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2003 League Top 20s: Eastern 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 J.J. Cooper
Unless your favorite major league club is fortunate enough to have Jorge Posada, Ivan Rodriguez or someone comparable, it's easy to wonder where all the catchers have gone.
Apparently to the Double-A Eastern League, where nearly every team had a legitimate catching prospect.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Binghamton manager John Stearns, a four-time all-star catcher with the Mets. "When people wonder where the catching prospects are, they're in the Eastern League."
In addition to New Britain's Joe Mauer, a once-in-a-generation catching prospect, New Haven's Guillermo Quiroz, Trenton's Dioner Navarro and Portland's Kelly Shoppach all project as future major league starters behind the plate. Binghamton's Justin Huber and Mike Jacobs both have the hitting potential to be regular big league catchers. A team that puts a premium on defense might be tempted to play Bowie's Max St. Pierre every day.
"There are some no-brainer catchers in this league," Harrisburg manager Dave Machemer said.
But there was no debate as to who was the top catcher and best overall prospect in the league. Scouts and managers raved about Mauer, BA's 2003 Minor League Player of the Year.
"It all starts with Mauer," one scout said. "When I saw Jose Reyes, I thought he was the best prospect I'd ever seen. Mauer is right up there."
1. Joe Mauer, c, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
He's just 20, but EL managers talked about Mauer like he was a 10-year veteran. Behind the plate, he's extremely fluid, despite his 6-foot-4 frame. He flashed an 80 arm with a quick release, throwing out a league-best 47 percent of basestealers, but managers were just as impressed with his ability to call a game and settle down pitchers.
At the plate, Mauer shows an advanced ability to hit to all fields and excellent pitch recognition. The only knock against him is that he has yet to hit for power. Unlike many young hitters, Mauer needs to become more pull-conscious. He hit only five home runs in 509 at-bats between high Class A and Double-A this year, and he has a career .423 slugging percentage.
But while Mauer hasn't shown much pop yet, few scouts and managers expect it to be a long-term problem.
"He'll develop more power," Machemer said. "He has a great smooth swing, and he has size and strength."
2. Alexis Rios, of, New Haven Ravens (Blue Jays)
Right now, Rios is a skinny hitter with gap power. But when mangers and scouts look at the 6-foot-6, 202-pounder, they can envision Rios growing into a power-hitting right fielder.
"He reminds me of when I saw Juan Gonzalez 10-12 years ago," Portland manager Ron Johnson said. "He has the same type body. Gonzalez was tall and lanky and didnít hit a lot of home runs. A few years later, heís a beast."
Even with room to grow, Rios tore up the EL, hitting a league-leading .352 and winning the MVP award. He stroked line drives from gap-to-gap and had 54 extra-base hits, including 11 home runs. He's more quick than fast, but can handle center field and has the arm to move to right field when he plays alongside Vernon Wells in Toronto.
"He's got very special ability," one scout said. "If he decides to hit for power and put on strength, he could hit a ton of home runs. It's amazing how well the ball travels off his bat. He could win a batting title or he could go off and hit 20 home runs in the big leagues, or maybe he does both. He has that kind of ability."
3. Grady Sizemore, of, Akron Aeros (Indians)
Like Mauer, Sizemore is a former high school football star and carries a gridiron mentality onto the diamond. The Futures Game MVP, Sizemore showed off four tools for Akron, with a below-average throwing arm his only weakness.
While Sizemore's arm is a little short, he has the speed and quick first step to handle center field. At the plate, he hit for average and showed good pop. He has above-average speed, though he's still figuring out how to steal bases. One manager compared him to Johnny Damon but with more power, while another praised the way he plays the game with reckless abandon.
"He's the best all-round player in the whole league," Altoona manager Dale Sveum said. "His potential is overwhelming. You don't have to watch him play 20 games. He stands out in five games. He's a man among kids."
4. Guillermo Quiroz, c, New Haven Ravens (Blue Jays)
Despite playing his home games at Yale Field, a difficult home run park, Quiroz still went deep 20 times. But his work behind the plate may have been more impressive. He threw out 44 percent of basestealers while consistently making throws to second base in 1.9 seconds or less.
Quiroz might never hit for a high average, but his power should translate to the major leagues. He'll need to adjust to better offspeed pitches, though he can crush mistakes. Besides his strong arm, he also shows good agility behind the plate.
5. Dustin McGowan, rhp, New Haven Ravens (Blue Jays)
In a league that had plenty of pitching, McGowan ranked as the pitcher most likely to be a No. 1 starter. He's still a work in progress because his command comes and goes, but he has the potential to have four major league pitches, including a plus fastball. Stearns said McGowan reminded him of a young Roger Clemens.
"You're talking about a guy who throws 95-97 mph with the makings of an unbelievable curveball and slider, and he has great arm speed on his changeup," New Haven manager Marty Pevey said. "Once he learns to command two of his pitches, he'll be lights out."
McGowan's fastball is what separates him from the pack. When he's on, he can touch the upper 90s and the pitch has great late life. His two-seamer features tremendous sink.
6. J.D. Durbin, rhp, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Like McGowan, Durbin has a mid-90s fastball that he can dial up to 96 on occasion. His curveball also has the potential to be a plus pitch.
But where McGowan's motion is free and easy, Durbin is more of a maximum-effort guy. And while McGowan is a thick 6-foot-3, Durbin is 6 feet tall. Add in Durbin's high-energy, emotional approach, and some believe he may be better suited as a reliever down the road.
"I liked everything about him," Machemer said. "He's a fierce competitor who comes out and comes after you."
The biggest concern about Durbin is that he tends to drop his arm slot at times. That flattens out his pitches and makes him easy to hit, no matter how hard he's throwing.
7. Dioner Navarro, c, Trenton Thunder (Yankees)
Navarro made the biggest jump forward among the EL's catching prospects, as the others carried much higher profiles before 2003. He's still a raw 19-year-old gem, but he's a switch-hitting catcher with an advanced bat for his age. He hit .341 with good gap power in Double-A.
"I can't quite believe his age. You see him and say no way could he be 19," one scout said. "There is a natural way about him in the box. He's very smooth. He looks a lot like Roberto Alomar at the plate, with an easy setup and an easy swing. If he was in the league a little longer, they may have figured him out a little more, but he showed no real weakness."
While it's hard to argue with Navarro's hitting, some managers worried about his receiving skills and said he called a predictable game behind the plate. He has a strong arm but threw out just 29 percent of basestealers. He did excel at blocking pitches in the dirt.
8. Taylor Buchholz, rhp, Reading Phillies
When EL observers talked about Buchholz, they started with his curveball. It's a legitimate plus pitch, a knee-buckler that can leave righthanders helpless.
He also throws a 91-93 mph fastball with good, late life. His changeup also shows signs of becoming a major league pitch. But Buchholz sometimes has trouble commanding his fastball, and his shy, unassuming demeanor sometimes affects him on the mound.
"The arm and the makeup and the breaking ball are all there," one manager said. "But he's more of a setup guy in the bigs unless he develops his changeup and fastball command. If he doesn't have his breaking ball right now, he gets pounded."
9. Jason Bartlett, ss, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Bartlett might have been the biggest surprise in the EL this season. His biggest claim to fame had been being traded from the Padres for Brian Buchanan in July 2002, but he won over the managers with his steady and sometimes flashy play at shortstop, plus his ability to hit to all fields.
He has top-of-the-order ability because he knows how to handle the bat and get on base. He runs well enough to steal a few bases. Bartlett can get a little pull-happy at times, but he showed enough pop to prove that he's more than a slap hitter.
"That guy grew on me," Machemer said. "He runs, he has good arm strength, he positions himself well and he's got good strike-zone judgment."
10. John VanBenschoten, rhp, Altoona Curve (Pirates)
When managers and scouts look at the athletic 6-foot-4 VanBenschoten, they envision a rotation workhorse who can pile up productive innings. But for now, the former NCAA Division I home run champion is still learning how to pitch. He sometimes leaves his pitches up, which leads to too many big innings and explains his less-than-spectacular EL numbers.
VanBenschoten throws a 90-93 mph fastball with good finish. His second pitch is a sharp curveball that he commands well. He also throws a slider and changeup that need improvement. He has the potential to have four major league pitchers, though it's uncertain that he'll have an out pitch.
11. Jesse Crain, rhp, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Blessed with a 95-96 mph fastball that can touch 98, Crain would have been able to simply blow hitters away with heat if he wanted. But he doesnít just rely on his fastball. He also has a tight 86-88 mph slider that he throws to righthanders, and a curveball to keep lefties off balance.
He also has good command and rarely got behind in the count. As a result, hitters never got a handle on Crain during his brief stay in New Britain. They hit just .099 against him with no homers and 56 strikeouts in 131 at-bats.
"He will throw strikes. With him, you're going to get challenged with real good stuff," Stearns said. "He's a big-time closer in the major leagues."
12. Sean Burnett, lhp, Altoona Curve (Pirates)
Burnett was consistent through most of 2003 and was named EL pitcher of the year, thanks to his feel for his craft and a darting fastball that makes up for what it lacks in velocity with good life. He also battles hitters with a variety of sliders and a deceptive changeup.
"He knows how to pitch," Machemer said. "That guy will come right at you. He'll paint the black. He's one of those guys you love to hate."
Though Burnett led the EL in victories, there were some red flags. Some managers wondered if his stuff was good enough to get major league hitters out. He also was shut down late in the season with elbow soreness.
13. Kelly Shoppach, c, Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox)
In most leagues, Shoppach would have been the premier catching prospect. But in the EL, he ranked just fourth in the strong catching crop despite possessing all-star potential.
Shoppach missed much of April after offseason rotator-cuff surgery, but once he arrived in Portland he showed no ill effects from the surgery. With a plus throwing arm and quick release, he threw out 31 percent of basestealers (compared to 19 percent for the rest of Portland's catchers). Factor in his soft hands and blocking ability, and managers rated him the league's best defensive catcher.
He also showed a take-charge approach as a leader on the field. And he's not one-dimensional, as he hit for average and power while drawing his share of walks.
"He has a great exchange, release and throwing accuracy," Johnson said. "He has pure power. He can drive the ball as far as anyone, but he's not a wild swinger. He has a controlled swing."
14. Craig Brazell, 1b, Binghamton Mets
The best power hitter in the Mets system, Brazell showed 30-homer potential in the EL. The former catcher also has a sweet lefthanded stroke that allows him to hit for average as well. But there are some concerns about Brazell's long-term potential.
He has yet to show much plate discipline or the ability to make adjustments against top-notch pitching. Brazell also became more pull-conscious this season as he opened up his stance. It helped him escape an early-season slump but it also made it more difficult for him to take outside pitches to left field.
Defensively, Brazell showed soft hands and adequate range.
15. Kevin Youkilis, 3b, Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox)
In a Red Sox organization that values plate discipline, Youkilis is the poster child for patience. He walked 86 times in 94 games at Portland, reached base in his final 62 games before a promotion to Triple-A and topped the EL with a .487 on-base percentage.
Youkilis has worked hard to increase his agility and become an adequate third baseman. While he has no trouble reaching base, it remains to be seen whether he'll generate enough power for a corner infielder. He has shown doubles power but not home run pop, and Triple-A pitchers got him out by aggressively challenging him.
16. Jeremy Guthrie, rhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)
A 2002 first-round pick, Guthrie signed late and made his pro debut in Double-A this April. He dominated the EL but was turned into a piŮata when he went to Triple-A. Yet because of the relative prospect depth in both leagues, he ranked 16th on this list and ninth in the International League.
With Akron, Guthrie showed command of four pitches and an advanced feel for pitching. He was able to dial up his fastball to 94 mph at times, but he more often threw in the 88-92 mph range. His slider and changeup can be plus pitches at times. Yet he didn't miss a lot of EL bats, with just 35 strikeouts in 62 innings.
"He's not afraid of contact," Akron manager Brad Komminsk said. "I don't think he feels like he has to strike guys out to get outs."
17. Jorge de la Rosa, lhp, Portland Sea Dogs (Red Sox)
Several managers projected de la Rosa as a No. 2 or 3 starter in the majors, while others thought he would fit nicely as a fireballing lefty coming out of the pen. They all agreed that he had a quality arm.
De la Rosa has a lively 90-91 mph fastball that touches 94, a curveball that has a chance to be a plus pitch and an improving changeup to rack up better than a strikeout an inning for Portland. He also showed a better feel for pitching in his third stint in the EL.
18. Fernando Cabrera, rhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)
Cabrera was one of the EL's best starters during the first half of the season, which left some observers surprised when he moved to the bullpen in late June. His lack of a changeup and reliance on a splitter seemingly make him a better fit as a reliever.
No one doubts Cabrera's 92-94 mph fastball that touches 96 at times. He has a long but smooth delivery, and his fastball command has improved. His secondary pitches, which also include a slider, are less developed.
19. David Bush, rhp, New Haven Ravens (Blue Jays)
A closer at Wake Forest, Bush had the second-most appearances and fifth-most saves in NCAA Division I history. That didn't stop the Blue Jays from converting him to a starter in his first full pro season, and he impressed managers with his stuff, command and feel.
Bush throws a heavy 89-91 mph fastball, a slider with good tilt, a curveball and changeup. If he has a problem, it's that he may throw too many strikes. Some managers thought he could be even more successful if he left hitters guessing more often about whether he was going to be in the strike zone.
20. Francisco Cruceta, rhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)
While Cabrera moved to the bullpen, Cruceta remained in the Akron rotation all season. Yet he may be more likely to have a future as a big league reliever.
"I think out of the two of them, Cruceta will end up being the reliever," one scout said. "He doesn't have Cabrera's command. Even when he throws strikes, he's not putting it exactly where he wants it to be."
Cruceta has a 90-91 mph fastball that seems quicker because his herky-jerky delivery hides the ball well. He also throws a good changeup and a decent breaking ball.