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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Midwest LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Jim Callis
Chat Wrap: Jim Callis took your Midwest League questions
Promising young hitters usually are as common as cornfields in the low Class A Midwest League.
The Class of 2000 featured Albert Pujols, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns, and the next year's crop included Justin Morneau, Grady Sizemore and Wily Mo Pena. Neither of those groups could match the astonishing depth in 2002, when the MWL was the home of Joe Mauer, Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Scott Hairston, Brad Nelson and Jason Stokes, among others.
The well dried up in 2003, however. Prince Fielder slugged his way to MVP and No. 1 prospect honors, but the next-best position player was Felix Pie, whose bat has yet to catch up to his impressive athleticism.
After that one-year drought, batting prospects were plentiful throughout the MWL in 2004. A first baseman once again pulled off the MVP/top prospect double, but Brian Dopirak didn't stand alone like Fielder did. Hitters age 20 and younger claimed five of the first seven spots on this list, and Quad Cities third baseman Matt Moses likely would have been right with them if back problems hadn't ruined his season.
There were so many bats that 2003 first-round picks such as third baseman Brian Snyder (Kane County), outfielder Chris Lubanski and third baseman Mitch Maier (both Burlington) couldn't crack the Top 20. The MWL also had its share of live young arms, but the pitchers generally weren't as polished as their hitting counterparts.
"When the ball comes off his bat, it's like hitting a golf ball with an aluminum bat," Kane County manager Dave Joppie said. "He has power to all fields. He's not just a pull guy. He's a tremendous looking hitter."
Dopirak still is learning to work counts but he has a quiet, sound approach at the plate and has shown the ability to make adjustments. While he has limited range at first base, he works very hard on his defense and should become at least adequate.
Barton showed no weakness at the plate. He has a short stroke, uses the whole field and shows 25-30 homer potential. He has no trouble with offspeed stuff and hits lefties and righthanders equally well. A National League scout said Barton and Rockies third baseman Ian Stewart were the two purest hitters he saw all season.
"I love his approach," an American League scout said. "It's what you try to teach kids."
Barton's defense is problematic. Few observers think he has a chance to catch regularly in the big leagues because his arm is below average and his receiving and blocking skills are just passable. He's not athletic or quick enough to play third base, and at 6 feet he'd be short for a first baseman.
He's not quite in Dopirak's class, but Duncan has impact power. When he lets his strength come naturally he also shows admirable plate discipline, but he sometimes gets homer-happy and becomes prone to strikeouts. The Yankees challenged him with a promotion to high Class A when he tailed off in June, and he responded by showing more patience without diminishing his pop.
Duncan has solid average speed and some athleticism, but he has yet to prove he can handle third base. His arm is a little short for the position. He did get steadier at the hot corner after making 11 errors in 20 April games.
Managers and scouts loved his stuff, command and poise. His biting curveball is a strikeout pitch, and he sets it up with a lively 89-92 mph fastball and a developing changeup. His lean, athletic build allows him to repeat his delivery and locate his pitches wherever he desires.
"I love that guy," Cedar Rapids manager Bobby Magallanes said. "He has a chance to be a No. 1 or 2 starter in the big leagues. He throws three pitches for strikes, and they're all plus pitches."
Wood's speed is a tick below average, but don't discount his ability to play shortstop. He's agile enough and covers enough ground, especially to his right. He positions himself well, has a plus arm and might have had the best footwork among MWL shortstops.
The Athletics couldn't keep Garcia healthy as a starter, so they made him a full-time reliever this year. He took to his new role immediately, averaging 94 mph with his fastball and keeping hitters off-balance with his slider and splitter.
Once he improves the control and consistency of his secondary pitches, which can be devastating when they're on, Oakland could have another Octavio Dotel on its hands. Garcia aggressively attacks hitters and has a closer's mentality.
Like the players on the top of this list, Votto is a gifted hitter with both power and polish. He has nice loft in his lefthanded stroke and a knack for drawing walks. He's not fazed by lefties and shows a willingness to use the whole field.
Votto can be a free swinger at times. He's also never going to be more than a below-average defender because he lacks instincts, agility and soft hands. But his production makes those acceptable tradeoffs.
"His bat speed was much better this year," an AL scout said. "He turned on everything. You couldn't get a fastball by him on the inner half. He wasn't the same guy."
Kinsler can get too pull-conscious, but the consensus is that his bat is for real. He's a sound defender who makes all the routine plays. He has soft hands, and his arm and speed are average.
Marshall usually pitches at 88-92 mph with nifty sink that yielded a stellar 63-26 groundball-flyball ratio in the MWL. His curveball and changeup are average to plus pitches, and he also fiddles with a slider. He excels at changing speeds and locating his pitches.
Marshall's season ended in mid-June, when he partially ruptured a tendon in the middle finger on his throwing hand. He's expected to return for the Arizona Fall League.
His fastball velocity has increased each year since he signed in 2002; it now sits at 91-93 mph and peaks at 97. Harben has improved his consistency as well, and his effortless delivery has helped him better his command.
Harben's second pitch, a slider, isn't totally reliable yet. He needs to refine his changeup and throw more strikes, but could be a good middle-of-the-rotation starter once he puts everything together.
"He has tremendous power to all fields," Wisconsin manager Steve Roadcap said. "When he tries to pull everything, he's not good. When he learns he can hit the ball out to all fields, the sky's the limit for him."
Balentien also homered in The Netherlands' Olympic opener against Greece, then went 0-for-11 with six strikeouts the rest of the way in Athens. For all his power, MWL observers wondered if he might similarly struggle above Class A. He takes a huge cut and tries to jerk every pitch out of the park, and he'll have to be much more disciplined against better pitching. Roadcap batted him eighth in the Wisconsin lineup to protect him, and Balentien hasn't proven he can hit breaking balls.
He runs well for his size (6-foot-3, 209 pounds) and played some center field, but he most likely will wind up in left. Balentien's arm and his jumps are below average.
Kendrick's career .357 average as a pro results from excellent hand-eye coordination and a balanced, controlled swing. He lets his natural bat speed do most of the work, and can drive the ball for gap power. He makes contact so easily that it impedes his ability to draw walks.
Though his speed is fringe average, his instincts make opponents respect him as a basestealer. Raw defensively when he signed out of junior college in 2002, Kendrick has improved his arm strength, footwork and range. He also has gotten better at turning the double play and is now a reliable defender.
Despite his cannon arm, Jones' offensive potential outshines his defense. One scout compared him to a young Reggie Sanders, who entered pro ball as a shortstop, and the ball jumps off Jones' bat. He has a sound swing and made progress using the whole field, but still is learning to work counts.
Though he's not quick out of the batter's box, Jones runs well underway and has enough range at shortstop. Already 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, he could outgrow the position, and despite his athleticism he's not especially smooth. To stay at shortstop, he'll have to improve his footwork and do a better job of making routine plays.
Perkins can't match Diamond's mid-90s fastball, but he is a lefthander with three average-to-plus pitches. He throws an 88-92 mph fastball, a curveball and a changeup. Area scouts who saw him this spring said Perkins has better stuff than Denny Neagle, another University of Minnesota southpaw, had at the same point of his career.
Perkins also has an excellent feel for pitching. He throws strikes, changes speeds and works both sides of the plate with ease.
Cabrera's hand-eye coordination ranked with Kendrick's, and he also trusts his hands and doesn't try to do too much at the plate. He should hit 18-20 homers annually as he matures physically. He needs to draw more walks, though he's handicapped by his ability to make contact.
Cabrera's speed, arm and outfield range are all average. He played center field this year but may fit better defensively in left once he reaches the majors.
Jepsen usually pitched at 94-96 mph and peaked at 97-99, and the heavy life on his fastball makes it difficult for hitters to lift. He also shows a power slider that can be nearly as unhittable when it's on, as well as some feel for a changeup.
His command isn't as good as his stuff, however. Jepsen needs to do a better job of throwing each of his pitches for strikes after leading the league with 77 walks in 144 innings. His delivery is a bit long in the back and he doesn’t take a direct path to the plate, though his arm action and balance are fine.
Most MWL observers projected Burgos as a future setup man or closer because he doesn't spin a breaking ball well. His slider is iffy and his changeup is average at best, but this year he did add a splitter that has potential. Along with his command and secondary pitches, he also must improve his focus and maturity.
No MWL pitcher was tougher to take deep than Petrick, who surrendered just three homers in 147 innings. Not only does he have heavy sink on his 90-93 mph fastball, but he also tends to miss low in the zone on the rare occasions when he doesn't throw strikes.
With a workhorse 6-foot-6, 240-pound build, Petrick looks like a football player—and he was one of the nation's top long-snapper recruits coming out of high school. He has shelved a loopy curveball in favor of a slider that's getting better, though he still slows down his arm speed too much when he throws his changeup.
After spending the first half of the year in extended spring training, Lopez showed off one of the MWL's prettiest strokes upon his arrival in mid-June. His bat flies through the strike zone and he manipulates the bat head well, working the ball to all fields. He's wiry but has strong wrists and should hit for at least average power, though some observers think he'll need to add some loft to his swing.
Lopez can be a little anxious at the plate, as he hasn't learned to stay back on changeups or draw many walks. He doesn't run well, but his lack of speed doesn't hamper his defense.
Eveland could become a No. 4 starter because he's a lefthander with solid velocity and command. But he still has plenty of work to do beyond his conditioning. His changeup and slider have their moments but neither is a consistently reliable second pitch.