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2003 League Top 20s: California 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 Josh Boyd
Padres prospects have been prominent in the California League the last two years. Jake Peavy, Oliver Perez and Xavier Nady have graduated to the majors less than a year after leaving the high Class A circuit.
Lake Elsinore second baseman Josh Barfield represented the organization well again this season. He led the minors in hits, doubles, RBIs and total bases.
But it will be the Angels' prospect-laced Rancho Cucamonga roster that will be the Cal League's greatest legacy from the 2003 season. First baseman Casey Kotchman missed time with injuries, but his pure hitting approach still earned him top-prospect honors over teammates Ervin Santana, Jeff Mathis and Dallas McPherson, who all finished the year at Double-A Arkansas. Righthander Steven Shell and lefty Jake Woods also were impressive for Rancho, and right fielder Nick Gorneault emerged as a prospect.
Many players from Oakland's much-discussed 2002 draft were on display in the Cal League, including first-rounder Nick Swisher, who narrowly missed out on Top 10 inclusion, and supplemental first-rounders Mark Teahen and righthander Ben Fritz. Teahen flashed the best leather at the hot corner in the league and had an opposite-field, line-drive approach. Fritz was erratic and was shut down with shoulder tendinitis.
1. Casey Kotchman, 1b, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
Freak injuries continue to interrupt Kotchman's development. He missed the first half with a torn hamstring, then was knocked out of the playoffs when he was hit on the hand by a pitch. The ailments haven't prevented him from raking when he's in the lineup, however.
In 558 career at-bats, he boasts a .326 average with 47 doubles and 16 home runs. He also has walked more than he has struck out at every stop since Anaheim drafted him 13th overall in 2001. Kotchman grew up around pro baseball because his father Tom is a longtime Angels minor league manager and scout, and his approach and preparation reflect his pedigree.
"He shows raw power in BP," Rancho Cucamonga manager Bobby Meacham said. "He's a selective hitter but a guy who's aggressive at the same time. He always seems to be ahead in the count and doesn't swing at garbage they throw early in the count. He does that better than anybody in the league. He waits as long and sees the ball a lot longer than anybody else."
Kotchman is also a potential Gold Glover whom managers rated the league's best defensive first baseman.
2. Ervin Santana, rhp, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
Before moving up to Double-A, Santana established himself as one of the Cal League's few pitchers with overpowering stuff. His electric 93-97 mph heat and darting slider left hitters walking back to the dugout, and he also earned high marks for his poise and rhythm. He was named the league's pitcher of the year and won the ERA title.
"I haven't seen a slider as tight as that in a long time," Bakersfield manager Omer Munoz said. "He looks like he's been pitching for 40 years with his body language on the mound."
Santana's delivery and arm action are clean and effortless. "It's easy gas," an American League scout said. While his slider is a true knockout pitch, it tends to flatten out when he throws it 85-86 mph. His changeup is average.
3. Jeff Mathis, c, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
Mathis followed Santana to Double-A in August. Between the two levels, he smoked 39 doubles and a career-best 13 home runs.
Mathis's athleticism and size generate comparisons to a young Jason Kendall. The AL scout said that Mathis has more arm and more pop than Kendall at the same stage, though his receiving skills lag behind. Primarily a shortstop in high school, Mathis has plus arm strength and has the aptitude to improve, but isn't always fluid and easy with his hands.
At the plate, he hits hard line drives up the middle and doesn't get easily fooled by offspeed stuff. Mathis' intangibles might outweigh all of his physical gifts.
"He is legitimately upset if there is a rainout," the AL scout said. "He can't get too many swings. He just can't get enough baseball."
4. Dallas McPherson, 3b, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
A cadet at The Citadel, McPherson's mettle has never been in question. After recovering from a back injury that sidelined him in April, McPherson went on a home run rampage, smacking nine during a 14-game span in July.
He highlighted his streak with a double and homer against a rehabbing Randy Johnson. In his third trip to the plate, Johnson plunked him and McPherson stared Johnson down the whole way to first; then stole second on the next pitch.
"His approach in BP is probably better than anybody we've had the last few years," Meacham said. "In BP each swing is with a purpose. He's not trying to hit the ball a mile. He's got a plan and he works on it."
Scouts aren't convinced McPherson's mobility will allow him to stay at third base. That shouldn't matter, as he has the arm strength and power to play right field.
5. Josh Barfield, 2b, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
Barfield claimed the Cal League MVP award and his second straight Padres organization player-of-the-year honor on the strength of his minor league- leading 128 RBIs. Slugging runs in the family, as his father Jesse won the AL home run title in 1986.
Josh is geared to drive the ball to the opposite field because he dives into the plate. That's a potential problem in the upper levels, though he has enough life in his bat and plus bat speed to compensate. He'll need to make an adjustment to learn how to turn on pitches.
He projects as an offensive-minded second baseman, but he made defensive progress. A well-rounded athlete with good baseball instincts, Barfield would move to left field if the Padres decide he can't play second base.
6. Brad Nelson, 1b/of, High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
After Nelson missed two months with a hamate bone injury, most of his immense power was sapped. He let his pure hitting skills take over as he settled for spraying line drives to the opposite field.
When he started getting his strength back, he was promoted to Double-A Huntsville and began turning on balls. Nelson's setup is similar to Jason Giambi and he generates his juice with a short stroke.
With Prince Fielder coming up behind him at first base, Nelson moved to left field when he returned from the disabled list. He moves well for a burly 6-foot-2, 220-pounder and hustles on every play. The former prep pitcher has good arm strength.
7. Joey Gathright, of, Bakersfield Blaze (Devil Rays)
Gathright has game-changing potential with his top-of-the-charts speed. For that, managers recognized him as the Cal League's most exciting player.
Unlike many burners, Gathright is more of a complete player and has a disciplined approach at the plate. He doesn't hit for power but he makes hard contact and has above-average bat speed, prompting the AL scout to liken him to a stronger Juan Pierre.
"He puts the ball in play, has a knowledge of the strike zone and he flat-out flies," Munoz said. "He's still learning how to steal bases but he's very exciting. Every time a rover came in town they were amazed at how much he improved. He will play in the big leagues."
Gathright moved one step closer to Tampa Bay when he was promoted to Double-A in July. His season ended early when he separated his shoulder, which will keep him from playing in the Arizona Fall League.
8. Sergio Santos, ss, Lancaster JetHawks (Diamondbacks)
Santos was a high profile high school prospect since his sophomore season but scouts soured on him a bit when he struggled at the plate as a senior. The Diamondbacks were pleasantly surprised to find Santos near the bottom of the first round in 2002 and he has been on the fast track since, proving skeptics wrong.
"He played better than I thought he would coming out of high school," a National League scout said. "He's adjusted real well at the plate, showing he can hit the ball where it is pitched and go to the opposite field."
Scouts expect Santos to be another player on the move because he doesn't have the arm strength, footwork and quickness for shortstop. He currently has a line-drive approach now but shows enough power potential to handle a shift to third base.
9. Juan Dominguez, rhp, Stockton Ports (Rangers)
When Dominguez started the season, he was known as Jose Dominguez. He was also supposed to be 21. Four months later Dominguez made his major league debut and revealed that his name is Juan and he's actually two years older.
Dominguez' out pitch is a plus-plus changeup, and his live arm is capable of running fastballs up to 93 mph. His doesn't have a good feel for his slider and has to be more consistent with his fastball command to repeat his success in the upper levels. He was hit hard in three starts with Texas.
10. Jayson Nix, 2b, Visalia Oaks (Rockies)
While his older brother Laynce was establishing himself in the Rangers outfield, Jayson was tying Barfield for the minor league lead in doubles. The two second basemen share many similarities from position to good bloodlines to their potential with the bat.
Like Barfield, Nix improved his defense by working hard on his agility and footwork. He has a good arm and turns the pivot well. At the plate, both need to improve their strike-zone judgment before experiencing the same success in the upper levels.
"He uses both parts of the field, and when he is going good he's hitting the ball to right center," Visalia manager Stu Cole said. "He's got some power when he's staying closed and going through the ball."
11. Jeff Francis, lhp, Visalia Oaks (Rockies)
Drafted with the ninth overall pick last year, Francis went 2-7, 6.88 in the first two months of the season. He was too tentative and wasn't commanding his fastball in the hitter-friendly Northern Division. But he made an adjustment and emerged as one of the most effective pitchers in the league by going 10-2, 1.83 the rest of the way.
"He started trusting his stuff," Cole said. "He was attacking the strike zone rather than trying to making guys mishit."
Francis, who spun a no-hitter and a two-hit shutout in July, changes speeds well with a polished changeup and good curveball. His fastball is an average 89-92 mph pitch.
12. Nick Swisher, of, Modesto A's
The son of former big league all-star Steve Swisher, Swisher soared to the top of the A's 2002 draft board after leading the Big Ten Conference in homers the previous spring and demonstrating command of the strike zone. A good athlete with tools to match his performance, Swisher played as expected in the Cal League.
"He's got power from both sides and can play the outfield, left or center," Modesto manager Rick Rodriguez said. "As the season went on, you could see his confidence grow. He's a patient hitter. He wasn't afraid to hit with two strikes, but he's very confident at the plate and still very aggressive."
When Swisher came out of college, other teams questioned whether he was a true center fielder and if he'd have enough power to play on an outfield corner. He continued to draw walks after a promotion to Double-A, but his average and power nosedived.
13. Shin-Soo Choo, of, Inland Empire 66ers (Mariners)
Choo was dominant as an amateur pitcher for Korea in major international junior competition. While he still employs his powerful arm in the outfield, it's his bat that will carry him to the major leagues.
He has been consistent in his first two full seasons, showing the ability to drive balls to the gaps but not necessarily over the fence. Choo is an above-average defender with good instincts in the outfield and on the bases.
"His bat needs some work," the NL scout said. "He is a line-drive hitter but comes open on his swing and needs to cover the plate a little better."
14. Chad Gaudin, rhp, Bakersfield Blaze (Devil Rays)
Devil Rays scout Benny Latino found Gathright in the 32nd round and Gaudin in the 34th round of the 2001 draft. Like Dominguez, Gaudin went from obscurity to the big leagues by August, along the way firing a perfect game in his first Double-A start. Pretty impressive for a 5-foot-9 righthander with an average fastball.
Gaudin compensates for a lack of overpowering stuff with moxie. He's very aggressive with his two-pitch attack. His fastball is regularly timed between 86 and 92 mph, though the sinking and running action make it a tough pitch to hit squarely. He has the confidence to throw his short, cutting slider in any count.
"It didn't look like a real good slider," Meacham said, "but his slider doesn't look like a slider and that's why it's so good. You can't pick up the spin."
15. Jason Bourgeois, 2b/ss, Stockton Ports (Rangers)
It was a strong year for second basemen in the Cal League, though Bourgeois doesn't have the power potential of Barfield and Nix. Bourgeois may be 5-foot-9, but he's not short on tools. "He's an exciting player who's going to get there real quick," the NL scout said.
Bourgeois has enough muscle to rip the ball into the alleys and a solid foundation for understanding the strike zone. Drafted as a shortstop, Bourgeois moved to second base full-time at Double-A Frisco.
"He's adequate defensively," the scout said. "He showed some range up the middle but needs some work around the bag."
16. Josh Kroeger, of, Lancaster JetHawks (Diamondbacks)
What a difference a year makes. In 2002, Kroeger hit .235-7-58 as one of the Cal League's youngest everyday players. This season he took advantage of the favorable conditions at Lancaster Municipal Stadium, batting .390 at home and .341 overall before he was promoted.
"He showed a lot of improvement from last year," Meacham said. "One of the best defensive right fielders I've ever seen. He has a solid, quiet approach at the plate and drove the ball all over. He's not a home run guy, more of a gap guy. He stayed in the middle of the field."
Some scouts are concerned though, because Kroeger doesn't use much of a trigger to get his bat started. That limits his bat speed through the zone and his power potential.
17. Drew Meyer, ss, Stockton Ports (Rangers)
Selected with the 10th overall pick in 2002, Meyer recovered from a slow start in his full-season debut. Though he hit just .244 through the first two months, he still scored positive marks for his defense and instincts.
Meyer has a bit of an unorthodox approach, moving away from the plate as the pitch is delivered. He does a good job of keeping his hands back, though, and hits the ball to all fields. Meyer made some adjustments and still is working on seeing more pitches per plate appearance.
In the field, he has outstanding baseball instincts and showed one of the strongest arms in the league. With Alex Rodriguez in Texas, Meyer could wind up in center field. The Rangers plan on working him there full time in instructional league.
18. Steven Shell, rhp, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
Santana set the tone for the Quakes' pitching staff, and Nos. 2 and 3 starters Shell and Jake Woods continued to establish themselves as big league pitching prospects. Shell matched Santana's dominance in the first half and earned the nod as the starting pitcher in the Carolina-California League all-star game. He took a downturn in the second half after experiencing tenderness in his right elbow.
When Shell was right, his fastball touched 94 mph and sat between 89-92, and he commanded it for strikes. He has a good feel for his secondary pitches, though they're underdeveloped and he needs more confidence in his changeup and spike curveball.
19. Jason Botts, 1b, Stockton Ports (Rangers)
An impressive physical specimen at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, Botts combines natural athleticism and raw power. He has made promising strides throughout his four-year pro career, and the Rangers believe he still has untapped potential.
"He's a legit switch-hitter with power with a real easy, fluid swing from both sides," the NL scout said. "He can drive the ball, he stays balanced and the kid's got tremendous ability."
Botts started the year at first base, but after the Rangers traded for Adrian Gonzalez, they shifted Botts to the outfield in Double-A. He runs very well for his size so he should be up to the challenge.
20. Freddy Guzman, of, Lake Elsinore (Padres)
The Cal League featured three dynamic center fielders in Gathright, Guzman and Lancaster's Marland Williams. Each has impact potential based on speed alone, with Gathright the most advanced hitter. Guzman has more patience than Gathright, but both need to get stronger at the plate.
Guzman's prospect status took a hit in the offseason, when he was revealed to be 31 months older than previously believed. But he helped his cause by advancing all the way to Triple-A and leading all minor leaguers with 90 steals, getting caught just 17 times. A former second baseman, he has made a swift transition to the outfield, showing plus range with a below-average arm.