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2003 League Top 20s: International League
by Will Kimmey
With organizations bringing more players from Double-A straight to the majors, Triple-A is becoming more of a brief stopover for prospects who need a little extra fine-tuning and a destination for more veterans looking for second and third chances in the big leagues. "So much of Triple-A now is 4-A guys, guys who switch organizations every year," Ottawa manager Gary Allenson said.
Durham, Louisville, Ottawa and Pawtucket all rode rosters loaded with major league experience to the International League postseason, with Durham winning its second straight title. And while the quality of play remained high with 26- to 32-year-old veterans filling the rosters, the IL boasted few players who looked like future all-stars.
"The league was not as good this year," Toledo manager Larry Parrish said. "From what I've seen, there are a lot of players with a chance to play in the big leagues and a lot of pitchers that are No. 3 and 4 starters. I haven't seen No. 1 or 2 starters or a player you say this guy is a stud aside from Justin Morneau or Jose Reyes."
Allenson cited his informal poll of league third basemen.
"I always ask guys when I'm coaching third and they're standing by me, who is the best pitcher they've seen," he said. "And they have to think for a while. That tells you plenty."
1. Jose Reyes, ss, Norfolk Tides (Mets)
After winning top-prospect honors in two leagues in 2002, Reyes entered 2003 as the top shortstop prospect in the minors. Despite a hamstring injury that forced him out of the lineup for three weeks, he was leading the IL in steals when the Mets promoted him to New York in June. Once there, he showcased his all-around talents and hit better (.307) than he did in Norfolk.
"He has great hands and super range and an outstanding arm," Indianapolis manager Cecil Cooper said. "His baseball instincts are terrific, and he's a plus runner. He's got all the tools to be a great one at the major league level."
Reyes must become more selective at the plate, as his aggressive nature often leaves him swinging at poor pitches that result in strikeouts or popouts. Aside from that, he only needs experience to continue developing into a championship-caliber shortstop.
2. Justin Morneau, 1b, Rochester Red Wings (Twins)
Morneau clubbed 19 homers between Double-A New Britain and Rochester and led the minors in that category when the Twins called him up in June. He lost his stroke because of sporadic playing time in Minnesota and hit .236-3-13 in 127 at-bats upon his return to Rochester.
Despite the slump, managers still praised Morneau's swing and ability to make adjustments, noting that he got frustrated by being pitched backwards early on and then figured things out. He drew some comparisons to Fred McGriff, offering a solid average to go along with 35-40 home run potential.
"He's an outstanding hitter with power to all fields," Cooper said. "He's got good plate discipline and plus-plus power. He stood head and shoulders over everyone else in the league."
Drafted as a catcher, Morneau continues to improve at first base. His hands and footwork still cause concern, but he's athletic enough to become an average defender.
3. Victor Martinez, c, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
With two league batting titles in the previous two years, Martinez needed to prove his mettle defensively this season. The results were mixed. He continued to make strides in overcoming the language barrier with his pitchers, calling games and receiving pitches.
He'd rate as an average defender if not for his struggles in controlling the running game. Martinez successfully threw out basestealers at just a 14 percent clip, the worst mark among IL regulars. He played 14 games at first base and three at DH, and could end up at either position if the Indians aren't satisfied with his defense.
There are no questions about Martinez at the plate. After hitting .215 through 151 at-bats, he made adjustments and would have finished second in the batting race had his late-June promotion not left him short of qualifying. The switch-hitter is strong from both sides of the plate, displays a strong knowledge of the strike zone and should increase his power production as he gains experience and strength.
4. Chase Utley, 2b, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
After leading the IL in doubles in 2002, Utley challenged for the batting title a year later. He showed the ability to handle any pitch and trailed only Fernando Seguinol in on-base plus slugging percentage. A disciplined hitter, Utley has excellent hands that allow him to take pitches off the plate and foul off those he doesn't want.
"The best hitter in the league," Rochester manager Phil Roof said. "He's not big but puts the bat head on the ball with authority and is a good RBI guy."
Back at second base after spending 2002 learning how to play third as the Phillies looked for Scott Rolen's successor, Utley showed more confidence at the plate and in the field. He possesses average range and hands for the middle of the diamond, and his arm plays much better there than at the hot corner. He makes all the routine plays and should be an adequate defender.
5. Freddy Sanchez, ss/2b, Pawtucket Red Sox
Sanchez is the working man's prospect. He's not flashy but gets the job done despite hitting being his only above-average tool. Sent to the Pirates at the trade deadline, Sanchez looked more fluid at shortstop because he has more experience there than at second base, where his arm plays better.
"He's got intangibles," Pawtucket manager Buddy Bailey said. "He's steady and plays with a lot of energy and did everything extremely well. He has the ability to play either position. At short, he's very instinctive and while he doesn't have the arm like Reyes, he makes all the plays."
Sanchez certainly has enough bat for the middle infield. He was leading the league in hitting and on-base percentage when the Red Sox called him to Boston at the end of May. Managers considered Sanchez the IL's best righthanded hitter, praising his line-drive stroke and plate discipline.
6. Adam LaRoche, 1b, Richmond Braves
"Smooth" is the best word to describe LaRoche. He patrols first base effortlessly, and his arm strength—he was a two-way star in junior college—can be a weapon in turning double plays and converting relay throws. "He looks like a shortstop around the bag," Buffalo manager Marty Brown said of LaRoche, whose brother Andy signed with the Dodgers for $1 million this summer as a shortstop.
Adam looks just as fluid at the plate, though he starts his sweet swing from an almost completely upright stance. His line-drive stroke drives balls into the gaps and has the potential to add power. It draws comparisons to Will Clark and Rafael Palmeiro. LaRoche has the ability to follow that duo as Gold Glove winners and batting-title contenders.
"He's very relaxed as a hitter," Buffalo manager Marty Brown said. "He knows himself: He's a line-drive hitter who drives the ball. He's going to produce good on-base percentages."
7. Brandon Claussen, lhp, Columbus Clippers (Yankees)/Louisville Bats (Reds)
Claussen had Tommy John surgery in June 2002 and returned to the mound in late April. The rapid recovery can be attributed to the same bulldog demeanor Claussen shows on the mound.
Claussen's fastball ranged between 88-94 mph before surgery, and averaged more in the 88-90 range this season, though he did hit 92. His slider wasn't quite as sharp as it had been when he led the minors in strikeouts two years ago, but he did make strides with his changeup. He was still able to work both sides of the plate, though he sometimes relied too much on his fastball.
Traded to the Reds in the Aaron Boone deal, Claussen was shut down after three starts for Louisville for precautionary measures. By putting his surgery two years behind him and adding an offseason of rest, he should regain his past form.
8. Cliff Lee, lhp, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
A pulled abdominal muscle derailed Lee's chances of making the Indians out of spring training, but he returned to dominate minor league hitters and make himself a strong contender for the rotation in 2004. After Cleveland promoted him, he posted six quality starts in his first eight tries.
"He's predominantly a fastball pitcher," Brown said. "He elevates it with command. He would overpower guys at times, so much so that the second time through the order he'd throw the same thing. He's very deceptive and his tailing four-seam fastball sometimes looks like it rises."
Lee mixes his 89-92 mph fastball with a hard slider and changeup, both of which are solid. He sometimes gets out of whack mechanically and loses command. He also must continue improving his feel for pitching if he is to develop into a front-of-the-rotation starter.
9. Jeremy Guthrie, rhp, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
Guthrie received a promotion to Triple-A just more than 60 innings into his pro career. After a dominating 6-2, 1.44 pro debut in Double-A, he found a rude welcome at the doorstep to the majors. Despite some rough numbers, Guthrie still showed the stuff and skills to become a solid starter in the majors.
"It really opened your eyes when you saw the stuff that he has," Syracuse manager Omar Malave said. "He's not ready yet, but he can be in Cleveland halfway through next year."
Guthrie throws three potential plus pitches: a 90-95 mph fastball that could add velocity, a slider and a changeup. He sometimes struggled to finish his pitches and left mistakes thigh-high over the middle of the plate.
"He needs to command his fastball better, but his stuff is electric," Brown said. "Every mistake he makes gets whacked. But he reminds me a lot of young Mike Mussina when I played with him in Rochester."
10. Coco Crisp, of, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
Crisp profiles as a prototype leadoff hitter in an era where those type of players are rare. The hard-nosed outfielder works counts and gets on base by walking, bunting and slapping line drives.
Once there, he combines good baserunning and speed (his best tool) to steal bases. Crisp has the ability to load up to smack balls into the gaps at times, but he'll still derive most of his extra-base hits with his legs
"He's the most exciting player in the league," Cooper said. "He creates havoc all around with his tremendous speed. He runs like the wind."
Defensively, Crisp can chase down everything hit in the air, but his below-average arm fits best in left. He'll need to add muscle by continuing the weight and strength programs he began last offseason in hopes of building his arm up enough to play to center, where his lack of pop is more palatable.
11. Dustin Moseley, rhp, Louisville Bats (Reds)
Moseley received a promotion for a spot start in Triple-A after pitchers Carlos Almanzar and Josias Manzanillo left Louisville because they were upset at not being called up to the majors. He allowed one earned run on six hits over seven innings in his debut and never looked back. He never surrendered more than three earned runs in any start.
"He has life on his fastball and locates it well," Louisville pitching coach Mack Jenkins said. "Late in the year, he found a feel for his curveball. When it's sharp, it could be plus."
Moseley adds a plus changeup to that mix along with his above-average command. He works with very sound mechanics and generates easy 89-92 mph velocity. The total package should add up to a middle-of-the-rotation starter as he gains experience and a better feel for pitching.
12. Michael Restovich, of, Rochester Red Wings (Twins)
After the Twins switched their Triple-A affiliate from the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League to the IL, Restovich struggled to the second-worst slugging percentage (.465) of his career and fell shy of 20 home runs for the first time in three seasons. Pitchers found and exploited holes in Restovich's swing when they weren't enticing him to chase pitches off the plate. A shorter swing and more disciplined approach could make a world of difference.
"He needs to cut down on his strikeouts," Rochester manager Phil Roof said, "but nobody in the league had as much power as he does."
Restovich has an average arm, runs well for his size and generally gets to everything. He can become an average left fielder.
"He's a lumbering guy, but he makes all the plays," Parrish said. "He sneaks up on you. He's one of the tougher calls in the league, but I'd give him a chance right now. He's not going to be a stud, but he could play everyday."
13. Ryan Madson, rhp, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
Tall but thin, Madson doesn't have plus velocity and instead mixes his low-90s fastball with a curveball and changeup. His changeup and overall command rank as his best attributes, especially the changeup, which has so much movement some hitters mistake it for a cutter, splitter or breaking ball.
Madson's mechanics are clean and the ball comes out of his hand easily and on a downward plane, leaving managers to speculate that he could boost his velocity by adding weight. Otherwise, his three major league pitches pencil him into the back of a rotation.
"He's not a velocity guy who overpowers you," Allenson said. "He knows how to pitch and is not afraid to throw strikes. Those are the guys who if they don't make that tough Phillies rotation, the middle-of-the-pack clubs would beg for that guy."
14. Jesse Crain, rhp, Rochester Red Wings (Twins)
Crain can throw four pitches for strikes, which caused the Twins to consider trying him as a starter. But they kept him in relief and he rose from high Class A to Triple-A in his first full season, collecting 19 saves, averaging 12.2 strikeout per nine innings and holding batters to a .159 average.
As a closer, Crain usually eschews his changeup and slow curveball in favor of his two plus pitches: a 92-94 mph fastball that touches 98, and an 87-88 mph slider with depth. He serves up his power repertoire with an easy delivery.
Before Crain moves to Minnesota, he must gain better command, especially of his slider. Some managers also said that while his velocity was impressive, his fastball looked very straight.
15. Kevin Cash, c, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
Cash sits at the other end of the catching spectrum from Victor Martinez. He easily ranked as the league's best defensive catcher, throwing out 50 percent of basestealers, the best of any regular backstop. With the catch-and-throw part of his game mastered, Cash worked successfully to improve his game-calling and relationships.
"I love him behind the plate," Richmond manager Pat Kelly said. "He's a solid receiver with a great throwing arm. But Cash will go as far as his bat takes him. I think he'll hit."
Malave said Cash, who spent the second half of 2002 in Syracuse, has made great strides as a hitter over the last year. Always a free swinger, Cash initially struggled learning the Blue Jays' philosophy of plate discipline at first, taking more pitches than needed and falling behind in counts. He has learned to put the ball in play more, to use the whole field and to be patient without compromising his aggressiveness.
16. Gabe Gross, of, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
Gross has displayed the plate discipline that drives prospects through the Blue Jays system, and there's no reason to expect that he won't be able to hit for a solid average in the majors. But if he's to become an everyday right fielder, he must learn to drive the ball better.
"It's a pleasant surprise how he handles himself at the plate," Malave said. "He's not the power hitter everyone thinks he is. He's more of a gap-to-gap guy with occasional power."
Gross worked to get rid of his aluminum-bat swing, one that was quick to the ball and covered the plate but didn't pack much punch. He relied on the metal to do that in college, and now is learning to generate that juice himself with a trigger mechanism and using his lower half more.
Gross shows the tools to become a frontline defensive right fielder. He has the arm strength and speed, and just needs more practice taking the correct routes to balls, especially when giving ground.
17. Alex Escobar, of, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
Escobar possesses plus power and ranked second in the league in home runs, but also falls victim to the strikeout way too much. He struck out once every 3.3 at-bats and only George Lombard fanned more frequently among IL regulars. Even noted swing-and-misser Drew Henson only whiffed once every 4.0 at-bats.
Breaking balls give Escobar the most trouble and there are other holes in his swing. But if pitchers miss their spots, he still has the bat speed to make them pay. His skill set and approach reminds some of Reggie Jackson's.
"He's a free swinger," Allenson said. "He can cut down on his swing and still drive the ball if he wants to. If he can do that, he'll hit and be a heck of a player."
Defensively, Escobar has the tools to be a Gold Glove right fielder. No one in the IL could match his throwing arm, and the former center fielder has the speed to track down plenty of fly balls, though he doesn't steal many bases any more.
18. Grant Balfour, rhp, Rochester Red Wings (Twins)
Balfour emerged as a very versatile pitcher, serving as a starter, closer and long reliever. He works with a four-pitch repertoire, relying mostly on his plus fastball and plus slider in relief and mixing in his changeup and curveball more often when starting. His fastball averages 93-94 mph during longer outings, while he'll bump it to 95-96 out of the bullpen.
"He threw five innings against us and we didn't touch him," Cooper said. "He was lights out with the fastball and slider. The balls come out of his hand real easy. We didn't have a chance."
Location remains Balfour's biggest hurdle. When he struggles to get his secondary pitches over, he loses confidence in them and almost exclusively will throw his fastball, which he can command to either side of the plate but often with little movement.
19. Cody Ross, of, Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers)
Small in stature, Ross plays with the hard-nosed intensity befitting a Napoleon complex. Several managers called Ross a little man trying to play a big man's game. Ross has shown above-average power, but sometimes at the expense of trying to do too much as his swing gets long and pull-conscious.
He might be a better hitter if he went the other way more and didn't lift as many balls into the air. If the power comes through, Ross has the arm strength and athleticism to serve as an average or better right fielder.
"There's going to be some people that really like him and some that don't," Parrish said. "Will he have enough pop to be a corner outfielder? We're torn between labeling him an extra outfielder and a regular. He plays the outfield well, but he's a little guy who might not have power if you keep the ball away from him."
20. Jason Arnold, rhp, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
Acquired from the Athletics in an offseason four-team trade, Arnold was nearly unhittable in six Double-A starts to begin the year. Triple-A provided him with more than enough of a challenge, pointing out areas Arnold must improve if he's to join a major league rotation.
Arnold doesn't throw an overpowering pitch, but can deliver strikes with his 88-91 mph fastball, solid slider or palmball. He mixes his pitches well and confidently throws inside. But while Arnold avoids walks, he must get better at putting strikes exactly where he wants them. He uses a quirky delivery that adds deception but is sometimes difficult to repeat, which could land him in the bullpen.
"His fastball command needs to improve and his secondary pitches need to be better," Syracuse pitching coach Tom Filer said. "His secondary pitches are not effective. He knows what to do, but with his command where it is, he can't do it right."