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2005 Top 20 Prospects: Southern LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Aaron Fitt
Chat Wrap: Aaron Fitt took your Southern League questions
Delmon Young, the top prospect in the minors, won the SL MVP award despite a mid-July promotion to Triple-A. Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Bobby Jenks and Scott Olsen all became impact players for major league contenders after their stints in the league. Young, Francoeur, Chris Young, Felix Pie and Elijah Dukes are all five-tool talents.
There were so many good hitters that Chad Billingsley, who might be the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues now that Felix Hernandez has been promoted to the majors, checked in as the SL's No. 5 prospect. Billingsley led an incredible collection of talent at Jacksonville, which placed five players on the Top 20. West Tenn also had five players on the list, including a trio of intriguing pitching prospects.
"Just about every team--especially in the first half of season, before players move up--had good players," Huntsville manager Don Money said. "Many of these guys will be in the big leagues for a long time."
"He's the total package, everything he was billed to be going in," Mississippi manager Brian Snitker said. "You hear a lot about him and he didn't disappoint."
Young impressed not only with his superb natural talents but with his ability to use them. He showed a good idea of the strike zone and continued to flash enormous opposite-field power, leading the SL in slugging. He also hit the ball hard up the middle and stayed back on hanging breaking balls, whipping them into the left-center-field gap.
Most managers thought Young could have held his own in the majors if the Devil Rays had called him up midway through the summer, though he still needs to improve his routes in the outfield. His defense will continue to get better with experience, but Young is already on the verge of superstardom.
The most disciplined hitter in the league—he led the league in walks and on-base percentage—Hermida drew so many free passes that he registered just 386 at-bats, which curtailed his power numbers. After hitting eight home runs in April, he hit just 10 more the rest of the way. But with his silky-smooth lefthanded swing and his raw power, he'll be a middle-of-the-order threat in the majors.
"He's got 18 home runs, and if he's got a cheap one, it's just one," Carolina manager Gary Allenson said. "He hit a ball off the scoreboard in Montgomery in left-center field that was still going up when it hit the scoreboard. I'd actually like to see him be a bit more aggressive at the plate, but part of that is the pitchers pitching around him too."
Hermida jammed his left wrist sliding and tailed off in August, but he recovered in time to contribute to the Marlins' playoff chase. He became just the second big leaguer to hit a grand slam in his first at-bat and should become a full-time regular in spring training. He's a solid defender with an above-average arm in right field.
Before he was became the darling of the majors, Francoeur impressed SL managers with his outstanding all-around tools—while, curiously, putting up numbers that didn't approach what he did in Atlanta.
He can flat-out hit and he also can change a game with his other tools, including a very strong arm and plus speed. His game has been likened to Vladimir Guerrero's, and Francoeur did nothing in his big league debut to diminish those comparisons. A renowned free swinger who unabashedly admits he never looks to walk, he'll probably have to make adjustments once big league pitchers get used to him.
"He could throw, he plays the game hard, has a big body, but the thing you question all the time was he wouldn't walk, and he hasn't done that in the big leagues," West Tenn manager Bobby Dickerson said. "But I like to see a young hitter swing at the ball, when he would go out of the zone. If the ball bounced, his bat bounced. And when he gets a strike, he hammers it."
A terrific center fielder whom managers rated as the league's best outfield defender, Young invites Mike Cameron comparisons. Just as impressive as his athleticism is his outstanding work ethic. He showed a lot of maturity for a 21-year-old who skipped a level. He still strikes out too much, but has learned to stay back on breaking balls and use the opposite field.
"He's doing a great job learning the zone," Barons manager Razor Shines said. "Early he made some mistakes at the plate, but this guy is getting it quick. Just from spring training till now, it's amazing the adjustments he's made."
Outside of getting shelled in three starts against Montgomery in May and June, Billingsley easily handled Double-A hitters at age 21. He finished strong, ending the season with six straight quality starts in which he allowed five runs in 40 innings.
Billingsley has a power arm and works off his live 92-94 mph fastball. He also features a plus curveball and a plus slider, and he occasionally uses a developing changeup. Sometimes Billingsley gets into trouble by thinking too much about the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents instead of just pitching his game, but his preparation and makeup is outstanding.
"What's not to like? This guy has everything," Shines said. "There are times when his command is a little off, but his arm strength, demeanor on the mound, presence--everything is good. He has a chance to be a dominant starter in the big leagues."
Managers had more to say about Guzman than any other player in the Southern League. One of the minors' most recognizable players because of his huge frame and the $2.25 million signing bonus he received at age 16, he has undeniable talent but draws criticism for his perceived nonchalance on the field. Some managers called him bored and lackadaisical, while others thought the game just comes easily to him.
"He's not a real talker in the infield. He's just a guy who goes out and tries to play his position," Jacksonville manager John Shoemaker said. "He's got arm strength for a shortstop, but his actions for a shortstop are long. Guzman has a lot of pride. There have been times this year he has struggled, but he has countered that."
Guzman put up solid all-around numbers, and he figures to hit more home runs as he shortens his swing and makes better use of his enormous raw power. He lacks range and is simply too big to stay at shortstop, but he has more than enough bat to be a star as a corner infielder or outfielder.
Tied for the minor league home run lead when he was promoted from high Class A in mid-June, LaRoche saw his power production drop off in the SL but he still more than held his own. The brother of Braves first baseman Adam and the son of former major league all-star Dave, Andy has the highest ceiling of the three LaRoches.
He owns the strongest arm in the Dodgers organization and has very good actions at third base. LaRoche has serious pop in his bat, and while most of his power is to left field, he has learned to go the other away. He's so aggressive that he might not hit for a high average in the majors, but he could deliver 40 home runs a year.
"When he comes to the plate, you can just tell that he is ready to have a good at-bat," Shoemaker said. "He is a determined ballplayer, and he acts like a professional on and off the field. When I say he can hit a fastball, some players aren't that gifted that they can hit a good fastball, but LaRoche can."
Pie still is raw. He's still figuring out how to use his speed on the basepaths and in the outfield, where his routes are sometimes suspect. He needs the most work on improving his strike-zone knowledge, though like Francoeur he still gets the bat head on the ball when he chases pitches out of the zone.
"He just creates excitement with his play--period," Dickerson said. "He's also got some pop in his bat. I see him as a guy who could potentially hit in the middle of a lineup and drive in runs, be a real exciting Carlos Beltran-type player."
McCann played well enough in his first two months in Double-A to merit an early-June promotion to the majors, where he filled in admirably for the injured Johnny Estrada. McCann's smooth lefthanded swing, advanced approach and plus power potential make him a safe bet to be a productive big league hitter for years to come, and he garners just as much acclaim for his defense.
"I think he's a perennial all-star once he gets going," Snitker said. "I had never seen him play, but he was better than I was led to believe. I really liked him behind the plate, his hitting instincts, confidence, arm strength, game awareness. He's got a good feel for calling the game, he blocks balls, he does it all."
With McCann in Atlanta, Martin might be the best catcher left in the minors. Converted from third base in 2003, he has the complete package, right down to his ability to steal an occasional base. His strike-zone judgment is exquisite, and he hits for average to all fields with power to the gaps, particularly to right-center.
An intense player with strong leadership skills, Martin calls a good game behind the plate, handles pitchers very well and always backs up bases, even late in the game. His catch-and-throw skills are outstanding. He still can get better at blocking balls, but he has made a lot of progress with the help of Suns hitting coach Steve Yeager, who caught in the majors for 15 years.
Before elbow inflammation caused the Marlins to shut him down in late July, Olsen had made his major league debut and looked promising in five appearances filling in for the injured Josh Beckett. Olsen was somewhat inconsistent in the SL, but his power arm and aggressive approach were evident.
Olsen's best pitch is a 92-94 mph fastball that tops out at 96 with late life. His slider has good depth, though he needs to throw his changeup more if he plans on a career as a big leaguer. Getting stronger also would help.
"The way he attacked the zone, he stuck it to us," Dickerson said. "He's a live-armed lefty, he works both side of the plate and throws all his pitches for strikes. He's always working ahead, not afraid to attack hitters.
It looks increasingly likely that Murton and not Nomar Garciaparra will be the true catch for the Cubs from their 2004 four-team trade deadline deal. Murton tore up the SL and had 15 hits in his first 34 at-bats after his July callup to Chicago.
A solid hitter with very few holes in his swing, Murton is a tough out at the plate with 20-homer potential once he taps into his solid-average raw power. He knows his strike zone very well and does a great job of consistently putting the ball in play with authority to all fields.
Murton is also a solid defender with sneaky speed and a blue-collar mindset. He's a safe bet to become an everyday left fielder with a chance to hit in the middle of a major league lineup. His arm is his lone below-average tool.
"He's one of those guys you can put in the third spot as he matures and grows older," Tennessee manager Tony Perezchica said. "He's an average to above-average outfielder, a great prospect. If he could have stayed here all year, he would have been a possible MVP candidate."
The Angels designated Jenks for assignment after the 2004 season, in which he worked just 18 innings because of a stress reaction in his elbow and repeated off-the-field transgressions. The White Sox claimed him off waivers, and after he returned to health and cleaned up his act, he was closing games in the majors by September.
Jenks long had been a recognizable prospect because of his ability to reach triple digits with his fastball. He complements his explosive fastball with a knee-buckling hammer curveball, and he's dabbling with a slider.
"I think he's got the mentality to be an outstanding closer," Shines said. "Obviously he has the arm strength and enough weapons in his repertoire to do that. When you throw the ball 100 miles an hour and then command a wicked breaking ball, I don't think you need much more."
Broxton began the year in Jacksonville's rotation, where his plus fastball sat in the 92-94 mph range, but the Dodgers moved him to the bullpen after 13 starts to accelerate his path to the majors. He took well to the switch, and his velocity increased to 96-98 mph during his shorter relief stints. He even touched 100 a couple of times.
He also has worked hard to refine his two-seamer, using the extra movement on that pitch to battle lefthanders. His slider is an effective complement to his heat.
Hill has always possessed electric stuff, but his bugaboo was command. Entering this season, he averaged 12.1 strikeouts and 6.3 walks per nine innings. But he finally harnessed his stuff this year, and it took him to the big leagues.
His 10 Double-A starts included a pair of 14-strikeout, one-walk performances; a 13-strikeout, one-walk outing; and a 12-strikeout, two-walk game. His outstanding 12-6 curveball continued to befuddle hitters, and his 88-92 mph fastball exploded with late life at the plate.
Hill continued to throw strikes in Triple-A but battled his control in the majors. Even if he can't consistently throw strikes, his curve alone should allow him to be an effective lefthanded reliever. The best-case scenario is that he becomes a No. 3 starter.
Nippert returned strong from an operation to remove a benign tumor in 2003 and Tommy John surgery last year. He led the league in ERA and made his big league debut in September.
He still has the same good stuff he showed before: a 92-95 mph fastball that reaches 97, and a changeup with excellent sink and fade. Nippert also has a decent curveball, but it's inconsistent. He intimidates hitters with his 6-foot-7 frame.
"The first time we saw Nippert, he was probably the best righthanded pitcher we had seen against us all year as far as velocity for a long period of time," Shoemaker said. "He just kept pounding his fastball, and being a big guy, it came in at a downhill plane. This guy is a power pitcher, a big guy with a good future."
Nolasco has flown under the radar in the Cubs system, getting lost in the shuffle behind other more heavily touted pitching prospects. He's starting to get recognition after making a run at the pitching triple crown in his second year in the SL, topping the league in strikeouts, tying for the lead in wins and finishing third in ERA, on his way to SL pitcher of the year honors.
Though he repeated Double-A, Nolasco is still just 22. He has an aggressive style and a quality repertoire with three solid-average pitches he throws for strikes: a 91-93 mph fastball, a curveball with good depth and a changeup. He also shows an ability to reach back and make big pitches late in games.
"His command is phenomenal," Shines said. "This is the guy that just doesn't walk you. I think if he walked you, he tried to walk you. I think he throws the ball exactly where he wants to throw it. You've got to do things right when he's pitching, because he's not going to put guys on base."
After leading the SL in ERA and strikeouts last year, Pinto began 2005 in Triple-A and got hit hard before being sent back to West Tenn. He quickly returned to his 2004 form, though he still struggled to find the strike zone from time to time.
That has always been the knock on Pinto, who has very good stuff but doesn't know how to command it. He possesses three plus pitches: a 91-94 mph fastball, a mid-80s slider and a deceptive changeup with good sink and fade.
"He has as good an arm as there is in the league," Snitker said. "Pinto's stuff is as good as any of them, but he's just erratic."
All James did at three different levels this year was pile up wins and strikeouts, going 13-7 while finishing third in the minors in ERA (2.12) and fourth in whiffs (193 in 161 innings). He's not overpowering with an 89-91 mph fastball, but he's deceptive and hides the ball a long time, making it seem like he throws harder than he does.
"It doesn't seem like he throws hard, but a lot of the swings we took at him were not very good," Perezchica said. "He has a good breaking ball, and our swings on his fastball were off balance."
James' command is exceptional and allows him to throw inside against righthanders without fear. He throws a lot of strikes with his plus changeup and his slider has shown flashes of brilliance, though it remains an inconsistent third pitch. He does a good job mixing speeds and working both sides of the plate with all his offerings.
"He's got a chance to be a pretty good player," a National League scout said. "He runs well, has a good arm, he's got power. I know his makeup is a very big question mark and I don't know if I would trade for him, but he's got the ability."
Though Dukes seems to have a problem with authority and isn't regarded as a good teammate, he does play the game hard. He can hit for power and average, he can steal bases and he can play all three outfield positions. He chased a lot of breaking balls out of the zone early in the year but made adjustments as the season progressed.