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2005 Top 20 Prospects: Texas LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Will Lingo
Chat Wrap: Will Lingo took your Texas League questions
With the exception of three promising Rangers pitchers in Frisco, Angels and Athletics prospects dominated the league this year. Arkansas placed five players and Midland four on our TL Top 20 Prospects List.
The Travelers featured a wealth of talent, starting with the two best prospects in the league, double-play partners Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. Righthanders Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver would have given Arkansas seven representatives on the Top 20, but they didn't pile up enough innings to quality. Wichita slugger Billy Butler also made a strong impression but didn't qualify.
Overall, the TL wasn't as strong as usual. Kendrick was the clear standout, but most of the players who follow him are solid prospects who come with question marks.
He hits every ball off the sweet spot, and his hand-eye coordination allows him to let pitches get deeper and makes him less likely to get fooled. Arkansas manager Tom Gamboa compared him to Tony Gwynn and Mark Grace because of his smooth swing and balance at the plate. Kendrick went 2-for-5 in his first TL game and never slowed down.
"He hit four line drives--just bullets--and I thought, 'So much for the adjustment to Double-A for this guy," Gamboa said.
Kendrick also made significant defensive improvements this year and now projects as an average glove man at second base. He should hit No. 2 or even No. 3 in a big league batting order, depending on how much power he develops.
Aybar provided a spark at the top of a stacked Arkansas lineup, solidifying his reputation as one of the most exciting prospects in the minors. One scout called him a "make-things-happen guy." He batted leadoff more often once Kendrick joined the Travelers in mid-July, and showed a lot of progress by batting .365 in the No. 1 slot.
"He's one of the most exciting players I've had to manage against, offensively and defensively," Tulsa manager Tom Runnells said. "He loves to play and is just fun to watch."
Aybar is a plus runner with a good arm and good range at shortstop, and he has great instincts for the game. He plays the little man's game, bunting and stealing bases. He led the Texas League in hits, but he still needs to get a better feel for the strike zone and rein in his aggressiveness. He stole 49 bases but was caught 23 times.
Traded to the Athletics in the Mark Mulder deal last winter, Barton made it to Double-A before his 20th birthday. While he didn't adjust to the TL as smoothly as Kendrick did, Barton continued to show an advanced, patient approach at the plate. He stays inside the ball and already uses the whole field well with a smooth, natural stroke, so he'll hit for average at any level.
The questions about him concern how much power he'll develop and where he'll play in the field. Some managers think he'll get stronger and add to his current line-drive power, while others think he'll hit just 15-20 homers a year, less than ideal for a first baseman. He has worked out in the outfield and may get more time there, but he's a below-average runner and has no obvious defensive home.
"I heard a lot about him, but I don't see the tools of a first baseman," one scout said. "I saw Dan Johnson in winter ball last year and loved him. I don't see the same things in Barton."
None of Frisco's three premium mound prospects—Diamond, Edison Volquez and John Danks—put up good numbers while pitching for the league's worst team, but each had fans among scouts and managers. Diamond's stuff earned the most praise, though he struggled with his command. He had to leave the team at the end of the season to check on his family in New Orleans, but he came back to make his final start.
Big and athletic, Diamond has a 92-95 mph fastball and a good changeup. He uses both a slider and big curveball, with the curve showing more potential when it's on.
Diamond's struggles against Double-A hitters resulted from command problems that came when he lost his mechanics. He would have strong stretches, but when hitters waited him out and got ahead in the count, he gave up walks and runs.
Volquez is more than two years younger than Cabrera and behind him in the development cycle—not to mention six inches shorter—but he has more aptitude for pitching. His mid-90s fastball is exceptional, and his breaking ball and changeup also can be dominant pitches when he commands them. He's aggressive and comes right after hitters.
In addition to locating his pitches better, Volquez needs to smooth some of the rough edges that allowed major leaguers to tee off on him to the tune of an 11.91 ERA. For example, in one of his starts he tipped his changeup by opening his glove.
The Athletics may have ended up with two of the better hitters from the 2003 draft in Barton, a first-rounder acquired from the Cardinals, and Ethier, a second-rounder. Ethier broke out in 2005, winning the league's player-of-the-year award while finishing first in runs and third in batting.
Observers praised his quiet approach at the plate, where he's short to the ball and hits to all fields, earning comparisons to Shawn Green and Garret Anderson. "He never gets fooled, is never out in front, never gets jammed," one scout said.
Scouts expect the muscular Ethier to be good for at least 15-20 home runs a year, and possibly 20-30. He's an above-average defensive outfielder and gets good reads on balls. He has enough arm for right field, but managers were divided over left or right as his best long-term position.
"If he stays with the line-drive approach, he will be a great big leaguer," Midland manager Von Hayes said. "He gets into trouble when he starts trying to hit home runs."
Morales was one of the better-known names in the league because he signed a major league contract with a $3 million bonus last winter after defecting from Cuba. Because of visa complications he didn't get to begin his season until late May, playing 22 games in high Class A before coming to Arkansas in mid-June.
Morales made a bad first impression, with his average sitting at .240 in mid-August, and those who saw him early called him a huge disappointment. "If you make pitches," Runnels said, "you can get him out." But he was on fire by the end of the year, showing the nice swing and plus power from both sides of the plate that prompted the Angels to sign him.
After getting some time at third base and right field in Class A, Morales stayed at first base with the Travelers. An average defender there, he has a strong arm and improved his range, but he's a below-average runner.
Managers had a hard time finding enough superlatives for Betancourt's defense, saying his arm, hands and range had no equal in the minors. Gamboa said it was his footwork that was most impressive, though, and that he never saw Betancourt bobble a ball, whether in a game or when taking infield. "Every time we hit a ground ball--whether it was to first, second, third or short--it seemed like he was catching it," Runnells joked.
Betancourt's defense made him a big leaguer, and his bat will determine just how valuable he is. Comparisons include Rey Ordonez and Omar Vizquel, but Betancourt could be better than that. He handles the bat well and has occasional power.
Unrecruited by any NCAA Division I baseball program, Hirsh went to California Lutheran, a D-III school, and tied a school record with 26 career wins. The Astros made him a second-round pick in 2003 and he had his breakout season in 2005, wining TL pitcher-of-the-year honors after leading the league in strikeouts and finishing second in wins and ERA.
Though Hirsh is 6-foot-8, he's athletic enough to repeat his mechanics and establish a consistent release point. He pitched from 89-94 mph, with a good curveball and good feel for a changeup. More significant, he competes hard, shows poise on the mound and works both sides of the plate.
There were no obvious weaknesses in Hirsh's package that innings shouldn't cure. He pounded the strike zone and showed command of all three of his pitches. He has fine body control, getting a great downward plane as well as deception from his long body.
Traded to Kansas City in the three-team Kris Benson deal at the 2004 trade deadline, Huber tore knee cartilage in his last game in the Mets system. He didn't make his debut in the Royals organization until this year, when he played at first base and DH to keep his bat moving through the system. That strategy worked, as he led the league in on-base percentage and slugging, won the MVP award at the Futures Game and got his first taste of the majors.
Huber uses the whole field and stays inside the ball, usually hitting it where it's pitched. At the same time, he has the ability to drive the ball when pitchers give him the opportunity. He'll be even more intriguing if he can return to catching, though he received mixed reviews there in the past.
Danks got knocked around in his first exposure to Double-A hitters, but his composure and maturity on the mound still were impressive, particularly for a 20-year-old.
He has plenty of fastball, especially for a lefthander, touching 94 mph with Frisco. But it's his curveball that sets him apart as a prospect. It's an out pitch and already allows him to dominate lefthanders, who hit just .222 against him in the TL (compared to .322 for righthanders).
The main thing Danks had to learn after moving up was how to work more experienced hitters. In high school and at lower levels, he overwhelmed them with his stuff, but Frisco manager Darryl Kennedy said Danks discovered he couldn't do that in Double-A. He started to figure out how to set up hitters.
Arias was the "other" player in the Alex Rodriguez-Alfonso Soriano trade in February trade. Those who saw him in the TL said the Rangers made the right call when they chose among the prospects the Yankees offered in the deal.
Arias has the range, arm and athleticism to be a standout shortstop, and probably had the best pure tools of any shortstop in the league. He makes "ESPN plays," as one manager said, but his 29 errors show he still can improve his execution on routine plays.
How much he does with the bat will determine Arias' ultimate value. He started slowly this season, with his average sitting at .233 at the end of May, but he hit better than .300 every month the rest of the way to finish fifth in the TL batting race. He has gotten stronger and should show some pop down the road.
Most significant, he showed the ability to make adjustments at the plate. Pitchers were beating him inside with fastballs early in the season, and he was able to recognize the problem and correct it.
Though the Astros signed him in 1999, Nieve had just three Double-A starts coming into the season. He needed only 14 more before earning a promotion to Triple-A, and he could compete for a big league job next spring.
Nieve dominated hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a good slider. His changeup has improved but isn't on par with his other pitches. Though he has pitched well as a starter, a relief role is a possibility if he can't refine and offspeed pitch, and Kennedy compared Nieve's build and stuff to fellow Venezuelan Ugueth Urbina.
"I could have seen him in the big leagues this year as a middle guy, throwing 98 for six outs," Gamboa said. "He has such pure arm action."
Jones looked like the Mariners' shortstop of the future until the club signed Yuniesky Betancourt in the offseason. Now it looks like Jones will have find another position, and he was scheduled to play some center field in the Arizona Fall League.
Jones replaced Betancourt after Betancourt's promotion to Triple-A, and the Missions didn't miss a beat. Jones has the talent to remain at shortstop. He shows good range and stays under control, and he has a well-above-average arm.
Jones has better offensive potential than Betancourt, with a bigger frame and more strength, and his OPS was 115 points higher than Betancourt's at San Antonio even though he's three years younger. Jones didn't make many adjustments and looked a little wild at the plate at times, but he should become a more polished hitter with experience.
The 12th overall pick in the 2002 draft, Saunders missed all of the 2003 season with shoulder problems. Completely healthy this season, he earned a promotion to Triple-A at midseason and made his major league debut in August.
Saunders has all the elements to be a lefthanded innings-eater in a big league rotation. He pitches at 90-92 mph with his fastball and backs it up with a strong changeup and a decent curveball. His command is solid when he maintains his concentration, but he tends to lose it and fall prey to big innings.
"Our disappointment was that he didn't have the ability to focus for nine innings," Gamboa said. "We thought he was the best lefthander in the league, but the stats didn't always show it."
After two seasons in the Cal League, Shell put together a solid season in Double-A and gained confidence as the year progressed. His best start may have come in the first round of the playoffs when he dominated Tulsa for seven innings, striking out nine and walking one in a 9-2 win.
Shell has the build of a big league workhorse, with a long, loose arm and good arm action. He pitches reliably at 90-92 mph and he has an electric curveball when it's on. But too often only one curve in five will be great, one will hang and the other three will bounce in the dirt.
He's also still working on both a changeup and splitter as an offspeed pitch. Neither is an average pitch at this point, so Shell probably needs to pick one and try to develop it. He did improve his fastball command after nibbling too often early in the season.
Quintanilla's numbers at Midland were the worst of his career, but he's an advanced hitter with doubles power. He's an aggressive hitter, particularly for someone who came through the Athletics organization, and needs to get more selective.
His tools at shortstop are just average, but he seems to make all the plays, especially in big situations. He played a few games at second in Midland and in Colorado, and scouts see his future there, at third base (though he wouldn't have the power for the position) or as a utilityman.
"He's just a good player, the kind you've got to see every day to appreciate," one scout said. "He's a horrible guy to go watch one time, but he's the kind of guy every team should have."
After missing most of 2004 with a stress fracture in his arm, Jimenez returned this year and earned a promotion to Double-A at midseason. Though he struggled against more advanced hitters, he threw consistently in the mid-90s and touched 97 mph with regularity. His curveball and changeup are dominant in flashes but remain inconsistent.
At this point, Jimenez is just a thrower and doesn't show refined command of any of his pitches. His arm action also scares some scouts, prompting worries about more injuries in the future and the potential of his breaking ball. For all of those reasons, his future could lie in the bullpen.
The Astros found a speedy center fielder this year in Willy Taveras, and they have another one coming up through the system in Anderson, who edged out Aybar for the league lead in steals. Anderson is a speed player who understands that his legs are his game.
He can manipulate the infield with his bat, as any ball hit on the ground could turn into a potential hit. He also has more power potential than Taveras, though he'll never be more than a gap-to-gap hitter. He's a true center fielder who can play shallow and gets great jumps on balls.
Anderson will need to refine his approach to become a legitimate leadoff man, as he currently strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough. He has to get stronger as well, after tiring as the season wore on.
Melillo is a hard-nosed, aggressive player who should be an offensive second baseman. He has home run power and jumps on pitches that he can drive. He also has good speed and the instincts to steal a few bases. He'll He'll never be a standout defender and some scouts question whether he can remain at second base, though he does work hard.
To continue hitting at higher levels, Melillo will have to manage his aggression at the plate and improve his pitch recognition, always a point of emphasis in the A's organization. He too often guesses at which pitch he'll see, and swings at the first pitch he likes. "He's learning at higher levels that 3-0 or 2-1 doesn't always mean fastball," Hayes said.