known for his speed and hitting tool, Bae will see playing time at both shortstop and second base for the Curve.
By starting the season at the Double-A level Bae will be skipping the High-A level. With then Low-A Greensboro in 2019 he hit for a .323/.403/.430 slash line. His wRC+ was 145, he walked 11.3% of the time and stole 31 bases. Look for Bae to bat leadoff most nights for Altoona.
Utility man Rodolfo Castro is also listed on the Curve roster. Castro made his MLB debut earlier this month after being called up from the alternate training site. While Castro will start the season at Double-A, he should find himself back in Pittsburgh before the season ends.
A tiro of notable pitching prospects will start the year at the Double-A level as well. They are Cody Bolton, Roansy Contreras and Max Karnick.
This will be Bolton’s second taste of the Double-A level. Bolton struggled in 40 innings across 9 starts with the Curve in 2019, posting a 5.85 ERA, 4.67 FIP, 9.6% walk rate and a 19.8% strikeout rate. If Bolton pitches well for Altoona he could quickly find himself with Triple-A Indianapolis. It would not be a surprise to see him in the Pirate starting rotation by the end of the season.
Contreras was also acquired in the Taillon trade. In limited action in Grapefruit League play he flashed a power fastball and a plus changeup. He posted a strong 3.33 ERA, 3.67 FIP, 6.7% walk rate and 21.1% strikeout rate in 132.1 innings pitched in 24 starts at the High-A level in 2019. Contreras should have a real shot to find himself in the Triple-A starting rotation by the end of the season.
Kranick was added to the Pirate 40-man roster this past offseason in order to protect him from the Run 5 Draft. This spring his fastball was touching triple digits and he also throws a slider with plus potential. While Kranick’s long-term future could be in the bullpen, he will start the season as a starting pitcher for the Curve.
There are other notable Pirate prospects who will start the year in Altoona. Reliever Yerry De Los Santos is one of the organization’s top relief pitching prospects and outfielder Cal Mitchell remains a toolsy outfielder with sky high potential. Hard throwing reliever John O’Reilly, and friend of the Rum Bunter podcast, outfielder Bligh Madris are intriguing prospects to watch as well.