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2003 League Top 20s: Arizona 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 Allan Simpson
When several big league clubs sought new affiliates in short-season leagues after the 2002 season, the Royals lost the game of musical chairs. As a result, the Royals had to field two teams in the Rookie-level Arizona League this year.
The league granted an exception to the rule that prohibits clubs from having more than eight players 20 or older, though the more experienced of the two Royals teams (Royals 2) was declared ineligible for postseason play. It hardly mattered as the team failed to qualify for the playoffs anyway.
That team--not to mention the entire league--was upstaged by Royals 1, a younger outfit that won the AZL title and dominates the top 20 list. Kansas City's twin first-round picks, outfielder Chris Lubanski and catcher Mitch Maier, both made the top five.
Rangers lefthander John Danks, another first-rounder, also would have been near the top of the list had he pitched enough innings to qualify. Danks worked with the poise of a veteran while controlling the inner half of the plate with a 90-94 mph fastball and a biting, 12-to-6 curveball.
Overall, the AZL was much more of a hitter's league than in the past, with 18 of the top 20 spots occupied by position players. Righthanders Ronald Bay (Cubs) and Leslie Nacar (Giants) were the only pitchers to break through.
1. Chris Lubanski, of, Royals 1
1. Chris Lubanski, of, Royals 1
The fifth player selected in this year's draft, Lubanski was part of one of the best high school outfield crops to come along in years. In addition to the fleet Pennsylvania product, Delmon Young (Devil Rays, No. 1), Ryan Harvey (Cubs, No. 6) and Lastings Milledge (Mets, No. 12) were among the first dozen picks.
Lubanski's tools are at three different stages of development. His best and most advanced tool is speed, which ranks as an 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale. It's most apparent going from home to first, where he was timed from the left side in less than 3.8 seconds on a bunt and 4.0 seconds on a full swing. He's still learning how to steal bases, however, as he was caught 10 times in 19 attempts.
His speed also was evident chasing down fly balls in center field, but he needs to turn and go on balls hit directly over his head and learn angles better. His bat is a solid-average tool. He hits a lot of line drives, especially to the gaps, but must recognize pitches better and use the whole field. Lubanski also must to draw more walks and make more contact.
"With his speed, he needs to learn to hit the ball the other way," Giants manager Bert Hunter said. "He tries to pull everything now."
Lubanski's arm and power are both below-average, but he should add pop as he fills out his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame and lofts balls more consistently.
2. Wladimir Balentien, of, Mariners
Balentien hit 16 homers, which broke the league record and was more than double his closest pursuer. He's an imposing presence in the batter's box, but he'll need to make adjustments as he advances, particularly staying back on breaking balls and making consistent contact.
"He murders everything down the middle," Royals 1 manager Lloyd Simmons said, "but he's got some holes in his swing. He's very pitchable if you throw him breaking balls and sliders on the outer half."
Balentien's other tools aren't close to his considerable power, but he played all three outfield positions adequately and showed an average arm and speed. Not every manager believed his listed age of 19 is correct.
3. Ryan Harvey, of, Cubs
Harvey signed for the largest bonus ($2.4 million) of any player in the AZL but didn't see much action until the final three weeks of the season. The Cubs wanted to bring him along slowly after he tore up his knee last November.
Though Harvey struggled, his raw ability was obvious. He has a long, lanky frame with outstanding power potential to all fields, above-average speed and right-field arm strength
"He was late on balls because he had not seen a lot of live pitching," Cubs manager Carmelo Martinez said. "He needs to make some adjustments at the plate and work on hitting in different counts."
4. Mitch Maier, c, Royals 1
Maier ordinarily wouldn't be sent to a complex league because he was a polished college player. He hit .414 at the University of Toledo and .350 in his pro debut. He's an impressive lefthanded hitter with good plate discipline and rare athleticism for a catcher. Maier didn't show the home run power expected, but Simmons said he'll have more pop down the road.
What's not so certain is whether Maier will remain behind the plate. His exchange from mitt to hand is slow, his throws lack carry, and his blocking and receiving skills need polish. One manager even said Maier threw like he had a sore arm.
"He reminds me of Mike Sweeney when he was coming up in the Royals system," Rangers manager Pedro Lopez said. "They're both athletic, have the same body types and swing the bat the same. Sweeney also lacked arm strength, which forced him to eventually move to first base."
5. Alexi Ogando, of, Athletics
A product of the Athletics' Dominican program, Ogando looks like a basketball player in a baseball uniform. He has room to add 20 pounds to his lanky 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame.
He also has a lot of room for improvement, even though he showed the best right-field arm in the league, ran 60 yards in 6.5 seconds and finished tied for second in the league in homers. He hit .342 despite being a free swinger and lacking strike-zone judgment.
"He's a little crude still," Royals 2 manager Kevin Boles said, "but he's got all the tools. There's a lot of upside there."
6. Ronald Bay, rhp, Cubs
Bay didn't create much fanfare in May when he signed with the Cubs as a 25th-round draft-and-follow from 2002. He turned the AZL into a showcase, however, earning almost unanimous support from managers as the league's best pitching prospect.
"He's the one pitcher who stood out," Simmons said. "He threw everything from the same arm slot and his location was outstanding. He's a real battler."
Bay dominated the league in the first half, throwing four pitches for strikes, including a 94 mph fastball. He wore down a bit in the second half, so he'll have to add strength to his 6-foot-2, 160-pound frame.
7. Shane Costa, of, Royals 2
The Royals placed most of their top draft picks on the younger of their AZL clubs, but didn't want to disrupt a set lineup when Costa signed midway through the season. The second-round pick proved he was too advanced for the league by hitting .386 and earning a late-season promotion to high Class A.
"He overmatched this league," Athletics manager Ruben Escalera said. "He's a very aggressive player with a great approach to hitting."
A good contact hitter with a quick, short stroke, Costa rarely swung and missed. He had a knack for putting the ball in play with two strikes. His power was mostly gap-to-gap.
With slightly above-average speed, Costa seems best suited for a corner position. He played all three outfield positions in Arizona.
8. Adam Jones, ss, Mariners
Clubs were split on Jones as a pitcher or shortstop before the draft. The majority preferred him on the mound, but the Mariners elected to look past his mid-90s fastball and play him every day.
"We're still not sure what we've got," Mariners manager Scott Steinmann said, "but he prefers to play in the field. It's possible we won't make a final determination on whether he's a pitcher or shortstop until next year. He's got a lot of upside either way."
Jones has all the tools and actions to play shortstop, though he was inconsistent in the field. At the plate, he overswung at pitches early in the season but was more in control later in the year. He showed a knack for getting on base and ran well once he got there.
9. Brandon Wood, ss, Angels
Wood, the 2003 Arizona high school player of the year, started his career close to home before being promoted to Rookie-level Provo after 19 games. He didn't homer in the AZL after hitting 20 in high school but showed good power potential and an ability to turn on the best fastballs in the league. He did go deep five times in the Pioneer League.
"He's tall, thin and rangy," Angels manager Brian Harper said, "but he's got the power to play third base if he gets too big for shortstop."
Wood will remain at shortstop for now. He has average speed, but the soft hands and all the other actions desired at the position.
10. Charlie Fermaint, of, Brewers
One of the youngest players in the 2003 draft, the 17-year-old Fermaint missed a significant portion of the season when he jammed his shoulder sliding into second base.
Fermaint's best tool is speed, and every other part of his game has a chance to be at least average. He has solid swing mechanics with a good, short stroke. He stays inside the ball well and hits the ball where it's pitched.
"He's got a very good approach at the plate," Brewers coach George McPherson said. "The ball jumps off his bat. There is a good chance power will come as he fills out."
A left fielder in his pro debut, Fermaint is being groomed to play center to take advantage of his speed. He can do the same offensively if he learns to draw more walks.
11. Leslie Nacar, rhp, Giants
One of two pitchers to crack this list, Nacar distinguished himself as a closer, leading the league with nine saves while posting a 0.95 ERA. He also struck out 14.9 hitters per nine innings.
That was a marked improvement from 2002, when Nacar tipped the scales at 150 pounds. His listed weight this year was 190, and the extra beef helped him add 4 mph to his fastball, which improved from 88 to 92. He also worked aggressively in the strike zone.
"He dominated this league with two pitches," Hunter said. "His curveball was the best in the league and already is a major league quality pitch."
12. Lizahio Baez, of, Rangers
The Rangers ran away from the pack in the second half of the season, going 20-5 record despite the absence of a marquee talent. Baez, the league's RBI leader, stood out more than anyone. He was a much better player than in 2002, when he broken his hamate bone and hit just .233 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.
"He made a lot of adjustments at the plate this year," Lopez said. "He's a bit too much of a free swinger still, but I think he'll have a chance to hit."
Though the switch-hitter's swing is a bit unorthodox, he hit the ball hard consistently, especially from the left side. He also displayed a knack for laying off tough breaking pitches. His defense, arm and speed are all average tools.
13. Mike Aviles, ss, Royals 1
Aviles was the NCAA Division II player of the year at Concordia (N.Y.) in the spring and the AZL MVP in the summer. If the Royals had a more advanced short-season club, the 22-year-old Aviles never would have set foot in the league.
"He would have been a top prospect if he were 19, but not 22," McPherson said. "He showed good range at shortstop and hit the ball all over."
While Aviles was considered the league's most advanced player, he still made a lot of subtle adjustments. Simmons said Aviles improved dramatically at handling relay throws and getting an angle on balls hit to his right.
14. Jorge Mejia, 2b, Athletics
A career .247 hitter with five home runs in four previous seasons in the A's system, the switch-hitting Mejia had a breakout year in 2003. He hit .377 with seven homers while setting a league record with 84 hits.
Mejia came of age as a hitter, spraying balls to all fields while swinging the bat aggressively from both sides. His defensive skills are just adequate. He understands the game well and has good instincts, but needs work on his hands and feet at second.
15. Don Sutton, 1b, Athletics
The barrel-chested Sutton signed as a 41st-round draft-and-follow out of the Community College of Southern Nevada, where he batted cleanup for the 2003 Junior College World Series champs. He has a short, powerful batting stroke and can put a charge in a ball.
"He's got very good power, stays inside the ball well and uses the whole field," Escalera said.
He rarely got cheated while hitting .333 and tying for second in the league in homers. An average defender, Sutton moves with surprising agility around the bag, leading the A's to attempt to convert him to a catcher this fall in instructional league.
16. Brett Martinez, c, Angels
Considered one of the top defensive catchers in the 2002 draft, Martinez lasted until the 24th round and signed as a draft-and-follow this spring. At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds, he's not physical for a catcher or much of a threat at the plate. But his skills behind the plate are a different story.
"He was the best defensive catcher I saw all summer," Simmons said. "He's got a very good exchange with an extremely quick, accurate arm. He also receives the ball extremely well."
Martinez threw out 40 percent of basestealers, while the rest of the Angels' catchers threw out just 21 percent. He also worked well with the pitching staff. He did show a propensity for drawing walks, which will boost his offensive value.
17. Irving Falu, 2b/ss, Royals 2
Falu split the season between second base and shortstop, and managers were undecided where his future lies. His arm and range may be better suited for second, but Harper said Falu reminded him of former Gold Glove shortstop Alfredo Griffin. Others thought he projects as no more than a utility player.
"The tools are there and he's got the actions of a middle infielder," said Escalera, who believed in Falu as a shortstop, "but he's very inconsistent. He's got a long ways to go."
A switch-hitter, Falu has good bat speed, makes consistent contact and plays the short game well. If he keeps doing that, he could bat at the top of the order.
18. Sean Rodriguez, ss/3b, Angels
A third-round pick in June, Rodriguez began his pro career shuttling among three infield positions. He found a home at shortstop after Wood was promoted to the Pioneer League.
Rodriguez, whose father Johnny is a Marlins minor league coach, is capable of playing almost any position. His instincts were the equal of any high school player in this year's draft, and he saw time in center field this summer. He may even end up behind the plate in the future.
His bat will help determine his role. For the Angels, he hit third and showed gap power.
19. Gilberto Acosta, ss, Brewers
A switch-hitting Venezuelan signed in 1999 by the Brewers, Acosta hit a combined .243 in two seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League. He moved up to .318 a year ago in the AZL and broke out with a .349 average this season while leading the league with 30 stolen bases.
"He doesn't have much power," Escalera said, "but he stays inside the ball well and uses the whole field."
Acosta has the hands, arm, body and intelligence to remain at shortstop. He makes all the routine plays, but average range may relegate him to a utility role.
20. Javier Herrera, of, Athletics
Herrera crashed awkwardly into the center-field fence on July 1, leaving him temporarily paralyzed. He was taken from the field in a helicopter and missed several weeks recuperating. He showed five-tool potential early but wasn't the same player after he returned. He's just 18, so he might be back in the AZL in 2004.
"He can run and really play center field," Escalera said, "but he needs to calm down a bit at the plate. He's out of control at times. But the ball really jumps off his bat. The power will come."