Appalachian League Top 20 Prospects
By Bill Ballew
After serving as one of the minors' media magnets last year, thanks to the presence of No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Mauer and reclamation project Rick Ankiel, the Rookie-level Appalachian League returned to its unheralded roots this summer. It was stronger in position players than pitchers, headed by three players taken in the early stages of the 2002 draft: Danville outfielder Jeff Francouer, Princeton outfielder Wes Bankston and Burlington third baseman Matt Whitney.
"I think it was more of an offensive year in the league," Johnson City manager Brian Rupp said. "That's not to say there wasn't some good pitching, because there are a lot of arms in this league that will pitch in the big leagues. But there were several hitters who have a chance to be impact players one day."
A number of outfielders just missed making the Top 20. Elizabethtons Doug Deeds and Kingsports Jamar Hill are power hitters, while Johnson Citys Terry Evans and Kingsports Roberto Solano are loaded with tools.
Two first-rounders from 2001 didnt crack the list as they continue to work on their games. Bluefield lefthander Chris Smith has battled shoulder problems since turning pro and worked just 11 innings. Danville third baseman Josh Burrus continued to show athleticism but has yet to discover any offensive or defensive consistency.
Atlanta scouting director Roy Clark was thrilled when the Braves lured Francoeur away from a Clemson football scholarship (as a defensive back) in July. Not only because they signed a five-tool outfield prospect, but also because the first-rounder is a high-character player who has attracted comparisons to former National League MVP Dale Murphy on a variety of fronts.
"He is the best tools player in this league, bar none," Danville manager Ralph Henriquez said. "I'm big on makeup and this kid is off the charts. He knows he is going to play in the big leagues. Everything he does is centered on that achieving that goal."
Francoeur had no trouble adjusting to wood bats, driving the ball to all fields. He has outstanding instincts and is fearless pursuing fly balls and running the basepaths. He also possesses a plus arm and is capable of playing all three outfield positions.
2. Wes Bankston, of, Princeton Devil Rays
A former high school quarterback, Bankston has good athleticism and solid all-around tools. Hes not as fluid as Francoeur in the outfield, but Bankston has the mobility and the arm strength to play right field at higher levels. Bankston also impressed managers with his plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone for such a young player.
"He's a big kid who is going to hit a lot of home runs in this game," Rupp said. "He not only crushes fastballs and changeups, he can hit any pitch at any time in the count."
Said Bluefield manager Bien Figueroa: "I've never seen an 18-year-old hit breaking balls the way Bankston can."
3. Matt Whitney, 3b, Burlington Indians
He also impressed opposing managers with his great instincts. Whitney showed more range than any third baseman in the league, and his arm is already average by big league standards.
"He was one of the best, if not the best, players in this league," Pulaski manager Pedro Lopez said. "He started the season pulling everything, but he made great adjustments his first time through the league and got better and better."
4. Dusty Gomon, 1b, Elizabethton Twins
Few players have more raw power than Gomon, who carries his impressive batting-practice displays into games. He has outstanding bat speed, yet is capable of altering his swing to hit offspeed pitches. A good runner for his size, he spent as much time this summer working on his defense as he did on his stroke.
"He's a classic corner infielder with power," Elizabethton manager Ray Smith said. "At the same time, he realizes that the days of one-dimensional players are gone, and he's working hard to become a solid player in all phases of the game."
5. Jason Pridie, of, Princeton Devil Rays
The scrappy Pridie is a solid contact hitter with excellent speed, clocking consistently at 4.0-4.1 seconds to first base from the left side of the plate. He made adjustments between at-bats and showed signs of developing into a true leadoff hitter, though he needs to draw more walks.
Pridie sprays the ball to all fields and covers center field from gap to gap with ease, albeit with a below-average arm. Two managers compared him to Johnny Damon.
"He's got a magic wand," Smith said. "He finds all the holes with his bat. He also enjoys himself and he's a hard worker. He plays like a pro."
6. Anthony Lerew, rhp, Danville Braves
A product of a Pennsylvania High School, Lerew responded to the increased instruction he received in extended spring training. He has a plus fastball in the 92-94 mph range with good movement. He also changes speeds well with his solid changeup, and is developing a hard breaking ball that will make him more difficult to hit.
"He dominated this league unlike any other pitcher," Henriquez said. "He's got great makeup, and I feel he's on the verge of really blossoming into an even better pitcher."
7. Blake Hawksworth, rhp, Johnson City Cardinals
Though hes still learning to pitch, Hawksworth throws three pitches for strikes. He works off an explosive fastball with good movement that has been clocked as high as 94 mph and sits in the 91-92 range. His out pitch is an above-average changeup. The changeup has good downward movement, and Hawksworth has excellent deception in his delivery.
His 12-to-6 curveball requires the most work of his three offerings, yet it possesses a big break and freezes batters when at its best.
"He's still trying to trick batters instead of trusting his pitches," Johnson City manager Brian Rupp said. "Once he develops consistency and confidence is all of his pitches, he's going to be tough to beat."
8. Dan Meyer, lhp, Danville Braves
Meyer didnt disappoint. He showed excellent overall stuff, topped by an 89-91 mph fastball with outstanding late movement. His second pitch is a plus changeup that many managers believed is better than most in the majors. He also has a hard slider that should develop into a solid third pitch.
Meyer left the greatest impression, however, with his ability to control his pitches on both sides of the plate.
"He has a good idea of what he's trying to do on the mound," Henriquez said. "In my opinion, he will be a No. 2 or 3 starter in the big leagues."
9. Scott Tyler, rhp, Elizabethton Twins
Tyler attacks hitters with his 91-93 mph fastball that was clocked as high as 95. He also has a good curveball and a developing changeup. His legs look like tree trunks, which has led to his drop-and-drive delivery. While his game is based around power, Tyler impressed his manager with his desire to learn and improve.
"He has a good game plan every time he takes the mound," Smith said. "Once he develops his secondary pitches, he is going to be very difficult to hit."
10. Anthony Webster, of, Bristol White Sox
Webster is a quintessential leadoff hitter/center fielder with plus speed that he incorporates in all phases of his game. He also possesses some serious sting in his bat, though he doesnt hit for considerable power.
"He can really handle the bat," Leyva said. "He's a heads-up player who walks a lot and is always a threat to run. For a young kid, he is very disciplined. I think you're going to see him really come on fast in the near future."
11. Daniel Cabrera, rhp, Bluefield Orioles
Cabrera challenged hitters up in the strike zone with little difficulty. He made strides with his slider and changeup, throwing both offerings for strikes. While his change remains inconsistent, Cabrera has great command of his first two pitches. His biggest problem is that he tries to strike out every hitter, which left him exhausted after four or five innings.
"He reminds me of Randy Johnson with the way he throws so hard and is right on top of the hitter when he releases the ball," Figueroa said. "You're going to hear a lot about this kid."
12. Luis Jimenez, of/1b, Bluefield Orioles
"He can hit balls over the outfield lights," Figueroa said.
Jimenez split his time between first base and the outfield. He has quick hands on defense, and also shows good speed and instincts. The biggest concern managers had was his weight, which could increase rapidly if left unmonitored.
"He's a great hitter and a good runner," Lopez said. "I see him as a first baseman, but he could be a fourth or fifth outfielder in the major leagues."
13. Osvaldo Fernando, ss, Martinsville Astros
Despite possessing average speed, he possesses excellent range to his right and left. As with most young Latin players, physical strength remains his greatest need, particularly at the plate.
"The guy really knows how to handle himself on the field," Henriquez said. "He's always in control. He looks like he has been playing the game for a long, long time."
14. Tommy Arko, c, Bluefield Orioles
Several managers said Arko made significant improvements with his catching during the season. Arko showed a good release and a solid average arm.
"He didn't do well early, but he made steady progress in the catch-and-throw aspects," Figueroa said. "He's learned to block balls very well. He's at the point where he just needs to play and figure things out."
15. Ricky Barrett, lhp, Elizabethton Twins
A few managers said Barrett succeeded mainly because of his college experience at the University of San Diego, but most agreed the combination of his stuff and knowledge of the game could take him to the majors. Barrett is an aggressive pitcher who isnt afraid to throw inside with an 87-89 mph fastball.
His curveball improved as the season progressed, displaying a late break that accounted for many of his strikeouts. An improved changeup will allow him to develop rapidly at higher levels.
16. Julin Charles, of, Pulaski Rangers
Even so, no manager failed to notice Charles' raw tools. He possesses good speed and natural instincts, and has the arm strength as well as the accuracy to make the long throws from right field. His bat speed is also well above average, and scouts believe he have the power to hit 25-plus home runs annually as his body matures.
"He has a chance to be a five-tool player if he puts everything together," Lopez said. "He's made lots of improvements this season, especially with his discipline at the plate. Charlie just needs to play the game with a little more patience. He has a chance to be a special player."
17. Josh Rupe, rhp, Bristol White Sox
Those who saw Rupe noted his outstanding stuff. He works off a solid 91-93 mph fastball, and his best pitch is an old-fashioned overhand curveball that looks likes its falling out of the sky as it whistles through the strike zone. Bristol manager Nick Leyva called it the best breaking ball hed seen from a young kid in a long time.
Rupe also has the makings of a big league changeup. Hell be a three-pitch pitcher once he gains the consistency needed with his delivery.
"You can sense when a kid is going to make it and I have that sense about Josh," Leyva said. "He's got great makeup and excellent overall stuff. Once he puts everything together, he's going to be a big-time starter."
18. Chris de la Cruz, ss, Burlington Indians
He needs to get stronger because his power is almost nonexistent. Defensively, de la Cruz makes the routine plays but hasnt shown the consistency to make the spectacular ones. While some managers were concerned about his small stature, most agreed that his ability to play small ball will earn him promotions up the ladder.
"He's a good bunter and he has good quickness and speed," Smith said. "He really enjoys himself on the field, and he has a contagious personality. He has that natural leadership you like to see in a shortstop."
19. Pedro Lopez, 2b, Bristol White Sox
Leyva raved about Lopez' natural instincts and knack for being in the right position. Some managers wonder if hell hit well enough to stick at the game's highest level, but Leyva is not concerned after watching him the entire season.
"He was the top situational hitter on our club," Leyva said. "He was the best bunter in the league, and he executes the hit-and-run with the best of them. Pedro will produce at the plate as he moves up."
20. Chris ORiordan, 2b, Pulaski Rangers
Hes a consistent fielder with a good arm for second base. He runs well and makes steady contact, which enabled him to rank second in the league in batting. He also is a student of the game and enjoys taking the field. More than one manager said O'Riordan could be an ideal utilityman in the major leagues.
"He's a hard worker who has a chance to play in the big leagues due to his ability to do a lot of things well," Lopez said. "He learns from his mistakes and wants to get better. He makes up for a lack of tools with his heart and desire."
Top 10 prospects five years ago
1. *Luis Rivera, rhp, Danville Braves
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