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2003 League Top 20s: South Atlantic 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 Josh Boyd
The Indians organization was recognized as having baseball's best minor league talent by Baseball America's entering the season. And while they plugged in such rookies as Jason Davis, Jody Gerut and Victor Martinez at the major league level, the organization remains stacked in the lower levels as well.
Cleveland's affiliates finished with the second-best winning percentage in the minors this season, and their new South Atlantic League affiliate in Lake County led the way with a 97-win effort. Righthander Fausto Carmona led the way with a minor league-best 17 wins. Carmona and 2003 first-rounder Michael Aubrey were the only Captains to make the top 20 list, but outfielders Jason Cooper and Nathan Panther, catcher Dave Wallace, third baseman Shaun Larkin and righthander Jake Dittler all received serious consideration.
They weren't the only noteworthy prospects squeezed out by the depth of the 16-team league. Asheville outfielder Jeff Salazar played outstanding defense and fell just short of achieving a 30-30 season. But he's 22 and benefited from hitter-friendly McCormick Field, so he was edged by prospects with more upside.
"He's the type of guy that can beat you by himself," Hickory manager Tony Beasley said. "He has so many tools, it was ridiculous. He hits the ball hard to all fields and he really did hit mistakes well. You don't see that as much at this level as you do in Double-A."
1. B.J. Upton, ss, Charleston Riverdogs (Devil Rays)
Drafted with the second overall pick in 2002, Upton made his pro debut in April. He posted a .215 average in his first month, but wasn't overmatched and steadily improved. He batted .411 in July, earning a promotion to Double-A.
"He's a can't-miss, barring injury," Beasley said. "My first instinct was I thought he was overmatched, then you see him a second, third and fourth series and he gets better and better. He would drive the ball into right center in one at-bat and then turn on 96 miles an hour in the next.
"He has so many tools, you can't even name them."
Upton shows five plus present tools, including above-average raw power and an advanced idea at the plate. His arm and speed grade out close to 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, but he tends to get careless in the field. He topped the minors with a combined 56 errors, most of which were the result of showing off his arm strength, and he needs to improve his reads and positioning.
2. Scott Kazmir, lhp, Capital City Bombers (Mets)
Perhaps no pitching prospect entered this season with higher expectations than Kazmir. Though he was the 15th overall pick last June, he generally was regarded as one of the top two or three players available. BA's 2002 High School Player of the Year overmatched the short-season New York-Penn League after signing, fanning 34 in 18 innings.
The Mets have been careful, keeping Kazmir on a strict pitch count during the first two months of the season. He averaged just over four innings a start before earning a promotion to high Class A in July. That limited him to four wins, but his 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings and .185 opponent average were more reflective of his dominance.
Kazmir's fastball is explosive, topping out at 97 mph and hitting 94 consistently. His hard slider is a second plus offering, and he improved his changeup.
"The biggest thing for him was the command of his offspeed stuff," Augusta manager Russ Morman said. "The second time we saw him, he was able to get his breaking ball over."
3. Cole Hamels, lhp, Lakewood BlueClaws (Phillies)
Another 2002 first-rounder who signed late, Hamels started the season in extended spring training. After putting several dominant starts together there, Hamels went to Lakewood in May. He didn't allow a run until his fourth start and never experienced a hitch in the SAL.
Hamels pitches with average velocity but can dial it up to 92-94 mph when he has two strikes. He relies on a plus-plus changeup to keep hitters off balance. His curveball needs refinement, as he doesn't always get consistent hard snap on it.
"The best arm I've seen in the league by far," a National League scout said. "The secondary stuff is what set him apart from the other guys. He has great life on his stuff. He was a man among boys. Nobody had this type of command and quality of three secondary pitches."
4. Jeff Francoeur, of, Rome Braves
A high school all-American as a defensive back, Francoeur is a premium athlete who turned down a football scholarship to Clemson. He combines his athleticism with a wide array of tools and baseball skills. He showed outstanding raw power and the ability to hit the ball hard to the opposite field.
"This guy has such a good presence that I wrote him up as a prospect even though he did terrible against us," Capital City manager Tony Tijerina said. "He couldn't make contact against us, but this guy has a great approach and set-up at the plate. I like everything about him--the way he plays the game, the way he wears his uniform, the way he plays the outfield--and he's going to hit for power."
Francoeur's pitch selection needs work, and he was vulnerable to offspeed stuff at times. But he has tremendous bat speed and crushes fastballs. In center field, he used his above-average speed to cover the gaps and showed a plus arm, but profiles as a prototypical right fielder in the majors.
5. Jeremy Hermida, of, Greensboro Bats (Marlins)
The fifth straight 2002 high school first-rounder on this list, Hermida showed the pure hitting skills that made him one of the most coveted bats available last June. Hermida led the league in walks.
"He hasn't swung at too many balls out of the zone," Greensboro manager Steve Phillips said. "He's one of the most patient hitters in the league, and he's got a clean enough swing to hit for power and average."
Hermida is expected to develop more power because of his classic lefthanded swing and above-average bat speed. He's content with hitting the ball to the opposite field but should develop pull power. He wore down, so he's expected to add muscle to his lean, athletic frame during this offseason.
Hermida's 28 steals in 30 attemts were a pleasant surprise.
6. Hanley Ramirez, ss, Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
Ramirez came out of spring training as the talk of the Red Sox system, but he quickly found himself in the organization's doghouse. He was suspended and demoted to extended spring training in May for repeated conduct violations. He was sent home from instructional league last fall for a similar reason.
Most of Ramirez' issues can be attributed to immaturity, and managers noticed a change in attitude later in the season.
"I saw a very good improvement of mental makeup in this kid," South Georgia manager Dann Bilardello said. "He has learned how to conduct himself and be a professional, which is part of our jobs. I saw a more mature player in the field."
The 19-year-old Ramirez showed impressive tools in his full-season debut, though his performance wasn't overwhelming. He has plus raw power, but needs to learn to keep his stroke short and quick instead of swinging for the fences. In the field, he has natural shortstop actions and a big-time arm.
7. Fausto Carmona, rhp, Lake County Captains (Indians)
Carmona hardly attracted a second look during his first two seasons in the Indians organization, going 6-6, 3.12 in 156 innings in the lowest levels of the system. But after leading the minors with 17 wins and the SAL in ERA, Carmona established himself as one of the Tribe's brightest young arms.
His stuff and performance warranted a midseason promotion, but the Indians decided not to take the Dominican native out of a comfortable environment while he made strides adapting to U.S. culture.
Carmona, the league's pitcher of the year, keeps the ball down in the zone with a heavy 90-95 mph fastball. A groundball pitcher, he also has a hard, slurvy curveball that has a tendency to flatten out, and a feel for a changeup. Carmona shows an advanced feel for pitching and has well-above-average command, but he lacks a true strikeout pitch.
8. Merkin Valdez, rhp, Hagerstown Suns (Giants)
Valdez came to the Giants (as Manuel Mateo) in last December's Damian Moss-Russ Ortiz swap. While Moss was later dealt to the Orioles, Valdez was a key acquisition for San Francisco. Along with his new name the Giants found out he's 10 months older than previously believed, but that hasn't affected his prospect status.
The league strikeout leader touches 98 mph and consistently showed 89-95 mph fastballs. "El Mago" was a strike-throwing machine who issued just three walks in his first 33 innings. A nagging groin injury contributed to his mechanics getting out of sync and his walk totals increasing. Valdez needs to avoid overthrowing and rushing his delivery, but has a good feel for his curveball and changeup.
"He has a very live arm and a curveball with good bite and changeup that are not plus right now, but when he gets it going he's going to be amazing," Lake County manager Luis Rivera said. "It's not a fluid delivery, but the ball is on top of you. Hitters are not getting good swings."
9. Scott Olsen, lhp, Greensboro Bats (Marlins)
Marlins director of player personnel Dan Jennings called Olsen the steal of the 2002 draft after seeing him deal in instructional league last fall. That was lofty praise for a sixth-rounder with just 52 Rookie-ball innings.
Olsen, who earned the nickname "Little Unit" from his teammates for idolizing Randy Johnson, justified the hype by finishing among the league leaders in ERA, while improving throughout the season. Olsen has a free and easy arm and was clocked between 89-94 mph, and he made impressive strides with his command and maturity.
He works aggressively to both sides of the plate and keeps the ball down. He gave up just four home runs, and none in his final 15 starts. He has a second plus pitch in his 81 mph slider, though he needs to develop a better changeup.
10. Mike Hinckley, lhp, Savannah Sand Gnats (Expos)
On the heels of a New York-Penn League ERA title, Hinckley found the jump to full-season ball more difficult. After going 3-3, 5.92 in his first 10 starts, he made adjustments and finished the year with four spectacular outings in high Class A.
Capable of reaching 94 mph, Hinckley learned to rely less on his velocity and more on command and changing speeds. Because of his smooth, repeatable delivery and plus curveball, the transition was painless. He showed the fastball command to work both sides of the plate with above-average movement, especially away from righthanders.
11. John Maine, rhp, Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles)
Maine was leading the league in ERA when he was promoted to high Class A in June. He has done nothing but dominate since the Orioles drafted him in the sixth round out of UNC Charlotte in 2002.
After permitting a .172 average in his 2002 pro debut, Maine limited hitters to a .165 average in the Sally League with his 90-93 mph fastball and developing curveball. While Maine was overmatching the league, the Orioles challenged him to improve his secondary offerings.
He became more efficient at throwing his breaking ball and changeup for strikes. Long and loose, Maine's breaking ball and delivery can be inconsistent, but both have come a long way since college.
12. Larry Broadway, 1b, Savannah Sand Gnats (Expos)
Broadway's torrid start earned him a promotion to high Class A by July. A month later he was in Double-A, where he hit .321-5-18 in 78 at-bats.
He made quite an impression during his half-season in the SAL. Managers rated him the league's best batting prospect, best power prospect and best defensive first baseman at midseason. Broadway also showed good strike-zone judgment to go with good pitch recognition and the ability to make adjustments. Several managers likened Broadway's approach and swing to John Olerud's.
"He's very quiet at the plate," Rivera said. "He reminds me a little of Olerud, with a little more energy. He swings like Olerud with more power."
13. Brandon League, rhp, Charleston Alley Cats (Blue Jays)
League had the best fastball in the league and is learning how to manipulate it to get less of the heart of the plate, and to develop a put-away pitch.
His fastball sits in the 94-97 mph range with armside sink and run. He throws from a low three-quarters slot that makes it difficult for him to stay on top of his 87 mph slider.
"He was phenomenal," the NL scout said. "His stuff was good enough to have performed at the major league level. He has some issues with his delivery, but they are minor concerns mechanically.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see him pitching late in ballgames. His stuff was so explosive; I couldn’t help but think maybe he could close. He had closer stuff for eight innings."
14. Matt Cain, rhp, Hagerstown Suns (Giants)
Cain might have ranked higher if a fractured elbow hadn't ended his season in June. He avoided surgery and rehabbed in Arizona, with hopes of returning to the mound this fall in instructional league. If healthy, he should move quickly.
Cain was overpowering, with an 89-93 mph fastball that will reach the mid-90s at times. His hammer curveball is a power strikeout pitch with hard downward rotation and deception, while his changeup shows potential but needs work. He works with a clean, quick arm action and strong delivery similar to Kevin Brown's.
15. Fernando Nieve, rhp, Lexington Legends (Astros)
Nieve was barely on the prospect radar last summer, after he spent his second year in the Appalachian League and his fourth straight in Rookie ball. But he asserted himself this season and conjured comparisons to another Astros find from Venezuela, Freddy Garcia.
Nieve bumped his fastball up a notch and pitched between 89-95 mph with improved secondary offerings.
"His comfort zone is at 91-92 and his curveball has a chance to be a plus," the NL scout said. "He projects as a middle-of-the-rotation guy, a high ceiling with some risk. He flashed three average to occasional plus pitches. His command and intensity were a little bit of a concern for me."
16. Delwyn Young, 2b, South Georgia Waves (Dodgers)
Young's breakthrough allowed the Dodgers to deal Victor Diaz, a similar offensive second baseman, to the Mets for Jeromy Burnitz. Both Young and Diaz are below-average defensively but have a knack for putting the barrel on the ball. Young's .542 slugging percentage was the best in the SAL, and he tied for the lead in doubles.
"Delwyn is an example to the guys on our bench," Tijerina said. "When you're talking about set-up at the plate and confidence, he's as solid as I've seen at this level. He's extremely balanced, has great plate awareness, good strike-zone judgment and great rhythm. He just puts together good at-bat after good at-bat.
"That's the stuff we try to get hitters to start learning. Work the count and stay under control."
17. Anthony Lerew, rhp, Rome Braves
Rome finished second to Lake County with a 2.95 ERA, as righthanders Lerew and Kyle Davies and lefty Dan Meyer led the staff. After Meyer earned a midseason promotion to high Class A, righties Matt Wright and Blaine Boyer emerged with dominant second halves.
Lerew had the most impressive arm on the Rome staff. He works ahead in the count with his 90-93 mph fastball and plus changeup. His slider improved during the season.
"He's able to command both sides of the plate," Beasley said. "It's rare at this level. He has a good change and then comes back with 92-93, and after a good changeup it makes it look like 98."
18. Dan Meyer, lhp, Rome Braves
The Braves love high school players, but they couldn't pass up Meyer with the 34th overall pick in 2002. He has posted a 2.83 ERA in his first two pro seasons, including identical 2.87 marks at Rome and high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2003.
Meyer touches 94 mph and pitches comfortably between 89-92. His fastball features good sink and tail, and his changeup is a deceptive plus pitch thrown with the same arm speed as his heater. His diverse arsenal also includes a slider and occasional splitter.
19. Michael Aubrey, 1b, Lake County Captains (Indians)
After an All-America .420-18-79 season at Tulane, Aubrey was drafted 11th overall in June and handled wood bats and low Class A pitching as expected. He might have been challenged with a move to high Class A, but a hamstring injury in his second game cost him a month.
Opinions varied on how much power Aubrey will hit for in the upper levels, but nobody questions his advanced approach. He should move quickly because he identifies pitches early, stays back and uses the whole field. He has Gold Glove potential at first base.
20. Brian McCann, c, Rome Braves
McCann edged South Georgia backstop Mike Nixon as the league's top catching prospect. McCann is a pure hitter with gap power and above-average home run potential. He can get pull-conscious at times, but he showed the ability to adjust when pitchers gave him a steady diet of fastballs away.
He made tremendous progress behind the plate and threw out 38 percent of basestealers. One manager said he consistently timed McCann's pop times to second base below 2.0 seconds. Some scouts said his thick lower half could hinder him behind the plate, but he impressed managers and allowed just 10 passed balls working with one of the league's best pitching staffs.
"He's pretty accurate with his throws and he's going to get better with his blocking skills, but he doesn’t move as well as you'd like back there," Beasley said. "He calls a good game. He's pretty smart back there."