Class A South Atlantic League
Top 20 Prospects
By Gene Sapakoff
CHARLESTON, S.C.Rarely does a South Atlantic League all-star game mesh so symbiotically with the prospect wing of the circuit. But in June at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, S.C., it wasnt a 24-year-old overachiever in the spotlight or a free agent second baseman out of State Tech who made the biggest impact.
Center fielder Josh Hamilton, the top prospect in the league by almost unanimous accord, was named MVP in his home ballpark after robbing Hickorys Tony Alvarez of an extra-base hit with a sensational over-the-shoulder catch and later tripling and scoring the winning run in the 10th inning. The starting pitchers: No. 2 prospect Chin-Hui Tsao vs. No. 4 Bobby Bradley.
Hamilton and Hickory catcher J.R. House were so consistently good, they were named co-MVPs of the league despite missing one month apiece. Hamilton had arthroscopic knee surgery in early August, while House had a midseason bout with mononucleosis. But dominant pitchers were the primary theme of the Class A league in 2000.
"This was a great year for great arms," Columbus manager Ricky Gutierrez said. "Its hard to pick out just three or four."
Indeed, the Top 10 doesnt include Macons Matt Butler and Jung Bong or Augustas Brad Baker. The Top 20 doesnt include Greensboros Zach Day, Delmarvas Richard Stahl or Ashevilles Aaron Cook.
1 JOSH HAMILTON, of, Charleston RiverDogs (Devil Rays)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB L-L 6-4 200 19 HS--Raleigh, N.C. Devil Rays '99 (1) .301 392 62 118 23 3 13 61 14
Hamilton did nothing to discourage the Devil Rays notion that hell become a major league star after they selected him with the first pick in the 1999 draft. The great arm and good speed were givens. Hamilton continued to progress with pitch selection and plate discipline, and he would have hit more homers had he played in a ballpark free of stiff winds blowing in off open water.
"Definitely the No. 1 tools guy in the league," Piedmont manager Greg Legg said. "He has everything. When he didnt hit that well against us, he hurt us with his defense. Then I got a taste of his clutch-hitting ability in the all-star game."
If Hamilton doesnt project as a center fielder, he did a fine job imitating one. And he also has the intangible. He was a great teammate, was described as "a sponge" of a student by Devil Rays instructor Wade Boggs and unquestionably led the SAL in autographs signed.
2 CHIN-HUI TSAO, rhp, Asheville Tourists (Rockies)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-1 180 19 (Taiwan) Rockies FA '99 11 8 2.73 24 0 145 119 40 187
Tsao spoke very little English and traveled with interpreter Alex Gong, who wore a uniform and went along on visits to the pitching mound. But the universal language of jaw-dropping was spoken whenever Tsao let go with his mid-90s fastball, hard slider and polished changeup. Tsao threw all three pitches for strikes and wasnt rattled on the mound.
"He knows how to pitch and throws a lot of stuff at you," Capital City manager John Stephenson said. "He has great knowledge out there and hes poised. He might have to tone himself down a little bit, but hes a good pitcher."
The Rockies resisted the temptation to bump Tsao up a level or two, preferring to allow him a smooth adjustment to American baseball in his first year removed from Taiwan.
"He should be in Double-A next year," Charleston, S.C., manager Charlie Montoyo said.
3 J.R. HOUSE, c, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-2 215 20 HS--Daytona Beach, Fla. Pirates '99 (5) .348 420 78 146 29 1 23 90 1
House almost certainly would have won the SAL triple crown if not for missing a month with mono. No less than the Mike Piazza of the league, House combined his offensive onslaught with natural leadership skills.
Behind the plate, hes raw but improving. As a former blue-chip quarterback prospect who played high school football in West Virginia and high school baseball in Florida, House is adjusting to full-time baseball.
"Great overall skills and you can easily see his potential as a batter," Legg said. "His throwing and release time will get better as he plays more and refines that quarterback throw. But he has soft hands behind the plate and made some nice adjustments as a hitter."
House might wind up at first base, which might not be a bad idea for extending what projects as a long stretch of offensive production.
4 BOBBY BRADLEY, rhp, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-1 170 19 HS--Wellington, Fla. Pirates '99 (1) 8 2 2.29 14 0 83 62 21 118
A sprained elbow ligament cost Bradley a chance to play in the Futures Game and the Pirates had him on a carefully monitored throwing program in August. When he was healthy, he mostly overmatched batters.
His sharp, dropping curveball was so dominating and polished that Pittsburgh insisted he work on his fastball, which will be more vital at higher levels. Bradley consistently demonstrated his knack for throwing strikes with his entire four-pitch repertoire, which also includes a slider and changeup.
"He has two kinds of curveballs and throws them from two different angles, one for strikes, one more as a strikeout type of pitch," Hickory manager Jay Loviglio said. "Both have a good, downward plane. Theyre nice and tight and the accuracy is better than youd think for a guy his age."
Bradleys durability is at least a slight concern. More than one SAL manager wondered if throwing too many curveballs would take a toll on him.
5 JOVANNY CEDENO, rhp, Savannah Sand Gnats (Rangers)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-0 160 19 Dominican Republic Rangers FA '97 11 4 2.42 24 0 130 95 53 153
Forgive the opposing managers who compared Cedeno to Pedro Martinez. Theyre both Dominican; Cedenos statistics looks similar, albeit a few levels removed from the major leagues; and hes a rail of a righthander with overpowering stuff, an easy motion and stunning command.
"Usually guys that age dont have a real idea how to pitch, but he does," Hagerstown manager Rolando Pino said. "He has a plan out there and most of the time he makes it work."
Cedenos fastball is a solid plus pitch made better by an effective curveball and changeup. He can and probably will add weight, which may mean more velocity in the future. He stayed strong as the season progressed, notching 13- and 14-strikeout efforts in August.
6 CARL CRAWFORD, of, Charleston RiverDogs (Devil Rays)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB L-L 6-2 195 19 HS--Houston Devil Rays '99 (2) .301 564 99 170 21 11 6 57 55
Crawford could have played football at Nebraska or basketball at UCLA. Instead hes on a path to play in the Tampa Bay outfield next to Hamilton. Crawford hung tough throughout his first full pro season to lead the SAL in hits, an extraordinary accomplishment for a player unfamiliar with year-round baseball before 2000.
"He has heart and he battles everyday," Montoyo said. "He got better defensively and for such a young guy who hasnt played that much baseball, he stayed tough at the plate until the end and never complained a bit."
Crawford is smart and inquisitive, virtues that led to his gaudy basestealing percentage. Hes still not a polished outfielder and doesnt hit the ball hard very often. But hes strong and will get more comfortable at the plate, which should lead to some decent lefthanded power numbers.
7 BRETT MYERS, rhp, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-4 215 20 HS--Jacksonville Phillies '99 (1) 13 7 3.18 27 0 175 165 69 140
Theres no doubt about Myers intensity. He went 12-0 with 11 knockouts as a 12- and 13-year-old boxer, encouraged by his father, who promoted fights involving Larry Holmes and Leon Spinks.
These days, Myers punches out hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curve. His changeup got better as the season got older. Hes a workhorse who should eat up plenty of innings once he arrives in Philadelphia.
Other managers thought Myers needed work on situational pitching, his changeup and holding runners. But few of them questioned the progress and ability of a 6-foot-4 power pitcher who was 19 for most of the season.
8 BRANDON PHILLIPS, ss, Cape Fear Crocs (Expos)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 5-10 170 19 HS--Stone Mtn., Ga. Expos '99 (2) .242 484 74 117 17 8 11 72 23
Despite some erratic nights, Phillips was named the SALs best defensive shortstop in a midseason poll of league managers. Offensively, he struck out too often but gained extra bases with his pop and speed.
A superior athlete who makes dazzling plays, Phillips was the most dynamic infield prospect in the league by a wide margin.
"He made all the plays all year and more than held his own for them in the No. 3 hole," Legg said. "He has a tremendously high ceiling. I could see him playing second base at the highest levels, but his bat will propel him as far as he wants to go."
Phillips is personable and eager to learn. He comes from athletic stock, as his father played wide receiver at Shaw (N.C.) University and his mother was a power forward on the schools basketball team.
9 MATT BELISLE, rhp, Macon Braves (Braves)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-3 195 20 HS--Austin Braves '98 (2) 9 5 2.37 15 0 102 79 18 97
Most SAL managers and scouts thought Belisle stood out the most on a Macon pitching staff with three Killer Bs prospects: Belisle, Matt Butler and Jung Bong.
A big guy with a frame able to stand more bulk, Belisle was able to spot his sinking fastball on both sides of the plate while dropping in good breaking balls for strikes. Managers chose him as the SALs best control pitcher in a midseason survey, and also praised his composure and consistency.
Belisle moved up to the high Class A Carolina League shortly after midseason and continued to throw strikes. He finished the year with a combined 168-29 strikeout-walk ratio in 181 innings.
10 KEITH REED, of, Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-4 215 21 Providence Orioles '99 (1) .290 269 43 78 16 1 11 59 20
Reed wasnt a hot commodity before breaking out in the spring of 1999 at Providence College. The fourth of seven Baltimore first-round picks in that years draft, hes unknown no longer. He was on pace to hit more than 20 home runs and steal more than 40 bases before a midseason promotion to the Carolina League.
"Hes a quiet type of player who doesnt look like hes doing that much," Legg said, "but then you look up and hes made a fine play in the field and has a big hit and has done a little bit of everything to help his team win."
Reed has an above-average arm and projects as a right fielder, though he has center-field speed. His power and much-improved strike zone discipline are almost scary, considering he has a lean build that could add more muscle.
11 WILKEN RUAN, of, Cape Fear Crocs (Expos)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-0 180 20 Dominican Republic Expos FA '96 .287 574 95 165 29 10 0 51 64
Ruan batted .224 at Cape Fear in 1999 but emerged as a four-tool star in 2000. He finished second in the league in hits and stolen bases, made highlight-reel catches and showed a good arm.
"Hes awesome," Gutierrez said. "He does everything. I like the way he plays the game and hes a great outfielder. He made three unbelievable plays against us that were way over his head. We thought they were easy triples."
Ruan is an aggressive player who hits hard line drives. He may be too aggressive, because he rarely draws walks, though he doesnt strike out too much.
12 ALEX REQUENA, of, Columbus RedStixx (Indians)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB B-R 5-11 155 20 Venezuela Indians FA '98 .259 482 90 125 6 6 1 24 87
A switch-hitting center fielder with excellent speed, Requena makes the most of his one outstanding tool. In his first full pro season, he led the SAL in stolen bases by a wide margin and swiped seven in one game.
"Any time somebody runs that fast, hes going to get to the bigs somehow," Montoyo said. "He doesnt have that much power but if he gets on base, its going to be tough for anyone to stop him. We tried pitchouts. We tried everything. Hes just too fast."
Requena has lots of upside. If he cuts down on his strikeouts, picks up the art of bunting and learns to read pitchers betteras a batter as well as a baserunnerRequena will steal 100-plus bases in a minor league season. His speed helps make up for an ordinary arm.
13 JOSE CASTILLO, ss, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-0 180 19 Venezuela Pirates FA '97 .299 529 95 158 32 8 16 72 16
Castillo compares tool-wise with Phillips and 1999 SAL shortstop prospect Felipe Lopez in that he has superb range and the potential to hit for power and average. Castillo also was voted the infielder with the best arm in a midseason poll of SAL managers.
"He made a lot of errors," Legg said. "But most of the ones I saw were due to a lack of concentration. With a little more focus, hell be much better."
Castillos pop is intriguing as he more than tripled his combined total of five homers from his first two pro seasons. If he can tighten his strike zone, hell become even more dangerous.
14 MATT BUTLER, rhp, Macon Braves (Braves)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-3 190 21 HS--Hattiesburg, Miss. Braves '99 (2) 13 7 2.94 26 0 156 132 66 122
Butler finished among the leagues leaders in wins and ERA, though the Braves were more impressed that he smoothed out his delivery and gained consistency. He can throw in the mid-90s when everything is working properly, though erratic mechanics cost him velocity and first-round draft status a year ago.
Butler is aggressive and must fight the urge to overthrow. His secondary pitches need work but his potential is obvious.
"Hes a warrior out there," Gutierrez said. "He doesnt let anything bother him. Hes always focused on the game.
15 RUSS JACOBSON, c, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-3 205 23 Miami Phillies '99 (3) .247 348 43 86 17 0 19 71 0
A third-round pick in 1999, Jacobson didnt make his pro debut until 2000 because he broke his hand in his final season at the University of Miami. In the SAL, he struggled at times with strikeout streaks but had good power numbers in a league full of pitchers parks. Hes durable, handles pitching staffs exceptionally well and is a terrific guy in the clubhouse.
"Russ made great strides with the bat," Legg said. "When he hits it, it goes a long way. He definitely can catch and hell just keep getting better."
Jacobsons primary weakness is his throwing. He has a relatively slow release, a focus of Phillies instructors much of the season.
16 TONY ALVAREZ, of, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 6-1 202 21 Venezuela Pirates FA '95 .285 442 75 126 24 4 15 77 52
Maybe the talent on the Hickory roster was contagious. After four years in short-season leagues, Alvarez finally made it to a full-season circuit and had a stellar year.
"He hits for power and average and he can play so many positions and do so many things," Loviglio said. "Hes an aggressive hitter but hell wait for his pitch."
Able to play all three outfield spots, Alvarez also can handle either first or third base. The 1999 New York-Penn League co-MVP also is a keen baserunner who makes the most of above-average speed.
17 BRAD BAKER, rhp, Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO R-R 6-2 180 19 HS--Northfield, Mass. Red Sox '99 (1) 12 7 3.07 27 0 138 125 55 126
The Red Sox often focus on New England players in the draft. They found a good one in Baker, a Massachusetts native whom they selected with a supplemental first-round pick (compensation for losing free agent Mo Vaughn) in 1999.
Bakers fastball, clocked at 95 mph, may be the best in the Boston system. But its his curveball thats his most polished pitch. His slight build might be his only drawback.
"The most impressive thing he does is change speeds well," Stephenson said. "Hes not as polished as Tsao or Belisle or some of the others, but he has good command."
18 MARLON BYRD, of, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB R-R 5-11 225 23 Georgia Perimeter JC Phillies '99 (10) .309 515 104 159 29 13 17 93 41
Perhaps the hardest worker in the SAL, Byrd ranked among the leagues top 10 in batting, slugging percentage and extra-base hits, thanks to a mix of talent and work ethic. He was something of a raw, stocky prospect coming out of Georgia Perimeter Junior College in 1999.
"Hes the kind of guy who hits triples to left-center," Legg said. "That tells you how hard he plays the game."
Byrd runs well and hits for power. He strikes out far too often but is working on a more compact swing. Hes a decent outfielder but has a below-average arm.
19 HANK BLALOCK, 3b, Savannah Sand Gnats (Rangers)
B-T Ht Wt Age School Drafted Avg. AB R H 2B 3B HR BI SB L-R 6-1 192 19 HS--San Diego Rangers '99 (3) .299 512 66 153 32 2 10 77 31
Blalock, the 1999 batting champ in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, was multitool impressive in his first full season.
He hits for average, has power potential, draws walks and makes contact. Though not exceptionally fast, he runs well and intelligently. His arm is average, but his footwork and anticipation might be enough to keep him at third base.
"Good arm, good hands, good power. Whats not to like about him?" Pino said. "Eventually, you can see him having even more power."
20 JUNG BONG, lhp, Macon Braves (Braves)
B-T Ht Wt Age Country Signed W L ERA G SV IP H BB SO L-L 6-3 175 20 Korea Braves FA '97 7 7 4.23 20 0 113 119 45 90
Bong spent almost two full seasons in the SAL, which explains why scouts and managers were quicker to endorse his teammates. Bong didnt improve statistically and fell short of a hoped-for breakthrough season.
But the trim Korean is still only 20, and hes a lefthander with command of four pitches. His fastball reaches the low 90s. Interestingly, he was more impressive after a promotion to the Carolina League at the end of July.
"He was good, but not as impressive as Belisle and Butler," Montoyo said. "Hes pretty far along for his age, but you dont get to see him that much."
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