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Pirates' GM analyzes Sanchez, Marte, other top Curve prospects
August 5, 2011 - Cory Giger
The Pirates' top two position player prospects have been with the Curve all season, but catcher Tony Sanchez and center fielder Starling Marte have produced vastly different results at the Double-A level.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has been in town this week analyzing those two and other Curve prospects. He shared his thoughts following Thursday night's game and was candid about Sanchez's offensive struggles, Marte's impressive performance and status at the trade deadline and insights on other top Altoona players.
SUBHD: Tony Sanchez
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft is hitting just .237 with four homers and 36 RBIs and has committed 14 errors in 79 games behind the plate. Those numbers don't justify his No. 2 ranking among Pirates prospects, tops among position players.
"Tony's going through a normal growing curve of a young player," Huntington said. "He's learning how to call a game, which is a big part of it. People don't give enough credit to how difficult that is, especially at the major league level, and Tony's learning and getting better there.
"He's come through some hurdles and come through some bumps offensively. He's just trying to do too much. When he stays within himself, as he did his last at-bat [Wednesday] night, and stays in the middle of the field he's a threat. When young guys try to do too much they open up too many holes."
The glaring statistical weakness for Sanchez is a total of 14 extra-base hits in 312 at-bats. He has only nine doubles and one triple, giving him an eye-poppingly low .311 slugging percentage.
Sanchez's OPS isn't disastrous at .652. That's a result of a decent on-base percentage of .341 that's more than 100 points higher than his average -- his 37 walks are second on the team -- but a guy with a good reputation as a hitter having so few doubles at this point in the season is shocking.
"It's a product of trying to do too much, interestingly enough," Huntington said of the low extra-base hit figure. "When he stays in the middle of the field, he's going to drive the ball, he's going to find gaps, he's going to hit mistakes out of the ballpark. When he tries to hit with power, he's going to fail. That's the same with any young hitter, really."
It's no surprise Huntington believes Sanchez has the ability to be "a lot better" offensively.
"It's in there to be a quality major league hitter," he said. "And again, when he trusts himself and keeps his approach simple and does what he's done in the past and what our guys are trying to get him to do, he's going to be a threat with the bat."
Sanchez committed a bunch of errors early but has improved with only three in his past 25 games behind the plate. He's a work in progress throwing out baserunners, having nailed just 27-of-117 (23.1 percent).
"Tony's continued to get better defensively," Huntington said. "We've still got a lot of work to do with every young player, but Tony's come along nicely."
SUBHD: Starling Marte
There's no doubt Marte will be rated as the Pirates' top position player prospect going into next season, and up from No. 4 overall this year. He's been superb for the Curve, leading the Eastern League with 126 hits, ranking seventh with a .313 average and showing off an impressive arm with 13 outfield assists, only one off the league lead.
"It's good to see him come into this league and just continue to hit," Huntington said. "He's learning how to command the strike zone, which is going to be crucial for his success at the higher levels.
"Defensively he's as good as they get. He's got arm strength, he can run the ball down. On the bases, he can make an impact there. He's been fun to watch develop this year and hopefully years to come."
How good could he be at the major league level?
"He's got the tools and the skills that you can dream of to be a very good major league player down the road," the GM said.
Marte has so much potential and is already so good that many people figured he might have been an untouchable at the trade deadline last week. He wasn't, albeit with an understandable asterisk.
"Well, we don't really have any untouchables," Huntington said. "If somebody wants to back up the truck and it makes a ton of sense for us, we're not at a point in time where we can have any untouchables. But we have certain guys that are going to be tough to move, and Marte we hope is a big part of our future."
SUBHD: Bryan Morris
The right-hander might be the most major league ready of any current Curve pitcher. He began the season as the Pirates' No. 6 prospect, and while his numbers aren't great at 1-4 with a 3.92 ERA in 26 games (six starts), his stuff is more important than the stats.
"Bryan has stuff that can play at the major league level on any given night, it's just a matter of the consistency," Huntington said. "You saw it [Thursday] night, the power fastball down in the zone. It just explodes when it's down, it gets hit when it's up.
"The breaking ball, when he tries to throw perfect breaking balls, they'll spin on him and hang on him a little bit. When he relaxes and trusts, he's got two major league quality breaking balls."
The Pirates have to decide if Morris is a starter or reliever. He's been much better in the latter role for Altoona, posting a 2.36 ERA in 34 1/3 innings compared to 6.04 in 25 1/3 innings as a starter.
"We're trying to build some innings," Huntington said. "We can never undervalue the importance of starting pitching at the major league level. There's some things in his history that say he's more suited to start, there's some things that say he's more suited to pitch out of the bullpen.
"Some guys go to the big leagues as relievers and eventually pitch themselves back into the rotation. We're leaving that door open for Bryan, whether he goes back in the rotation next year or he pitches himself to the big leagues as a reliever and then expands. Guys that can pitch late in the ballgame are valuable at the major league level, as well."
SUBHD: Jeff Locke
The lefty is rated as the Bucs' No. 8 prospect and has been up and down this season at 6-8 with a 4.22 ERA, but he's pitched better of late. Huntington got to see one of Locke's best performances Wednesday night when he held Binghamton to one run on four hits with six strikeouts and no walks in seven innings.
"Jeff struggled with fastball command earlier this season, and it looks like he's righted that ship," Huntington said. "The mechanics are solid, a quality mix of pitches, and obviously he competes."
SUBHD: Tim Alderson
He got off to an excellent start as a reliever as he looked to bounce back from a rotten 2010 season, posting a 1.17 ERA through May. He has fallen on hard times lately, though, with a 6.59 ERA since June.
Huntington saw Locke at his best on Wednesday, but he saw Alderson at his worst a day later as he gave up three runs on three hits in just one-third of an inning against Binghamton.
"[Thursday's] outing, the first three or four hitters that reached base it's a couple bleeders and bloops," Huntington said. "Tim made some good pitches, and unfortunately they put them in play and found holes. But a couple guys squared him up there after, and they put up a three-spot on him. But those first four or five hitters, Tim threw the ball well. He located his stuff, he made good pitches, they just found holes on him."
Huntington sounded optimistic about Alderson despite the big dropoff in effectiveness the past two months.
"There's been some times where he's been squared up, but it sounds like just listening to the game reports it's been some combination of some cheap hits as well as some hard contact in there," Huntington said. "Tim's stuff, when sharp, can play at the major league level. It's just a matter of doing it consistently."
Alderson endured such a poor 2010 season -- getting demoted from the Curve to Single-A Bradenton and struggling there -- that self-confidence has to remain an issue with him going forward.
"Sure, any time a guy struggles you worry about where he's going to take that mentally," Huntington said. "We're working with Tim to try to get him to continue to build on the positives and get him to understand what allowed him to have that early success and try to make that become the norm."
The major issue with Alderson has been and will remain velocity. He was down around 85-87 mph last year, and while he was in the 89 mph range earlier this season, he has started to dip a bit and was primarily 87 mph Thursday.
"The readings as a whole are within expectations," Huntington said. "Obviously the better velocity, the better life, the better margin for error. And for him to be successful, he may need to pitch in the upper 80s and get into the lower 90s on occasion.
"It's tough for really any big league pitcher to pitch in the mid-80s with any consistent basis. But it's not all about velocity. It's about the mechanics and how is he getting there, it's about the strength and about the fatigue and the other pitches, as well. He's making good progress and obviously pitched very well early."
SUBHD: Matt Curry
The first baseman crushed the ball at low-A West Virginia (.361, nine homers, 34 RBIs, 1.148 OPS in 46 games), so the Pirates did something they rarely have ever done and let him skip high-A to join the Curve on May 30.
Curry got off to a fast start with Altoona, hitting .300 his first 11 games, then slumped all the way down to .218 on June 29. He's rebounded since then, hit .308 in July and is now at .266 with five homers and 29 RBIs in 60 games.
"Matt's an advanced college hitter that probably in a normal environment doesn't start in low-A ball," Huntington said. "A typical environment, he probably starts in high-A. But with [since-traded] Aaron Baker at the time, we had to make a decision of do we kind of push them both, or do we give them both a chance to get off to a good start.
"Matt got off to a great start, and we felt it was a worthwhile shot to move him here. After some growing pains and some adjustments to the league, it looks like he's figuring some things out."
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.