Hot Stove: Altoona to reap talent curve

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John Beale, Post-Gazette
Pine-Richland graduate and former No. 1 pick Neil Walker figures to open 2007 at Class AA Altoona.
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Neil Walker has spent the past month enduring two-a-day workouts as part of a clinic at Arizona State University. Other participants include Major League Baseball luminaries Curt Schilling, Jason Schmidt, Dave Roberts and Carl Crawford.

"Great experience," Walker said by phone from Tempe, Ariz. "Just being around guys like that and seeing how they do things is awesome."

It should not be the last time this year that he is surrounded by peers pushing him.

The Pirates plan to place their top two prospects, Walker and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, with Class AA Altoona to open this season. Their top pitcher, Brad Lincoln, could join them soon, too, if he performs as expected with Class A Lynchburg. There also will be outfielder Nyjer Morgan, second baseman Javier Guzman, starter Josh Shortslef and relievers Dave Davidson and Romulo Sanchez off the 40-man roster.

There is a chance, too, that starter Yoslan Herrera, the Cuban signee coming off two years of inactivity, will open with the Curve.

"For me, the idea of having that many prospects at one level is exciting," director of player development Brian Graham said. "And the best part is, if you look at these players individually, they're guys who have a legitimate chance of reaching the big leagues."

That so many prospects from the Pirates' generally thin system are on the same team is, of course, a coincidence. But it is one that Graham seems to appreciate.

"It's a great benefit to the development of all of them, I think. You give them a chance to come together, work hard, push each other."

Walker has a similar view.

"Hey, everybody likes to lead their team in all the numbers," he said. "But I like to have somebody there motivating me to get better every day. And I think there are going to be lots of those players in Altoona."

That will bring a 180-degree reversal from last season, when the Curve's roster was stocked with career minor-leaguers. The average age, 26.8, was older than that of the Florida Marlins.

That began to change late in the season, when Walker and McCutchen were promoted to Altoona with mostly good results. Walker was slowed by illness and batted .161, but he also had two home runs in 10 games and led the team with a .300 average in the playoffs. McCutchen batted .308 with three home runs in 20 games, then dried up -- going 4 for 22 -- in the playoffs.

Walker is scheduled to be the Curve's catcher, but that is tentative. The Pirates have told him that they will have him try third base and the outfield this spring, too, mostly because Ronny Paulino appears to have the catcher's job in Pittsburgh locked up for years.

"I love to catch, and I feel I'm getting better," Walker said. "But I'm OK with it, too. I have mixed feelings."

McCutchen will stay in center field most of the time, even though that is Morgan's natural position. But he will see duty on the corners, too, another move aimed at preparing for Pittsburgh, where Chris Duffy is seen as the long-term center fielder.

Buried treasure

Jose Castillo is representing his native Venezuela in the Caribbean World Series, the annual four-nation, six-day event that this year is being held at Roberto Clemente Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In a classic tournament opener Friday, Castillo, playing right field, went 3 for 8 in a 4-3, 18-inning loss to the Dominicans. He went 0 for 4 last night in a 6-3 loss to the host nation.

New first baseman Adam LaRoche shared this eyebrow-raising observation about the Pirates' expectations with the Atlanta Journal-Constituation earlier in the week: "Their goal right now is about change ... almost like their goal is to try to be a .500 team, then try get to playoffs later. They don't know whether it takes three years or five years. In my opinion, they need to get the .500 thing out of their heads and go for the playoffs. ... They want to win, but I think nobody's real sure how to do it."

And on the Braves' fan base: "They need to get that fire back. ... It's weird. I'm seeing it in Pittsburgh, and they haven't even been over .500 in how many years? These fans are going crazy, they're the underdog, and these are their guys. It's almost like they're part of it."

Concerned about Salomon Torres as closer? To Matt Capps, the greater issue is how he and his fellow relievers will replace Torres' 94 appearances: "I don't worry about him. But making up for all that work ... we'll see what happens." Surely, the Pirates cannot ask more of Capps, whose 85 appearances ranked second in MLB to Torres. Damaso Marte's 75 ranked 11th, and John Grabow's 72 ranked 25th.

At the end of last season, the Pirates' 40-man roster included 24 players who signed their first professional contract with them, most in MLB. The Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants each had 23.

Twelve days until pitchers and catchers report.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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