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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Texas LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By John Manuel
Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your Texas League questions
The Texas League had a big talent year, right? After all, Tulsa lefthander Jeff Francis won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. An 18-year-old phenom throwing 97 mph—San Antonio righthander Felix Hernandez—blazed through the league in the second half, part of a talent infusion that included El Paso outfielders Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin and Frisco shortstop Ian Kinsler.
Nonetheless, managers were muted in their praise of TL prospects. None of the statistical leaders, including Francis, was seen as a sure-fire big league star. Arkansas prospects Casey Kotchman and Ervin Santana didn’t have enough time in the league to qualify for the list, and young players such as Travelers Alberto Callaspo and Jeff Mathis and El Paso shortstop Sergio Santos had some difficulty adjusting to the higher level of play.
“To me, it wasn’t a banner year talent-wise, especially (the lack of) power pitchers,” Frisco manager Tim Ireland said. “There were three or four big-time guys, but not the depth the league should have.”
“I wasn’t so much surprised by the stuff, though, as by the command,” Missions manager Dave Brundage said. “He threw quality strikes when he needed to. His stuff when he was down 2-0 in the count was as good as it was at 0-0.”
Hernandez has a true slider that sits in the 88-90 mph range, though the Mariners try to limit him to his mid-80s power curveball and changeup. He has minor adjustments to make, such as holding runners and fielding his position, but the main issue will be to stay healthy.
“To see an 18-year-old with that kind of stuff come in and dominate was very impressive,” El Paso manager Scott Coolbaugh said. “There was nobody else throwing like him in the league.”
McPherson had the league’s best raw power and translates it into game power. He draws strength from his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame, incorporates his lower half into his swing and gets excellent extension. He drew comparisons to Adam Dunn for his size and power.
Defensively, McPherson lacks first-step quickness and soft hands, but scouts and managers agreed he should be adequate at third base in the near term. He has a strong arm and could settle in as a corner outfielder.
That’s because Francis gets excellent extension in his delivery, using his 6-foot-5 frame to make the batter feel as if he was 50 feet away instead of 60. His impeccable command and aggressiveness—including a willingness to pound hitters in on their hands—helped it play well above its average velocity.
“He has a solid breaking ball and changeup, but they play up because he can pitch off the fastball alone, to all four quadrants,” said a scout with a National League organization. “I saw him three times, and I didn’t see anyone get a good swing against him.”
Power will determine just how good a major leaguer Choo becomes. He’s above-average in the other four tools, starting with the league’s best arm (70 on the 20-80 scale) and excellent overall defensive skills. Choo is a plus runner and effective basestealer, and at the plate he stays inside the ball, spraying line drives from gap to gap.
The NL scout compared him to Ichiro Suzuki in his speed and ability to make contact. Like Ichiro, Choo plays right field, but unless he hits for average like Ichiro he’ll have to deliver more power. “He’s more gap-to-gap right now, but I think he can hit for more power,” the scout said. “I think he has juice in his swing but prefers to use the whole field.”
Bautista still has front-of-the-rotation stuff, regularly throwing 94-95 mph with his fastball, at times with serious life down in the zone. He sometimes throws across his body and loses life on his fastball, causing it to straighten out and stay up. His curveball has its moments but ranked as his third pitch.
“I saw three major league-quality pitches, and he threw nothing straight,” Brundage said. “Everything sinks or cuts. I’m not sure he knew where it was going, though. When he figures it out, he’s going to have a nice ceiling.”
Santos overcompensated for his injury at times, trying various stances and holding his hands differently. The injury also affected his range and play at shortstop, leaving him tentative. Coolbaugh wants to see a healthy Santos play at short before writing him off there.
With size and strength, Quentin profiles as an impact bat in a corner outfield spot. He’s strong enough to hit balls out to all fields and smart enough to make consistent, hard contact. His arm came back well and is considered average or slightly above for a right fielder.
Astacio knows how to use his three pitches that are at least average: a 90-93 mph fastball with good sink, a sharp curveball that some managers called a slider, and a changeup with split-finger action. The changeup helped him hold lefthanded hitters to a .248 average and .343 slugging percentage. In contrast, righthanded hitters slugged .381 against him.
“With some added muscle, he has a chance for impact power in the future, despite his frame,” Ireland said. “He’s got some adjustments to make offensively and defensively, of course. But that’s why he was in Double-A.”
Some scouts, who said Kinsler would be adequate defensively at short in the big leagues, questioned his offensive approach. “He opens up and his bat tends to drag at times,” one said.
Callaspo ranked third in the league in hits and ninth in doubles, and his 47 walks were a career high. His best role offensively is as a table-setter at the top of the order, where his ability to make contact works against him. He needs to be more patient to drive the ball and take more walks.
Defensively, he has the tools to play short, but his size and the Angels’ depth at short make it likely he’ll move back to second base—where he’s exceptional.
Jackson also has a more pure stroke and less raw power. He makes solid hard contact to all fields, has excellent bat control and a good feel for hitting. He has excellent plate discipline for his experience level as well, so managers expect the power numbers to climb as he continues to adjust to wood bats and learn pro pitching patterns.
Jackson isn't overly athletic and is limited to left field or first base defensively. He has an average arm and shouldn't have problems becoming an adequate outfielder.
Snyder is a solid average receiver who handled pitchers with big stuff (Jesse Crain, Ryan Wagner) at the University of Houston, and he has become more consistent, making him an average catch-and-throw guy with a solid average arm. Where Snyder improved most was at the plate, where an adjustment in his hands during his swing gave him a more consistent load and helped him drive balls more consistently this season.
"He's country strong and more agile than he looks back there," Brundage said. "When he gets his arms extended, he can hit it out anywhere."
When Kotchman and later McPherson were promoted, though, Mathis was left nearly alone in the middle of a poor Arkansas lineup. As the team started to struggle, Mathis' season collapsed. He threw out just 21 percent of opposing basestealers, though managers said he got little help from his pitchers. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) was sub-.500 after June 19 ( when McPherson was called up), as opponents regularly pitched around him, and Mathis got pull-happy. He also wore down physically under the toll of the TL's heat and the burden of trying to carry a poor team.
"He wasn't getting anything to hit," Coolbaugh said, "not after those guys were promoted. He had very little in terms of a supporting cast, and I think it wore on him mentally; he tried to do too much and it all just kind of snowballed on him. I see the tools are still there. Sometimes, you have to overlook the numbers. He's a good player and will be a good big league player."
Managers also liked how Taveras, acquired in the offseason from the Indians in the Rule 5 draft (the Astros subsequently traded lefthander Jeriome Robertson to Cleveland to retain Taveras' rights when they sent him to the minors), played defensively in center field. He glided between the two gaps, covering vast tracts of ground and keeping runners honest with an average, accurate arm.
However, while Taveras hit .335, most were skeptical of his ability to hit for average at higher levels. He has little power (.386 slugging, 16 extra-base hits) and doesn't walk as much as he could to take advantage of his speed. "I usually like speed guys to run from the left side," one manager said. "Taveras is righthanded, and I could really see righthanders just pound him inside in the big leagues. He's more of a fourth outfielder for me because he doesn’t drive the ball, kind of like a Dave Roberts type."
Botts has good athleticism and runs well (4.15 seconds to first base) for any player, not to mention one freakishly large and muscular at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. He's also a switch-hitter with power from both sides, though most said he has more pop from the left side. He was significantly better from the right, hitting .369 (and slugging .581) from that side as opposed to .255 and .470 from the left. However, while he has made refinements, Botts remains fairly mechanical in all phases, whether it's defensively around the bag at first, or at the plate, where he can still overswing and be too passive.
"I see him get tied up by good fastballs, and he tends to feel for pitches," the NL scout said. "I thought he had trouble recognizing the breaking ball from the left side, and at times I questioned the bat speed. But he's so big and strong, it's hard to walk away from a guy like that."
In 2004, Teahen, a supplemental first-round pick, was the clear choice of the "Moneyball" group among TL managers and scouts, and only Baker was given any support for the Top 20 among the rest of the group. Teahen, traded at midseason to the Royals in a three-team deal, impressed managers with a line-drive stroke to all fields and solid defensive skills at third. The biggest question with Teahen will be his power. In "Moneyball," the organization compared his power potential to Jason Giambi, who had a similar body coming out of Long Beach State in the early 1990s. Few in the TL saw that happening.
"He was probably the best third baseman in the league," Ireland said. "He's athletic, strong and has good size. He's got the whole package as a guy who can hit and plays good defense at third, but he's a line-drive guy. He will hit some home runs, but he's more gap-to-gap for me."
Not so fast, managers say. Shealy lacks Botts' athleticism or speed, and even one of his biggest defenders among TL managers compared him to Mariners DH Bucky Jacobsen, though he meant it as a compliment. Others said he had holes in his swing and was more of a hitter who punished pitchers' mistakes, rather than one who could hit good pitching.
"I thought he was a good hitter who really made adjustments," Coolbaugh said. "Pitchers would go away, away, away, but he would adjust when they came in. I think he'll always be overlooked just for the way he looks. I think he needs the right situation, and with Colorado having Todd Helton, that probably isn't it."
Houlton does it with a varied, deep repertoire. He throws his fastball in the 87-92 mph range, averaging right around 90 with it and throwing it for strikes to all parts of the strike zone. Houlton also throws a solid average changeup and curveball, and managers were split as to whether the curve or the change was his best pitch. He also toys with a splitter and slider.
"He's got a great feel for the ball," said a scout with an American League club. "He throws three pitches that are average, but he moves them all around the strike zone. I like his chances."
In 12 starts, Hudgins carved up TL hitters with excellent command of an 88-90 mph fastball he wasn't afraid to use on the inner half, and a solid average changeup and slider. He put hitters away with a plus curveball, his best pitch, and had a good feel for when to pitch backwards (using his curve in fastball counts) and when not to do so.
"I didn't see a weakness, except he wasn't overpowering," Brundage said. "He had a real nice feel for what he was doing, and he could really go backdoor with the breaking ball."
A 15th-round pick out of West Virginia, Nippert was harnessing the power of his 6-foot-7, 200-pound frame. He still needs to come up with something offspeed when he returns from his injury to keep lefthanded hitters, who hit .306 against him, in check. But he overwhelms righthanded hitters with an 88-94 mph fastball and a sharp downer curveball. At times he has trouble staying on top of the ball, but when he does, it's hard for hitters to get any lift against him--Nippert allowed no home runs in his 72 innings.
"I almost expected more out of his arm," the NL scout said, noticing Nippert hadn't pitched since June. "Maybe that explains it."