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2004 Top 20 Prospects: South Atlantic LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By John Manuel
Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your Sally League questions
With a 16-team league, narrowing down a prospect list to 20 can be a challenge. With a 16-team league as stacked as the low Class A South Atlantic League was in 2004, it's nearly impossible.
Managers and scouts agreed the talent in the Sally League was as good as it had been in a long time, possibly since the 1995 crop that included Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero. That year, Jones and Guerrero stood atop a pack of impact bats that also included future big leaguers such as Todd Helton and Carlos Lee.
This year's SAL looks similar, with star power at the top in Delmon Young, Ian Stewart and Lastings Milledge, as well as plenty of depth with speedy outfielders and other potential power hitters.
"The league was just outstanding," Augusta manager Chad Epperson said. "It wasn't just that you had star players like Delmon Young, Ian Stewart, Lastings Milledge, Brandon Moss, Josh Anderson. They all had help. They had good teammates. That's a big reason you had these young players with talent putting up all these numbers."
He doesn't have overwhelming bat speed, but he generates huge power with brute strength and a swing path that keeps the bat head in the zone a long time. His opposite-field pop helped him handle opponents who tried to pound him inside with fastballs. He led the SAL with 116 RBIs, 103 coming in the final four months.
"He was so impressive," Kannapolis manager Chris Cron said. "He ran hard to first. He swung at breaking balls that were in the strike zone, which not many kids in this league do. He wasn't trying to pull the ball. He just had a real professional approach."
Young's routes on fly balls could use some improvement, and he started to make some. His plus-plus arm is a dynamic weapon in right field.
"He changes the outcome of every game with his power and his arm," Charleston Alley Cats manager Ken Joyce said. "He's a very special player."
Stewart hit 30 homers and 31 doubles, and he didn't owe his league-leading .594 slugging percentage to Asheville's cozy McCormick Field, posting near-identical numbers at home and on the road.
"I liked his swing, liked his arm and liked his glove," Hickory manager Dave Clark said. "That's a pretty good start. You have a lefthanded-hitting third baseman with power, that's pretty huge."
Stewart's short, powerful swing makes his bat his best tool, but he's more than adequate defensively. Managers liked his steadiness with the glove as well as his quickness and agility.
He made an impact during his time with the Bombers, though, hitting with authority for the first time with a wood bat and helping lead Capital City to the league championship series. He struggled in the playoffs because of the only flaw in his game: his overaggressiveness at the plate. While Young and Stewart project as slightly better hitters, Milledge was the league's best five-tool player. He showed above-average tools across the board.
"The ball just jumps off his bat," Greensboro manager Steve Phillips said. "He had the best bat speed in the league. He's a double threat because of his power and his ability to lead off and make things happen on the bases."
"He was the elite arm in this league," Lakewood manager P.J. Forbes said. "We hammered him in one game when he didn't locate his stuff, but the next time we saw him he was dirty. His fastball and slider were more than plus."
His 89-92 mph fastball seemed to explode on hitters with late life, and he used it aggressively. Petit's delivery, featuring a lower arm slot and good extension, gives him plenty of deception. Hitters rarely got good swings against him.
"I thought he was the best pitcher in the league," Epperson said. "He was 91-92 late in the game, it had late movement and he threw it downhill. His slider was outstanding and he had phenomenal command. For me, it wasn't even close. The numbers don't lie with him."
While his stocky body gives some scouts pause, his stuff doesn't. Tiffany shut down hitters with a nasty curveball, plus changeup and a live 86-90 mph fastball that peaked at 92. At his best, he authored three starts of five or more hitless innings, including seven perfect frames on May 20 at Greensboro. He reached double figures in his final four outings, whiffing a total of 46 hitters in 21 innings.
"He's got a loose arm, though at times his elbow gets low and he leaves stuff up, which is why he gives up some homers," said an American League scout, noting his 11 homers in 100 innings. "He showed a feel for changing speeds, though. His curve has some tilt and occasionally good rotation and depth, and his change had real good arm-side run and fade."
Physical and strong, Saltalamacchia shows power from both sides of the plate and the tools to handle the demands of catching. He has a loose, natural swing from the left side with loft power potential and needs to work on his righthanded stroke. Savannah manager Bob Henley liked his work behind the plate.
"He's got a good presence back there," said Henley, a former big league catcher. "He can catch and throw, has a strong body and showed a real strong arm."
"He was one of the elite guys for me because he could command the fastball, his curveball and his changeup," Joyce said. "His change was his third pitch, but it was effective because he knew how to use it. He knew how to use all his stuff, which was impressive."
The son of former all-star Dave LaRoche and brother of Braves rookie Adam LaRoche, Andy has above-average bat speed and excellent hand strength, letting him wait on breaking balls before punishing them. He has enough power for the hot corner, and his soft hands, athleticism and average arm help him profile for the position defensively.
"He didn't look like he was new to the position," Charleston RiverDogs manager Steve Livesey said. "He made every play and showed the kind of reaction times you need at third base. I thought he stood out defensively."
Everts thrived despite his diminished fastball because he has excellent feel for his secondary pitches. Both his curveball and changeup graded as plus offerings, though his curve lacked the power it had shown in the past. Just 20, he has enough time to make a full recovery and become an elite prospect if his surgery and rehabilitation are successful.
"When he got here, he was third polish-wise among our outfielders," said Forbes, citing Jake Blalock and since-traded Javon Moran. "Now far and away he has taken over as the most polished. He made immense strides. To me, he's the ideal leadoff man."
Bourn is an 80 runner on the 20-80 scale, getting from the left side of the plate to first base in 3.85 seconds. He has solid average arm strength but still has to improve his reads and routes in center field. Bourn's pop proved surprising, as he slugged .466 and led the league with 14 triples.
"He's the fastest player in the league," Phillips said. "I liked him better than Anderson because he has better bat speed and more juice in his bat."
Epperson credited the Braves with helping Stevens make tremendous progress with his curveball. Managers liked its power and tilt, and it needs only more consistency to be a plus major league curve. Stevens also has a solid-average fastball in the 89-90 mph range with good life, and one area scout rated his command and changeup as above average. The total package helped him rank fifth in the league in strikeouts.
"He's a totally different pitcher from high school," said Epperson, who lives near Stevens in the Fort Myers, Fla., area and saw him as a prepster. "He's learned the curveball, and his body has gone in the right direction. I thought he had a soft body, but now he's in good shape and has good stamina. He's got the fastball and changeup, but that curveball is so good, that's the pitch you've got to watch for if you're the hitter."
Gorzelanny also throws a power slurve that needs to be tightened up to a slider, and a changeup with split-finger action. Managers liked his toughness and competitiveness as well as his command.
"He topped out at 94 for me, but it was lively," an AL area scout said. "The breaking ball was a power slurve that is a future plus pitch with refinement. He showed solid feel and command for the change and had a very solid mound presence."
Anderson's stock as a tablesetter would be higher if he had better command of the strike zone, which he didn't demonstrate after his promotion. His best tools are his bat and his plus-plus speed, and one manager described him as an effortless basestealer. He's a good center fielder, though he can get reckless at times.
"He knows how to play offense," Joyce said. "He's got a short, compact swing that makes contact, he has savvy and speed and an idea of how to read pitchers. He'll get better as he learns the strike zone more."
Young still is growing into his 6-foot-2 frame, and his power is becoming his best tool. When he does make contact, it's loud, as he ranked third in the league with 60 extra-base hits. Cron compared Young to former White Sox farmhand Mike Cameron for his power-speed combination and his struggles to make contact.
"He's got plus tools across the board except for arm strength, though his arm has gotten a bit better," Cron said. "He's not afraid to go deep in counts, and that leads to a lot of strikeouts too. But he plays a great center field, he's a plus runner and he has plus power. That's three major league tools, and if he's an average hitter, you've got yourself a pretty good big league center fielder."
If Schierholtz gets to the majors, it will be because of his bat. He has good bat speed, extension in his swing and excellent raw power. Another scout with an AL club projects him to hit 30-plus homers in the big leagues. His raw power will translate more to games as he learns the strike zone and gains more experience against quality pitching.
"He didn't have a quick first step and his range was below average, but his arm was accurate and he had pretty good instincts over there," Joyce said. "He had serious lefthanded power though. He had a really nice swing and wasn't afraid to go the other way. He was more gap-to-gap now, but his power will get better."
Mathieson struck out 11 in eight three-hit innings in his final start, hitting 94 mph 16 times, including with his final last pitch. Mathieson has an excellent pitcher's frame at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, plus a relatively stress-free delivery. Lakewood pitching coach Tom Filer helped Mathieson's curveball and changeup improve from 30s to 40s on the 20-80 scouting scale, and they still can get better.
"His work ethic was the best on our team, and he's made amazing strides with his secondary pitches," Forbes said. "From where he started to where he finished is phenomenal. When he's right, he's got a good downward angle on his fastball and gets lots of swings and misses with it."
Albers ranked fifth in the league in strikeouts despite the missed time. Stocky and strong, he got those whiffs primarily off his fastball. It reached 93-94 mph consistently and he held that velocity deep into outings.
"His fastball had average life, but he had pretty good command of it," Clark said. "I thought his curve at times was a good pitch, and he'd throw it in fastball counts. He was also very effective against lefthanders, even though I thought his change was below average. Down the line, it could be a good pitch for him."
Managers agreed Hu had the best combination of true shortstop actions, arm strength and enough bat to make it to the big leagues as a shortstop. Signed out of Taiwan and in his first full season, he was above average in four tools and drew comparisons to Rafael Furcal, though he can't match Furcal's top-of-the-line arm strength.
One scout said he was tempted to grade Hu's power as average despite his size. Hu has excellent bat speed, centers the ball well and has a repeatable, easy swing.
"He's got surprising pop in his bat for his size and hits to all fields," Forbes said. "He's a pretty solid all-around player, and he really had a breakout year for them."
Moss' arm is a tick above average and plays up because it's accurate. His intensity, physical ability and line-drive swing drew comparisons to Angels outfielder/first baseman Darin Erstad. However, like Erstad, some managers thought Moss could be overrated, and didn't see him as a top prospect in terms of tools.
"We've had a lot of discussions about him, and while I think he's a good player, I don't think there's enough power," one manager said. "He's just an ordinary guy for me."