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2003 League Top 20s: Carolina 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 Chris Kline
The high Class A Carolina League was chock full of pitching prospects in 2003, though most of them didn't stick around for very long. Led by Wilmington's Zack Greinke, the league's pitcher of the year, hurlers took center stage—and 11 of the first 15 spots on the top 20 list.
"All you have to do is look at the pitching leaders to realize how much they controlled what happened in the league this year," Winston-Salem manager Razor Shines said. "They all had ERA's under 3.40. And that's at the end of the year, so you aren't even talking about guys like Greinke or John VanBenschoten. Those guys were beyond this league pretty early on."
That's not to say hitters didn't do any damage. Winston-Salem outfielder Jeremy Reed tore up CL pitching and earned a promotion to Double-A, where he hit .409 in the second half.
"He was as good a hitter as I've ever seen, " Shines said. "Just the way he carried himself and the fact that he took the same approach every time he stepped in the box. He made the adjustments he had to make and moved on."
1. Zack Greinke, rhp, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
Believe the hype. Everywhere Greinke went in the league, he drew rave reviews for his Greg Maddux-like command and his bulldog mentality on the mound.
Greinke befuddled hitters by altering speeds on his fastball and curveball. He also throws a slider and changeup, and can throw any of the four pitches for strikes in any count.
"He's overpowering physically and mentally," Kinston manager Torey Lovullo said. "He did a great job of attacking hitters and changing speeds. He'd throw his fastball one time and hit 95, then drop it back to 80. He's as close to what you'd call a sure thing as I've seen. He has a great feel for how to get a hitter out."
2. Jeremy Reed, of, Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)
With little fanfare, Reed led Team USA in hitting in 2001, outpacing future first-round picks Michael Aubrey, Carlos Quentin and Rickie Weeks. He went straight to full-season ball as a second-round pick in 2002 and batted .319, yet still remained anonymous.
That changed in 2003, when Reed led the minors in batting (.373) and on-base percentage (.453). He has good speed and plays a fine center field. The only question that remains is his ability to hit for power, and some managers say it will come. At worst, he should be able to hit 15 homers a year.
"Here's a guy who has all the tools," Salem manager John Massarelli said. "He's athletic, has good arm strength and has some power from the left side that I believe has great upside. His power will only develop for him. He had 18 doubles in the Carolina League and then went and hit seven homers in Birmingham, which isn't a very good park to hit in."
3. Andy Marte, 3b, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Rafael Furcal went from the CL in 1999 to Atlanta in 2000. Marte won't reach the majors that quickly, but he's not too far away from playing every day for the Braves. He continued to exhibit a quick bat, power to all fields and solid defense.
Marte more than held his own as a teenager in high Class A. His shortcomings are the same as most young players: strike-zone recognition and the ability to maintain focus in the field and on the basepaths.
"He's athletic, got great hands and exceptional range," Massarelli said. "If he wasn't so thick through the middle of his body, he'd easily be a shortstop with enormous power. He's that good. He needs to be a little more patient at the plate, but that will come with age and experience."
"His style is very relaxed and at times aloof," Lovullo said. "But that isn't any indication of his wanting to be out there, not at all. He's in the same category as Greinke as far as I'm concerned. It's easy to project him. He has the intangible of loving the game. That's something that isn't measured as a tool, but you can see how much he loves playing everyday."
4. John VanBenschoten, rhp, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
To say VanBenscoten cruised through the CL would be an understatement. Showing off a fastball that reached the mid-90s, a tough curveball and an improving slider, VanBenschoten needed just nine starts to warrant a promotion to Double-A.
"He creates a very easy arm angle," Massarelli said. "I like to say he has an effortless fastball. With everything I had read about him, I was expecting him to be kind of raw. But what I saw was an extremely polished pitcher for being at this level. He definitely has big league presence out there."
VanBenschoten's delivery and command are polished for someone whom most clubs rated higher as a right fielder entering the 2001 draft. The NCAA Division I home run champion that spring, he has an advantage because he knows how hitters think.
5. Kris Honel, rhp, Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)
Honel and lefthander Ryan Wing pitched the Warthogs to their first league title since 1993. Winston-Salem swept through Kinston and Lynchburg as Honel won both of his playoff starts, including the clincher.
Observers can't agree on his strongest attribute. Some like his low-90s fastball. Some point to his knuckle-curve, which can be unhittable. Some say it's the command of all his pitches.
"He's got two plus pitches and he's developing a changeup," Massarelli said. "He creates a good angle and throws strikes. He overmatched a ton of hitters in this league. You can't ask for more at this level than he's already doing."
6. Edwin Encarnacion, 3b, Potomac Cannons (Reds)
After initially skipping high Class A, Encarnacion started the season by hitting .220 in Double-A. He had little trouble pounding CL pitchers after a demotion, then hit .310 when he returned to the Southern League.
Encarnacion has solid gap power and should hit more homers as he matures physically. He improved his plate discipline and runs well for his position. Though he has a strong arm and has played some shortstop in the past, some scouts and managers weren't sold on his defense at third base after he made 17 errors in 57 games.
"There's no question that he can hit," Massarelli said. "From everything I've read about him, he seems more patient at the plate as well. I don't really question his fielding too much right now. I know we've seen him make some spectacular plays this year."
7. John Maine, rhp, Frederick Keys (Orioles)
After carving up the low Class A South Atlantic League, Maine made a bigger splash in his second CL start. He no-hit Winston-Salem in the second game of a doubleheader, one of his eight quality starts in 12 outings for Frederick.
It's hard to believe this is the same pitcher who had a 5.61 ERA in his final season at UNC Charlotte in 2002. Since signing as a sixth-round pick, he has gone 15-6, 2.08, numbers more indicative of his stuff. He throws in the low 90s, and a scout who saw him in the SAL said his slider looked tighter after his promotion. His changeup also has improved.
8. Dan Meyer, lhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Like Maine, Meyer dominated the SAL and had no problem making the jump to high Class A. He pitched well through adversity, as Myrtle Beach went 23-46 in the second half. Meyer allowed a total of two earned runs in his final three starts, but went 0-2 as the Pelicans blew a lead in one game and didn't score in the others.
Meyer has superb command of three pitches: a fastball that topped out at 93 mph, a hard slider and a changeup that rivaled the best in the league. He also has made strides with his curveball and splitter.
"I love his body and his mechanics," one scout said. "He has a real fluid motion in his delivery that causes some deception, but with the way his changeup moves, he doesn't really need to deceive anybody."
9. Ian Oquendo, rhp, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
The only three-time winner of league pitcher-of-the-week honors in 2003, Oquendo stayed longer than most of the top arms. He was ready for Double-A when he got there in August because he went 4-0, 1.96 in six Eastern League starts.
Oquendo's top pitch is a curveball that managers rated the best in the league. He has a second plus pitch in his low-90s fastball, and he has no problem finding the strike zone. Though he didn't miss a start, some scouts questioned his durability because he's just 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds.
"People will say that he's too small," Lovullo said, "but I think you can throw all that out the window. He's a poor man's version of Pedro Martinez for me."
10. Bryan Bullington, rhp, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
The No.1 overall pick in the 2002 draft got mixed reviews in the CL. Some scouts weren't impressed with Bullington's fastball, which was clocked in the 95 mph range in college but dropped to 89-91 late in his first pro season. His slider also wasn't as devastating as it was at Ball State.
Nevertheless, Bullington went 8-4, 3.07 without jaw-dropping stuff. He won by throwing strikes and improving his offspeed pitches, a curveball and changeup. That will be beneficial once his fastball and slider bounce back.
"Everything I had on him led me to believe that he was a lot better than what I saw," one scout said. "But when I saw it, I was kind of disappointed.
"His other stuff looked good, good enough to get hitters out at this level. His curveball was tight and he seems to change speeds well. It's probably more about him staying consistent with the fastball to really keep hitters off balance."
11. Macay McBride, lhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
After leading the SAL in ERA as a 19-year-old, McBride topped the CL in innings and strikeouts at 20. He's not projectable at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds, but with his stuff he doesn't have to be.
McBride's low-90s fastball and slider remained his best pitches. His curveball and change continued to improve. He challenged hitters and didn't beat himself by allowing walks or home runs.
"His body type doesn't project into much more than it is," one manager said. "But he still has all the tools and he's lefthanded, so most teams would love to have him."
12. Ryan Doumit, c, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
The biggest thing for Doumit was staying in the lineup. He played in 116 games combined the previous two seasons because of a strained lower back and a broken pinky. He dodged injuries in 2003 and appeared in 127 games, 86 behind the plate.
Doumit has a lot of offensive potential for a catcher. He's a switch-hitter who makes consistent contact and has line-drive power. He's also athletic for his position, though he needs more time at catcher to improve defensively.
"I like his bat a lot, but you give something up with him behind the plate," one manager said. "I have no problem with his arm strength. It's his ability to receive, call games and handle a staff that I question."
13. Ryan Wing, lhp, Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)
Another integral part of Winston-Salem's championship, Wing has pitched nearly as well as Honel since being drafted one round behind him in 2001. Wing doesn't have Honel's command, though he did improve in that regard this year, but he can match his two plus pitches.
Wing's slider is his best pitch and his 90-92 mph sinking fastball is nearly as good. His delivery has a lot of deception, making those offerings even tougher. He's difficult to run on, leading the CL with just 33 percent of basestealers succeeding against him.
"His stuff just bores in on lefthanded hitters especially," Massarelli said. "He'll throw you inside and set you up with the slider. He was one of the best pitchers we faced."
14. Rommie Lewis, lhp, Frederick Keys (Orioles)
Though Lewis has one of the best arms in the Orioles system, they inexplicably left him in the bullpen for all of 2002. He made the transition to the rotation this year and struggled, especially with his command. He had difficulty keeping his mechanics in sync from inning to inning.
Lewis still has a 93 mph fastball, good velocity for a lefthander. And his 6-foot-6 frame is still ideal from a scout's perspective.
But his curveball and changeup, which he didn't use as much in relief, still need improvement. He needs something to combat righthanders, who hit .266 with a .398 slugging percentage against him (compared to .196/.268 by lefties).
15. Ty Howington, lhp, Potomac Cannons (Reds)
Howington is another lefthander and Washington high school product who's having to put the pieces back together. He had arthroscopic elbow surgery in 2001 and shoulder tendinitis in 2002, and he opened this season throwing in the mid-80s.
He regained the velocity on his fastball and went 4-2, 1.65 in his final starts with Potomac. But he too has mechanical flaws, and he got hammered when his command fell apart in Double-A. When he's on, his curveball can be a plus pitch and his changeup can be solid average.
"I think he had a good year," Reds farm director Tim Naehring said. "He was sitting at 90 mph for most of the year and touched 93-94 occasionally. If he can consistently hit 89-91 with his changeup working, he'll be fine."
16. Hector Gimenez, c, Salem Avalanche (Astros)
John Buck is the best-known catching prospect in the Astros system, but they have a second quality backstop in Gimenez. Managers rated him the league's best defensive catcher, primarily for his strong arm and quick release. He finished second in the league by throwing out 39 percent of basestealers.
The only holes in Gimenez' defensive game remain his ability to call a game and handle a staff at a higher level. He'll have to show most consistency with the bat, but he does have power potential from both sides of the plate.
"He's definitely the best catching prospect in the league, " Massarelli said. "He can catch and throw probably at the major league level, but needs time to develop."
17. Chris Shelton, 1b/c, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
Shelton was a bit old for the league at 23, but his offensive potential is obvious. He led the league in on-base (.478) and slugging percentage (.641) after topping the SAL in those categories last year. He also added batting and home run crowns as well as an MVP award in 2003.
"He's got a swing without a hole in it," Lovullo said. "He took a balanced approach to the ball with a short, downward swing every at-bat. It wasn't by luck, it was by design that he hit .359 this year."
He's similar to Pittsburgh's Craig Wilson, who came up through the minors as a catcher but has yet to find a position where he can be a big league regular. Shelton split time with Doumit behind the plate, throwing out 26 percent of basestealers, and with Walter Young at first base.
"The trouble is going to be finding a spot for him," one manager said. "I know this much, it definitely isn't behind the plate. If he's going to continue to move up the ladder, it's going to have to be at first base. He can swing it though, which is more than enough reason to find him a spot."
18. Jared Gothreaux, rhp, Salem Avalanche (Astros)
Gothreaux opened the season as a set-up man and didn't make his first start until April 26. Yet he led the league in wins as he surrendered more than three earned runs just twice in 22 starts.
He had been known for his slider, but Gothreaux maintained a low-90s fastball late into the season. He learned to change speeds on his fastball and breaking pitches, and he developed his changeup.
"He reminds me a lot of Bill Gullickson," Lovullo said. "He's a guy who gets a lot of ground balls because of the downward movement on his fastball and slider. He throws three pitches for strikes and is a pitcher in every sense of the word."
19. Willy Taveras, of, Kinston Indians
Taveras' game is based on speed. He's a basestealing threat every time he reaches, which is fairly often because he knows that's his role. He also covers lots of ground in center field. Managers named him the best baserunner, fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder in the league at midseason.
"His range in center field is off the charts," Massarelli said. "Every time we played them, they'd pull their corner outfielders literally to the foul lines. I never saw gaps between outfielders like that. But every time we'd put one into those gaps, Willy somehow ran it down.
"From an opposing manager's standpoint it was frustrating as heck, but it was also a lot of fun to watch. "
His biggest weakness is . . . weakness. Taveras packs just 160 pounds on his 6-foot frame, and he slugged just .350. When Kinston moved him to the No. 3 spot in the second half, his slugging percentage dipped to .283. He doesn't need to become a power hitter, but he'll have to show more punch to keep pitchers honest.
20. Andres Blanco, ss, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
Blanco's glove was as exciting in the infield as Taveras' was in the outfield. He has the defensive skills to eventually push Angel Berroa to second base.
"He's got it all defensively," one scout said. "He'll make plays on either side of the bag that he has no business getting to. He attacks balls. He'll hang in there when a runner is gunning for him at second."
Also like Taveras, Blanco has work to do offensively. He can put the ball in play but too often has the bat knocked out of his hands. Since coming to the United States last year, he has hit just .247 with 23 extra-base hits in 170 games.