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2003 League Top 20s: Appalachian League
Baseball America's League Top 20 lists are generated from consultations with scouts and league managers. To qualify for consideration, a player must have spent at least one-third of the season in a league. Position players must have one plate appearance for every league game. Pitchers must pitch 1/3 inning for every league game, and relievers have to have made at least 20 appearances in full-season leagues and 10 in short-season ones.
by Bill Ballew
The 2003 season marked the 16th season Ray Smith has been in the Elizabethton dugout; his eighth as the manager. Smith, who spent parts of the 1981-83 playing for the parent Twins, has a better perspective than anyone when it comes to the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
So what's his assessment of the league this year? "Overall, I think the talent was down a little bit," said Smith, who led Elizabethton to its second straight Appy championship. "There weren't the number of big bats that we've seen recently. But there were several arms that have an excellent chance of becoming impact guys."
Burlington manager Rouglas Odor had the best pitching prospect, Adam Miller, as well as others such as Aaron Laffey, who just missed the top 20 list.
"This was probably the best all-around pitching the league has had in the three years I've been here," Odor said. "Every team had a couple of guys that could develop into prospects."
Two of the best position players in the league didn't log enough playing time to qualify for the list. Lastings Milledge (first round, Mets) and Ryan Sweeney (second, White Sox) are both multitalented outfielders who figure to be mainstays on prospect lists in years to come.
1. Adam Miller, rhp, Burlington Indians
Miller is a classic example of how insignificant statistics can be in the lower minors. The 31st overall pick in June, he didn't win a game in 10 starts. But he impressed opponents with his nasty slider and a sinking fastball that sat at 90-92 mph. He also kept hitters off balance with one of the Appy League's better changeups, which has excellent depth and consistency.
"His composure on the mound is unbelievable," Odor said. "He looks like a major league veteran out there. His demeanor, his approach and his work ethic are as good as you'll see anywhere. He's a bulldog. His focus while making every pitch is incredible."
Scouts love Miller's projectable body (6-foot-4, 180 pounds) and his feel for pitching. With added strength, experience and maturity, his easy delivery should allow him to add velocity to his fastball.
"He's going to be in the big leagues very quickly," Pulaski manager Paul Elliott said. "Everything is so nice and loose, and he has a great feel for his offspeed stuff."
2. Chris Young, of, Bristol White Sox
Young's speed played better than anyone else's in the league. The White Sox clocked him at 4.0 seconds from the right side to first base, and he stole third base on numerous occasions with ease. His legs also make him a solid defensive center fielder, where he played errorless baseball for 50 straight games.
The White Sox are most excited about Young's development as a hitter. A student of the game, Young made progress in using the entire field and was second in the league with 28 extra-base hits. He surprised many opponents with the pop in his bat, and Bristol manager Jerry Hairston said there's more power to come from Young's 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame.
"He's an excellent runner with budding power," Hairston said. "He's picking up breaking balls as soon as they leave the pitcher's hand and making the necessary adjustments in all phases of his game."
3. Robert Valido, ss, Bristol White Sox
No first-year position player out of high school made a better impression than Valido. A product of Miami's Coral Park High, which also produced the No. 3 overall pick in the 2000 draft (Cubs shortstop Luis Montanez), Valido's instincts and maturity stood out.
"He has a knack for being in the right spot all the time," Hairston said. "He knows the nuances of the game and wants to learn. He will do anything it takes to play in the big leagues. The way he goes about his business, there is no doubt that his goal is to get to the major leagues."
Valido makes plays in the hole and displays the athleticism that made him an outstanding high school basketball player. He also answered predraft questions about his bat by finishing ninth in the Appy batting race and showing surprising power.
4. James Houser, lhp, Princeton Devil Rays
Houser might have been a first-round pick, but teams backed off because he has a heart murmur and rarely topped 88 mph during the spring. The Devil Rays were glad to make him the first choice in the second round, even if like Miller he went winless in his pro debut.
He lived in the strike zone while mixing his fastball, curveball and changeup well. He throws two curves: one that he uses inside against lefthanders and another that falls straight down and back-doors righties. Houser hit 91 mph and managers said he could get more heat from his 6-foot-4, 195-pound body. More than one skipper compared Houser to Frank Viola.
"He's had a lot of solid coaching prior to signing," Princeton manager Jamie Nelson said. "He takes instruction very well and he's extremely observant. The only thing you might say negative about him is he sometimes experiences 'paralysis by analysis' when he would be better off just going with the situation and letting his natural abilities take over. But his intelligence and his ability are going to take him a long way."
5. Daric Barton, c, Johnson City Cardinals
After spending most of his senior season of high school as a third baseman while the coach's son did most of the catching, Barton returned behind the plate after the Cardinals made him a first-round pick. He struggled with throws to second base and looked exhausted by the end of the summer, yet displayed the fluid reactions, soft hands and strong arm to be a major league receiver.
While his defense shows promise, Barton's bat already looks like a sure thing. The lefty swinger has the ability to hit for both power and average and has a keen eye at the plate.
"His knowledge of the strike zone is as good as you'll see from a kid who just turned 18," Johnson City manager Ron Warner said. "He's aggressive at the plate and he doesn't swing at balls. He's a quick learner and he's going to be fine at catcher."
6. Chuck James, lhp, Danville Braves
No pitcher received more praise for his performance than James. While many Rookie-league pitchers have raw skills, James stood out with his ability to hit spots and change speeds, producing numerous comparisons to Tom Glavine.
A 20th-round pick in 2002 who didn't make his pro debut until this summer, James moves the ball around the strike zone with his fastball, changeup and slider. His heater resides around 90 mph, and he isn't afraid to throw inside or paint the outside corners.
"He has the best changeup I've ever seen at this level," Odor said. "His changeup is amazing because his arm action is exactly the same as when he throws the fastball. Guys were completing their swings before the ball reached the plate."
7. Carlos Perez, lhp, Bluefield Orioles
Perez ranked fourth in the league in ERA, thanks to his excellent command of three pitches. He has a low 90s fastball with good movement, along with a solid slider and changeup, both of which are improving. He concluded the summer by allowing two earned runs or fewer in his final six starts.
"He may have been the best pitcher in the league," Bluefield manager Don Buford said. "He's an intelligent kid that is extremely competitive and dedicated to getting better. He has learned how to speak English fluently, and I think that's helped him as much as anything in taking his game to the next level."
8. Matt Esquivel, of, Danville Braves
At 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Esquivel doesn't look like a center fielder. But in his second stint in the Appy League, he was one of the more productive power hitters and made all the plays in the outfield.
Esquivel has excellent athleticism and hits the ball with authority. He'll need to make more contact at higher levels. Defensively, he runs down balls in the gaps with his great first step and has an above-average arm.
"He was the best center fielder in the league," Danville manager Kevin McMullan said. "He gets great jumps off the bat and has plus acceleration that allows him to get to balls most people wouldn't try to reach."
9. Denard Span, of, Elizabethton Twins
Span may have had the best pure tools in the league. But he's still learning to translate his natural ability into production.
The 20th overall pick in 2002, Span has well-above-average speed. He played the shallowest center field in the league and spent most of the season atop the Elizabethton lineup. His 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame is lean and muscular.
"He's making tremendous progress in all phases of the game," Smith said. "He's starting to drive the ball and improving the jumps he's getting on fly balls. He's working on lengthening his throws. He's a hard worker who has all the ability to be a Willie Wilson type of player."
10. Rafael Perez, lhp, Burlington Indians
Known as Hanlet Ramirez when he helped the Indians win the 2002 championship in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League, Perez also excelled in his U.S. debut. The Appy pitcher of the year, he led the league in wins and ERA while ranking second in innings and fifth in strikeouts.
Perez succeeds with a plus slider and a natural sink to his other offerings. His 86-88 mph fastball is effective because it tails away late from righthanders. He usually pitches ahead in the count, which makes his average changeup and velocity more effective.
"His ball just disappears at the plate," Odor said. "The way he keeps hitters off balance is amazing. He mixes his slider and fastball to perfection."
11. Evan Meek, rhp, Elizabethton Twins
Meek's development was one of the more pleasant surprises in the Twins system this year. An 11th-round pick in 2002 who signed in May as a draft-and-follow, he had the best combination of arm strength and feel for pitching in the league.
Meek usually pitched at 92 mph and reached 96. There's some effort to his delivery, so his control isn't consistent. At 6 feet, he throws on a flat plane, so improving his breaking ball is a must.
"It's all about becoming more consistent with his command," Smith said. "Once he does that, he could go places."
12. Mitch Talbot, rhp, Martinsville Astros
A 2002 second-rounder, Talbot didn't make his pro debut until this year because of the Astros' temporary embargo on signing draft picks last summer. He became more difficult to hit as the season progressed, and his two-seam fastball features so much sink that it almost looks like a splitter.
Talbot also showed a good feel for his changeup and a pair of breaking balls that he used effectively against lefties and righties. He throws strikes but needs better location in the strike zone.
"He throws a hard and heavy ball," Odor said. "If he improves his overall command, he has a chance to be a very good pitcher."
13. Tim Tisch, lhp, Bristol White Sox
The 6-foot-7 Tisch has developed as much as anyone in the White Sox organization. With a year of strength training and instruction under his belt, he refined his mechanics while improving the velocity of his fastball from 84-85 mph last season to 91-92.
"If you had told me last year that Tim would be sitting in the low 90s now, I wouldn't have believed you," Hairston said. "But this kid has taken advantage of everything the organization has given him and developed into a solid major league prospect."
Tisch overpowered Appy hitters at times. He throws over the top, and the ball explodes out of his hand. His slider and changeup are decent and have shown improvement. He has fine control of all his pitches, which was evident in a seven-inning no-hitter against Johnson City, one of just two complete games in the league this year.
14. Charlie Morton, rhp, Danville Braves
James' emergence overshadowed Morton, but the Braves were impressed with his steady improvement. After posting a 6.04 ERA in his first eight starts, he had a 3.51 mark over his final six.
Morton's fastball sat in the 90-93 mph range with solid movement. He also showed a good changeup to go with his best offering, a power overhand curveball that falls straight down as it crosses the plate. His command needs fine-tuning, which the Braves say will come with experience.
"Charlie's a guy who just needs to pitch," McMullen said. "Give him a little time and he's going to start moving fast because everything is there."
15. Dusty Gomon, 1b, Elizabethton Twins
Gomon ranked fourth on this list a year ago and returned to the league after struggling with a wrist injury in the low Class A Midwest League at the start of 2003. Repeating Rookie ball dented excitement about his long-term potential, though he continued to impress with his plus power.
His greatest weakness is an inability to make consistent contact against breaking balls, leading to 85 strikeouts in 233 at-bats, though he also connected for a league-best 15 homers.
"If he ever figures it out and makes the adjustments to the spin and location of pitches, he could be a major force," Smith said. "He had the most pop in his bat in the league, bar none. That was the case last season too."
16. Felipe Paulino, rhp, Martinsville Astros
"Effectively erratic" is the way one manager described the hard-throwing Paulino. Even though his pitches weren't often accurate, he created more than a few weak knees in the batter's box with a 97-98 mph fastball that was clocked in triple digits by several clubs.
"His command leaves a lot to be desired," Buford said, "but you can't teach that arm strength."
The quality of Paulino's command and breaking ball fluctuated. While he's working on a changeup, several managers said he could succeed out of the bullpen with his fastball alone—if he learns to harness the pitch.
17. Orionny Lopez, rhp, Bristol White Sox
Lopez was one of the league's more effective pitchers before tiring down the stretch. He doesn't throw hard, working consistently at 87-89 mph, but succeeds with a deceptive delivery and ability to command all of his pitches.
He throws his fastball, plus curveball and an above-average changeup with a similar arm action. For such a young pitcher, he does a remarkable job of keeping hitters off balance.
"He did a fantastic job this year," Hairston said. "He throws strikes, and he's as cool as a cucumber on the mound. He's around 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds. When he adds another 20 pounds, he could be a dominating pitcher."
18. Robinzon Diaz, c, Pulaski Blue Jays
Diaz won the league batting crown by 30 points. While he rarely saw a pitch he didn't like, he made contact when he swung the bat and hit the ball with some juice.
"I've never seen a guy hit the ball on the barrel of the bat more consistently than Diaz," McMullen said. "He makes adjustments and not only makes contact, but solid contact."
Diaz' free swinging caused him to give away at-bats, which is contrary to the Blue Jays' emphasis on on-base percentage. His catching also leaves much to be desired. Several managers said he'll eventually wind up at second base or left field.
19. Kyle Phillips, c/lb, Elizabethton Twins
Phillips and Gomon combined to give the E-Twins the Appy's most powerful one-two punch. Only 19, Phillips used his lefthanded stroke to hit to all fields with authority and led the league in RBIs. He showed he could have a future behind the plate after struggling to find a defensive home at both corner infield positions.
"We gave him a crash course in catching this year and he responded very well," Smith said. "He threw out three guys trying to steal in one game. He's a student of the game with a great work ethic. With his approach and ability to hit the ball, he has a chance to have success."
The primary concern with Phillips is his soft body. He has excess baby fat, but Smith said his conditioning will not hamper his progress.
20. Tyler Davidson, dh/of, Kingsport Mets
At 22, Davidson was one of the older players in the league and the circuit's MVP. He hit for average and power, not surprising considering he's 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds. His .669 slugging percentage was easily the Appy's best.
"He has impressive opposite-field power, which is something you don't see much at this level," Nelson said. "You can pitch to him and get him out, but when he makes contact, big things happen."
As impressive as Davidson's bat is, his defense is as big a concern. He spent most of his time at DH and several managers wondered whether he could be even an adequate left fielder. He does have decent speed and athleticism.