Pittsburgh Pirates Prospects: Previewing Altoona’s Pitching Staff

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates Double-A affiliate, the Altoona Curve, will have a powerful pitching staff with a lot of talent during the 2022 season.

Pitching has been something the Pittsburgh Pirates have focused heavily on throughout the past few seasons. In Ben Cherington’s first draft as the Pirate general manager five of his six picks were right-handed pitchers, and three of his first five picks in the 2021 draft were pitchers. He’s also acquired a handful of pitchers through trade like Roansy Contreras, Miguel Yajure, David Bednar, Kyle Nicolas, Ricky DeVito, and a handful of other names.

Because of the massive influx of pitching since the start of this rebuild, the strongest part of the system is their arms. Many of their most talented arms should start the 2022 season in the upper levels of the minor leagues, especially at Double-A Altoona.

Right-hander Quinn Priester is the most talented arm to take a spot in Altoona’s rotation. Priester is a consensus top 100 prospect who had a 3.04 ERA, 4.08 FIP, and 1.24 WHIP. Like many of his teammates at Greensboro, Priester had a phenomenal second half where he had a 2.59 ERA, 3.35 FIP, and 1.11 WHIP. Priester has a wide array of pitches, including an elite-level fastball, mid-to-upper-90’s four-seamer, a sinking two-seamer, cutter/slider, and changeup. His pitch mix are all considered to have average or better potential.

After Priester, you have another right-hander in Michael Burrows. A spin rate king, Burrows averages 2500 RPM on his four-seamer and 3000 RPM with his curveball. Burrows added a few ticks of velocity last season, now hitting around 94-96 MPH. Although his fastball and curveball are great, his change-up falls on the fringy side of things.

However, he should be a long-term starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates if he can improve his changeup just a bit or up his ability to locate. He’s flown up prospect boards recently and now ranks as a borderline top 100 guy per FanGraphs’ rankings.

Kyle Nicolas was one of the newest additions to the system, coming by way of the Jacob Stallings trade. A second-round pick by the Miami Marlins, Nicolas showed off a mid-90s fastball with 2400 RPM. He also throws a slider with wipeout action. Although he has great stuff, he’s still a raw talent. Although he had a 31.9% strikeout rate, he also had an 11.5% walk rate and 1.5 HR/9 in his first taste of professional action. He also needs to seriously improve either his curveball or change-up to remain a starter. However, a mid-to-upper-90’s fastball with plus spin and wipeout slider will work well out of the bullpen.

One of the more underrated arms in the system belongs to J.C. Flowers. He’s a highly athletic pitcher, given he was an outfielder until his last season in college ball at Florida State. Flowers throws a fastball, slider, and change-up. He had a solid 3.78 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and 1.271 WHIP in 78.2 innings of work with Bradenton and Greensboro. Flowers’ fastball is a good pitch, and his change-up is a solid offering, but his slider is the best in the system and arguably the best in the minor leagues. It has heavy late-breaking action, which he gets a ton of strikeouts on.

Ricky DeVito was one of the many pitchers they acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates at the 2021 trade deadline. The right-hander has an elite-level splitter along with a plus slider. He also throws a four-seamer in the low-to-mid-90’s. He’ll be another option in Altoona’s starting pitching rotation.

Last season he made five starts and accumulated 20.1 innings with Atlanta’s High-A affiliate, putting up a quality 2.66 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 1.28 WHIP. His splitter makes him an intriguing pitcher and enough to be a potential late-inning reliever. But if he can refine his command, he’d become a very underrated potential starting pitcher.

They won’t be the only players at Altoona next season. Eventually, Luis Ortiz and Adrian Florencio will reach Altoona. Both were great at Bradenton but are entering their age-23 season. Florencio won his league’s pitcher of the year award, and Ortiz couldn’t have been far behind him, given he edged out Florencio in terms of strikeout rate, home run rate, walk rate, and FIP. Another of Ortiz’s and Florencio’s teammates, Nick Garcia, is also in his age-23 season. One of the pitchers the Pirates drafted in the 2020 draft, Garcia didn’t pitch as well as either of his two teammates, but given his age, he could move to Altoona later in the season, especially if he gets off to a great start.

The Curve could also have a few notable relief prospects. Left-hander Tyler Samaniego was a 15th round pick this past draft who has a mid-90s four-seamer and plus slider. He also had a 7.5 K/BB ratio through his first taste of pro-action with Bradenton. Enmanuel Mejia has only given up six earned runs through 63.1 career innings. He has some command issues but has already pitched at Greensboro and will be in his age-23 campaign. Justin Meis was another 2021 draft pick. He might start the year at Greensboro but should end the year at Altoona.

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The Altoona Curve pitching staff is arguably the most talented among the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliates. It also gives the Pirates a bright outlook for the near-term future. Altoona isn’t that far off from the major league team. A handful of these arms should see some playing time at Triple-A Indianapolis. Who knows, maybe someone like Priester or Burrows makes their debut. The Pirates were swift in calling up Roansy Contreras after starting his 2021 season at Altoona.