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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Pacific Coast LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Jim Callis
Chat Wrap: Jim Callis took your PCL questions
It was far from a good year for talent in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. Just don't tell that to fans of the Salt Lake Stingers or the pitchers who had to face them.
After the Angels demoted Casey Kotchman from the majors on June 14 and promoted Dallas McPherson from Double-A eight days later, Salt Lake could boast not only the two best prospects in the PCL, but two of the best in the entire minors. Neither wasted any time savaging Triple-A pitching, as Kotchman had three multihit games in his first four starts, and McPherson homered 10 times in his first 20 contests.
Neither let up, as Kotchman batted .372-5-38 in 49 games and McPherson hit .313-20-57 in 67. Kotchman's batting average and McPherson's .680 slugging percentage would have led the PCL if they had enough plate appearances. PCL observers were fairly split on which one will be a better big leaguer, with Kotchman getting a slight nod.
"I'd take Kotchman," one scout said. "I think he's a more consistent hitter and he'll give you more quality at-bats. He has the chance to develop power close to McPherson's. Day in and day out, he's going to be a more productive player."
As exciting as Kotchman and McPherson were, league-wide pitching was just as disappointing. The best arm in the PCL belonged to Las Vegas' Edwin Jackson, but he never seemed fully healthy and posted a 5.86 ERA. Colorado's Jeff Francis, Memphis' Dan Haren and Omaha's Zack Greinke all could stake a claim to being the league's top pitching prospect, but none of them qualified for this list.
His over-the-fence power will come. One scout thinks the low finish in Kotchman's stroke will limit him to 25 homers annually, but two others believe he easily could hit 30 and as many as 40. He controls the strike zone so well that it's just a matter of getting stronger and translating his batting-practice pop to games.
Also slick with the glove, Kotchman has been named his league's best defensive first baseman in each of his three full seasons. The only blemish on his résumé is a consistent history of injuries. He missed all but one game in July with wrist and shoulder strains, and there's some concern that he may be brittle.
"His numbers are ludicrous," Tucson manager Chip Hale said. "Our pitchers are scared to death of him. They know if they make a mistake, he'll hit it out of the park."
Earlier in his career, McPherson had a more fluid swing and let his power come naturally. Now he looks like Jason Giambi, collapsing his back leg and trying to lift pitches out of the park. He sits on fastballs, and PCL observers had differing opinions of his ability to hit quality breaking balls.
While he knows the strike zone, McPherson's approach resulted in a 95-23 strikeout-walk ratio in 67 games. His whiffs didn't draw as many red flags as his defense. He has enough arm strength but looks stiff at third base, and the consensus is that he'll eventually move to an outfield corner.
Jackson's pure stuff is still unquestioned. When he was 100 percent, he pitched at 93-97 mph with his fastball and showed a nasty slider. He developed so rapidly a year ago that he's still learning how to pitch. He gets into trouble when his fastball and slider flatten out and he leaves them up in the zone.
Jackson doesn't throw his changeup enough, and his command slipped a notch this year. At times he tries to be too fine with his pitches rather than just overpowering hitters with them. He may not have enough feel for pitching to become a true No. 1 starter, but he should be at least a No. 2 or a possible closer.
After hitting just 21 homers in his first 1 1/2 pro seasons, Swisher hit 29 in Triple-A. Eighteen of those homers came in the second half, when he became more aggressive at working counts to find a pitch to drive rather than just taking a walk.
That power surge is a key to his future, because his future is on an outfield corner. Swisher played center field well enough in Sacramento, but his speed and range aren't up to major league standards. He'd be a Gold Glove candidate if Oakland moved him to first base. He's very competitive, along the lines of a Paul O'Neill, and did a better job channeling his intensity this year.
Lopez consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, making consistent hard contact but to the detriment of drawing walks. He'll need to be more selective and do better against breaking balls after major league pitchers exploited those weaknesses. He has average speed and runs the bases well.
He saw action at shortstop as well as second and third base in Tacoma because the Mariners wanted him to be ready for the first infield job that became available. Lopez has thicker legs and less quickness than a typical shortstop, but he may be able to stay at the position because of his instincts and strong arm.
Both have 15-homer power, and that might be a problem for Reed. He's a little quicker than Kotsay but can't match his defensive instincts, so Reed may not be able to man center field in Seattle. He plays shallow and is a borderline average center fielder, but average probably isn't good enough for spacious Safeco Field.
If Reed has to move, his power will be substandard for a left fielder. He's still gifted enough at the plate, on the bases and in the field to help a club at that position, but he profiles better if he can stay in center.
For the first time in his career, Burke didn't dabble with playing shortstop in 2004. He mentally accepted that he was a second baseman, relaxed and took off with the bat. He's a top-of-the-order catalyst with surprising pop and basestealing ability.
The best defensive second baseman in the PCL, Burke has good range to both sides and his arm fits better at that position. He needs to polish his ability to turn the double play.
"If I had to win a game right now, and I could take any pitcher in the PCL, I'd take him," one scout said. "He has a great feel for pitching, and his stuff is just solid."
Blanton came to the PCL with the reputation of having a plus fastball and nasty breaking stuff. He pitched mostly at 88-91 mph, with the life on his heater more notable than its velocity. Observers preferred his curveball to his slider but weren't overwhelmed by either.
Dominguez uses the same arm action on his 91-96 mph fastball and his circle changeup, leaving hitters guessing. He slings the ball somewhat, which has made it hard to refine his slider into a dependable third pitch. He induces a lot of groundballs and showed more poise in the majors this year than he did in 2003.
Molina led PCL regulars by throwing out 38 percent of basestealers and was easily the top defensive catcher in the league. His receiving skills are also a plus, though he sometimes has lapses in concentration. He's still developing as a hitter but made strides this year with his plate discipline and bat control.
His stuff and mentality would seem to fit better in the bullpen. Nageotte has a low-90s fastball that can touch 97 mph, and that takes a backseat to his slider, one of the best at any level of the game. He's aggressive and lives for strikeouts, as opposed to setting up hitters and trying to keep his pitch counts down.
Nageotte had little use for a changeup in the lower minors and has yet to embrace the importance of having a third pitch if he's to remain a starter. Because his fastball command is spotty, he tends to rely on his slider too much, which hurts his durability. He missed the end of the 2003 season with elbow tendinitis and was finished this August with a lower-back strain.
Some managers thought Church was the best-looking young hitter in the PCL this year. After previously trying to jerk every pitch he saw out of the park, he finally became more selective and began to use the entire field in 2004. Scouts liked him, too, though they weren't as sure that he had quite enough power to bat in the middle of a big league lineup.
Church has average speed and solid arm strength. One scout said he had a better chance to play center field in the majors than Swisher or Reed, but his defensive skills are more suited for right.
He's similar to Oakland DH Erubiel Durazo and may take his job in 2005. Both are big guys who hit for average, get on base and post respectable but not outstanding home run totals. Johnson can hit quality fastballs and batted .302 against lefthanders in 2004, though just one of his 29 homers came against them.
Unlike Durazo and to his advantage, Johnson isn't clumsy and can play a position. He's not the smoothest of first basemen, but he has worked very hard to get himself into better shape and become an adequate fielder.
Guzman wasn't ready to hit but has the tools to be a leadoff hitter along the lines of Juan Pierre. He understands the importance of walks but needs to cut down his swing and worry about handling offspeed pitches rather than trying to crush fastballs. He also can use the bunt to get on base.
He possesses tremendous speed and knows how to use it, leading the minors with 90 steals in 2003 and the PCL with 48 in just 66 games this year. Guzman covers plenty of ground in center field, though he can be a little reckless and has a weak arm.
"He's made incredible progress," Iowa manager Mike Quade said. "I'll be the first to admit I fringed him last year, and now he's a solid-average prospect at shortstop."
Barmes drew comparisons to Mark Loretta and Twins prospect Jason Bartlett. He should be able to hit for a decent average in the majors while reaching double figures in homers and steals. He doesn't walk much, though he makes very good contact.
While he isn't an acrobat at shortstop, Barmes has excellent hands and makes the routine plays. He looks like he can stay there, a key for him to play every day in the big leagues. He might not have enough bat to be a regular at another position.
After being ejected from a May 25 game for fighting with Albuquerque catcher Matt Treanor, Terrero got into an altercation with a fan and allegedly hit a woman with a baseball. The PCL suspended him five games for the fight and indefinitely for the incident with the fan, and mandated that he attend anger-management classes. Terrero missed five weeks and got into trouble four games later, getting pulled from a game and benched for another because he kissed home plate after hitting a home run.
Terrero, who replaced Steve Finley as Arizona's center fielder following Finley's trade to the Dodgers, is a pure center fielder with a very strong arm, above-average speed and 20-homer power. But he's too aggressive at the plate, taking huge cuts and struggling against breaking balls. He had trouble making contact in the majors.
Atkins' numbers were boosted by the thin air at Colorado Springs, where he batted .406 with 39 of his 61 extra-base hits. He opened his stance this year, so he uses less of an inside-out swing and more of the whole field. He controls the strike zone extremely well.
Atkins never has hit more than 15 homers in a minor league season, however, because he doesn't try to drive the ball. That approach won't cut it at third base, where he has poor range and footwork, and certainly not at first base, where he really should play but is blocked by Todd Helton. Atkins saw time in left field in September for Colorado, but doesn't work hard on his defense and may be nothing more than a DH—an obvious problem for a National Leaguer.
Though he has a consistent low-90s fastball that peaks at 95 mph, the pitch that makes Madritsch is his plus changeup. Though he slows down his delivery when he throws it, the changeup fools hitters and keeps righthanders at bay. They hit just .186 against him in the PCL, .220 in the big leagues.
Madritsch's arm action is long in the back, which has hampered him in his attempts to develop a breaking ball. His curve is a 35 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale. He compensates with his fastball-changeup combo and his moxie, which helped him persevere through a shoulder injury early in his career and a two-year detour in independent ball.
Harris shuffled between second base, third base and shortstop this year, and he's a bit of a tweener. His line-drive, gap-power bat fits better at second, while defensively he looks the best at the hot corner. He has enough raw power to make it at third base, and his instincts and work ethic would allow him to get by at second.
Like Madritsch, Lowry pitches off of his changeup, which has improved from below average to plus over the last year. He locates his high-80s fastball down and away, so he rarely gives up homers. Neither his curveball nor cutter is average, but he uses them as show-me pitches and throws them for strikes.