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Prospects make up for lost time

Few leagues can rival the Arizona Fall League’s alumni list. With graduates including Mike Piazza, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra, the league rightly bills itself as a major league breeding ground.

While the AFL is a steppingstone for prospects, there’s more on the line as the league celebrates its 10th anniversary this season as some of baseball’s best prospects return from injury-plagued seasons.

Reds outfielder Austin Kearns (thumb), Yankees third baseman Drew Henson (hand), Angels outfielder Nathan Haynes (knee) and a Cubs threesome of first baseman Hee Seop Choi (wrist), second baseman Bobby Hill (groin) and third baseman Dave Kelton all had injuries cut into their development time in 2001. More than any other player, though, Devil Rays outfielder Josh Hamilton will be under the most scrutiny this fall.

The top prospect in the game entering the season, Hamilton was limited by a flu virus, a back injury and a quadriceps injury this season and played just 27 games with 100 at-bats. Hamilton has been working with a trainer in Florida to stay in shape and work out the tightness in his quad, his most recent injury. He hasn’t played in a game since July.

"Essentially, this is his season," Devil Rays scouting director Dan Jennings said.

Jennings said he has an optimistic outlook for Hamilton. "Oh my God. I guarantee you this is the kid we drafted," he said. "Not only is he ready, we are too."

Hamilton, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 draft, created excitement when he hit .302-13-61 at Class A Charleston in 2000. He spent much of spring training in big league camp, spurring talk that he could be on Tampa Bay’s Opening Day roster. He not only struggled against big league pitching, but he also was involved in a car accident with a dump truck.

The Devil Rays say Hamilton’s back troubles were related to the spring wreck. He never felt comfortable at Double-A Orlando and hit .180-0-4 in 89 at-bats.

"Unfortunately, in development you run into injuries," Jennings said. "All you can hope for is that they can work through it. You have to try to pick out the bright spots in a situation like this. He’s learned his body, and he’s staying in shape, and mentally he’s got to be more hungry than ever."

Aside from developing players, the AFL also has a tradition of providing opportunities for managers on the rise. Dusty Baker and Mike Scioscia are the most notable alumni. This year’s prospects include Thad Bosley (Phoenix), Chris Cron (Mesa), Duane Espy (Peoria), Tom Foley (Maryvale), Gary Jones (Grand Canyon) and Willie Upshaw (Scottsdale).

As always, the AFL is stockpiled with up-and-coming prospects on the verge of big league opportunities. Here is a preseason look at the league’s best:

1. Hank Blalock, 3b, Peoria (Rangers). He’s a pure hitter who hit .352-18-108 as one of the youngest players in two leagues. After the Rangers drafted Georgia Tech third baseman Mark Teixeira, a position change could be on the horizon for Blalock.

2. Nick Johnson, 1b, Peoria (Yankees). After missing the entire 2000 season with a wrist injury, Johnson shook off the rust this season and stayed healthy.

3. Joe Borchard, of, Mesa (White Sox). Borchard made his first professional appearance in the AFL a year ago. Borchard showed his prodigious power at Double-A Birmingham, but he struck out 158 times.

4. Ty Howington, lhp, Grand Canyon (Reds). The year began inauspiciously for Howington when he had bone chips removed from his elbow during spring training. The surgery delayed his 2001 debut, but didn’t deter him from emerging as one of the top lefties in the minors.

5. Josh Hamilton, of, Maryvale (Devil Rays). As noted above, Hamilton will aim to re-establish himself as one of the game’s best prospects after a frustrating year. When he’s healthy, he has five above-average tools, including tape-measure power.

6. Marlon Byrd, of, Grand Canyon (Phillies). Byrd exceeded expectations and continued to improve his tools this season at Double-A Reading. He nearly had a 30-30 season (falling short by two home runs), a tribute to his off-the-charts work ethic.

7. Drew Henson, 3b, Peoria (Yankees). He missed a portion of his first baseball-only year with a broken hand, which prevented him from finding his groove until late in the season at Triple-A Columbus. His presence on the Peoria squad could mean we’ll see an early look at Blalock at a new position.

8. Austin Kearns, of, Grand Canyon (Reds). Kearns was rated slightly ahead of Adam Dunn after both Reds outfield prospects shared the spotlight in Class A Dayton last year. While Dunn took off, Kearns was hindered by a sore wrist early in the year. Surgery to repair the damaged ligaments kept him on the shelf for most of the summer.

9. Brandon Phillips, ss, Scottsdale (Expos). Phillips made major strides at the plate after batting .242 in 2000. A gifted athlete with outstanding tools, Phillips hit .292 at two levels and reached Double-A Harrisburg before his 20th birthday.

10. Bobby Hill, 2b, Mesa (Cubs)

Another prospect hoping to rebound from an injury-filled season, Hill was hampered by a groin injury for all but 57 games of his debut summer.

‘ Play Ball!’ In Panama

ProBeis–the short name of the new Beisbol Profesional de la Republica de Panama, a league sanctioned by Major League Baseball–joins the winter baseball landscape this year with four teams playing a 42-game schedule.

Young Panamanian prospects need experience but get few opportunities in the four existing Caribbean winter leagues. Panama had pro baseball from the 1940s until 1972, and participated in the Caribbean Series from 1949-60, winning in 1952.

Several Panamanian major leaguers, including Bruce Chen, Carlos Lee and Mariano Rivera, have expressed interest in playing in the league. The Dodgers will be big backers, sending numerous prospects and coaches to Panama.

Dino Ebel, who managed at Class A Wilmington, will be in charge of the Atlas Tiburones (Sharks) club, and will have Marty Reed, the pitching coach from Class A Vero Beach, on his staff. Four Dodgers prospects will be with the Tiburones.

Five will be on the Azuero Macheteros (Canecutters) club managed by local hero and former big leaguer Omar Moreno. One player each will go to Cerveza Panama, managed by Manny Crespo, the Marlins’ minor league infield coordinator; and the Carta Vieja Roneros, led by Hector Lopez, a Panamanian native who played in the major leagues for 12 years.

Each team will have a 25-man roster with 13 Panamanians and 12 import players. Native Panamanians, including about 80 under contract to major league organizations, were subject to a draft by the four teams.

The import players going to Panama are less experienced than those sent to the other Caribbean leagues. Though the league was accepted into the Caribbean Confederation in 2000 for a three-year probationary period, Panama will not send a team to the Caribbean Series this year.

All games will be played in the Estadio Nacional, a modern, 25,000-seat facility on the outskirts of Panama City.

–MILTON JAMAIL

The Arizona Fall League kicks off winter ball, with the Caribbean leagues coming in close behind. A new league in Panama joins the winter schedule this year, and the International Baseball League Australia is expected to start in late November with four teams relocated from the Sydney area to Queensland.

Arizona Fall League

Oct. 2

IBL Australia

Nov. 28

Dominican League

Oct. 19

Mexican Pacific League

Oct. 12

Panamanian League

Nov. 8

Puerto Rican League

Oct. 29

Venezuelan League

Oct. 16

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