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2003 League Top 20s: Pioneer 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 Bill Ballew
Talk in the Rookie-level Pioneer League this year centered on the Provo Angels. After putting college-oriented clubs on the Brigham Young campus for the past several seasons, Anaheim fielded one of the league's younger teams and the results were impressive, with the Angels going 54-22 and reaching the finals of the playoffs.
Provo manager Tom Kotchman, who scouts for the Angels when he's not managing, said talent in the league this season mirrored the 2003 draft. The league featured more pitching prospects than position players, though several hitters could develop into impact players. Heading the list is Casper third baseman Ian Stewart, a clear pick among the managers as the league's top prospect.
Veterans of the league, including Kotchman, Casper's P.J. Carey and Helena's Ed Sedar, said they noticed more depth than in recent seasons. More than 40 players received serious consideration for the list, and several others made significant impressions but didn't qualify for the top 20, including Great Falls outfielders Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney, the White Sox' first two picks in the 2003 draft.
"Down the road, I wouldn't be surprised if many of the guys in the second 10 wind up having as much success or more than those guys in the first 10," Kotchman said. "That's how deep the league was this year."
1. Ian Stewart, 3b, Casper Rockies
Managers loved every aspect of Stewart's game. A high school player drafted 10th overall in June, he made a seamless move into the professional ranks, particularly with the bat. He attracted raves for his aggressiveness at the plate, while others appreciated the way he was into every pitch at third base.
"He's a Jim Thome type," Kotchman said. "He drives the ball the other way to left-center field, and he can hit the ball over the right-field lights."
Stewart may not be a Gold Glove candidate at third but should be able to handle either corner infield position. Carey said Stewart's work ethic could allow him to be an above-average defender.
"He not only met expectations, he's exceeded them," Carey said. "And what I love about him is that the expectations he has for himself are higher than anyone else's."
2. Chad Billingsley, rhp, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
A bit of a surprise when the Dodgers drafted him 24th overall in June, Billingsley backed up his draft status. He showed a fastball in the 90-94 mph range with the ability to hit 96, and he tended to get stronger as the game progressed. He reminds scouts of Jaret Wright.
Billingsley wasn't intimidated when facing more experienced hitters. In addition to his fastball, he threw a hard slider and a decent changeup. Managers loved his mound presence.
"He dominated at times this year, which is pretty remarkable for a kid from Ohio who's just out of high school," Ogden manager Travis Barbary said. "He's a guy who's going to get better at every stop as his experience and talent come together."
3. Lou Palmisano, c, Helena Brewers
Palmisano attracted comparisons to Mike Piazza before he broke his left ankle breaking up a double play in mid-August. That might be overstating Palmisano's talent, but he did lead the league in batting, slugging (.592) and on-base percentage (.458).
Palmisano, who wore No. 31 at Broward (Fla.) Community College and bears a resemblance to Piazza, has a quick bat and plus power to the opposite field. He keeps his bat in the strike zone a long time and can turn on most inside pitches. He does have a few holes in his swing and struggles with pitches above the belt.
Defensively, Palmisano's skills are better than Piazza's. He has soft hands, poise and aggressiveness behind the plate. Though he had shoulder surgery in 2002, his arm strength is solid. Palmisano also moves well and does a good job of calling a game.
"He was the MVP of the league for a reason," Sedar said. "He's an excellent offensive player and a very polished catcher for a 20-year-old. He always plays hard and gives you everything he's got."
4. Bobby Wilson, c, Provo Angels
Kotchman not only managed Wilson, but also signed him. While he was reluctant to extol Wilson's ability, his contemporaries had no reservations.
"This is a throwback catcher, a kid who will be a major league receiver," Carey said. "He's an outstanding prospect and a guy who will be an impact player from behind the dish in all phases of the game."
Wilson led the league in RBIs despite missing time with a wrist injury. He has a short, quick stroke and hits with power to all fields. Though he threw out just 15 percent of basestealers, he has average arm strength that should improve with experience, as well as soft hands and excellent footwork. Scouts say he'll have to work to keep his body in shape.
5. Xavier Paul, of, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Like Billingsley, Paul went from high school to Ogden without missing a beat. He displayed solid tools across the board while hitting for both power and average.
Paul has advanced knowledge of the strike zone for an 18-year-old. Though he committed eight errors, he has the tools to be a good outfielder, with a solid-average arm and above-average speed.
"He reminds me of Dave Roberts with the way he plays center field," Idaho Falls manager Carlos Lezcano said. "Offensively, I think he has a chance to be better than Roberts."
6. Habelito Hernandez, 2b, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Hernandez earned all-star honors despite separating a shoulder during the first game of the second half. He went to Florida for rehab and reported to the high Class A Carolina League when he recovered.
The Reds say Hernandez has the ability to be a run-producing third baseman. He saw activity at the hot corner in Billings, and should play there extensively in instructional league. He has quick reflexes and a strong arm, as well as the pop teams want in a corner infielder.
"He has a tremendous upside," Billings manager Jay Sorg said. "He can drive the ball to all fields. He hits through the ball as well as anyone I've seen this year, and he does an excellent job of putting the ball in play."
7. Warner Madrigal, of, Provo Angels
Madrigal was one of the offensive catalysts for the Angels, leading the league in hits, doubles and extra-base hits. His body reminds observers of fellow Dominican Manny Ramirez. Madrigal has a plus-plus arm and plus power at 19.
"He rips a lot of pitches that are not in the strike zone," Kotchman said. "But regardless of where the pitches are, the ball sounds different coming off his bat. He reminds me a lot of Dante Bichette at the same age."
Madrigal must keep the lower half of his body in shape to maintain his athleticism. He's a below-average runner but a decent fielder who can make up for mistakes with his arm strength.
8. Mike Megrew, lhp, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Megrew combined with Billingsley to give the Raptors one of the league's top starting pitching tandems. Megrew ranked second in strikeouts and eighth in ERA.
Unlike most teenagers, Megrew features a changeup as his best pitch. He can throw it any time in the count. He also has a solid curveball and kept hitters honest with a high-80s fastball that touched 91 mph. At 6-foot-6 and 210 pounds, he has room for projection.
"He has great height for a lefthander," Kotchman said. "He's very slender in the body, so I wouldn't be surprised if he adds some velocity to his fastball as he gains strength. But even now his fastball plays up due to his outstanding changeup."
9. Dana Eveland, lhp, Helena Brewers
Eveland challenged hitters and emerged as the league's most dominating closer, ranking second in saves. His strength is a heavy 92-93 mph fastball that tops out at 95.
He also has an average slider that continues to improve. Eveland is developing the depth and consistency of his changeup, a pitch he'll need if the Brewers go ahead with their current plan of moving him into a rotation next year. Scouts aren't sure Eveland's body (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and maximum-effort delivery are conducive to starting.
"He has the mound presence of a major league pitcher," Carey said. "He really knows the strike zone and he's not afraid to go after hitters. His aggressiveness is outstanding."
10. Joey Votto, 1b, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Votto was part of a banner Canadian draft class in 2002. He didn't get the attention of first-round picks Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis, but he led the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in extra-base hits in his pro debut. After struggling in the low Class A Midwest League to start 2003, he showed above-average power to all fields as Billings' No. 3 hitter. He also showed good patience, leading the league in walks.
His defense is still a question. The Reds moved him from catcher to first base, and he made 12 errors in 64 games. But his glove won't be his ticket.
"He's a special talent with the stick," Sorg said. "He's got a smooth stroke from the left side and an excellent feel for hitting. He's only going to get better the more he plays."
11. Abel Moreno, rhp, Provo Angels
Moreno opened eyes with a perfect 10-0 record prior to his promotion to the Midwest League. The league's pitcher of the year, he had a 1.62 ERA after making the jump to low Class A.
Moreno's best pitch is a plus-plus changeup, and he backs it up with an 88-92 mph fastball. He uses his slider occasionally and will need to improve it to succeed as a starter at higher levels.
"The stats don't lie," Kotchman said. "His changeup is the best I've ever seen. He can throw the changeup three straight times and hitters still swing and miss. It's like that Bugs Bunny cartoon where batters swing and miss three times at the same pitch."
12. Chin-Lung Hu, ss, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
The Dodgers lacked a pure shortstop prospect before they signed Hu out of Taiwan in February. He drew comparisons to Rey Ordonez by making acrobatic plays, and several managers said Hu can be a better defender because of his consistency with routine grounders.
Hu has a natural feel for the game, with excellent quickness, soft hands and above-average arm strength.
The lone concern regarding Hu is his body. At 5-foot-9 and 155 pounds, he needs to add strength. Nevertheless, he hit .305 and showed the ability to drive pitches to left-center field.
13. Howie Kendrick, 2b, Provo Angels
Kendrick overcame a 4-for-40 start to place fourth in the league in hitting. His torrid finish included a .404 July and .451 August.
Another Kotchman signee from the Florida junior college ranks, Kendrick has plus hand speed at the plate, thanks to his strong, quick wrists. Kotchman considers Kendrick a Ray Durham clone and said the ball sounds different off his bat. Also like Durham, Kendrick isn't a standout defender at second base, though he works hard.
"He's quietly aggressive," Carey said. "Howie looks to be the kind of player that will grind his way to the big leagues."
14. Carlos Morban, rhp, Provo Angels
Morban worked out of the Provo bullpen after seeing limited action at Class A Cedar Rapids and wound up ranking second on the team in saves. He's more of a projection at this point than a sure thing, though managers weren't afraid to bet on his 92-96 mph fastball.
"He's a long-legged Dominican with a LaTroy Hawkins type of body," Kotchman said. "His arm is so loose. He has a long way to go in terms of maturity, but his arm strength and potential are off the charts."
Morban also has a power curveball with an excellent downward angle to the plate. His changeup needs work, which should come next season when the Angels plan to get him innings as a starter.
15. Miguel Perez, c, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
The league was deep in catching, and one manager thought Perez was better than Palmisano and Wilson. Great Falls manager Chris Cron said Perez was the league's best player on Opening Day and improved as the season progressed
"He's got a cannon for an arm and all the tools defensively for a catcher," Cron said. "His hands are soft behind the plate and his feet are nice and quick."
Perez averaged 1.8 seconds on his throws to second base, and led regular catchers by nabbing 34 percent of basestealers. Sorg also raved about the way Perez handled pitchers and called a game. The 6-foot-3 Venezuelan ranked seventh in the league in hitting.
"He's a smart, young kid with a good idea of what he wants to do at the plate," Sorg said. "Miguel needs to learn how to drive the ball better, but I have no doubt that will come with experience."
16. Brandon McCarthy, rhp, Great Falls White Sox
Managers agreed that McCarthy was the most aggressive pitcher in the league. He led the league in strikeouts and innings and finished one win behind Moreno in wins.
With his lean 6-foot-6 frame, McCarthy attracted comparisons to former White Sox hurler Jack McDowell. Though he does not throw as hard as McDowell, topping out at 91 mph with his fastball, McCarthy commands three pitches well. He also drew compliments because he doesn't give in to hitters.
"His changeup came a long way this year and that's what really made him a better pitcher," Cron said. "He's got a nice curveball and his fastball will improve as he adds strength. And he's as good a battler as you'll see. He's got a huge heart on the mound."
17. Marcos Carvajal, rhp, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Carvajal is another pitcher being broken in as a reliever. He has a loose arm that produces consistent 94-98 mph fastballs. Though his secondary pitches and his command lag behind his heat, he still missed plenty of bats.
"He has everything you look for in a major league closer, beginning with that arm," Carey said. "You don't see arms like his very often."
18. Carlos Gonzalez, of, Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
One manager said Gonzalez reminded him of Bobby Abreu at the same age. The primary difference is that Gonzalez has more power now than Abreu did at 17.
The youngest position player in the league, Gonzalez handled himself well against older competition. He showed a strong arm in the outfield and played solid defense despite average speed. His strength centers on his natural hitting ability, with a pure stroke that causes the ball to jump off his bat.
"When you look at his age, his natural abilities and the things he can do already," Missoula manager Tony Perezchica said, "it doesn't take much to realize the sky is the limit for this kid's potential."
19. Ricardo Nanita, of, Great Falls White Sox
Nanita made a name for himself early in the season when he put together a 30-game hitting streak. Born in the Dominican Republic and a product of Florida International University, he made impressive strides for a 14th-round draft pick. A pesky hitter who finds a way to get on base, Nanita has good instincts and takes advantage of what opponents give him.
"He does the little things, like beating out a bunt or slapping the ball through an opening in the infield," Cron said. "His instincts are impressive for a guy in his first professional season."
The early departures of Anderson (wrist injury) and Sweeney (promotion) gave Nanita playing time at all three outfield spots. Because he's not a burner, he uses his instincts to get in proper defensive position. He also has a strong arm, but the accuracy of his throws needs improvement.
20. Juan Morillo, rhp, Casper Rockies
Pay no attention to Morillo's record. He was making his U.S. debut after two years in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League and was overmatched.
He doesn't have much more than a fastball now, but it's quite a fastball, sitting at 95-96 mph and touching 99. If he can develop a better curveball, changeup and command, he'll be one to watch.
"He's very crude at this point and needs to work on his overall game," Carey said. "He needs to understand situational pitching and add some confidence. I believe those things will come as soon as he gets a little more experience."