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2004 Top 20 Prospects: New York-Penn LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Aaron Fitt
Chat Wrap: Aaron Fitt took your New York-Penn League questions
The short-season New York-Penn League was loaded with pitching in 2004, but a position player claimed the mantle of best prospect. There wasn't a manager in the league who questioned the remarkable talent of Brooklyn outfielder Ambiorix Concepcion.
The best player in the league was Tri-City shortstop Ben Zobrist, who led the NY-P in batting (.339) and on-base percentage (.438). But while he might be a safer bet than Concepcion, Zobrist was old for the league at 23, and his year must be viewed with that perspective.
Pitchers dominated the rest of our NY-P Top 10 Prospects list, claiming seven of the other eight spots. Lowell righthander Anibal Sanchez led that contingent, showing no ill effects from the elbow surgery that caused him to miss all of 2003. While Sanchez had the highest ceiling on the Lowell staff, several older and more advanced Spinners pitchers could beat him to the majors.
Jamestown (led by lefties Jason Vargas and Taylor Tankersley) and Staten Island (with righties Jesse Hoover and Jeff Marquez at the forefront) also had impressive pitching depth.
Concepcion has major five-tool potential. He has a plus arm that's tailor-made for right field and the plus speed to play center and steal bases. He also plays hard and is fast enough to take the extra base if you let him.
Some managers were concerned about Concepcion's swing, saying it was long and had holes in it. But he's still just 20 and already has made considerable improvement after hitting .214-0-19 in the Rookie-level Appalachian League last year, his third as a pro. He hit for average and showed some power in the NY-P.
"He hasn't learned to work the count, but his ability to make the adjustment and wait on breaking balls has already impressed me," Brooklyn manager Tony Tijerina said. "He's starting to fill out his body, and every day he'll win a ballgame with a different tool."
Sanchez relies heavily on his plus fastball, which sits in the mid 90s and has good life through the zone. He commands it to both sides of the plate exceptionally well for such an inexperienced pitcher. He'll need time to refine his secondary offerings, but his changeup is a plus pitch at times and his curveball can become one.
Vargas is a very polished lefthander who pounds the strike zone with his 92-93 mph fastball, then gets hitters to chase his curveball and changeup out of the zone. His mechanics are sound, giving him very good command, and he's not afraid to challenge hitters.
"He'll be the quickest to the big leagues out of this league," Castillo said. "He's poised, never gets rattled, real professional."
But his stuff was evident. He showed command of a low-90s fastball and a 12-to-6 curveball that already is of major league quality. He's more raw than Vargas, and there are some questions about Tankersley's fiery makeup and antics on the mound.
"He's pretty legit," Mahoning Valley manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "He's got a real good arm, and the one thing that stuck out to me is he has real good command of his pitches. He doesn't walk many and he attacks the zone."
"Zobrist is just such a good, well-rounded player," Hudson Valley manager Dave Howard said. "He's a four-tool guy. He doesn't hit for power but he can hit, he can run, he can steal bases, and he has great instincts. He defended really well against us."
Zobrist has a major league body to go with average range and arm strength for a shortstop, but his size might precipitate a move to third base. His excellent plate discipline and decent gap power should give him enough bat to play at the hot corner.
Used as a starter in the second half of the summer, Hoover projects more as a closer. His fastball sat in the mid-90s when he came out of the bullpen, reaching as high as 97 mph.
"Hoover's got a power arm," Howard said. "He can really run it up there. He's got a power breaking pitch that's really consistent, and one of these days it's all going to click. He can be dominating."
Hoover is still more of a thrower than a pitcher, and his arm action scared some observers. But Staten Island manager Tommy John worked with Hoover on polishing his mechanics as well as his curveball and changeup, which is still in its elementary stages.
"I don't know if he's going to become a major league closer or not, but this kid's fastball is the best in the league with the deception and liveliness on it," Tijerina said. "I hope he develops other pitches. Right now he throws a little slider/cutter-type pitch with not very big break."
His changeup can be a plus pitch at times, and if he can come up with an effective breaking ball, it's possible he could return to the rotation. But he looked born to close this year.
The rap on Sipp as a college pitcher was that he had very good stuff but never was able to put it all together. He put it together rather nicely for the Scrappers, posting a 74-13 strikeout-walk ratio in 43 innings.
Sipp's live arm generates a low-90s fastball that he's not afraid to locate anywhere in the strike zone. His slider could become a plus pitch, and he has good feel for a changeup.
He'll add some muscle to his frame, but Lara never will be a power hitter. He concentrates instead on making solid contact from both sides of the plate. Managers also appreciated his defense, citing his plus range and average-to-plus arm strength.
"He's going to play in the big leagues," Tri-City manager Greg Langbehn said. "He makes the hard play real easy. There are guys you see for one game, and you just know."
"He reminds me of a skinny Kevin Brown or Scott Erickson," John said. "This kid's only 6-foot-2, 175, but his ball is hard and the bottom just drops out of it."
Marquez' changeup is a better pitch than his curveball at this point. He still needs to improve both and get more consistent with his fastball command.
He's not raw as a catcher, but his defensive skills do lag behind his offensive game. Thigpen has some pop in his bat and very good pitch recognition. He's versatile enough to play anywhere on the diamond except for center field and shortstop, so he could be a super utilityman if he's not a regular.
"He does a terrific job at the plate," Auburn manager Dennis Holmberg said. "He works the count, has a good approach and he's got a knack for putting a consistent swing on a majority of pitches. He's got a chance to be a good big league catcher."
"For a big, strong power hitter, his strike-zone recognition is tremendous," an American League scout said. "You rarely see him chase anything out of the zone. He's focused when he gets to the plate, has a very good plan, and he stays with it, and it shows."
The Indians project Butia as a corner outfielder, but he's not particularly athletic and is average at best defensively. His arm is below average, though he does have a quick release.
"He has incredible hand and bat speed, the ability to hit it out anywhere," Langbehn said. "His power to all fields is pretty special."
Though he's gangly, Pence played some center field for Tri-City and was able to run down balls in the gap. He's a sound defender, albeit with a lackluster arm, and probably will wind up in left field.
The Red Sox kept Hottovy on a strict pitch count, limiting him to 30 innings in 14 starts, but that was enough to showcase his outstanding command. He's not overpowering with his mid-80s fastball, but he's very deceptive and has a plus curveball. He projects as a reliever, a role that will expedite his arrival in Boston.
"He'll pitch in the big leagues probably by next year," Lowell manager Luis Alicea said. "He's that good. He's smart, has good mechanics and has a lot of things going for him."
Fulton needs to add some bulk to his 6-foot-4 frame, but he already has shown plus power and will only get stronger. He has strong hands and a plus arm, but he figures to outgrow shortstop and move to third base. He has a good work ethic, which will help him make that transition and other necessary adjustments.
A switch-hitter who makes contact, Reyes can become a leadoff man if he learns to draw more walks. He's a slap hitter who won't have much power. But he can wreak havoc on the bases and has the tools to turn into a plus defender.
“He can throw, field, run, hit. There’s something about that Reyes kid,” Vermont manager Jose Alguacil said. “Since the first day I saw the guy, I really liked him.”
Johnson can reach 95 mph, but when he overthrows he sacrifices his control and movement. His slider has the potential to become a plus pitch, and he's working on a changeup. League hitters batted just .193 against him, but he didn't miss many bats with 40 strikeouts in 89 innings.
Holmberg compared him to Vargas, noting that Happ is a little sneakier and a little more effortless. His mechanics are solid, so he should be able to cut down on his walk rate. His curveball can be a plus pitch and his changeup is coming along.
“He has line drive power, very good balance and good hand speed," New Jersey manager Tom Shields said. "He’s going to have power in the future, I think. He’s surprisingly fast, an average runner.”
Mullinax has the arm, range and hands to be at least a solid defender at second or third base. Some observers raised the possibility that he could return to his former position and be a Jeff Kent-style second baseman. He also received high marks for his makeup.
He can pitch into the low 90s with his fastball, and his plus curveball is his bread-and-butter pitch. He has an incredibly quick arm, so he throws with little effort, allowing him to maintain very good command. He has begun to learn a changeup, and he flashed an intriguing splitter in high school.
Barratt also had some arm fatigue late in the season, and his size will always be a concern. Though he started for Hudson Valley, he may not be able to go deep into games, which would mean his future lies in the bullpen.