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2003 League Top 20s: Gulf Coast 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
With a roster dominated by premium picks from the 2003 draft, the Braves coasted to the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League's Eastern Division title. Then they won three straight playoff games to capture their first league championship since 1964--the league's first year of existence. They also place five players among the GCL's top 20 prospects.
Eleven players from this year's draft made the top 20, including sweet-swinging third baseman Eric Duncan, the Yankees' first-round pick and the league's top prospect.
Marlins righthander Jeff Allison, the highest pick (16th overall) to play in the league, might have wrested the No. 1 spot away from Duncan if he had worked enough innings to qualify for our list. He had minor discomfort in his shoulder after holding out for two months and made just three starts. Allison impressed managers with his smooth mechanics, overpowering stuff, command of three pitches and hard-nosed approach.
1. Eric Duncan, 3b, Yankees
Duncan had plenty of time to establish himself before he was promoted to the short-season New York-Penn League for the final two weeks. He hit .373 after moving up.
"He was the best hitting prospect in this league, by far," said Yankees manager Dan Radison, a former big league coach. "He's got excellent swing mechanics and power to all fields. He just needs a little more discipline with some of the pitches he swings at."
"He's very aggressive, both at the plate and in the field," Pirates manager Woody Huyke said. "He's a pure hitter. He hit lefthanded and righthanded pitching equally well."
Duncan's defense isn't as advanced as his bat, but he generally fielded everything hit at him. His arm strength and range are considered below-average, which may eventually require a shift to first base.
"His bat will play anywhere," Tigers manager Howard Bushong said. "He can really juice it."
2. Jake Stevens, lhp, Braves
One of five high schoolers from the first three rounds of the 2003 draft who pitched for the Braves, Stevens started slowly but was lights-out down the stretch. He saved his best outing for last, pitching the Braves to a 9-1 win over the Pirates in the first game of the championship series.
"He was pitching backward at the start of the year and nibbling too much," Braves manager Ralph Henriquez said. "He was using his breaking ball and changeup to set up his fastball. But he became a different pitcher when he learned to attack hitters early in the count with his fastball."
Not only did Stevens' fastball routinely touch 91-93 mph with late action as he used it more, but his command of the pitch improved as well. It gave him a second above-average pitch to supplement a curveball that ranked as one of the league's best.
"He showed me exceptional command of his breaking stuff," Marlins coach Johnny Rodriguez said. "His curveball has good downward angle with great bite, and he really buckled hitters with it."
3. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, c, Braves
A switch-hitting catcher with power potential, Saltamacchia earned positive reviews because of the improvement he showed in the second half, both at the plate and behind it. He hit .328 in his final 19 games.
"He struggled in the beginning, partly because catching is a difficult position to learn and it was also relatively new to him because he wasn't taught how to play the position in high school," Henriquez said. "He's also a big kid, and it takes bigger kids a little longer to put it all together."
Saltalamacchia, whose older brother Justin played outfield and third base for the GCL Braves, showcased an average big league arm. He developed a comfort level batting lefthanded and hit both his homers from that side of the plate. He also impressed managers with his willingness to learn and ability to take charge of a game.
He still has a lot of work to do defensively, especially with blocking and receiving.
"He's a big kid who simply needs to grow into his body," said Expos manager Bobby Henley, a former big league catcher. "It takes him more time to get his feet moving. But he showed me an above-average arm at times and he has a chance to be a run producer."
4. Hector Made, ss, Yankees
Built along the lines of fellow Dominican Alfonso Soriano, the 6-foot-1, 160-pound Made (pronounced "ma-DAY") has the arm, hands, range and actions to play shortstop in the big leagues. The only question is whether he might outgrow the position as he fills out his lanky frame.
Though his hitting mechanics need work, Made has ideal leadoff skills. He has good gap power and a patient approach at the plate, enabling him to get deep into counts. Though he hit just .239, he walked more than he struck out. He also was clocked in 4.24 seconds from the right side of the plate to first base.
"He has a chance to be a complete player," Bushong said. "He made a lot of improvements as the year went on."
5. Lorenzo Scott, of, Orioles
Scott left the league a month early to return to Ball State, where he led the football team in tackles his first three years as a 6-foot-2, 210-pound linebacker. Before he departed, he made a strong impression on managers for reasons beyond his tools.
"He's a big, strong kid who played harder than anyone in the league," Red Sox manager Ralph Treuel said. "He showed some quality leadership skills and helped that team win a lot of games."
Scott played sparingly on the Ball State baseball team last spring, starting nine games and hitting just .231. He often hit eighth or ninth in the order. As a result, he lasted until the 17th round of this year's draft.
But he didn't play like a low-round pick. He also wasn't as raw as expected, showing a disciplined approach at the plate to go with his strength and athleticism.
"He hasn't played much baseball," Reds manager Edgar Caceres said, "but he's got the whole package. He has some pop and he's an excellent outfielder. He gets great jumps and catches everything."
6. Blair Johnson, rhp, Pirates
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Johnson was a second-round pick of the Pirates in the 2002 draft and made two brief appearances in the GCL year ago. Just a thrower then, he was a much more complete pitcher his second time around and led the league in ERA.
"His improvement was night and day," Huyke said. "His fastball showed a lot more life and he had much better control of it. His change and curve were also solid pitches."
Johnson's fastball touched 94 mph and he usually threw it in the 90-92 range. It was effective at the slower velocity because he moved the ball around the strike zone like a veteran. He was particularly effective working inside on hitters.
"He really knows how to pitch and showed great mound presence for this league," Bushong said. "He moved his fastball around effectively and showed great location with his breaking ball."
7. Matt Moses, 3b, Twins
The start of Moses' pro career was delayed when a routine physical revealed a tiny hole in his heart. After a 20-minute surgical procedure to repair the defect, Moses was able to return to action and showed why he was the 21st pick in the draft.
"He's an outstanding hitter, the best in the league," Orioles manager Jesus Alfaro said. "He's already got a major league approach to hitting. He has extremely quick hands and he stays back on breaking balls very well. He's got power to all fields."
Defense is another matter. Moses' footwork is substandard and he has a below-average arm for the left side of the infield. It's unclear whether he'll remain at third base or end up at second base or in the outfield. He'll have enough bat for any position.
8. Tyler Pelland, lhp, Red Sox/Reds
The Red Sox paid $240,000 to land Pelland, a New Englander drafted in the ninth round a year ago, but sent him to the Reds in a deal for big league reliever Scott Williamson. Pelland simply moved from one Southern Division team to another after the trade.
Pelland showed a power arm, with a fastball that was normally 90-91 mph but often reached 95. He also flashed a quality breaking ball and pitched aggressively inside.
"He's very sound mechanically," Twins manager Rudy Hernandez said, "but he's still a little wild and his breaking ball and changeup need work."
9. Jai Miller, of, Marlins
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Miller was going to play wide receiver at Stanford until the Marlins took him in the fifth round of this year's draft. Because he didn't play much baseball in high school Miller is raw, but his upside is considerable.
"He could become another Preston Wilson," Rodriguez said. "He's got all five tools and has an incredible work ethic. Defensively, he catches everything easily. His mechanics were off a bit at the plate and he's a long way from being a polished hitter, but he's got a lot of bat speed. It's just going to take time."
Miller showed flashes of power potential while compiling a .199 average.
"He hit five balls in the last two weeks of the season that might have been home runs a year from now," Marlins manager Tim Cossins said. "He just needs to fill out and work on his approach to hitting."
10. Steve Doetsch, of, Braves
Doetsch tied for the GCL home run lead and was the best all-around hitter on the best team in the league. Having spent a year at Indian River (Fla.) Community College, he also was one of the more advanced prospects.
Doetsch (pronounced "deech") has average to plus tools across the board, with a 60 arm on the 20-80 scouting scale, solid outfield instincts and 4.2-second speed from the right side of home to first. He also has a hard-nosed, aggressive approach and struck out 49 times in 228 at-bats.
"He's a solid player," Cossins said. "He can really drive the ball to right-center and he runs well underway in the outfield."
11. Etanislao Abreu, 2b, Dodgers
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Abreu and double-play partner Lucas May earned a lot of support, and managers said Abreu has more upside. He can play second base and shortstop equally well, runs better than May and was his team's MVP.
"He's got a good feel for hitting," Rodriguez said. "He plays the little game well but he can drive the ball, too. He's got soft, quick hands and handles bad hops extremely well. He's also very good at turning the double play and has the wrists to make the tough throws from every angle."
12. Harvey Garcia, rhp, Red Sox
A 6-foot-2, 170-pound Venezuelan, Garcia can run his fastball up to 95 mph and projects to get stronger. He also has excellent command of the pitch and no-hit the Reds for six innings in one outing using almost nothing but fastballs.
"He pitches with a lot of poise and confidence," Hernandez said,"and he can really spot his fastball."
Garcia's other pitches have potential but aren't as advanced. He has a chance to have an above-average breaking ball, but his changeup needs a lot of refinement.
13. Jo Jo Reyes, lhp, Braves
Reyes was the most polished of Atlanta's young pitching prospects and led the team in strikeouts. But at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, Reyes' body may get away from him at some point, especially if he doesn't work harder. His stuff also isn't quite as good as Stevens'.
Reyes has an excellent mound presence and can throw four pitches for strikes, including an 89-92 mph fastball and an outstanding changeup.
"He competes well," Dodgers manager Luis Salazar said. "He works aggressively and has great composure. His fastball is also very tough on righthanded hitters."
14. Alexander Smit, lhp, Twins
A product of the Netherlands, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Smit signed for $800,000 last year at age 16. He made his pro debut this summer and might have led the league in ERA if he hadn't left in July to help his nation qualify for the Olympics.
Smit has good command, particularly for his age. He also has a deceptive delivery, making his fastball look quicker than its customary 89-90 mph. But his arm action is a little short and not fluid, causing at least one manager to wonder if he'll throw any harder.
"I did not see a particularly live arm," Caceres said. "He won't be a power guy. I see him more as a Tom Glavine type."
15. Matt Capps, rhp, Pirates
Capps, a converted catcher, was compared to Johnson. They have similar stuff and posted comparable numbers for the Northern Division champion Pirates.
"Their velocity is very similar and they both have decent curves and changeups," Huyke said. "The biggest difference is in their arm angles. Capps is a little more over the top, while Johnson is more low three-quarters."
Capps also throws a touch slower than Johnson. He can throw four pitches for strikes, and an outstanding changeup is his best pitch.
16. Jay Sborz, rhp, Tigers
The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Virginia high schooler had one of the best arms in the 2003 draft. He touched 94-95 mph after signing with the Tigers for $865,000. Sborz failed to win a game in seven starts because he routinely reached his pitch count (75) before the fifth inning.
"He's got an electric arm," Bushong said, "but he needs to learn to pitch and command the ball better. He rarely went deep into games because his location was poor."
Sborz often had to take 4-5 mph off his fastball to get the pitch in the strike zone. He also showed sporadic command of his curve and changeup.
17. Estee Harris, of, Yankees
A Long Islander drafted in the second round by his hometown team, Harris showed amazing bat speed for a 6-foot, 170-pounder. Balls jump off his bat and he launched six homers in 101 at-bats.
Harris had a reputation in high school for blazing speed, but GCL managers said they rarely saw it. Some said he didn't play hard all the time, but the biggest knock on Harris is his arm, which is barely adequate for a left fielder. His throwing mechanics are so poor that scouts say they may not be correctable. At his release point, his fingers are underneath the ball rather than on top, causing an awkward pushing motion.
18. Kiel Fisher, 3b, Phillies
A third-round pick of the Phillies in 2002, Fisher had a productive second year in the GCL and continued to hit when he was promoted to short-season Batavia midway through the season. He hit .333 between the two stops.
"He's got a good, solid lefthanded swing," Radison said. "He stays back well on offspeed pitches, which a lot of players in this league don't do. He's also got a good body and profiles well for third base."
19. Paul Bacot, rhp, Braves
A star point guard who led his high school to the Georgia 5-A basketball finals as a senior, the 6-foot-5 Bacot almost got lost in the shuffle on a talented Braves staff. But he pitched as well as anyone, going 4-0, 0.95 before being shut down the last couple of weeks with a tired arm.
Bacot's fastball was a pedestrian 88-90 mph, but scouts say he'll throw in the mid-90s once he fills out and concentrates on baseball full-time. He sets up everything off his fastball, including an 83 mph slider and an outstanding straight changeup. He has excellent command to both sides of the plate.
20. Kenny Lewis, of, Reds
Lewis was the fastest player in the 2003 draft and his game feeds off his speed. He was clocked from the left side of the plate to first base in 3.74 seconds and led the GCL with 37 stolen bases.
"He can fly," Alfaro said. "He can really go get it in center field and he's capable of stealing even on pitchouts."
Lewis is green in all phases of his game, though he outruns mistakes now on the bases and in the field. His arm is a little short, forcing him to play a shallow center field. He has surprising pop in his powerful 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame, but needs to work on putting the ball in play to maximize his speed.
"The whole key with him," Treuel said, "is will he hit enough. If he can just make consistent contact, he could be a special player."