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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Pioneer League
Complete Index of League Top 20s

By Alan Matthews
September 22, 2004


Chat Wrap: Alan Matthews took your Pioneer League questions

FIVE YEARS AGO
1. *Francisco Rodriguez, rhp, Butte (Angels)
2. *Mike Bynum, lhp, Idaho Falls (Padres)
3. *Ben Broussard, of, Billings (Reds)
4. Gerik Baxter, rhp, Idaho Falls (Padres)
5. Cristain Guerrero, of, Ogden (Brewers)
6. *Guillermo Quiroz, c, Medicine Hat (Blue Jays)
7. Jason Repko, ss, Great Falls (Dodgers)
8. *Luis Terrero, of, Missoula (Diamondbacks)
9. *Alexis Rios, of, Medicine Hat (Blue Jays)
10. *Matt Ford, lhp, Medicine Hat (Blue Jays)

* Played in the majors

The Rookie-level Pioneer League is traditionally hitter-friendly, and that was the case even more than usual in 2004. Twenty-four hitters who qualified for the batting title posted averages of .300 or better, while 12 players reached double figures in home runs.

As for the pitchers, just one qualifier finished the year with a sub-3.00 ERA. Great Falls led all teams with a 4.24 ERA, and Billings had the only other staff that came in below 5.00.

"It's a more offensive-oriented league this year," said Casper manager P.J. Carey, a five-year veteran of the PL. "We saw more offense than the pitching that we've had in the past."

Our Top 20 Prospects list reflects the nature of the league, as it starts with four straight position players. Casper featured the No. 1 prospect for the second straight year, with shortstop Chris Nelson following on the heels of third baseman Ian Stewart.

1. CHRIS NELSON, ss, Casper Rockies
Age: 19 Ht: 5-11 Wt: 175 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Rockies '04 (1)

AB:147
R:36
H:51
2B:6
3B:3
HR:4
RBI:20
BB:20
SO:42
SB:6
CS:5
AVG:.347
OBP:.432
SLG:.510
Less than a year removed from Tommy John surgery, Nelson made a quick comeback during the spring and became the ninth overall pick in the draft. Though his two-way aspirations came to an endhe was armed with a mid-90s fastball before hurting his elbowhe has star potential at shortstop.

Nelson's short, quick righthanded swing has been likened to Gary Sheffield'sthe gold standard of comparisons from scouts. He has good balance at the plate and allows pitches to get deep before unleashing his hands and wrists, making consistent, hard contact. He also has above-average speed.

Nelson spent much of the summer as Casper's DH in order to preserve his arm, which, naturally, was sore at times. When he played shortstop, he showed one of the best throwing arms in the league and good range. He'll need to get to grounders a little further out in front of his body.

2. BLAKE DeWITT, 3b, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Age: 19 Ht: 5-11 Wt: 175 B-T: L-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '04 (1)

AB:299
R:61
H:85
2B:19
3B:3
HR:12
RBI:47
BB:28
SO:78
SB:1
CS:1
AVG:.284
OBP:.350
SLG:.488
Rated the best pure hitter among high school players in the 2004 draft, DeWitt lived up to that billing in his pro debut. He put together a 19-game hitting streak in his first month in the minors, and scouts and managers considered him the league's most polished hitter.

DeWitt showed exceptional bat speed and plus power. His swing allows the bat to stay in the strike zone for a long time. Once he learned to stay back on breaking balls, he began driving balls to all fields. He's a lefthanded hitter who can handle lefties with aplomb (.338 average), and he became more selective as the summer wore on.

A shortstop in high school, DeWitt will play third base professionally. He's raw defensively but showed improvement with experience. His arm strength, athleticism and work ethic should allow him to make the switch.

3. SEAN RODRIGUEZ, ss, Provo Angels
Age: 19 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Angels '03 (3)

AB:225
R:64
H:76
2B:14
3B:4
HR:10
RBI:55
BB:51
SO:62
SB:9
CS:3
AVG:.338
OBP:.486
SLG:.569
Rodriguez has solid all-around tools and an innate feel for the game, as might be expected from the son of a hitting coach in the Marlins system. He was named league MVP and was widely considered the most complete player in the PL.

Rodriguez' patience was the best in the league and uncommonly advanced for a 19-year-old. He struggled at Class A Cedar Rapids, striking out 54 times in 196 at-bats, but prospered after joining Provo in late June. He should improve his production when he learns to use the entire field more frequently.

His arm plays well at both positions on the left side of the infield and he gets to his share of balls at shortstop, though his range and speed aren't as good as fellow Angels shortstop prospects Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo and Brandon Wood. The Angels plan on working him out at catcher in instructional league, and they believe his athleticism and instincts will play well behind the plate.

4. BILLY BUTLER, 3b, Idaho Falls Chukars (Royals)
Age: 18 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 225 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Royals '04 (1)

AB:260
R:74
H:97
2B:22
3B:3
HR:10
RBI:68
BB:57
SO:63
SB:5
CS:0
AVG:.373
OBP:.486
SLG:.596
Like DeWitt, Butler lived up to his reputation. Considered the top high school power hitter in the draft, he ranked second in the PL with 35 extra-base hits.

DeWitt outhomered Butler 12-10, though Butler has more present raw power and future power. His hitting mechanics, while unorthodox, elicit consistent, hard contact and tremendous loft. He won the batting title with a .376 average.

"The bat he has coming out of high school is obviously very attractive," Idaho Falls manager Brian Rupp said. "It's a little bit different. I don't think you necessarily teach a kid to hit the way he does. He has a toe tap and a leg kick that make his timing good. He gets the bat through the zone on time the majority of the time, and that is what is kind of scary."

Butler's barrel-chested build drew concerns from some managers and he's poor defensively. He was ambitiously drafted as a third baseman but probably will have to move to first base in his near future, though the Royals maintain they'll continue his development at third base. Scouts criticized his immaturity as well.

5. RAY LIOTTA, lhp, Great Falls White Sox
Age: 21 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 220 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: White Sox '04 (2)

W:5
L:1
ERA:2.54
G:14
SV:0
IP:63.2
H:59
HR:1
BB:28
SO:65
AVG:.248
Liotta transferred from Tulane to Gulf Coast (Fla.) CC so he could enter the 2004 draft as a sophomore, a move that paid off with the White Sox drafting him in the second round. He easily won the league ERA title at 2.54, thanks to a live, low-90s fastball and an improving curveball.

Unlike most first-year players in the PL, Liotta repeats his delivery and has sound mechanics. Scouts love his strong 6-foot-3, 220-pound build. He struggled getting pitches in on righthanders early in the year, and he's still working on his rudimentary changeup.

6. SCOTT ELBERT, lhp, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Age: 19 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 190 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '04 (1)

W:2
L:3
ERA:5.26
G:12
SV:0
IP:49.2
H:47
HR:5
BB:30
SO:45
AVG:.253
As with DeWitt, the Dodgers drafted Elbert in the first round out of a Missouri high school. The first prep lefty selected this year, Elbert didn't make as smooth a transition as DeWitt. He didn't pitch as aggressively as he did as an amateur, leading to high pitch counts and too many walks.

There's still plenty to like, however, and Elbert should improve his approach following a stint in instructional league. He has good life and movement on his mid-90s fastball, decent feel for a slider he began throwing regularly for the first time this year, and an average changeup. His arm works loose and easy, and the ball explodes out of his hand.

7. CORY DUNLAP, 1b, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Age: 20 Ht: 6-1 Wt: 230 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '04 (3)

AB:245
R:57
H:86
2B:18
3B:1
HR:7
RBI:53
BB:68
SO:40
SB:0
CS:0
AVG:.351
OBP:.492
SLG:.518
The Dodgers have placed at least three players on our PL Top 10 in each of the last three years. Dunlap helped keep that streak going after signing as a third-round pick in June, a year after going undrafted as a junior college freshman. He hit .523 at Contra Costa JC in the spring to win the California community college batting title, then led the league with a .492 on-base percentage.

His best tool is his bat. He has a simple, pure stroke from the left side and has a knack for finding the gaps in the outfield. As Dunlap improved on covering the inside part of plate, he showed power potential, and he projects to hit 25-30 homers annually.

"He's a pure hitter," Carey said. "His stroke reminds you of Tony Gwynn. You have to pitch him in but he's learning how to hit that pitch where early in the season he hit everything the other way. He wears you out with balls away."

Dunlap is an adequate defender at first base. He showed improvement around the bag and displayed an average if inaccurate arm.

8. SAM DEDUNO, rhp, Casper Rockies
Age: 21 Ht: 6-1 Wt: 150 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Rockies FA '03 (Dominican Republic)

W:6
L:4
ERA:3.18
G:15
SV:0
IP:76.1
H:62
HR:3
BB:32
SO:118
AVG:.216
Deduno turned a corner in his second pro season. He developed his curveball and learned how to set hitters up, easily leading the PL in strikeouts (118 in 76 innings) and strikeout per nine innings (13.9). He also was named the league's pitcher of the year.

"He gave us fits," Rupp said. "He's not a big guy but he knows how to pitch. Nothing he does is overpowering but he mixes his pitches well and he has good offspeed stuff. He continually keeps hitters off balance."

Deduno gets ahead of hitters with his low-90s fastball and hard-biting curveball that he'll throw in any count. Not only did hitters struggle to make contact against him, they rarely hit him hard when they did put balls in play.

9. LUIS COTA, rhp, Idaho Falls Chukars (Royals)
Age: 19 Ht: 6-1 Wt: 180 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Royals D/F '03 (10)

W:2
L:1
ERA:5.81
G:13
SV:0
IP:48.0
H:61
HR:5
BB:21
SO:40
AVG:.311
The Royals drafted Cota in the 10th round in 2003, then signed him for $1.05 million (a record for his round) in May. His fastball soared up to 97 mph while he was winning Arizona juco player-of-the-year honors at South Mountain Community College.

The native Panamanian wasn't at his best in the PL after logging 93 innings during the spring. His fastball sat at 92 mph and peaked at 94. He also struggled with his control.

Cota's flaws were typical of a tired pitcher in his first pro season. He should take off after getting some rest and some more experience. His mechanics are clean, and his second-best pitch is a tight slider with good late movement.

10. SETH SMITH, of, Casper Rockies
Age: 22 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 215 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Rockies '04 (2)

AB:233
R:46
H:86
2B:21
3B:3
HR:9
RBI:61
BB:25
SO:47
SB:9
CS:1
AVG:.369
OBP:.427
SLG:.601
Smith entered 2004 as one of the top college hitting prospects for the draft before slumping. But after he served as Eli Manning's backup at quarterback for three years at Mississippi, most scouts believe Smith will reach his considerable upside now that football is out of the picture.

Blessed with excellent hand-eye coordination, Smith makes consistent, hard contact and projects to hit for power. He has a knack for driving in runs and his other tools play well. He has average speed and arm strength, profiling as a right fielder.

"He's learned a lot this summer," Carey said. "He's learned about his capabilities as a hitter and he could be an exciting offensive player."

11. JOSH WAHPEPAH, rhp, Helena Brewers
Age: 20 Ht: 6-5 Wt: 195 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Brewers '04 (3)

W:4
L:2
ERA:4.40
G:15
SV:2
IP:47.0
H:58
HR:3
BB:17
SO:35
AVG:.307
One of the top draft-and-follows this spring after the Tigers took him in the 18th round last June, Wahpepah turned down Detroit before getting redrafted in the third round by the Brewers and signing for $400,000. He was tired and had his workload monitored carefully this summer, but the life in his arm was evident.

A full-blooded Native American, Wahpepah pitches off a heavy sinker that sat between 88-92 mph in the PL and touched 95 mph during the spring. His slider has the potential to become a plus pitch, while his changeup needs refinement.

Wahpepah has a very deceptive delivery that makes it difficult for hitters to pick up his pitches. But scouts aren't crazy about his arm action, wondering if it will prevent him from improving his control and secondary offerings.

12. B.J. SZYMANSKI, of, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Age: 22 Ht: 6-5 Wt: 215 B-T: B-R Drafted/Signed: Reds '04 (2)

AB:81
R:13
H:21
2B:4
3B:2
HR:3
RBI:17
BB:9
SO:26
SB:2
CS:1
AVG:.259
OBP:.330
SLG:.469
Szymanski went two picks ahead of Smith and also has a college football background, having played wide receiver at Princeton. Considered the best athlete among college position players in the 2004 draft, Szymanski had his pro debut shortened by a nagging quadriceps strain. He missed almost three weeks and was shut down in early August, then returned to Princeton to work toward his undergraduate degree.

When healthy, Szymanski is a dynamic player with speed and power. He drives balls into both alleys and projects to hit for above-average power. He's savvy, possesses good instincts and is a solid defensive center fielder. He needs to shorten his swing a bit and close his front side on throws from the outfield.

13. BILLY BUCKNER, rhp, Idaho Falls Chukars (Royals)
Age: 21 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 215 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Royals '04 (2)

W:2
L:2
ERA:3.93
G:8
SV:0
IP:34.1
H:44
HR:4
BB:8
SO:37
AVG:.317
One of seven players from South Carolina's College World Series team to be drafted in 2004, Buckner was pitching himself into the first round before mononucleosis sidelined him for a month. He wasn't at full strength down the stretch, so the Royals were able to grab him in the second round. He made a better impression in the PL than either of Kansas City's first-round pitchers, lefties Matt Campbell and J.P. Howell.

Buckner's top pitch is his curveball, a true 12-to-6 breaker that induces strikeouts. He also has a plus fastball that sits in the low 90s, and his changeup also is above average at times. Buckner aggressively throws strikes, though he needs to improve his location after PL opponents hit .317 against him.

14. BRIAN McFALL, of, Idaho Falls Chukars (Royals)
Age: 20 Ht: 6-3 Wt: 205 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Royals '03 (3)

AB:262
R:64
H:95
2B:23
3B:1
HR:14
RBI:68
BB:30
SO:64
SB:23
CS:2
AVG:.363
OBP:.438
SLG:.618
While statistics carry much less weight than tools in evaluating Rookie-level players, McFall's performance this summer was noteworthy. After hitting .172 in the low Class A Midwest League to start the year, he was demoted to Idaho Falls and worked diligently to improve his approach at the plate. He succeeded, as he led he PL in doubles (23), RBIs (68), extra-base hits (38), slugging (.618) and stolen bases (23).

McFall has a strong upper body, and when he extends his arms he shows plus power to all fields. He hit for a high average despite striking out 64 times in 68 games, but he'll have to make better contact at higher levels.

He has slightly above-average speed, though he's not a burner. After moving from first base to the outfield this year, he has work to do to improve his defensive skills. He profiles best as a left fielder.

15. MITCHELL ARNOLD, rhp, Provo Angels
Age: 22 Ht: 6-9 Wt: 230 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Angels D/F '02 (23)

W:2
L:0
ERA:2.48
G:25
SV:13
IP:32.2
H:12
HR:1
BB:14
SO:41
AVG:.112
In his third season of pro ball, Arnold finally took steps toward realizing his potential as a late-inning reliever. PL hitters couldn't handle him, batting just .112 with one homer against him.

The 6-foot-8 Arnold throws downhill with a fastball that sits at 92-93 mph and touches 96. He complements his heater with a nasty split-finger fastball. "This guys not fun to hit off of," Provo manager Tom Kotchman said.

Arnold likes to work quickly, though at times he works too quickly and his mechanics go awry. He did a better job of not rushing his delivery this summer and started throwing more strikes after control problems had plagued him in his first two years.

16. ANDREW TOUSSAINT, 3b/dh, Provo Angels
Age: 22 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 175 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Angels '04 (13)

AB:194
R:39
H:56
2B:12
3B:2
HR:12
RBI:52
BB:34
SO:68
SB:6
CS:4
AVG:.289
OBP:.411
SLG:.557
Even without Rickie Weeks, who went second overall in the 2003 draft, Southern University continues to produce talent. Seven Jaguars were drafted in 2004, starting with Provo second baseman Josh LeBlanc in the sixth round. PL observers thought Toussaint, a 13th-round choice, had more impact potential. His best tool is his bat. He has quick hands at the plate, plus present power and average speed.

"He's long and lean, and he has outstanding wrists," Kotchman said. "Right now his power is in the middle of the field. You hear about guys who hit and balls come off the bat different, the sound is just different. This is one of those guys."

Toussaint spent his first two years in college as an outfielder before moving to third base, where he has enough arm strength and range. But he lacks soft hands and committed 13 errors in 27 games at the hot corner for Provo, so he'll probably return to the outfield in the future.

17. BLAKE JOHNSON, rhp, Ogden Raptors (Dodgers)
Age: 19 Ht: 6-5 Wt: 195 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Dodgers '04 (2)

W:3
L:3
ERA:6.47
G:13
SV:0
IP:57.0
H:73
HR:5
BB:17
SO:57
AVG:.317
Johnson was targeted as a potential first-round pick entering 2004, but minor yet nagging injuries and inconsistency as a high school senior allowed the Dodgers to grab him in the second round. His stuff was back to 100 percent this summer, as he began to learn how to use his 88-92 mph fastball to set up his plus curveball.

Johnson has good control of both pitches, as well as his changeup. He was hit hard at times in a league made up mostly of hitters who were significantly older than him, but he still averaged a strikeout per inning and never lost his poise and confidence.

"Johnson is a guy who doesn't carry himself like a high school kid," Ogden manager Travis Barbary said. "He's one of those guys that would just as soon as knock you down and tear your head off than give in out there."

18. J.P. HOWELL, lhp, Idaho Falls Chukars (Royals)
Age: 21 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Royals '04 (1S)

W:3
L:1
ERA:2.77
G:6
SV:0
IP:26.0
H:16
HR:1
BB:12
SO:38
AVG:.176
Howell isn't big and doesn't light up radar guns, but don't underestimate him. Generously listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds and possessing a fastball that sits at 85-86 mph, Howell nevertheless dominated college hitters for Texas this spring and breezed through PL lineups as well.

The savvy Howell was more advanced than most of the league's pitchers. He set up hitters masterfully and buried them with his plus curveball once he got ahead in the count, racking up strikeouts. He keep righthanders at bay with his fosh changeup and an occasional curve, and he also throws a splitter.

19. FRANKLIN MORALES, lhp, Casper Rockies
Age: 18 Ht: 6-0 Wt: 170 B-T: L-L Drafted/Signed: Rockies FA '02 (Dominican Republic)

W:6
L:4
ERA:7.62
G:15
SV:0
IP:65.0
H:92
HR:8
BB:39
SO:82
AVG:.336
Despite an underwhelming ERA (7.62) and build (6 feet, 170 pounds), Morales turned heads in the PL. He's lean and projectable, and he already pitches at 92 mph and touches 94 with his fastball.

His 12-to-6 curveball has the makings of an out pitch and he shows some aptitude for a changeup. He ranked second behind his teammate Deduno by averaging 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

As an 18-year-old in just his second pro season, Morales was still feeling for his mechanics and command. He has a tendency to try and do too much with his stuff as opposed to relying on his natural arm action.

20. CRAIG TATUM, c, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Age: 18 Ht: 6-1 Wt: 215 B-T: R-R Drafted/Signed: Reds '04 (3)

AB:149
R:19
H:33
2B:8
3B:3
HR:2
RBI:21
BB:21
SO:36
SB:2
CS:0
AVG:.221
OBP:.322
SLG:.356
The PL was thin in catching this year, with Tatum getting the nod over Great Falls' Donny Lucy as the lone backstop to crack the Top 20. Tatum stood out more defensively than offensively in his pro debut, leading the league by erasing 36 percent of basestealers.

Tatum has a plus arm that consistently delivers the ball to second base in less than two seconds. The Reds want him to improve his receiving skills somewhat, looking for him to be quieter behind the plate and set his target a little earlier. He tore the labrum in his left shoulder late in the season, requiring surgery.

He'll need to shorten his swing because he struggles to make consistent contact. When he does connect, he shows plenty of raw power.

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