Curve have major questions on offense

Lookie, lookie, lookie here: The Man is coming back to Altoona for tonight’s season opener.

Pirates utility man and former Curve infielder Josh Harrison is scheduled to throw out a ceremonial first pitch before the game against Erie at Peoples Natural Gas Field. There’s a potential snag, however, as the Pirates play at home this afternoon at 12:35, and that game needs to move along in good order for Harrison to make it to Altoona in time for the 6:30 contest.

Harrison is one of the most popular Curve players in recent years, thanks of course to his infectious “I’m the Man” walk-up song during the club’s 2010 Eastern League championship season.

Former Altoona pitcher Mike Johnston also is scheduled to be on hand for a ceremonial first pitch tonight.

The Curve start their 16th season looking for much better results than they produced last year, when they finished 63-79. But while the team should be a little better than that, it might not be much better given some of the offensive issues that could arise.

Here are some predictions for the season:

Record prediction: 66-76. Just can’t go any higher than that because of some major question marks on offense. There’s not much power, which can be worked around if a bunch of guys hit for high average. But that probably won’t be the case, either, so scoring runs figures to be a problem, much as it was last year. The Curve were in the bottom half of the Eastern League in most major offensive categories in 2013, and high-A Bradenton was even worse, ranking near the bottom in most stats in the Florida State League.

Playoffs: No.

They’ll be better if: Some key returning guys and one big newcomer all put up good years to carry the offense. Third baseman Jarek Cunningham (.216) and second baseman Gift Ngoepe (.177) have to hit better and get on base more. Outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. (.274) just needs to do what he did last season. First baseman Stetson Allie must adjust to the better pitching in Double-A and be a big producer. There are other question marks, but those four players will have to perform hitting near the top of the order.

They’ll be worse if: The pitching struggles, which is not expected. There will be some ups and downs, but by and large the guys on the mound will have to keep the team close in low-scoring games. If they can’t, well, another season of close to 80 losses would be possible.

Biggest strength: The defense up the middle should be very good, led by shortstop Alen Hanson and Ngoepe at second, along with Rojas in center and Elias Diaz behind the plate.

Biggest weakness: Inexperience. There’s only one guy on the team who has played in Triple-A, catcher Ralph Henriquez, and most of the roster has limited or no experience in Double-A.

First player promoted to Triple-A: Pitcher Nick Kingham, who already has proven himself with a good half season in Double-A and could be moved up in a couple of months.

First player to reach majors: Hanson already is a member of the 40-man roster and could get a shot with the Bucs late in the year.

Most exciting new player: Outfielder Willy Garcia could put up some impressive numbers. He had 16 homers with 60 RBIs last season for Bradenton while hitting .256. But he also struck out a whopping 154 times in only 480 at-bats (32 percent of the time), and that’s a concern entering the season.

Most exciting new pitcher: Lefty Joely Rodriguez, also on the Bucs’ 40-man roster, was terrific last year between low-A and high-A, posting a 2.70 ERA. He’s a bit of a late bloomer, so we could see him continue to figure things out and excel.

Most exciting returning player(s): Kingham and Hanson are the easy choices. But Cunningham also has the ability to produce good numbers and needs a big season in his third year back in Double-A. Cunningham is such a good guy who’s easy to root for, and this probably will be the make-or-break year in his career.

Cory Giger has covered the Curve since their inaugural 1999 season. He can be reached at 949-7031 and on Twitter @CoryGiger.