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Arizona League Top 20 Prospects

By Allan Simpson
September 19, 2002

Matt Creighton and Jemel Spearman formed an all-star double-play combination as the Cubs walked off with the Rookie-level Arizona League title this summer. Creighton led the league in average (.361), home runs (eight), on-base percentage (.502) and slugging (.598), while Spearman played a steady shortstop and led the league in stolen bases, swiping 29 in 30 attempts.

But the two players earned little support from managers in Baseball America's annual survey of the league's top prospects. In a league where youth rules, Creighton, 23, and Spearman, 21, were viewed as a couple of graybeards.

Managers preferred the long-range worth of two other Cubs prospects, outfielder Felix Pie and lefthander Justin Jones, both 17. Pie, the league's top position player, hit .321 and legged out 13 triples. Jones, the best pitcher, led the league in ERA.

1. Felix Pie, of, Cubs
Pie (pronounced PEE-ay) excelled in his first exposure to pro ball. He shared league MVP honors with Creighton and showcased four above-average tools, power proving his only shortcoming.

"He was by far the best prospect," Mariners manager Darrin Garner said. "He's got a great idea at the plate and an excellent approach to the game for a 17-year-old. He just needs to mature."

"He needs to learn plate discipline and walk more often," said Cubs manager Carmelo Martinez, though Pie’s 21 walks in 248 plate appearances weren’t bad at all, considering his age. "He's only 17, so it will come."

Pie's best tool is his speed, which was most evident as he chased down balls in center field. He got good jumps and covered a lot of ground. He doesn't run the bases all that well yet, but managers say better technique should come with experience.

A small but powerfully built lefthanded hitter, Pie specialized in driving balls to the alleys and dashing around the bases. He had more than twice as many triples as his closest competitor.

"He doesn't have much power now, but it should come down the road," A's skipper Ruben Escalera said.

2. Micah Schnurstein, 3b, White Sox
There wasn't a manager who didn't take a liking to the stocky Schnurstein, who set an AZL record with 26 doubles and also led the circuit in RBIs. Garner compared him to Scott Rolen, and like many skippers cited Schnurstein’s size, bat speed and ability to hit for average and power.

"When he gets a little stronger," White Sox manager Jerry Hairston said, "a lot of the balls he drives to the right-center gap now will go over the fence."

Schnurstein's only negatives are that he doesn’t draw many walks or run well. But he does have soft hands and is a very capable third baseman.

3. Justin Jones, lhp, Cubs
Jones, the Cubs' second-round draft pick, came out of the same Virginia Beach region that also produced B.J. Upton, who went No. 2 overall to the Devil Rays. After an inconsistent spring as a high school senior, Jones limited hitters to a .181 average and no homers while striking out 11.3 per nine innings.

Managers say Jones only has scratched the surface of his ability.

"He's got a great demeanor, a 90-92 mph fastball and can throw his curve at any point in the count," Martinez said. "Down the road, I can see him in the mid-90s. He's got a lot going for him."

4. Jesse English, lhp, Giants
English doesn't throw that hard, but his fastball is an above-average pitch. It has good deception, works well with his other pitches and he spots it with precision.

"His fastball tops out at 91-92," Giants manager Bert Hunter said, "but it's a great pitch because he complements it so well with his changeup."

English’s changeup makes his fastball look like a mid-90s heater. He also throws a solid curveball, giving him an effective three-pitch mix. Hunter said the only drawback with English is that occasionally he needs someone to light a fire under him to get him going.

5. Carlos Sosa, of, Giants
Sosa played in the AZL last year as Carlos Cleto, hitting .262-1-35. As part of the crackdown on age falsifications, his real name and birthdate (Oct. 20, 1981, compared to May 19, 1983) were revealed.

But he also added some power and 54 points to his average, blossoming in his second season in Arizona. Sosa could hit 20-30 homers annually and also shows good speed on the bases.

"He really improved over last year," Escalera said. "He has good raw power now, with center-field skills and a right-field arm."

6. Daniel Haigwood, lhp, White Sox
Haigwood doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but he knows how to win. Against Arkansas high school competition, he won his first 43 career decisions before finally taking a loss in the state 2-A semifinals this spring. He led the AZL with eight wins and was second in ERA and strikeouts.

"He really knows what he's doing," Angels manager Brian Harper said. "He doesn't throw that hard, but he's got three solid pitches and he moves them in and out well."

Haigwood learned to throw a two-seam fastball this year. He picked it up so well that it was the only kind of fastball he threw in a late-season start, when he averaged 88-89 mph.

"He should add another 2-3 mph when he adds strength," Hairston said. "He already has a major league curveball and mixes his change in well. He's got the poise and makeup to go far in this game."

7. Matt Brown, 3b, Angels
Brown, an Idaho high school product, hit a meager .163 in his introduction to the AZL last year. His .361 average over the first half of this season showed the strides he made and also led to a promotion to the Rookie-level Pioneer League in the second half.

"He really matured as a hitter this year," Harper said. "He handled the breaking stuff much better, but he'll still need to develop power for the hot corner."

Brown, a second baseman in his first stint in the AZL, hit only two homers in 97 at-bats, thought that was partially because he played his home games at Mesa’s spacious Gene Autry Park. He should be good for 15-20 homers a year down the road. He also shone defensively, committing only one error in 23 games at the hot corner.

8. Travis Ishikawa, 1b, Giants
Ishikawa was a projected second-round pick in this year's draft but fell to the 21st round amid concerns over his signability. Undeterred, the Giants swept the Washington high school product off his feet with an eye-opening $950,000 bonus.

Ishikawa added the exclamation point by homering in his first AZL at-bat--his only home run in 19 games before getting promoted to the short-season Northwest League, where he hit .307 in 22 games. He drives the ball to the gaps now and should develop over-the-fence power in time.

"He reminds me a lot of John Olerud," Hunter said. "He's got the same approach and takes the same swing. And he's also got an excellent glove."

9. Billy Petrick, rhp, Cubs
One of the best long-snapper recruits in the nation, the 6-foot-6, 235-pound Petrick was headed for Washington State to play football, but the Cubs interceded with a $459,500 bonus. Martinez handed him the ball for the one-game championship, and Petrick struck out six in four innings as the Cubs bested the Giants 3-1.

Petrick's fastball was clocked anywhere from 89-92 mph and should pick up speed as he refines his mechanics. What makes the pitch so effective now is its heavy life.

"He has a very easy delivery, but he's strong and the ball explodes in the strike zone," Harper said.

10. Ryan Rodriguez, lhp, White Sox
The White Sox had an impressive young staff that featured the league leaders in wins (Haigwood) and strikeouts (Brandon McCarthy), and the only pitcher to throw a shutout (Dario Ortiz). None threw as consistently hard as Rodriguez, a fourth-round pick who worked in the low 90s every time out.

Rodriguez displayed command of three pitches, including a major league-caliber curveball.

"He's got a big frame and can rock and fire," Hairston said. "He pitches with a lot of confidence."

11. Josh Womack, of, Mariners
Seattle was still negotiating with first-round pick John Mayberry Jr., but as of mid-September second-rounder Womack was the only player it had signed among its top three choices. If the Mariners fail to land Mayberry, they still landed a quality athlete in Womack. All of his tools are projectable except for his power.

"He's got a quick, short swing, runs the bases well, plays solid defense and has an average arm," said Hunter, who had similar tools to Womack and likewise came out of southern California as a second-round pick (Astros, June 1985).

12. Matt Cain, rhp, Giants
Cain, the only first-round pick to play in the AZL this season, touched 95-96 mph. But he worked in only 19 innings, was often wild and some managers were lukewarm about him.

One exception was his own skipper, Hunter.

"He was the fastest pitcher in the league," Hunter said. "He's so effortless and yet the ball flies out of his hand. He needs to use his body more, but it's possible he could throw 99 or 100 one day."

Cain's control problems were attributed to his curveball. The Giants eventually took the pitch away from him and replaced it with a slider, which is easier to control.

13. Chris Young, of, White Sox
A 2001 16th-rounder making his pro debut, Young hit just .217 but impressed managers with his natural athletic ability, particularly his speed and raw power. He generates good pop despite weighing a mere 165 pounds.

The key for Young will be learning the strike zone so he stops chasing pitches and gets better ones to hit.

"He can hit it a mile," Hairston said, "but he's a dead pull hitter now and the trick will be getting him to use the whole field."

14. Michael Garciaparra, ss, Mariners
Nomar Garciaparra’s younger brother signed with the Mariners for $2 million in 2001 as a surprise supplemental first-rounder. Michael didn’t make his pro debut until 2002–when he frequently was compared to Nomar.

"He looks like Nomar and has similar mannerisms," Hairston said. "It's evident his brother has taught him to play."

Garciaparra has a decent arm and solid range at shortstop, though like many youngsters at the position he needs to be more consistent. He has a good approach at the plate but must get stronger. He’s a work in progress who gets marks for his work ethic and intelligence.

15. Matt Creighton, 2b, Cubs
Creighton was passed over in the 2002 draft after transferring from Fresno State to Benedictine (Kan.), a small NAIA school, as a senior. After signing as a free agent, he was the AZL’s co-MVP.

Though he’s old by Rookie-league standards, no one rules out Creighton’s chances of playing in the big leagues. Managers liked his stroke and power, though he needs to find a position. Creighton played first base for the Cubs before switching to second when second-rounder Brian Dopirak joined the team in August.

"He's got a great swing and puts the ball in play," Hunter said. "He does not get cheated at the plate."

16. Rafael Rodriguez, rhp, Angels
The Angels had a number of good young arms in Arizona, and the most notable was Rodriguez. Signed in July 2001, he made his pro debut in the United States, which isn’t typical for a young Dominican.

Neither, however is Rodriguez’ fastball. He throws in the low to mid-90s and also uses a slider and changeup. He didn’t fare nearly as well after a promotion to the Rookie-level Pioneer League (1-1, 5.96), where he was one of the few 17-year-olds on the mound.

17. Brandon McCarthy, rhp, White Sox
Taken in the 17th round, one round behind Haigwood, the 6-foot-7 McCarthy got stronger as the summer wore on. He allowed just seven earned runs in his final seven starts and topped the AZL in innings and strikeouts.

McCarthy hasn’t grown into his frame or his fastball yet, but he does spot his heater well. His slider, which has good downward action, is his strikeout pitch.

18. Jairo Garcia, rhp, Athletics
The Athletics traditionally have fared well in the AZL, winning six titles in 12 years before this year. But they finished out of the running this season, and Garcia, who finished third in the league in ERA, was their only prospect to crack the Top 20.

Garcia touched 92 mph with his fastball and threw a good breaking ball. He’s still developing his changeup. Though Garcia’s AZL statistics were slightly more impressive in 2001, he stood out more for managers this summer.

19. Steve Moss, of, Brewers
The only Brewers player to crack the Top 20, Moss probably would have been drafted in the first 10 rounds had he not been committed to UCLA. Because teams were wary of the sway the Bruins held over him, Milwaukee got him in the 29th round.

Moss is a fine athlete. He showed good speed, range and arm strength in center field and had a knack for getting on base.

20. Alfredo Francisco, 3b, Cubs
The Cubs still are looking for a worthy successor to Ron Santo’s legacy as prospect after prospect has fallen by the wayside. Francisco, who signed in February and played most of the season at age 17, may end the drought.

Managers like his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame and raw talent that makes him projectable. He needs a lot of work on his plate discipline and his defense, though he’s athletic and packs plenty of raw power.

Top 5 Arizona League prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. Todd Noel, rhp, Cubs
2. Kevin Burford, of, Padres
3. *Jon Garland, rhp, Cubs
4. Jose Nunez, 2b, Rockies
5. *Wascar Serrano, rhp, Padres

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