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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Florida State League
Complete Index of League Top 20s

By J.J. Cooper
October 1, 2004


Chat Wrap: J.J. Cooper took your Florida State League questions

FIVE YEARS AGO
1. *Vernon Wells, of, Dunedin (Blue Jays)
2. *Drew Henson, 3b, Tampa (Yankees)
3. *Michael Cuddyer, 3b, Fort Myers (Twins)
4. *Wilfredo Rodriguez, lhp, Kissimmee (Astros)
5. *Cesar Izturis, ss, Dunedin (Blue Jays)
6. *Jared Sandberg, 3b, St. Petersburg (Devil Rays)
7. *Jason Grabowski, 3b, Charlotte (Rangers)
8. *Matt LeCroy, c, Fort Myers (Twins)
9. Matt White, rhp, St. Petersburg (Devil Rays)
10. *Jason Romano, 2b, Charlotte (Rangers)

* Played in the majors

Year in and year out, pitchers have the upper hand in the high Class A Florida State League, thanks to spacious ballparks and humidity. In 2004, hitters were at an even bigger disadvantage, thanks to a top-notch crop of young arms.

Almost every one of the 12 teams sported a legitimate ace. A number of pitching staffs featured two or three hard-throwing starters who project as future major leaguers.

"It was definitely a pitching league," St. Lucie manager Tim Teufel said. "We had some good bullpen guys. I think the starters were quality. You had to work for it, plus you're playing in big league ballparks."

There was so much pitching that Clearwater's Elizardo Ramirez and Brevard County's Logan Kensing failed to make the top 20 despite jumping all the way to the majors. Fort Myers' Scott Baker would have made the top 10 had he not missed qualifying by one-third of an inning.

The FSL's hitting talent was thinner, but there were a number of shortstops that made their mark, including top prospect Joel Guzman.

1. JOEL GUZMAN, ss, Vero Beach Dodgers
Age: 19 Ht: 6-6 Wt: 225 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers FA '01 (Dominican Republic)

AB:329
R:52
H:102
2B:22
3B:8
HR:14
RBI:51
BB:21
SO:78
SB:8
CS:5
AVG:.307
OBP:.347
SLG:.550
He may have been one of the youngest players in the league at age 19, but Guzman looked like a man among boys. A lot of that had to do with his 6-foot-6 frame, though his work at the plate also spoke volumes.

Guzman was overmatched in a 62-game stint with Vero Beach a year ago, batting .246-5-24. This season, he showed great raw power, the ability to recognize and hit breaking balls, and the aptitude to turn on good fastballs.

"He was over his head last year," Lakeland manager Gary Green said. "This year, he caught up and passed this league."

Though he's extremely tall for a shortstop, Guzman is a smooth defender who makes all the routine plays and has a plus arm. His slightly below-average speed and average quickness limit his range, so he likely will end up at third base before long. He might even be a candidate for the big league club next spring if Adrian Beltre leaves via free agency.

2. CHAD BILLINGSLEY, rhp, Vero Beach Dodgers
Age: 20 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 215 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '03 (1)

W:7
L:4
ERA:2.35
G:18
SV:0
IP:92.0
H:68
HR:6
BB:49
SO:111
AVG:.202
Billingsley stood out most among the FSL's many pitching prospects. Managers and scouts loved his stuff, his command, his approach and his projectable build. Not surprisingly, the Diamondbacks reportedly wanted him as part of the package in a potential trade of Randy Johnson to the Dodgers that didn't quite get consummated.

Billingsley fills the zone with an exploding 93-94 mph fastball and a hard curveball. Both are strikeout pitches, and his late-breaking slider also can be a plus pitch. He can throw all three pitches to spots, showing the ability to pound batters on the hands and then sit them down by painting the outside corner. He didn't have to use his changeup too much this season, as he was dominant with his other three pitches.

"He's the kind of guy who before he throws a pitch, you say, ‘He's a big league pitcher,' " Tampa manager Billy Masse said. "And when he throws a pitch, you say, ‘This guy is really a big league pitcher.' "

3. HANLEY RAMIREZ, ss, Sarasota Red Sox
Age: 20 Ht: 6-1 Wt: 170 B-T: B-R Drafted/Signed: Red Sox FA '00 (Dominican Republic)

AB:239
R:33
H:74
2B:8
3B:4
HR:1
RBI:24
BB:17
SO:39
SB:12
CS:7
AVG:.310
OBP:.364
SLG:.389
As good as Guzman is, Ramirez projects to be a better major league shortstop. While Guzman's size and range probably will lead to a change of positions, Ramirez is an above-average defender. He has good feet and a cannon for an arm.

"What a young talent," Fort Myers manager Jose Marzan said. "He makes the game look so easy."

Ramirez also has a relatively advanced approach at the plate. He slugged just .389 in the FSL, but that was partly due to a June wrist injury, and he showed plus power after a promotion to Double-A. He drives the ball to all fields and doesn't have a below-average tool.

The biggest questions with Ramirez revolve around his maturity. A year after a couple of disciplinary problems in the low Class A South Atlantic League, he hasn't fully alleviated concerns about his makeup. The feeling is that while Ramirez can be an all-star, he'll be as good as he wants to be.

4. SCOTT KAZMIR, lhp, St. Lucie Mets
Age: 20 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 170 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Mets '02 (1)

W:1
L:2
ERA:3.42
G:11
SV:0
IP:50.0
H:49
HR:3
BB:22
SO:51
AVG:.257
Not many managers got to see the Kazmir who caused an uproar when the Mets foolishly traded him to the Devil Rays in July for Victor Zambrano.

By that point, Kazmir was back to the fireballing lefty who blows away batters with a 95-mph fastball and a nasty slider. A month and a half later, he was outdueling Pedro Martinez in Fenway Park. But while in the FSL, Kazmir was bothered by a rib injury that limited his velocity and his command.

Kazmir pitched at 90-95 mph in St. Lucie, compared to 93-97 in the majors. His slider also had more bite once he was fully healthy, and his changeup potentially could become a third plus pitch. Command and durability are the biggest question marks with Kazmir, but no lefty in the minors has better pure stuff.

5. SCOTT OLSEN, lhp, Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins)
Age: 20 Ht: 6-4 Wt: 170 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Marlins '02 (6)

W:7
L:6
ERA:2.97
G:25
SV:0
IP:136.1
H:127
HR:8
BB:54
SO:158
AVG:.246
While Olsen's stuff compares favorably to Kazmir's, he hasn't gotten nearly the hype, probably because he wasn't a first-round pick and wasn't drafted by a New York-based club. Olsen has a smooth arm action that produces 90-95 mph fastballs, and he can be unhittable when his command is on. He gave up just one earned run over 31 innings in his final five starts, fanning 42 in that span to win the FSL strikeout title with 158.

Olsen's fastball was there all year. In the second half, he improved the consistency of his slider and refined his developing changeup. When he's a finished product, he could have two plus pitches and an average third pitch.

He struggled at times to repeat his delivery, reminding scouts and managers that he's still young and has few innings under his belt. But Olsen could be a future rotation ace if he matures and continues to add polish.

6. FELIX PIE, of, Daytona Cubs
Age: 19 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 175 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Cubs FA '01 (Dominican Republic)

AB:431
R:79
H:128
2B:18
3B:10
HR:8
RBI:47
BB:39
SO:116
SB:32
CS:18
AVG:.297
OBP:.358
SLG:.441
Pie flirted with winning the FSL batting title at age 19 before enduring a late-season slump. He demonstrated above-average bat speed and foot speed while playing the shallowest center field managers had seen in a while.

What keeps Pie from ranking higher on this list is power. He can turn on fastballs and drive pitches to the gaps, but he's more of a slash-and-speed guy who likely will hit at the top of the order. To do that, he'll have to greatly improve his plate discipline.

Pie has other holes to polish as well. In the first half, he was vulnerable to high fastballs and breaking balls off the plate. He plays shallow in part because he's not comfortable coming in on fly balls.

He worked on those weaknesses and showed improvement as the season went along. He became a better bunter and learned how to lay off pitches outside of the zone.

7. MIKE HINCKLEY, lhp, Brevard County Manatees (Expos)
Age: 21 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 170 B-T: R-L Drafted/Signed: Expos '01 (3)

W:6
L:2
ERA:2.61
G:10
SV:0
IP:62.0
H:47
HR:6
BB:18
SO:51
AVG:.206
Like Billingsley, Hinckley showed the ability to dominate with two plus pitches and refined command. He fired 92-93 mph fastballs with a free and easy delivery, and his curveball prevents hitters from looking for his heater.

"He looks like he's going to be able to throw harder if he needs to," Daytona manager Steve McFarland said. "He can go to his breaking ball or his fastball to get you out."

Hinckley's changeup is less developed, but that's partly because he rarely needed a third pitch. He had no problems adapting to Double-A after a mid-June promotion.

8. JEREMY HERMIDA, of, Jupiter Hammerheads (Marlins)
Age: 20 Ht: 6-4 Wt: 200 B-T: L-R Drafted/Signed: Marlins '02 (1)

AB:340
R:53
H:101
2B:17
3B:1
HR:10
RBI:50
BB:42
SO:73
SB:10
CS:3
AVG:.297
OBP:.377
SLG:.441
With Hermida, the swing's the thing.

A strained hamstring forced him to miss a month of action early in the season, and it limited his running for a while when he returned. But it couldn't detract from his batting stroke, one of the prettiest in the minors.

Hermida hit .300 for most of the season, and there's little reason to think he won't continue to compete for batting titles as he moves up. There are bigger questions about his power production, as he currently is much more likely to slap singles and doubles to the opposite field than pull a pitch over the fence. His body and his bat speed suggest that he should develop power as he matures.

A right fielder, Hermida has solid average range and enough arm to handle the position.

9. TONY GIARRATANO, ss, Lakeland Tigers
Age: 21 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180 B-T: B-R Drafted/Signed: Tigers '03 (3)

AB:202
R:30
H:76
2B:11
3B:0
HR:5
RBI:25
BB:16
SO:38
SB:14
CS:8
AVG:.376
OBP:.423
SLG:.505
A relatively unheralded third-round pick in 2003, Giarratano quickly has established himself as one of the top shortstop prospects in the minors. After starting this year by batting a solid if workmanlike .285 in the low Class A Midwest League, he hit a scorching .376 after arriving in the FSL in late May.

Giarratano has above-average athleticism, a very good glove and a compact stroke from both sides of the plate. He should fit nicely at the top of a lineup. He has good bat control and on-base ability, plus speed and an idea of how to steal a base.

10. ERIC DUNCAN, 3b, Tampa Yankees
Age: 19 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 195 B-T: L-R Drafted/Signed: Yankees '03 (1)

AB:173
R:23
H:44
2B:20
3B:2
HR:4
RBI:26
BB:31
SO:47
SB:0
CS:2
AVG:.254
OBP:.366
SLG:.462
There were times when Duncan was clearly over his head as a 19-year-old in high Class A, but he showed an ability to make adjustments. By the end of the season, he was showing good pitch recognition, working counts and rarely chasing balls out of the zone. Few FSL hitters could match his raw power, and he delivered 26 extra-base hits in 51 games.

Duncan's glove lags behind his bat. His feet are a little slow for third base and an unorthodox delivery makes his arm a little short for the position.

11. FRANCISCO LIRIANO, lhp, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)
Age: 20 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 185 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Giants FA '00 (Dominican Republic)

W:6
L:7
ERA:4.00
G:21
SV:0
IP:117.0
H:118
HR:6
BB:43
SO:125
AVG:.263
Liriano came into the season with some serious durability concerns. He had pitched only 160 innings in three seasons in the Giants system before being included in an offseason trade for A.J. Pierzynski. But Liriano was able to make his scheduled turn every five days for Fort Myers, even if he rarely worked more than five or six innings.

He showed a loose, live arm, unleashing fastballs that sat at 92-93 mph and touched 97, though he could use a little more movement to go with that heat. Liriano also throws a potentially above average, if still a little erratic, changeup and a 12-to-6 curveball that has potential.

Liriano has the arm and the arsenal of pitches to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. His violent delivery and history of arm problems may make him better suited to be a late-inning reliever.

12. JONATHAN BROXTON, rhp, Vero Beach Dodgers
Age: 20 Ht: 6-4 Wt: 240 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '02 (2)

W:11
L:6
ERA:3.23
G:23
SV:0
IP:128.1
H:110
HR:7
BB:43
SO:144
AVG:.231
Like Liriano, Broxton rebounded to regain his elite prospect status in 2004. A year after wrist tendinitis and a biceps strain limited him to 37 innings, he regained his velocity and durability.

Broxton has an easy delivery and good arm action. There are some concerns about his heavy frame, and his fastball sometimes wavered when he got tired. Sometimes he'd sit at 92-93 mph and touch 95, while at others he'd pitch at 89-90.

Broxton's slider is a plus pitch and his change is also solid, though he doesn't throw it much. If he can polish his command and improve his conditioning, he could be a No. 2 starter.

13. YUSMEIRO PETIT, rhp, St. Lucie Mets
Age: 19 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Mets FA '01 (Venezuela)

W:2
L:3
ERA:1.22
G:9
SV:0
IP:44.1
H:27
HR:0
BB:14
SO:62
AVG:.175
Though he led minor league starters with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings and finished second with 200 strikeouts, Peit isn't a flamethrower. He gets his swings and misses with a 88-90 mph fastball that peaks at 92. While his fastball is average at best, his command, late life and deceptive delivery ensure that hitters rarely get a good swing at it.

"He keeps the ball down, and the ball seems to explode onto bats," Teufel said. "He's fun to watch operate. He's a surgeon on the dish."

Of his three minor league stops in 2004, Petit did his best work in St. Lucie. He also features a changeup that is a plus pitch at times but is still inconsistent. His slider has potential, but he doesn't yet fully command it and sometimes it flattens out too much.

14. JON PAPELBON, rhp, Sarasota Red Sox
Age: 23 Ht: 6-4 Wt: 230 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Red Sox '03 (4)

W:12
L:7
ERA:2.64
G:24
SV:0
IP:129.2
H:97
HR:6
BB:43
SO:153
AVG:.206
Though he never started a game in three years at Missisippi State, Papelbon has made the transition to the rotation look easy. In his first full pro season, he finished second in the FSL in ERA (2.64) and strikeouts (153 in 130 innings). He got stronger as the season went along, going 6-2, 1.25 while never allowing more than two earned runs in a start over the final two months of the season.

Papelbon's calling card is still a 92-94 mph fastball that reaches 96. Because of his free and easy motion, it sometimes looks like he's throwing even harder. He also has solid command and a durable frame.

His biggest improvement this season was the development of his slider, which became an out pitch. Papelbon buries it down and in against lefthanders. His changeup is less advanced, but has potential to be an average pitch.

15. JON LESTER, lhp, Sarasota Red Sox
Age: 21 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 170 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Red Sox '02 (2)

W:7
L:6
ERA:4.28
G:21
SV:0
IP:90.1
H:82
HR:2
BB:37
SO:97
AVG:.244
Like his Sarasota teammate Papelbon, Lester has a big arm, a study frame and a plus fastball. The bonus is that he's lefthanded.

Lester's fastball has good late life, and he usually pitches at 92 mph and tops out at 96. When he's on, he can blow batters away.

His secondary pitches are less advanced than Papelbon's. Lester throws a slurvy curveball and a below-average changeup. Some managers believe he'll have trouble refining his curve and change because his delivery, while clean, is slow and mechanical.

16. ANDY LaROCHE, 3b, Vero Beach Dodgers
Age: 21 Ht: 5-11 Wt: 185 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '03 (39)

AB:219
R:26
H:51
2B:13
3B:0
HR:10
RBI:35
BB:17
SO:42
SB:2
CS:3
AVG:.233
OBP:.290
SLG:.429
With the exception of his power numbers, LaRoche's FSL statistics were ugly. But that didn't keep most observers from projectiong him as a future big league third baseman. They considered him one of the best hitting prospects in the league, as well as a good defender.

"I really like his swing," Claus said. "Few swings are as flat as his. The bat is in the zone for a long time. And when he gets it, it's backspun with good carry."

FSL pitchers took advantage of LaRoche's aggressiveness, getting him out with breaking balls and changeups while he looked for fastballs to pull. He'll be better off once he realizes he can hit the ball out to all fields and lets his power come naturally.

A shortstop in junior college, LaRoche showed one of the FSL's strongest arms and good agility, though his hands are a little questionable. Some managers thought he'd be able to play second base as well.

17. ISMAEL RAMIREZ, rhp, Dunedin Blue Jays
Age: 23 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 175 B-T: R-L Drafted/Signed: Blue Jays FA '98 (Venezuela)

W:15
L:6
ERA:2.72
G:28
SV:0
IP:165.1
H:151
HR:5
BB:25
SO:131
AVG:.242
In a league filled with great arms, Ramirez topped everyone with 15 victories and was named the most valuable pitcher in a vote by league managers, coaches and media members. It's a sign of the respect he garnered by showing a feel for pitching, great makeup and command of solid stuff.

Ramirez' fastball usually sits at 90-91, but he occasionally bumped it up to 94-95 he needed it. His straight-over-the-top delivery gives him a good downward plane, and he has a slight hesitation that makes it hard for hitters to time him. He has an uncanny ability to read swings and get inside batters' heads, allowing him to keep them off balance.

Neither Ramirez' changeup nor his slurvy curveball stands out at this point. There's a lot of effort in his delivery, which is also a concern.

18. DELWYN YOUNG, 2b, Vero Beach Dodgers
Age: 22 Ht: 5-10 Wt: 180 B-T: B-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '02 (4)

AB:470
R:76
H:132
2B:36
3B:3
HR:22
RBI:85
BB:57
SO:134
SB:11
CS:4
AVG:.281
OBP:.364
SLG:.511
Young was the hottest hitter in the FSL in the second half, batting .317 with 12 homers during the final two months. He's an exceptional run produce for his position, though his ability to remain at second base is a question.

A free-swinging switch-hitter, Young generates plus power with his wiry speed and impressive bat speed. His aggressive approach results in a lot of strikeouts, but he's patient enough to draw his share of walks.

Though Young's speed and agility are below average, he did improve steadily at second base throughout the season. Some observers believe he might be able to stick there, but if he doesn't he should offer enough offense to play on an outfield corner.

19. JOSH BANKS, rhp, Dunedin Blue Jays
Age: 22 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 185 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Blue Jays '02 (2)

W:7
L:1
ERA:1.80
G:11
SV:0
IP:60.0
H:49
HR:4
BB:8
SO:60
AVG:.220
Banks slid to the second round when his blister problems made it hard for teams to get a good read on him right before the 2003 draft. He pitched like a first-rounder in the FSL, requiring just 11 dominant starts before the Blue Jays deemed him ready for Double-A.

While he struggled after his promotion, FSL hitters couldn't handle Banks' five-pitch repertoire. He exhibited plus command of a 90-93 mph. He also showed the confidence to throw his slider (which showed signs of developing into an out pitch), splitter, curveball and changeup at any point in the count.

20. 20. KYLE SLEETH, rhp, Lakeland Tigers
Age: 22 Ht: 6-4 Wt: 205 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Tigers '03 (1)

W:5
L:4
ERA:3.31
G:11
SV:0
IP:68.0
H:60
HR:3
BB:18
SO:65
AVG:.233
Lakeland's rotation featured three hard-throwing righthanders, and Joel Zumaya and Humberto Sanchez actually can light radar guns up more than Sleeth can. But his command and secondary pitches are more advanced, so he earned the final spot on the Top 20.

Sleeth throws in the low 90s with good life on his fastball. When he's on he hits his spots and overmatches hitters with the movement on his heater. But at times he has trouble keeping his fastball down, a recurring problem once he reached Double-A -- where he got hammered for a 6.30 ERA.

Sleeth has a power curveball and a hard slider, though they are similar enough that they're sometimes difficult to differentiate. His changeup is less developed, but shows signs of becoming an average pitch. He needs to improve the consistency of all of his secondary pitches, especially his changeup because everything else he throws is hard.

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