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2003 League Top 20s: Southern 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 John Manuel
No minor league made as much of an impact on this year's major league pennant races as the Double-A Southern League.
The Marlins wouldn't have been in the wild-card race if not for lefthander Dontrelle Willis and third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who began their seasons with Carolina. Cabrera ranks No. 1 on this Top 20 Prospects list, while Willis would have given him a run for that honor if he had pitched enough innings to qualify. The Mudcats won the SL championship despite losing both players and strong-armed righthander Denny Bautista, the key player in the Jeff Conine trade with the Orioles.
The Cardinals (Tennessee's Dan Haren), Dodgers (Jacksonville's Edwin Jackson) and White Sox (Birmingham's Neal Cotts) all called up pitchers who rated among the SL's 10 best prospects, with varying degrees of success. The Cubs likely would have promoted another, West Tenn's Angel Guzman, had he not injured his shoulder.
Managers and scouts agreed that the SL had better talent than usual. Several players who didn't make the Top 10--such as Huntsville third baseman/league MVP Corey Hart, Bautista and Jacksonville outfielder Reggie Abercrombie--have the talent to be future all-stars.
"What impressed me the most is the top prospects are young," Chattanooga manager Phillip Wellman said. "Usually, the top guys are 22 or 24, but this year the league had 19- and 20-year-olds who had talent and performed. That is exciting."
1. Miguel Cabrera, 3b, Carolina Mudcats (Marlins)
As deep as the SL was, no league manager or scout considered anyone else for the top prospect spot. In fact, they had trouble restraining themselves from lavishing Cabrera with praise. The lone complaint was the Cabrera knew he was too good for the league and it showed.
"His plate approach was outstanding for a 20-year-old," Tennessee manager Mark DeJohn said. "It's the approach to hitting you try to teach, but it comes natural to him. He uses the opposite field to drive in runs. It's the approach Albert Pujols uses. I'm not sure he has that kind of power, but he has that approach and he's very disciplined for a young hitter."
Cabrera pummeled lefthanders (.455 with five homers in 55 at-bats), which he continued to do in the big leagues. Managers rated him the league's strongest infield arm and best defensive third baseman, though he made 15 errors in 64 games. He initially played left field in Florida after spending just three games there in Double-A, but moved back to third base after Mike Lowell's season-ending injury and made only one error in his first 20 starts there.
2. Edwin Jackson, rhp, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
The Dodgers had planned to curtail Jackson's workload toward the end of the season after he ranked second in the SL in starts and strikeouts. When injuries opened a spot in the big league rotation in September, however, they couldn't resist the temptation of Jackson's explosive fastball, darting slider and advanced composure.
The league's youngest player until teammate Greg Miller and Orlando's B.J. Upton arrived—neither qualified for the list—Jackson was able to thrive using a fastball regularly touching 97-99 mph and usually sitting in the 93-95 range. His fluid mechanics give him easy velocity, and his fastball has excellent life, especially down in the zone.
"His fastball just stood out so much. He had good command of it, mound presence, and just threw it so hard so easy," Greenville manager Brian Snitker said. "I never saw his breaking ball be a plus pitch, but with his motion and age and athletic ability, you can see how it will improve, and his changeup too."
Jackson, who outdueled Randy Johnson to become the youngest pitcher since Dwight Gooden to win his major league debut, earns comparisons to Gooden for his fastball but throws a slider instead of Gooden's big curveball. When it's on, it's a power breaker in the mid-80s with late bite. Jackson showed late in the season that he had developed a feel for a changeup.
3. Jeremy Reed, of, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Reed had more success in Double-A than he had in the high Class A Carolina League in every category except basestealing. He hit safely in 19 of his first 20 games with Birmingham, and though some managers thought he tired late in the season, it didn't show. He hit .431 in August and September, though he struggled in the playoffs.
Reed earned some Mark Kotsay comparisons in college, especially after hitting .368 with wood bats for Team USA in 2001, but the White Sox likened him more to journeyman Dave Martinez entering 2003. Needless to say, he has raised expectations.
"The guy can just hit. He can do it all offensively," a National League scout said. "He hits lefthanders real well, which is really impressive. But he hits everybody. He's more of a gap-power guy for now, but you can project more power down the line, maybe 15-20 home runs."
Just as impressive, Reed runs well enough to play center field, and his arm is strong and accurate enough for right. Managers praised his savvy in all aspects of the game.
4. J.J. Hardy, ss, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
While managers voted teammate Hart the league's MVP, Hardy clearly had the better year. He was the league's best defensive shortstop while playing most of the season at age 20. His .796 on-base plus slugging percentage nearly matched Hart's .807 mark. Perhaps the three weeks Hardy missed with a hip-flexor injury kept him from winning the hardware.
When healthy, Hardy showed above-average ability in every facet of the game except running. He surprised managers with the juice in his bat, and his excellent hand-eye coordination and good plate discipline caused scouts to project him as a plus offensive player down the road. Hardy also took a leadership role on a prospect-laden Stars team that lost to Carolina in the league finals.
"He's going to hit, but his defense stands out more," Huntsville manager Frank Kremblas said. "He's not flashy at all, but he's got excellent hands, range that's a bit above-average and more than enough arm. He's savvy at the position and gets to a lot of balls, and he makes the plays on the ones he gets to."
5. David Krynzel, of, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
At midseason, Krynzel would have ranked second on this list among position players behind Cabrera. A Futures Gamer like Hardy, he lit the league up for three months and was batting .317 through the end of June. But over the last two months of the season, Krynzel collapsed, including a brutal August when he struck out 39 times in 95 at-bats while hitting just .137.
So did the league catch up to Krynzel, who has plus-plus speed but is prone to swinging for the fences? Or did the slender outfielder just wear down? Managers attributed the late fade to a tired, longer swing that couldn't catch up to pitches he got to earlier in the season. Krynzel needs to pack more strength on his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame.
"Krynzel is still not polished as a hitter," Wellman said. "He's got tools and he's still young, and I think he'll get better. He plays hard and had made a lot of strides since last year. He's also the best center fielder and probably defensive outfielder in the league. He runs down everything and has a strong, accurate arm."
6. Joel Hanrahan, rhp, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Not nearly as flashy as Jackson or their late-August teammate, Miller, Hanrahan was nonetheless steady and the one who won the SL's ERA title and most outstanding pitcher award. His stuff, strong physical package and pitch efficiency profile him as a middle-of-the-rotation innings eater, but Dodgers scouting director Logan White compared Hanrahan's fastball-slider combination and arm slot to those of L.A. ace Kevin Brown.
"He's a young guy who really pitches," Wellman said. "He has tremendous command for his age, both of his fastball and of his slider, which is a real good pitch. He's 91-92 with the fastball, and he can pitch to both sides of the plate with it."
Hanrahan's command and improved changeup helped him neutralize lefthanders, who hit just .232 against him. He must keep his fastball down in the zone to be effective, however. He elevated it in Triple-A and got torched by Pacific Coast League hitters.
7. Dan Haren, rhp, Tennessee Smokies (Cardinals)
Haren spent less time in the league than the other candidates in the Top 10, lasting just eight starts and winning six of them. He was clearly dominant en route to joining the Cardinals rotation at the end of June. He turned in quality starts in four of his first six big league tries before tiring in August.
The 2001 West Coast Conference player of the year as a pitcher/DH at Pepperdine, Haren lived up to his billing as the organization's top prospect by using his downhill 89-92 mph fastball and power slider to overpower SL hitters. Haren also used a splitter and changeup, and he commanded all four offerings.
"When hitters are coming back to the dugout mumbling to themselves, you can tell they're overmatched," Jacksonville manager Dino Ebel said. "That's how he made our guys talk. You heard the word 'nasty.' He had good movement on his fastball down and he threw it for strikes."
8. Neal Cotts, lhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Cotts' big league callup didn't go as well as those of Jackson and Haren, but that didn't diminish his breakthrough season. The best part of the offseason Keith Foulke-Billy Koch trade for the White Sox, Cotts led the SL in opponent average (.173).
Cotts didn't do it with Jackson's velocity or Haren's nastiness. Instead, he fooled hitters with the excellent deception on his high-80s fastball—the same formula that worked in college but didn't work in the big leagues. He alters speeds on his fastball and changeup, and also showed an improved curveball.
"He's going to have to command all his pitches as he goes up the ladder, because he won't get away with mistakes," Wellman said. "But make no mistake, the ball jumps on you quick. The radar gun doesn't match your eyes."
9. Angel Guzman, rhp, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
Guzman shut out Carolina for seven innings on three hits June 20, but didn't pitch again because of a shoulder injury. After arthroscopic surgery to repair a minor tear in his labrum, he should be healthy for spring training.
"It's going to be a matter of feel for him when he comes back," West Tenn manager Bobby Dickerson said. "His command sets him apart. He really had the feel for his breaking ball and changeup this year."
When healthy, Guzman showed why he could become the latest power young arm to join the already stocked Cubs rotation. He showed above-average command of his fastball, curveball and changeup. All three were plus pitches at times, though his injury had sapped some velocity from his fastball by the time he was shelved. He had been throwing in the 95-96 mph range early in the season.
10. Mike Jones, rhp, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
Once considered a possible No. 1 overall pick in the run-up to the 2001 draft, Jones went 12th overall. He was throwing fastballs with radar-gun readings that nearly matched the Arizona desert heat back then, but didn't show that kind of velocity with the Stars this summer. He pitching more in the 90-92 mph range before a sprained elbow ligament ended his season after 17 starts.
Jones was consistent in spotting his fastball and showed an excellent approach considering his age and experience. Kremblas said the key to Jones' early success was throwing quality strikes and improving his curveball to an above-average offering. His changeup still needs work.
The biggest question now is his health. He felt tenderness in the elbow in September while attempting to get ready for the Arizona Fall League, and surgery remains a possibility in the offseason.
11. Khalil Greene, ss, Mobile BayBears (Padres)
Greene was BA's College Player of the Year in 2002 at Clemson, becoming the first senior to win the award since Casey Close in 1987. The Padres pushed Greene to Double-A to start his first full pro season, and he actually performed better in Triple-A before finishing the year in the big leagues.
He didn't wow managers or scouts in his time with Mobile, particularly offensively. His hand-eye coordination, bat speed and savvy make him an above-average hitter, but he didn't hit for much power in the SL and also doesn't draw many walks. Though scouts have wondered if he can stay at shortstop, he impressed observers more with his defense, showing plenty of arm and enough range for the position.
"He was hitting a soft .275 with us, but he was just starting to come around when he got called up," Mobile manager Craig Colbert said. "I thought defensively he was just as good as Hardy, and I like Hardy a lot."
12. Adam LaRoche, 1b, Greenville Braves
The son of former all-star reliever Dave LaRoche, Adam LaRoche has the potential to be a big league lefthander like his father was. Snitker says LaRoche can throw in the low 90s with a plus breaking ball. If his development as a first baseman doesn't pan out, pitching would be an option.
Most signs point to LaRoche working out just fine as a first baseman. He nearly matched his career high in home runs through just 219 at-bats with Greenville, adding power to his advanced plate approach. LaRoche isn't afraid to go the other way and is just learning which pitches he can pull. His soft hands and agility made him a unanimous choice as the SL's best defensive first baseman.
"It's not out of the question that he could hit 30 homers in the big leagues with more experience," Snitker said. "He has good hands and stays inside the ball, and he centers it well."
13. Adam Wainwright, rhp, Greenville Braves
Wainwright entered the season as Atlanta's No. 1 prospect and fronted another prospect-laden Braves minor league rotation. Greenville righthander Bubba Nelson made the Top 20 as well, while righties Brett Evert and closer Billy Sylvester also received some support.
Wainwright merits the most attention because of his combination of size (6-foot-6), durability and stuff. While managers didn't necessarily see him as a future ace, they acknowledged Wainwright is good now and has plenty of projectability left. His key could be tightening his big, slow curveball, which wouldn't fool as many hitters in the majors as it did in Double-A.
Wainwright uses his height (6-foot-6) to throw his fastball on a good downhill plane, usually in the 88-91 mph range. His ability to keep the fastball down in the zone helped him yield just nine home runs and is integral to his success. He also has good feel for his changeup.
"I really liked him because he has a feel for what he's doing," Carolina manager Tracy Woodson said. "The fastball can be pretty straight, but he's going to throw harder and it looks even better against his slow curve. He just needs to tighten that curve a bit, but he throws a lot of quality strikes with those pitches."
14. Stephen Smitherman, of, Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)
Before his promotion to join a messy situation in Cincinnati, Smitherman enjoyed another excellent season. Managers rated him the SL's best power prospect, and he made better use of his pop by improving his plate discipline. He won the Futures Game for the U.S. team with a solo homer.
Smitherman, who has overcome diabetes, has size, athleticism, strength and speed in his favor. The only thing he lacks is a strong arm, which relegates him to left field. His future is clouded by the Reds' crowded outfield picture, but he already has surpassed the original expectations for a 23rd-round pick.
15. Corey Hart, 3b, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
Hart won the league's MVP award with some gaudy numbers. He led the SL in hits, doubles and RBIs, and his long, strong 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame projects to add power as he gets stronger. His organization and size elicit comparisons to Richie Sexson.
The fact that Hart might move across the diamond to play Sexson's position is a problem. Hart looks too big to play third, and most managers thought he lacked the instincts and footwork for the position. His arm is also erratic, though he has sufficient range and hands for the hot corner.
Hart runs well enough to become a corner outfielder. If he moves off third base, he'll have to turn some of his doubles into homers to have enough power for his new position. He lacks plate discipline and his swing can get long, so he'll need to make adjustments.
16. Denny Bautista, rhp, Carolina Mudcats (Marlins)
Bautista flashed through the league, getting just 11 starts between a callup from high Class A and a trade to the Orioles. He showed the league's liveliest arm this side of Jackson or Guzman, but didn't show the command they had.
"His arm strength is top-notch and he's got a great pitcher's body," Snitker said. "But he's got a ways to go to be consistent with his delivery."
Bautista has strength and size to add to his body but already reaches the mid-90s. One NL scout clocked Bautista's fastball at 96 mph 18 times in one game. However, he loses control of his fastball, 12-to-6 curveball and plus changeup when he throws across his body too much.
17. Bubba Nelson, rhp, Greenville Braves
Fresh off the minor league ERA title (1.66) in 2002, Nelson continued his big league ascent with a solid Double-A season. He's the opposite of Wainwright physically with a shorter, more solid 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame. He also has a different approach, working more on the inner and outer halves of the plate while Wainwright works up and down.
Nelson's low-90s sinker, power slider and resilient arm prompted the parent Braves to promote Nelson in August and install him in their Triple-A Richmond bullpen. He could thrive in a middle-relief role, especially matched up against righthanders. He held them to a .213 average, while lefties took advantage of his inconsistent changeup to hit .292 against him.
"I liked him best of Greenville's pitchers because he kept the ball down and really competed," DeJohn said. "He had good movement on his fastball and slider. I liked his mound presence. He was a bulldog out there."
18. Adrian Gonzalez, 1b, Carolina Mudcats (Marlins)
Being the No. 1 overall pick in a draft helps raise your profile in a league, even with the managers. Gonzalez accumulated just enough plate appearances in the SL to qualify for the Top 20 in between a demotion from Triple-A Albuquerque and a trade to the Rangers for Ugueth Urbina.
In that time, he showed the compact, level swing that helped put him atop what in retrospect looks like a subpar 2000 draft class. Coming off a wrist injury that required surgery to repair torn cartilage, Gonzalez didn't hit for much power, but he has the ability to drive the ball to all fields and is an excellent glove man at first base.
"I think he's a better defender at first than LaRoche," Carolina manager Tracy Woodson said. "He's got great hands. His wrist was not 100 percent, but he will hit down the road. He's got the swing and stays inside the ball. It comes naturally to him."
19. Reggie Abercrombie, of, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Aside from the top two prospects, no Southern Leaguer looked the part of big leaguer more than Abercrombie. His athletic frame is alive with speed (4.0 seconds to first base from the right side of the plate), a rocket arm (rated the league's best) and light-tower power. Though raw, he's a good defensive right fielder and could play center with more experience there.
"That's what a prospect is supposed to look like," Woodson said.
But Abercrombie didn't make progress at the plate and continues to have one of the ugliest strikeout-walk ratios in pro baseball. It was 164-16 this season, and Abercrombie hasn't shown progress identifying pitches. Sometimes he crushes breaking balls, but most of the time he doesn't recognize when to let one go and when to swing.
"Tools-wise, he has everything," Snitker said. "But his approach is reckless and he has a pretty long swing. Hart has a long swing, but he's confident and sees the ball. He knows he's right on a pitch. Abercrombie's hoping he's right. You've got to play the game mentally to hit."
20. Humberto Quintero, c, Mobile BayBears (Padres)
Quintero beat out the youngest of the Molina brothers, Tennessee's Yadier, as the consensus best defensive catcher in the league. He threw out 39 percent of opposing basestealers, and his plus arm strength and his willingness to make pickoff throws to any base kept runners honest.
The former White Sox farmhand also had his best offensive season. A career .250 hitter entering the year, he finished seventh in the SL batting race. No one projects power in Quintero's swing, however, as his three homers were a career best, as were his 26 doubles. If he continues his offensive progress, he could be more than just a backup catcher.
"He can play," an NL scout said. "He had the best arm in the league, and he makes consistent contact at the plate and has a decent swing. He's just a singles hitter, but he's so good defensively. I think he'll hit enough to be a starter in the big leagues."