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2003 League Top 20s: Pacific 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 Jim Callis
It wasn't a banner year for young talent in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Sacramento won BA's Team of the Year award after leading the upper minors with 92 wins and capturing the PCL championship, and did feature the league's top pitching (Rich Harden) and position (Bobby Crosby) prospects. But for the most part, the River Cats were a group of veterans on their way down rather than up.
At least they had two prospects who excited scouts and managers. Most clubs didn't have one, and the PCL lacked a single lefthander, first baseman or second basemen worthy of this list. When asked to name the league's most exciting player at midseason, the managers settled on 26-year-old Las Vegas outfielder Bubba Crosby, who was taking his third shot at Triple-A.
This was a sharp contrast to last year, when the PCL had a bountiful harvest of prospects that included 2003 All-Star Game hero Hank Blalock, World Series sensations John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez and current standout rookies Angel Berroa and Brad Lidge. Most of them ranked well down the top 20, below future stars Jesse Foppert, Michael Cuddyer, Sean Burroughs and Hee Seop Choi.
"There's no question the PCL was down this year," an American League scout said. "Not only was it short on prospects, but I couldn't even find that many potential six-year free agents worth pursuing."
1. Rich Harden, rhp, Sacramento River Cats (Athletics)
Harden was the talk of the minor leagues in April, when he opened the season with 13 perfect innings in Double-A. Quickly promoted to Sacramento, he made just 16 appearances before being summoned to Oakland, where he was spectacular before tiring in mid-August.
He had the PCL's best fastball, sitting comfortably at 93-95 mph and pushing 97-98. The pitch has so much life that the AL scout compared it to Mariano Rivera's cutter. He also showed a feel for adding and subtracting velocity.
Harden often got Triple-A hitters out with heaters up in the zone, a plan that didn't always work as well in the majors. Though he is still mastering command of his slider, splitter and changeup, they all had their moments. The AL scout wasn't enthralled by Harden's arm action, but a National League scout had no concerns.
"He's a power guy," the NL scout said. "He has such a quick arm that I don't see him having any difficulty throwing strikes. His arm action is so deceptive because it's so quick out front, the ball gets on you quick."
2. Rafael Soriano, rhp, Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Soriano has been one of the majors' nastiest relievers this season. He had a 1.66 ERA, a 62-10 strikeout-walk ratio in 49 innings and a .159 opponent average. He could be the Mariners' closer of the near future—unless they make him a starter.
Soriano's ability to refine his changeup will determine his role. He reminded the AL scout of Carlos Zambrano, who arrived in the PCL without much of a changeup and has blossomed into a frontline starter for the Cubs.
Soriano already has two weapons: a slider that ranked as the best in the PCL and a lively 93-96 mph fastball. While pitching in Tacoma's rotation, he was just as unhittable as he was with Seattle.
3. Bobby Crosby, ss, Sacramento River Cats (Athletics)
Even if the Athletics lose Miguel Tejada as a free agent, they won't be hurting at shortstop. They can replace him with Crosby, who would have been Team USA's shortstop for the Olympic qualifying tournament had he not been promoted in late August.
Though Crosby won't match Tejada's annual 30 homers and 100 RBIs, he should be good for 20 longballs and 80 RBIs once he adjusts to the majors. He has a solid approach at the plate, as he draws walks and hits to all fields. He's not spectacular at shortstop but makes all the routine plays.
"There are no hickeys on his game," the NL scout said. "I think there was concern about his speed out of the draft, but he gets started on balls and gets his feet going, which negates the speed factor. He's the best shortstop I saw all year, but not the flashiest."
4. Jerome Williams, rhp, Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
Williams trailed Fresno rotation-mates Foppert and Kurt Ainsworth on this list a year ago, yet he was the only one of the three in San Francisco's rotation late in the season. Foppert went down with Tommy John surgery, while Ainsworth went to the Orioles in the Sidney Ponson trade.
With his arm action and athletic 6-foot-3 frame, Williams looks like he should throw in the mid-90s. Instead, he usually tops out in the low 90s and sometimes sits in the high 80s. But he continues to show he can succeed by trading velocity for command.
Williams' best attribute is his feel for pitching, as he mixes speeds and locations masterfully. His most reliable pitch is his changeup, though he sometimes overuses it in relation to his fastball. He throws both a curveball and slider.
5. Jason Bay, of, Portland Beavers (Padres)
Bay has improved every year since the Expos made him an afterthought 22nd-round pick in 2000 as a college senior. He won the Midwest League batting title in 2001, but was dismissed as too old for low Class A. He was traded in separate deals for journeymen Lou Collier and Steve Reed just a year ago.
Finally, he is being taken seriously as a prospect. That became evident when he was a key part of the Brian Giles trade with the Pirates, for whom he drove in eight runs in a mid-September game.
Bay's tools are solid across the board, and his instincts enhance them. He hits for average and power, controls the strike zone and has succeeded on 84 percent of his steal attempts as a pro. He covers enough ground to play center field and has enough arm to play right.
"He's one of the real talented kids in the league," Salt Lake manager Mike Brumley said. "There are a lot of things he can do. He hustles and he has great range in center field for a big man. He shortens his swing and makes adjustments when he has to, and he has power potential."
6. Khalil Greene, ss, Portland Beavers (Padres)
Greene went from a 14th-round pick in 2001 to BA's College Player of the Year in 2002 to the big leagues by the end of 2003 by playing above his tools. It's not that he doesn't have physical ability, but he wrings more out of it than most players could.
A line-drive hitter with decent pop, Greene can get pull-conscious and must improve his plate discipline at the major league level. He doesn't have exceptional speed but has a quick first step and is a heady baserunner. There was some question about whether he could handle shortstop without a plus defensive tool, but PCL observers believe in him.
"He's absolutely a shortstop at the big league level," Portland manager Rick Sweet said. "Anyone who's seen him play on a consistent basis can see that. He's not an overly flashy type, but he has a magnet in his glove. He catches everything in the middle."
7. Chad Tracy, 3b, Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks)
Managers named Garrett Atkins the PCL's top hitter at midseason, yet Tracy surpassed him as the league's premier hot-corner prospect by the end of the year. He led all minor league third basemen in batting, topped the PCL in hits and worked hard to make himself into the league's best defender at his position.
Tracy doesn't have typical power for his position and might top out around 15 homers. But he hits for average and gets on base by using a short stroke that allows him to make contact and lace balls into the gaps. He spent hours doing drills to improve his range and footwork, though he needs to avoid dropping his elbow, which leads to errant throws.
8. Garrett Atkins, 3b, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
Atkins and Tracy couldn't be more similar if they were twins. They have the same build, the same tools and the same approach at the plate. Tracy rates ahead of Atkins because he dedicated himself to improving his defense.
Atkins has more raw power, though like Tracy he's satisfied with making line-drive contact. He wore down and his mechanics got out of sync after a hot start, and he was below the Mendoza Line in his first stint with the Rockies. He has to work harder to stay at third base, and moving to first isn't an option with Todd Helton in Colorado.
9. Jason Young, rhp, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
There was a huge dropoff in pitching after Harden, Soriano and Williams. Oklahoma's Colby Lewis and Memphis' Dan Haren would have bridged that gap if they hadn't fallen just short of qualifying. That left Young at the top of the second tier, as he finally looked like the pitcher the Rockies thought they were getting when they paid him a club-record $2.75 million bonus in 2000.
Young matched the 92-93 mph velocity he showed in the PCL in 2002 and showed better command of his fastball. He also took the slurviness out of his slider and honed a Vulcan changeup that shackled lefthanders. Perhaps the PCL's most cerebral pitcher, he had little trouble pitching in the thin air of Colorado Springs.
10. Ryan Ludwick, of, Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
Ludwick has proven he can hit Triple-A pitching, batting .294-32-115 in 159 PCL games over the past two years. Now he must show he can stay healthy. A stress fracture in his left hip ended his 2002 season, and he jammed his right knee after getting traded to the Indians for Ricardo Rodriguez this year. He may be able to avoid surgery, but plans to have him try first base in instructional league had to be scrapped.
The injuries have cut into Ludwick's range enough that he's no longer a viable center fielder, but he has more than enough power and the arm to play in right. He has pop to all fields and crushes balls down in the strike zone. He does have some holes in his swing, but tightened them up as he began to use the entire field more often.
11. David Kelton, of/3b, Iowa Cubs
Kelton's chances of ending the Curse of Ron Santo officially ended in late May. Since having shoulder surgery in high school, he had trouble mentally and physically making throws from the hot corner. After making 11 errors in 33 games to start 2003, he asked to be moved to the outfield and the Cubs granted his request.
He has enough athleticism and arm strength to be a decent corner outfielder, probably in left because the parent Cubs have Sammy Sosa in right. Kelton should provide enough offense for the position as well. He has a quick bat, good plate coverage and budding power.
"He has a chance to hit better than Ludwick," the NL scout said. "Ludwick does other things, so he's a better player. I do think Kelton can go 25 or 30 homers, and he may exceed that."
12. Aaron Taylor, rhp, Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Taylor's closer potential gives the Mariners another reason to try to make Soriano a starter. He's a 6-foot-5 intimidator with three pitches that can make batters look silly. If hitters sit on his 94-97 mph fastball, they run the risk of falling victim to the movement on the splitter and slider; if they don't, good luck catching up to it.
Whether Taylor becomes a big league finisher or set-up man depends on his ability to command his secondary pitches. He also could use a little more finesse in his approach. Of more immediate concern is his ability to bounce back from minor shoulder surgery that likely will cause him to miss the beginning of the 2004 season.
13. Rodrigo Rosario, rhp, New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
Rosario might have made a difference in the NL Central race. After beating the Rangers in his first big league start in late June, he had to leave his next outing after two innings with shoulder stiffness. He had August surgery to repair partial tears of his rotator cuff and biceps tendon, and with his slight build his durability may always be in question.
When healthy, Rosario is difficult to hit. He allowed PCL opponents to bat just .222, matching his career mark and .004 better than Harden's performance. His fastball dances and is more effective at 91-92 mph, while he loses movement and gets it up in the zone when he maxes out at 94-95.
Rosario made good progress with his slider and changeup. His breaking ball isn't a classic, tight slider, but when he stays on top of the pitch it's just as allergic to bats as his fastball. His changeup also showed improvement.
14. David DeJesus, of, Omaha Royals
DeJesus hurt his elbow in his final college game at Rutgers in 2000, delaying his pro debut until 2002. He made up for lost time by ending this season in Kansas City, and if the Royals trade Carlos Beltran he could step in as their center fielder next year. DeJesus doesn't have an overwhelming physique or collection of tools, but like Greene he's a gamer who maximizes his talent.
While he won't produce runs like Beltran, DeJesus is an ideal No. 2 hitter. He uses the whole field, bunts for hits, has mastered the strike zone and owns enough power to keep pitchers honest. His speed and instincts allow him to get good jumps on the bases and in center field.
15. J.J. Davis, of, Nashville Sounds (Pirates)
Early last season, Davis wanted to scrap hitting and pursue a career as a pitcher. Fortunately for both parties, the Pirates wouldn't let him. The best power hitter in the Pittsburgh system, Davis led the PCL in slugging (.554) and smacked his first big league homer off Rheal Cormier in September.
More than just a slugger, Davis is a 6-foot-5, 250-pound athlete with prototypical right-field tools. He has a strong arm, speed and body control. He'd rank higher on this list if PCL observers were convinced he could survive against offspeed stuff in the majors.
16. Rene Reyes, of, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)
Reyes finished second in the PCL batting race and led all minor league switch-hitters with his .343 average. He always has been able to hit, batting .429 in his first season in the United States and .325 as a pro. While he may not have more than gap power, he has borderline center-field ability.
It all comes down to how much effort Reyes is willing to put into baseball, and he has a longstanding reputation for coasting. Rick Sofield, his manager at Colorado Springs, said Reyes is starting to understand there's more to the game than what he accomplishes in the batter's box.
"He's learning to work," Sofield said. "He's learning that's as important as the game. He needs to work on his defense and on the bases. The key was that he saw older guys better than him working their ass off, like Greg Vaughn, and that made an impression. He made some adjustments."
17. Alfredo Amezaga, ss, Salt Lake Stingers (Angels)
Though David Eckstein is the game's most famous overachiever, he may have to fight for his job next spring. Amezaga is a more effective hitter against righthanders, faster and a better defender. He even showed moxie of his own in September, batting .286 while playing through a torn labrum.
The PCL's best defensive shortstop, Amezaga covers a lot of ground and has sure hands. He compensates for slightly below-average arm strength (which is still more than Eckstein has) with uncanny accuracy. While he hit .347 in Triple-A, he still has to prove he can handle breaking pitches.
The biggest difference in Eckstein's favor is his on-base ability. Amezaga walks roughly as often as Eckstein but isn't hit by nearly as many pitches.
18. John Buck, c, New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
There was no consensus on the top catching prospect in the PCL. Scouts thought Oklahoma's Gerald Laird was the best defender behind the plate but questioned whether he'd hit enough to play regularly. Las Vegas' Koyie Hill is an interesting athlete, but he hasn't shown much power and is raw defensively.
Buck has the best chance to contribute in all phases of the game. The managers' pick as the league's top defensive catcher, he has a strong arm, soft hands and excellent leadership. He still needs to iron out a long release that contributed to him throwing out just 26 percent of basestealers.
Offensively, Buck has power but may never hit for a high average. His production has declined each of the last two seasons as he has climbed to Double-A and Triple-A, though he has been one of the youngest regulars in his league each time and was hampered by a broken right hand in 2003. He needs to improve his plate discipline and his ability to read breaking pitches.
19. Todd Wellemeyer, rhp, Iowa Cubs
Most organizations would be grooming Todd Wellemeyer as a middle-of-the-rotation starter. But the Cubs are so rich in pitching that he may have to fit into their bullpen unless they use him in a trade. He pitched well in that role for Chicago for a month after being promoted in mid-May, but then got hammered twice and had only intermittent success after returning to the PCL.
While the AL scout sees similarities to Kyle Farnsworth, Wellemeyer has enough stuff to remain a starter. He throws his four-seam fastball at 93-94 mph (95-96 when he's relieving), and his two-seamer has nasty sink. He also gets a lot of movement on his changeup and has improved his slider.
Wellemeyer's problems may have started when he developed a power mentality. When he overthrows, he loses command and leaves his pitches up in the strike zone. He's better when he works on a downward plane.
20. Rett Johnson, rhp, Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Though the Mariners traded Jeff Nelson in August, they may have the next edition arriving soon with Johnson. His slider is a legitimate out pitch, and he backs it up with a heavy sinker that reaches 93 mph. His poise and competitiveness also would help him as a set-up man.
"His hard sinker and slider were outstanding," said Sweet, whose Beavers managed just six hits and no runs in 15 innings against Johnson. "He was the most polished pitcher we saw. We couldn't touch him. He stuck it to us."
Johnson has been primarily a starter in the minors, but scouts project him as a reliever because he lacks feel for his changeup. That's a big reason why lefthanders hit .268 against him in Double-A and Triple-A in 2003 (compared to .210 for righties). There's also some effort to his delivery, which contributed to shoulder tendinitis this season and may make it hard for him to keep piling up innings.