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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Pioneer LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Alan Matthews
Chat Wrap: Alan Matthews took your Pioneer League questions
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.
Nelson's short, quick righthanded swing has been likened to Gary Sheffield's—the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 guy’s 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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.