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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Carolina LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Chris Kline
Chat Wrap: Chris Kline took your Carolina League questions
The Class A Carolina League is traditionally built on strong pitching prospects, but this year pitchers’ ERAs hovered around 4.00 for the most part and the hitters took center stage.
Led by Myrtle Beach right fielder Jeff Francoeur, the Kinston tandem of Michael Aubrey and Ryan Garko, and perhaps the two best hitters on one club in the league—Winston-Salem’s Brian Anderson and Ryan Sweeney—CL hitters raked their way through pitching staffs this season.
"There were a lot of legit bats in the league this year," one American league scout said. "Probably more than you usually see. And with a whole lot more power than normal. The two guys who stand out the most to me are the Winston-Salem guys. To go from the Pioneer League to there was a hell of a jump, but you had one guy stay there for half a season (Anderson) and the other (Sweeney) holding his own at just 19."
That’s not to say you couldn’t find good pitching in the league, but as usual, most of the top arms moved on after midseason. Half of the top 10 was made up of pitchers, led by Lynchburg lefthander Zach Duke, but three of the five were promoted after the all-star break: Duke, Myrtle Beach righthander Kyle Davies and Potomac righthander Richie Gardner.
"If I had to pick a five-tool guy in the league, he’d be it," said the AL scout. "He has it all . . . and his makeup is off the charts."
The Braves found out just how good his makeup was after Francoeur broke his cheekbone when he fouled a ball off his face while squaring around to bunt on May 15. He was expected to miss the rest of the season, and most ticketed him to be ready for the Arizona Fall League. But Francoeur came back to the Pelicans lineup in late July and earned a promotion to Double-A Greenville before the season ended.
"What I liked most about him was his tremendous aptitude and competitiveness," Kinston manager Torey Lovullo. "He’s an exciting and emotional team leader. You add that into all the other tools he has—especially his bat speed; he can put wood on a bullet—and you have a guy that could be an all-star caliber player in the big leagues for 10 years."
"His footwork is average at best right now," one manager said. "He’s more of a John Olerud type of guy to me."
"To me, if you want to compare them, Anderson and Francoeur are similar, but Anderson is more disciplined around the zone," an AL scout said. "Francoeur is more of a free-swinging guy and Anderson is going to make more consistent contact. He doesn’t have quite the arm Francoeur does, but his speed makes up for it where he plays."
A quiet, confident and intense competitor, Duke earned comparisons to a smaller version of Andy Pettitte. "I think the most impressive thing to me is the consistency," Lynchburg pitching coach Scott Lovekamp said. "He made 17 starts with two earned runs or less. It was a quality start every time out and was something I’d never seen before, particularly from a 21-year-old. He has great command as a result of body awareness."
"He’s got great stuff, is very athletic and fields his position well," Wilmington manager Billy Gardner Jr. said. "He’s just another in a long line of good righthanded pitchers in that system. But the thing that sets him apart is that changeup."
"He’s got exceptional command for a tall guy," Lovekamp said. "He creates such good angles and works down in the zone. Coming from as high as it does, the ball tends to get on you quickly and looks really small as it sinks down at you."
Considered a second-round steal out of an Iowa high school last year, Sweeney’s season was not without its struggles. Still, some scouts who saw both players said they preferred Sweeney.
"He hasn’t shown great bat speed—more slider bat speed to me, but that should change with more at-bats," one AL scout said. "It could be a comfort thing. You get offspeeded to death in this league—especially guys like him. But if you know he can’t get around on the fastball, it makes it easier to set him up."
"Being 19 or 20 in this league, sometimes it’s hard to go in there and take charge of a staff," Lovullo said. "But he’s executed the Braves’ game plan very well. He’s an Eddie Taubensee type of guy to me, with that sweet, lefthanded swing."
With the best command in the league, Gardner dials up his fastball between 90-93 mph, touching 94, and the pitch features great sink and a late break, tailing away from righthanders. His changeup, one of the best in the Reds organization, features splitter-like tumble, and became a legit third option this season.
"He might have been the best guy I saw all year in terms of locating and changing speeds," an AL scout said. "He’s the epitome of a command guy for me. His changeup had really good action, sinking and fading away with movement."
"He’s a power pitcher with good stuff, but his fastball has the tendency to flatten out, making him very hittable," an AL scout said. "He just needs to be able to repeat his pitches more consistently."
The 22-year-old lefthander features a fastball in the 91-94 mph range, and has a good variety of complementary pitches with a splitter, changeup, curveball and slider. He got hit hard on occasion in the CL, mainly because of elevation on his pitches--most notably the breaking stuff.
"He's one of the top pitchers in this league," Gardner Jr. said. "He's got a good repertoire of pitches and throws all of them for strikes. He's got a good frame and throws an easy 94. If he can sharpen up his secondary stuff, he's going to be a force."
At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Fields doesn't have the prototype NFL quarterback size and wasn't a big-time football prospect. But in his first taste of professional baseball, he showed that he should hit for power and average as well. Fields is raw at the corner right now, but managers and scouts said he should be a solid defender down the road.
"I like him there," said an AL scout. "He's got good size and a strong, accurate arm. His footwork could be a little better, though, and his reaction time hasn't been exceptional. He needs more time there to really feel it out."
"Those guys are a lot alike in a lot of ways," said an NL scout. "For me, Garko is the better defender at both positions. He has shown more power also, but they both have swings without holes in them."
Before he earned a promotion to Double-A Akron (and eventually Triple-A Buffalo), Garko showed good raw power and ability to make consistent, hard contact. Defensively, he’s below average as a catcher; he stabs at the ball as a receiver, and his poor footwork and slow glove-to-hand transfer negate his average arm strength.
While he has tremendous power, the rest of Eldred's game isn't as solid. His lengthy swing makes him prone to strikeouts--he whiffed 97 times in 91 games for the Hillcats--and his long arms make him especially vulnerable to inside fastballs.
"Too long for me," said a CL manager. "Our game plan against him was bust him in with fastballs and then set him up away, which is pretty standard for a guy like that. But you can't make a mistake or that ball's going at least a mile."
His velocity was up, touching 96 mph and sitting in the 90-93 range, but his secondary stuff was lacking. His changeup wasn't nearly as effective as it had been the past two years, and his slider needs further development if he is going to succeed at the higher levels.
"He was up to 96 (mph), and it was an easy 96," Lovekamp said. "It's easy power like (Jose) Capellan. His slider needs to be tighter, but it was coming along late in the year."
Making the jump to the Carolina League in his first full pro season wasn't a difficult adjustment for Ray, who went 2-3, 3.42 in 10 games at Delmarva before being promoted.
In addition to the fastball, Ray also throws a hard slider at 85-87 mph with late bite. His splitter was average this year and he needs to gain more confidence in his changeup. His fastball also tends to be straight, making it hittable at times despite its velocity. Some scouts think a move back to the bullpen is in his future because he has some effort in his delivery as well.
"He changes speeds well and keeps you honest with the slider," a CL manager said. "But in my opinion, he didn't use his secondary stuff like he could have. He showed flashes of it, but a lot of times it was just fastball-slider."
Though he is four years older than Miller, the stuff certainly is comparable between the two. Tracey's fastball sits at 93-94 mph, touching 97, and he has an above-average power slider and changeup to go along with it.
Tracey's poise and demeanor make him one of the best arms in the White Sox system. A major question mark remains his mechanical delivery, however; Tracey’s arm action includes a "stab" in the back, which can lead to control issues.
"He always wants the ball," Winston-Salem manager Nick Leyva said. "His velocity shot up as he's honed his mechanics some, and he's had a breakout year for us."
He is also a plus defender, taking good routes to balls, showing an average arm and getting good jumps with plus speed.
"He's a catalyst, a presence to be reckoned with--the kind of guy who can change your game plan," Lovullo said. "All he's shown this year is how he could be a terrific leadoff guy in the big leagues the way I'm sure the Pirates anticipate him to be."
Penn throws his fastball in the 92-93 mph range, touching 95. The pitch also features good sink and arm-side run at times. As he moved up to Frederick, his secondary offerings--a late-breaking curveball and changeup--improved to the point where he had three quality offerings.
"He's got an above-average arm and is an excellent athlete who fields his position well," Frederick pitching coach Scott McGregor said. "In the time he was here, he went from having flashes of a good curveball and changeup to where they were quality pitches. He's got a simple motion with sneaky quickness."
Maier committed 27 errors in 119 games at his new position but also showed promise with the bat. He was a .300 hitter in the Midwest League before being promoted to Wilmington. The new position and long season wore his bat down a bit after the promotion. Most scouts see Maier as a corner outfielder down the road, although he has made strides this season in improving defensively at the hot corner.
"From instructional league until now, he's improved immensely in terms of his footwork, his angles and reading the ball off the bat," Gardner Jr. said. "I think when he gets comfortable there or even if he has to make another position change down the road, it will only help out his bat. He's got a good frequency of contact, but will only improve with more experience. He's had to make some adjustments, but he's been smart enough to be able to do that."