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2003 League Top 20s: Florida State 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 Alan Matthews
For the third consecutive year, the high Class A Florida State League featured a pair of the game's most promising prospects. In 2001, Josh Beckett began his Minor League Player of the Year season and Hank Blalock broke out in the FSL. Last season, Mark Teixeira and Jose Reyes lived up to high expectations.
This year the league's top talent was Joe Mauer, who also started a Minor League Player of the Year season in the FSL and solidified his spot as one of baseball's brightest prospects. Right behind him was an 18-year-old lefthander who had received little hype entering his first full pro season. Now Greg Miller has emerged as perhaps the best of a deep pool of Dodgers pitching prospects and one of three Vero Beach standouts to make the upper half of the top 20 list.
The FSL wasn't top-heavy, though, with plenty of depth as well. Such players as Dunedin righthanders Vince Perkins and Jesse Harper, Fort Myers outfielder James Tomlin and Palm Beach lefty Chris Narveson couldn't crack the top 20 despite drawing praise from managers and scouts. Lefties Cole Hamels (Clearwater) and Scott Kazmir (St. Lucie) would have been near the top but didn't pitch enough innings to qualify.
The late-season additions of Hamels and Kazmir intensified the debate about the league's best pitching prospect. Besides them and Miller, righthanders Gavin Floyd, J.D. Durbin, Dustin McGowan and Denny Bautista all showed the potential to pitch in the front of a big league rotation.
"That group are the kind of pitchers who make you stop eating your hot dog and put down your Coke," Vero Beach pitching coach Ken Howell said. "You have to put everything down and sit back and watch them work."
1. Joe Mauer, c, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)
Ten games into the season, Mauer's average sat at .184 and he had been held hitless for three straight games. But he quickly showed he could handle a pitcher's league, batting .364 and never going more than one game without a hit the rest of the way. Managers unanimously chose him as the FSL's top prospect.
Mauer led Fort Myers to a first-half Western Division title with his productive bat, defensive skills and instinctive understanding of the game before a midseason promotion to Double-A. All of his tools rate average or better, and managers loved the way he managed the game.
"He's the total package," Tampa manager Bill Masse said. "Number one, you want your catcher to receive, block and throw well, and he does all three well-above-average. You throw in his bat and you've got about as top a prospect as you're going to get."
2. Greg Miller, lhp, Vero Beach Dodgers
One of the youngest players in a full-season league in 2003, Miller earned a spot in the Vero Beach rotation out of spring training with just 38 pro innings under his belt. He was able to do so because he has a remarkably refined repertoire for an 18-year-old, with a 90-95 mph fastball, plus curveball, good changeup and newly developed cut fastball.
He added an inch and 15 pounds to his projectable frame in the offseason, helping him gain velocity. He was clocked as high as 96 mph after pitching between 87-91 in his pro debut. He was dominant throughout the season, improving his changeup and throwing all four pitches for strikes.
"When he's on the mound, he's in charge and there's no doubt about it," Daytona manager Rick Kranitz said. "When we see that he's on the mound, we know we're in for a dogfight."
3. Gavin Floyd, rhp, Clearwater Phillies
Like Mauer, Floyd entered 2003 as one of the league's high-profile players but stumbled out of the gate. After a series of mechanical tweaks that aided his deception and improved his balance, he added velocity and had another successful summer.
The low Class A South Atlantic League's top prospect a year ago, Floyd had the best curveball in the league. Slowed by shoulder tendinitis at midseason, he recovered to consistently throw his fastball at 92-93 mph by season's end. He also made strides in improving his mental approach.
"He's the total package," Clearwater manager Roly DeArmas said. "His breaking ball is as good as they come and he has a great arm. His biggest problem is with himself. Sometimes he over-thinks instead of just using his stuff and attacking hitters."
4. Franklin Gutierrez, of, Vero Beach Dodgers
The managers' midseason pick as the league's most exciting player, Gutierrez opened the season by homering six times in his first six games and finished it just as impressively, hitting .313-4-12 in 67 Double-A at-bats. At 20, the smooth Venezuelan further developed his impressive tools this season and now projects as above-average with all five tools.
Gutierrez has quick hands and a short, powerful stroke. After his hot start Gutierrez got pull-happy, and he needs to improve his strike-zone judgment. He has slightly above-average speed that plays well in all three outfield positions. He has the arm strength to play right and improved his reads on fly balls.
"He has five legit tools and can impact a game offensively, defensively and on the bases," Palm Beach manager Doug Sisson said. "He made good second-half adjustments, started to use the opposite field and has shown the ability to adjust to pitchers as they adjusted to him."
5. Dioner Navarro, c, Tampa Yankees
Playing in the same league as Mauer and St. Lucie's Justin Huber, Navarro still stood out as a catcher with plenty of upside. He followed both players to the Eastern League and torched Double-A pitchers for a .341 average.
Navarro projects to hit for a high average with average power. Navarro's quickness is his best asset behind the plate. His agility allows him to get to balls other receivers might not, and he can stay with pitches longer and still get off strong, accurate throws to second base, even when pitches are in the dirt. He blocks balls adequately, though his technique needs improvement.
"He's advanced beyond his years as a switch-hitter," Masse said. "He's going to be the catcher in New York when Jorge Posada retires, if he doesn't push him out. I played with Posada in Triple-A for two years and he's more advanced than Jorge at this age."
6. J.D. Durbin, rhp, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)
Durbin increased the velocity of his heavy fastball and starred in two leagues. He joined his batterymate Mauer at the Futures Game and in Double-A for the second half.
Durbin's fastball was the FSL's best, touching 98 mph and sitting in the mid-90s with heavy sinking action. He also added depth and power to his breaking ball.
He has a tenacious attitude with an intimidating edge, which might serve him well as a reliever. Some scouts say his height (6 feet), arm action and lack of a solid third pitch may make him better suited for the bullpen.
7. James Loney, 1b, Vero Beach Dodgers
Smooth and fluid, Loney jumped from the Rookie-level Pioneer League to the FSL late in 2002, just months after winning a national championship at his Texas high school. The effect of a broken wrist late last year slowed Loney early this summer.
Loney hit just .233 with one homer through late May, but rebounded as his wrist got stronger and he stopped pulling off the ball. He hammered 31 doubles and projects to develop above-average power. He has a smart approach at the plate and plus defensive skills at first base to go with championship-caliber makeup.
"When I was coming up, they always threw the big fat guy over at first, but now I think it's the second-most important position on the field," Masse said. "It's amazing how many runs he can save you over there. He's got great hands, picks everything and can turn the 3-6-3 double play with the best of them."
8. Dustin McGowan, rhp, Dunedin Blue Jays
The Blue Jays' top prospect entering the season, McGowan headlined the league's best rotation and continued his momentum toward the majors. He was overpowering at Dunedin, allowing two earned runs or fewer in 12 of his 14 starts. He was clocked as high as 98 mph and scouts were impressed with his improved delivery and command.
Along with Durbin and Vero Beach/St. Lucie righthander Joselo Diaz, McGowan showed the ability to overpower hitters almost solely with velocity. More important, he separated himself with his secondary pitches. He refined a slider and was able to use it as an out pitch at times.
"He has a chance to be a front-of-the-rotation pitcher," DeArmas said. "He has an excellent fastball, a nasty hammer and a good change, and he's improved his command and poise. He's a great power pitcher and a lot of fun to watch. He really gets after it."
9. Denny Bautista, rhp, Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins)
Of the three pitchers the Marlins gave up in midseason deals with the Rangers (for Ugueth Urbina) and Orioles (Jeff Conine), Bautista is the one with the highest ceiling. He rebounded from a disappointing 2002 to represent the Marlins in the Futures Game, striking out two in a scoreless inning.
Bautista has a projectable body and a live, loose arm that produced upper-90s heat and one of the FSL's best breaking pitches, an overhand curveball. Bautista's curve always had exceptional two-plane break, but it became more potent this year as he learned to command it.
10. David Wright, 3b, St. Lucie Mets
Wright's work ethic actually hurt him in the first part of the season, as his pregame preparation often left him exhausted. His average didn't top .250 for good until mid-July, but once the Mets got him to slow down he hit .323 over the final six weeks.
Wright has good plate discipline and uses a compact stroke with almost no stride to produce a league-best 39 doubles. The FSL's best defensive third baseman, he makes the routine play and charges slow rollers especially well. His makeup is another plus.
"He's going to be a very good major league player," St. Lucie manager Ken Oberkfell said. "He runs well, he has power and a good arm, and he's a better-than-average defensive third baseman."
11. Brandon League, rhp, Dunedin Blue Jays
When McGowan moved to Double-A New Haven, Dunedin dropped League into the rotation after the hard-throwing righthander had ripped through the Sally League. As with McGowan, League's gas is his calling card. He topped out at 99 mph and usually sits in the 94-96 mph range with explosive late movement.
He complements his fastball with a second plus pitch, an 87-88 mph power slider. League throws from a low three-quarters slot that occasionally borders on sidearm, which testifies to his pure arm strength but also allows lefthanders to see his pitches well. They hit .366 against him and took advantage of his changeup, which he often throws too hard to be effective.
12. Chadd Blasko, rhp, Daytona Cubs
Blasko made his pro debut this year after signing late as a 2002 supplemental first-round pick. He needed just two low Class A Midwest League starts before jumping to the FSL, where he led the circuit in ERA and ranked third in strikeouts.
Several scouts originally projected Blasko as a reliever because he has a long arm action and his secondary pitches paled in comparison to his low- to mid-90s fastball. He now has the chance to be a mid-rotation starter after improving his slider, curveball and changeup. He has a classic pitcher's frame at 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, and showed no signs of fatigue in his first pro season.
"His slider is really getting there," Kranitz said. "All you know is it disappeared and you're not sure what it was. All you know is it was a good pitch."
13. Bobby Brownlie, rhp, Daytona Cubs
Like Blasko, Brownlie was a Cubs 2002 first-rounder whose debut was delayed by negotiations. Considered one of his draft class' top prospects before coming down with biceps tendinitis, he signed for $2.5 million in March and joined Daytona in late April after building up his arm strength in extended spring training.
Brownlie allowed no more than one earned run in eight of his first 11 pro outings, thanks to a low-90s fastball and sharp 12-to-6 curveball. He flashed a good changeup, though his command was spotty. After getting hit hard in his next two starts, Brownlie was shut down for the year with shoulder soreness.
"When he's got everything going, he's overpowering," Kranitz said. "When you have command of three pitches and you have the ability to make a pitch, and then you add the makeup he has, you end up with a pretty good pitcher."
14. Jason Stokes, 1b, Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins)
Like Loney, Stokes was slowed by the lingering effects of a wrist injury. While he wasn't as impressive as he was in 2002, when he hit .341-27-75 to earn Midwest League MVP honors, most scouts considered Stokes the FSL's best power prospect because of his stout frame and quick swing that generates loft.
Stokes has power to all fields and understands situational hitting, though he strikes out too much and doesn't draw enough walks. He's adequate at first base and won't hurt his team defensively.
15. Ryan Howard, 1b, Clearwater Phillies
Howard and Stokes invariably were compared by league observers. Howard had a better season and shows more defensively, but he's two years older and has less upside.
Howard has tremendous power to all fields, especially to left-center, and he feasts on mistakes on the outer half of the plate. He opened his stance and added more flex in his knees to allow him to better handle inside pitches. He's more patient than Stokes, ranking third in the league in on-base percentage (.374) while leading in batting and slugging (.514).
"Howard has tremendous raw power," Fort Myers manager Jose Marzan said. "Stokes is a better hitter and eventually he'll be a better average hitter. But when talking raw power, Howard is hard to beat."
16. David Bush, rhp, Dunedin Blue Jays
Bush was converted from reliever to starter this year and embraced the change. After relying on his fastball and slider, he used his changeup more often and added a curveball to his repertoire.
His best pitch is still his slider, a power breaking ball that reaches the mid-80s. His fastball sits at 90-91 mph and has nice sink. Bush's low-80s curve is hard to pick up because he throws it with the identical arm action of his other pitches. He showed good feel and exceptional control, never walking more than one batter in 14 starts.
"He is a very intelligent young man and really applied himself well, so the transition wasn't difficult for him," Dunedin pitching coach Rick Langford said. "He learned to add on and take off of his pitches and learned to pitch for contact, and his stuff was ideal for that."
17. Jason Kubel, of, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)
Kubel has been overshadowed in the Twins system by such players as Mauer, Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Michael Restovich. But he has been productive, batting .310 in four pro seasons and finishing in the top five in the FSL in both average and RBIs.
Kubel's home run total dipped from 17 last year to five this season, and he doesn’t project to hit more than 20-25 annually. But he has quick hands, a short stroke and solid strike-zone discipline. He runs the bases well despite below-average speed and had the league's best outfield arm.
"He has a great idea of how to hit," Masse said. "We must have thrown him 100 breaking balls with two strikes out of the zone, and I don't think he swung at one of them. They say you can't teach that feel for hitting, but he's got it."
18. Robinson Cano, 2b, Tampa Yankees
The SAL's all-star shortstop in 2002, Cano moved to second base full-time this year. Managers rated him the FSL's best defender at his new position, as he showed a strong arm and more consistency.
Offensively, Cano is a contact hitter who controls the bat well and sprays line drives. He should drive pitches better as he matures physically, but he'll never be a big home run threat. He needs to concentrate on drawing more walks and keeping his focus late in games.
19. Matt Peterson, rhp, St. Lucie Mets
Peterson missed a month early in the season with biceps tendinitis and returned to earn a promotion to Double-A by the end of July. He returned for the playoffs and pitched St. Lucie to the title, winning twice, allowing one run and five hits and striking out 19 in 14 innings.
Peterson's bread-and-butter is a knee-buckling 12-to-5 overhand curveball. He has a great pitcher's body (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) and a 92-93 mph fastball. He also improved his changeup this season.
"With three quality pitches--the fastball and the overhand curveball and his changeup is going to keep getting better--and a great makeup, he's going to be a good big league pitcher," Oberkfell said. "And he wants the ball."
20. Justin Huber, c, St. Lucie Mets
Huber continued to refine above-average offensive tools this year while struggling at times defensively. He has good power, understands the strike zone and is willing to hit the ball to all fields. He has strong wrists and does a fine job of incorporating his lower half into his swing.
Huber worked with Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter to improve his defensive skills, but he still lacks the quick catch-and-throw exchange to make up for a below-average arm. He threw out just 25 percent of basestealers, compared to 41 percent by St. Lucie's other backstops.
"He's going to be very adequate behind the plate defensively, but he'll be a force offensively with power to all fields," Sisson said. "He can hit the ball with power all around the park. I see him as a middle-of-the-order run producer."