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Arizona League Top 20 Prospects

By Allan Simpson

Top 20
As Chris Tritle and Shin-Soo Choo went, so went the Athletics and Mariners in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2001.

Choo sizzled early for the Mariners, leading them to the first-half title. As Choo's performance slipped, Tritle picked up the pace and led the A's to the second-half crown. The Athletics then beat the Mariners in a one-game playoff for the league title.

"Tritle just took off at the halfway point of the season," Mariners manager Omer Munoz said. "He showed everything: power, speed, defense and an ability to take charge."

Just as the performance of those players had a profound effect on the Arizona League pennant race, Tritle's and Choo's tools also were at the forefront as managers identified the league's best major league prospects. Tritle, the league MVP, earned the nod as top prospect from six managers, while Choo gained the other first-place vote.

Tritle
Chris Tritle
Photo: John Spear
1 CHRIS TRITLE, of
Athletics

A 19th-round pick of the A's in 2000, Tritle made little impression on managers a year ago when he hit .233-3-21. But he was a different story this season, leading the league in home runs, stolen bases (he was caught only once in 27 attempts) and slugging percentage (.565).

"He was from a small school in Iowa and the pro regimen was new to him last year," said A's scout John Kuehl, who managed Tritle in 2000. "He took it a lot more seriously this year and he was a different player."

Ricky Nelson, Tritle's manager this year, saw the same transformation. "He's really matured and now believes in his ability," Nelson said. "He's got the potential to be a consistent 30-30 player."

"True to Oakland fashion, he's big, strong and athletic," Giants manager Keith Comstock said. "He's got a great power/speed package. His only weakness is with breaking balls, but the A's have a way of remedying that."

2 SHIN-SOO CHOO, of
Mariners

Choo sizzled in the first half, hitting .358. He wound up batting.302 overall, causing at least one manager to question his approach.

"Early on, he showed a lot of discipline at the plate," Nelson said. "But pitchers began to get him out by pounding him inside. He made a lot of adjustments in his stance as he began to press."

Managers were impressed with the all-around ability of the Korean, who starred as a pitcher at the 2000 World Junior Championship and later signed a $1.335 million bonus with Seattle. He adapted well to his new role as a full-time outfielder.

"He's a very exciting player to watch," Munoz said. "He hits for average and power, runs well and has an excellent arm. He also works very hard and adapted nicely to the change in culture."

"He plays with a lot of poise and confidence," White Sox manager Jerry Hairston said. "He'll be a big leaguer, no doubt."

3 ANDY GONZALEZ, ss
White Sox

Six-foot-4 shortstops are still a rare breed, but every Arizona League manager believes Gonzalez will remain at the position because of his lean and athletic frame.

"He's got the arm and range, and the ball jumps off his bat," Brewers manager Carlos Lezcano said. "He needs to mature a little bit because he doesn't play at 100 percent all the time"

Gonzalez has a chance to be an offensive force, as he hit five homers and drives balls well to the gaps. He's by no means a complete player, however.

"He needs work on his throwing motion," Cubs manager Carmelo Martinez said, "but he runs well and has good hands."

4 RYAN HANNAMAN, lhp
Giants

Hannaman was second in the league in ERA and strikeouts, a sharp contrast from his 2000 professional debut when he went 0-1, 21.60 and walked 11 in three Arizona League innings.

"His command was all over the place last year and in extended spring training," Comstock said. "He made tremendous strides this summer. He's got a very easy arm action and found a niche that worked. He also learned to throw a slider with excellent bite."

Hannaman's fastball, the consensus best in the league, was clocked as high as 96 mph, fastest in the league.

"He's a battler. He comes right at you," Hairston said. "He throws a lot of first-pitch strikes."

5 RONNY CEDENO, ss
Cubs

Cedeno was an able successor to Luis Montanez, a Cubs shortstop prospect who was the league's No. 1 prospect a year ago. Cedeno hit .350, losing his bid for the batting title to Mariners infielder Roman Cordova on the final day of the season.

Cedeno is a pure shortstop with terrific hands and instincts. While he tied for the league lead with 22 errors, many came on balls other shortstops would not have reached.

"He's got a lot of the same actions as Andy Gonzalez," Comstock said. "He doesn't have the same physical package, but he has range and a great arm, and should hit for power and average."

6 JOHAN SANTANA, rhp
Angels

A physically mature 17-year-old, Santana led the Arizona League in strikeouts less than a year after signing a $600,000 bonus with the Angels. His fastball ranged from 91 to 95 mph.

"He's a pure power pitcher with a great approach to pitching," Comstock said. "He goes right at hitters. He throws a lot of strikes and throws every pitch with a purpose."

Angels manager Brian Harper compared Santana to Anaheim ace Ramon Ortiz, but said Santana is further along at the same stage.

"He also reminds you of Pedro Martinez the way he goes about his business," Munoz said. "He had the best fastball in the league."

7 ANTHONY WEBSTER, of
White Sox

A 15th-round pick in June, Webster made a strong impression on every manager. He showed every tool except arm strength, and his exceptional speed compensates for that shortcoming. He covers a lot of ground on defense and charges balls well.

His speed also enables him to be a flashy leadoff hitter. The White Sox are working hard at getting Webster to bunt the ball more to take advantage of his wheels.

"He's very raw," Munoz said, "but he's got tools. I was impressed with the way he hits lefthanded pitching so well, which is unusual for a first-year guy."

8 FRANCISCO LIRIANO, lhp
Giants

A former outfielder who's just learning to pitch, Liriano made huge strides in his professional debut. He tied his teammate Hannaman for second in the league in strikeouts.

"He had no feel for pitching at the start of the year," Comstock said, "but he made huge strides. He showed great improvement with his mechanics and breaking ball."

Lezcano contended that Liriano, not Hannaman or Santana, had the best fastball in the league. Liriano normally threw at 91-92 mph but occasionally popped a 96.

9 LEONEL CABRERA, 2b
Giants

The Arizona League's top eight prospects were clearly defined. Cabrera, who hit .295 in Arizona last year after spending two years in the Dominican Summer League, headed up the second wave of talent.

Primarily a slap hitter, Cabrera batted .322. He also is an above-average runner and showed solid middle-infield actions at second base. Managers also praised his aggressive nature.

10 PEDRO ESPARRAGOZA, c
Brewers

Esparragoza's hitting skills are suspect. In three years as a pro, he has batted .248 with three homers in 448 at-bats. But managers loved his skills behind the plate.

There was no doubt that Esparragoza was the league's best defensive catcher. He threw out 41 percent of basestealers, trailing only Francisco D'Jesus of the Giants (74 percent).

"He's a cat behind the plate," Munoz said. "He has a quick release and blocks every ball. He's always in a game and really takes charge of a pitching staff."

11 BRYAN SIMMERING, rhp
Athletics

A 20-year-old college product–he broke former big leaguer Chris Nabholz' career shutout record at Towson–Simmering posted a 57-5 strikeout-walk ratio and was an easy choice to pitch the one-game playoff. He responded by blanking the Mariners 6-0, walking none and striking out 10 in seven innings.

He's not big (6 feet, 175 pounds) and doesn't throw hard (usually 88-89 mph, though he can touch 91). But he has a sharp breaking ball that acts more like a slider than curve and all of his pitches have crispness to them.

"He has a great arm action and his two-seam fastball has Greg Maddux-like sink," Comstock said.

12 ALEJANDRO CADENA, dh
Mariners

Cadena's bat is not the issue. He topped .300 for the second straight year and led the league in RBIs. He has been a proficient hitter since setting the Texas high school single-season home run record.

For Cadena, the question is where he'll play. He's been tried at catcher, first base and third, but doesn't have the hands for any of those spots. DH is his most likely future role.

13 AARON KIRKLAND, rhp
White Sox

Undrafted after going 5-5, 5.70 as a senior at Troy State, Kirkland led the league in ERA, saves and opponent's batting average (.158). His most eye-popping stat, however, was his zero unintentional walks in 62 innings.

He was one of the league's older players at 22, but his numbers made an impression. Kirkland throws a darting slider and a 90-91 mph fastball.

"He's a strike-throwing machine," Hairston said. "He doesn't throw that hard now, but he has a good frame and should throw harder as he adds weight. I can see him maybe throwing 92-93 one day. He's a sleeper, a great find."

14 RENE RIVERA, c
Mariners

Seattle's second-round pick in June, Rivera started his career in the short-season Northwest League. He was sent down after batting .089.

A short, stocky catcher in the mold of fellow Puerto Rican Ivan Rodriguez, Rivera picked up the pace considerably in the Arizona League--both with the bat and glove.

"He has quick feet, receives the ball well, takes care of the running game and has good instincts," Munoz said. "To me, he was the best overall catcher in this league because he can hit."

15 ANDY SISCO, lhp
Cubs

The 6-foot-10 Sisco was the lone Cubs pitcher on the list. Righthanders Jae-kuk Ryu and Ricky Nolasco would have been represented had they pitched enough to qualify.

Sisco, a second-round pick, needs a lot of work on his mechanics, which isn't unusual for a pitcher his size. He showed the makings of two plus pitches, a 90-93 fastball and a splitter.

16 AUSTIN NAGLE, of
Athletics

One of the nation's highest-profile prep players as both a junior and senior at Barbe High in Lake Charles, La., Nagle was drafted in the sixth round by the A's in June. He hit just .250 and went homerless, but he was viewed as one of the league's most advanced hitters.

"He's got great bat speed and the ball really jumps off his bat," Kuehl said. "He's a little pull-conscious and doesn't cover the whole plate well at this point, but he's got a very mature game for a high school player."

Below-average defensive skills will limit Nagle to left field.

17 EMILIANO FRUTO, lhp
Mariners

Fruto went from big league camp this spring to the lowest rung on the minor league ladder this summer. He was considered more of a finesse pitcher, but he showed the makings of three solid pitches at age 17. His fastball has good sinking action and his changeup is effective against lefthanders.

18 CHRIS COLLINS, 3b
Mariners

A natural gap hitter, Collins finished third in the league with a .342 average. He's a sound defender at third. His stock could rise if the Mariners give him a chance to go behind the plate, which is being considered.

19 KORY WAYMENT, ss
Athletics

Wayment was regarded as the league's best defensive shortstop and played five different positions. His hands drew rave reviews. Wayment's greatest drawback is his bat, but he is expected to add bat speed as he matures and fills out his frame.

20 JIMBO McAULIFF, of
Giants

Like Kirkland, the 22-year-old McAuliff is a little old to be on a complex league prospects list. But he showed discipline at the plate, made adjustments and was one of the league's toughest outs. A left fielder with good range, he signed out of Oklahoma State before the draft.

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