Kingham continues to improve

Nick Kingham was better in high-A than he was at low-A, and he was better his first time in Double-A last year than he was at high-A.

That’s pretty rare in the minor leagues. Competition gets tougher with each step up the ladder, so normally players’ numbers dip a little.

Not with Kingham, which is why he’s so highly thought of in the Pirates’ system.

The 22-year-old right-hander is expected to be the Curve’s ace this season, and he’ll get a chance to be right off the bat when he starts the opener Thursday night against Erie at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

This will be the third time in four years Kingham will start an opener, which he treats as “just another game” and doesn’t deal with any extra nerves.

“You’ve got to keep calm and try to just stay self-centered and don’t let the game be bigger than it is,” Kingham said. “It is a game, so you just go out there, and you know what you can do.”

Kingham, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, was exceptional as a rookie at State College in 2011 as he went 6-2 with a 2.15 ERA in 15 starts.

The only level he didn’t dominate was low-A, going 6-8 with a 4.39 ERA at West Virginia in 2012.

He came back last season and was 6-3 with a 3.09 ERA at high-A Bradenton, then was even better than that with the Curve, posting a 2.70 ERA with a 3-3 record.

“The success just came from knowing myself, not trying to do too much, knowing what I’m capable of and bringing that every fifth day out to the field,” Kingham said of his late-season work with the Curve.

He’s rated as the Pirates’ No. 5 prospect, according to Baseball America. Regardless of if a player tries to avoid focusing much on that kind of thing, it’s impossible to completely ignore it.

“It’s hard not to come across that stuff,” Kingham said. “It gets brought up to me every now and then. Family back home, they’re always just texting me, ‘Hey, congrats on everything.’ So it’s a nice little accolade, a little accomplishment so far along the journey.”

Aside from some extra notoriety, though, prospect rankings don’t amount to much right now, something Kingham understands well.

“The real goal is just to get up to Pittsburgh,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re ranked on anything. Just keep on grinding, and I just know I’m not where I want to be yet.”

Where he wants to be is only 100 miles away now, and the dream often starts to feel a little closer to reality for players when they get to Altoona.

“It definitely does,” Kingham said, “but at the same time it just makes all this work that much harder because we know how close we are. So just not get comfortable and not get satisfied with where we are right now and keep looking at where we want to be and doing everything we can to make that come true.”

Rest of rotation

Kingham will be followed in the rotation by: RHP Adrian Sampson, LHP Joely Rodriguez, RHP Zack Dodson and RHP Tyler Sample.

In the field

The Curve’s primary lineup early on will be Elias Diaz at catcher, Justin Howard at first, Gift Ngoepe at second, Alen Hanson at shortstop, Jarek Cunningham at third, Keon Broxton in left, Mel Rojas Jr. in center and Willy Garcia in right.

Manager Carlos Garcia has not firmed up the batting order just yet but said Hanson likely will lead off, followed by either Rojas or Ngoepe second.

Cunningham has a chance to be in the cleanup spot after hitting 19 homers last year.

Allie update

First baseman Stetson Allie could join the Curve in about a week, Garcia said, after continuing to rehab an oblique injury in extended spring training.

Once Allie comes on board, he will hit in the three hole and play first base the majority of the time. Justin Howard will open the season at first and then get his at-bats in various roles after Allie joins the club.