Spending a bunch of years in Double-A is usually the kiss of death for a player's chances of reaching the major leagues, but that might not be the case for a pair of ultra-Double-A Curve veterans.
This is the sixth season that outfielder Andrew Lambo will be in Double-A, having first reached the level way back in 2008 for eight games in the Dodgers organization. Pitcher Tim Alderson is back in Altoona for a fifth season, becoming just the second player (Shaun Skrehot the other) to spend five seasons with the Curve.
Conventional wisdom might say Lambo and Alderson are washed up, that if they haven't mastered this level yet then they never will.
It's not, however, like these are old guys who are barely hanging on to the game and whose careers are winding down. Both Lambo and Alderson are still only 24 years old, which might be a couple of years older than the typical Double-A player but still not over the hill by any stretch.
It's a testament to both players that they were able to ascend to Double-A at such a young age, and the many experiences they've had at this level have provided lessons they hope to build on this season.
Lambo will be a corner outfielder and is penciled in as the cleanup hitter by Curve manager Carlos Garcia, while Alderson will be a key member of the bullpen.
Things came easily for Lambo early in his career as he rose quickly to Double-A and once was rated the No. 1 prospect in the Dodgers organization by Baseball America.
"Honestly, I didn't really understand what was ahead of me," Lambo said when asked if he had too much success too early in his career. "I think that on top of having talent, you have to have the other side of baseball. That's also the mental approach on and off the field."
There are few questions about Lambo's athletic ability, but there have been questions in the past about his maturity. He also had to deal with a wrist injury that limited him to 26 games for the Curve in 2012.
"Mentally and physically I don't think I was really where I needed to be at," he said of his career up to this point. "And last year I was hurt all year and it was a tough year.
"It kind of hit me and it clicked last year when it got taken away. When the one thing that you love is taken away from you and you can't really do anything, you kind of re-evaluate what you've got."
So Lambo rededicated himself during the offseason and worked harder than he ever has so he could go to spring training in as good of shape as possible both mentally and physically.
"I think the Pirates noticed that in spring," he said. "I had a great spring, had some good big league at-bats this spring and transitioned that into spring training on the minor league side.
"So I definitely forced their hand to try to get a promotion, but unfortunately the roster situation, a couple of us here right now fell victim of a roster situation. But you can't really look at it like that. As long as you know that you did everything that you could forcing their hand, you can go from there."
Lambo turned in one of the highlights of the Curve vs. Pirates exhibition Saturday when he made a diving catch in left field to rob Andrew McCutchen of a double. He didn't see it at the time, but McCutchen gave him a tip of his cap to acknowledge the great play.
Josh Harrison told the outfielder about McCutchen's gesture, and Lambo reached out to the Pirates star afterward.
"I texted him and said, 'Thanks, man,'" Lambo said. "And he said, 'That was an unbelievable catch' and wished me the best of luck. I said, 'Hey, I hope I'm sitting next to your locker by the end of this year.'"
At just 24 years old, Lambo still has time to impress the right people to perhaps someday make it to the majors. To do that, he realizes it's as much about attitude as anything else.
"You could say coulda, woulda, shoulda, but right now I'm happy where I'm at mentally, physically, and my goal is to help the big league squad this year," he said.
"Wherever I start out at is where I start out at. You see a lot of stories in the past of guys starting in Double-A, Triple-A, and at the end of the year they're in the big leagues. So my focus right now is to help Altoona win ballgames, but my ultimate goal is to help the big league squad win ballgames."
Alderson has faced highly publicized struggles in Double-A after coming to the Pirates from the Giants in a 2009 trade for second baseman Freddy Sanchez. He lost his fastball velocity for a couple of years before regaining it last season with the Curve.
A former first-round draft pick, Alderson may no longer be a prized prospect. But like Lambo, he's still young enough to where he has time to make a mark and get up to the big leagues.
"It's not necessarily a bad thing," Alderson said of being back in Double-A for a fifth season. "It just means I've been up here for a while so I was young and got a shot early. Now I've just got to transition into a leader and fit into the role they want me to be in. I'm not looking too much into it, I'm just focusing day by day."
Alderson said the biggest thing he's learned in Double-A is to "not read into too much and try not to make it to the major leagues every day."
He opened last season in the Curve bullpen and excelled, went to the rotation for two months and then finished back in the bullpen. He had a 2.77 ERA as a reliever compared to 4.91 as a starter.
The pitcher doesn't yet know exactly what his role will be on this year's team, but he would like chances to pitch late in games and to close.
"I really enjoy the pressure that comes along with that responsibility," Alderson said. "But if they want me to try starting again I have no problem [with that]."
As Alderson pointed out - and it's true for Lambo as well - no matter how long a player is in Double-A, the major leagues really aren't that far away.
"Double-A is not a bad spot to be in," Alderson said. "A lot of guys would love to be in our position. It is Double-A, but you're still one call away, so you've just got to treat it as you're going to have a good shot."