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California League Top 20 Prospects

By Patrick Laverty

Top 20
RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif.--There’s not much question about where the majority of the talent lay in 2001 in the high Class A California League. Lake Elsinore, the team with the best overall record, and San Bernardino, the club with the best second-half mark, dominated and did so with pitching.

The Storm’s team ERA hovered below 3.00 for most of the season until Dennis Tankersley, Jake Peavy and Ben Howard all were promoted to Double-A Mobile. Even then, Eric Cyr carried the team to a final mark of 3.03.

San Bernardino’s rotation took three of the five pitching spots on the Cal League’s postseason all-star team. Matt Thornton was named pitcher of the year and was second in the league in victories. Craig Anderson took the ERA title and Rafael Soriano’s raw stuff astonished managers league-wide.

When it came to hitting, the same two teams had the best prospects in Storm first baseman Xavier Nady and a trio from the Stampede: outfielders Chris Snelling and Jamal Strong, plus catcher Ryan Christianson.

Tankersley
Dennis Tankersley
Photo: Larry Goren
1 DENNIS TANKERSLEY, rhp
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
Probably the most telling fact about Tankersley’s dominance in his short-lived Cal League stint was the fact that Lancaster manager Scott Coolbaugh nominated him for this list. The JetHawks never faced him.

"We felt lucky just to get a run off him," San Bernardino manager Darren Brown said. He should have. Tankersley never allowed more than one run in any start and only three earned runs in 52 innings before his promotion to Double-A Mobile and eventually Triple-A Portland, where he was shut down in August with a tired arm.

His overpowering fastball, which comes in both the two- and four-seam varieties, was too much for Cal League hitters. Tankersley’s ability to throw breaking pitches for strikes should give him an opportunity to win a spot in San Diego’s starting rotation come spring training.

2 XAVIER NADY, 1b
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
The only real concern regarding the future of the league’s MVP and rookie of the year is where he’ll play. Drafted as a third baseman, a position of strength in the San Diego organization, he spent the entire 2001 season at first base, primarily because of an elbow injury. The Padres may try him at second base, where he played as a University of California freshman.

Wherever it is, the Padres will have to find some way to use his bat. "The ball comes off his bat like a golf ball," Brown said.

Nady tied for the league lead in home runs in his first full pro season. He doesn’t shy away from the spotlight either. He singled in his major league debut in September 2000, then belted a long home run in the California/Carolina League all-star game in June.

3 RAFAEL SORIANO, rhp
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
It’s amazing what Soriano has accomplished since being moved to the mound from the outfield after the 1998 season. A career .220 hitter, he held Cal League batters to an even more sickly .164 average.

Packing an already lively fastball in the 95-mph range, Soriano improved his slider this season. Throw in an above-average changeup, and the future is promising.

"He’s going to be an outstanding top-of-the-rotation guy," Modesto manager Greg Sparks said. "He just dominates."

Soriano still is learning the nuances of pitching, and the Mariners’ depth in pitching will give him plenty of time to develop. His season ended three weeks early in Double-A because of a shoulder impingement, but he was back by instructional league.

4 CHRIS SNELLING, of
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
Lake Elsinore manager Craig Colbert gave Snelling the highest possible compliment when he put him on par with Nady. "He has the best approach to hitting in this league," Colbert said.

Often compared to Lenny Dykstra, Snelling proved he was tough as "Nails" when he played nearly two months with a stress fracture in his foot before it was diagnosed two weeks before the season ended. Despite the injury, Snelling captured the Cal League batting crown and piled up 12 outfield assists.

Injuries might halt Snelling’s progress. Because he plays so hard, bumps and bruises tend to accumulate over the course of the season. He played just 72 games last year, when he broke his hand when he ran into an outfield wall. His aggressiveness also sparked a bench-clearing brawl with High Desert this year.

5 JAKE PEAVY, rhp
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
With Tankersley’s outstanding performance and Ben Howard’s and Eric Cyr’s emergence, Peavy was sometimes a forgotten man. He failed to make either the midseason or postseason Cal League all-star team, but there’s no overlooking him in the future of the Padres rotation.

Peavy shined in both the Cal League and the Double-A Southern League before returning to the Storm for the playoffs. He has three solid pitches (low-90s fastball, slider, changeup) that he used to rack up a 188-45 strikeout walk ratio in 133 combined innings in 2001. He was even better in Double-A, where he rejoined his wife and newborn baby in his hometown of Mobile, then fanned 11 in each of his final three starts.

6 JAMAL STRONG, of
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
Easily the fastest player in the league, Strong swiped 82 bases combined between low Class A Wisconsin and San Bernardino. He makes scouts gasp over his 3.88-second time from home plate to first base.

Strong offers more than just pure speed. He has easily topped .300 in each of his first two professional seasons and he has more than enough on-base ability to bat leadoff. While he hasn’t hit for power yet, he has the potential to do so. "He has good discipline at the plate and a nice, short swing," Sparks said.

Strong covers a ridiculous amount of ground in the outfield, though his lack of arm strength may be his biggest weakness. He reminded Rancho Cucamonga manager Tim Wallach of a young Marquis Grissom.

7 RYAN CHRISTIANSON, c
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
Christianson went home in 2001, playing near Riverside’s Arlington High, from where the Mariners selected him with the 11th overall pick in the 1999 draft. His return came with big expectations as the Stampede marketed Christianson before the season even started.

Elbow tendinitis limited his success behind the plate in 2000, but he was fully healthy this year and threw out 38 percent of basestealers, the third-best figure in the league. He was easily the top offensive prospect among Cal League catchers. His power still is developing, and many of his league-leading 42 doubles could turn into home runs as he gains experience.

8 BEN HOWARD, rhp
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
What a difference a year has made for Howard. Most of the credit goes to Storm pitching coach Darren Balsley, who helped Howard find a new arm angle that provided dramatically increased accuracy.

For the first time in his pro career, Howard didn’t allow more than a walk per inning pitched. In 2000, he walked 111 in 107 Cal League innings while compiling a 6.37 ERA. This season, he cut his ERA by more than half and his walks by more than two-thirds, and continued his success in Double-A.

"Last year’s a totally different story," Lake Elsinore manager Craig Colbert said. "He has an overpowering fastball and a good slider."

9 BILL HALL, ss
High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
Hall did a little bit of everything before his midseason promotion to Double-A. After hitting .262-3-41 as a Midwest League all-star last season, Hall began the year at the bottom of the High Desert batting order, but he eventually moved up to the third spot in the lineup after surprising the Mavericks with some pop.

He hit 15 homers in 89 Cal League games, though hitter-friendly Mavericks Stadium may have inflated his numbers. Hall batted .337-10-34 at home and .265-5-17 on the road, then slumped to .256-3-14 overall in the Southern League. He needs to develop more strength to hold up over an entire season.

He’s most impressive defensively, where he shows good range with a strong arm. Hall made 30 errors in 89 games, but most attribute those to his youth.

10 CHRIS BOOTCHECK, rhp
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
After holding out all last summer before eventually signing for $1.8 million, Bootcheck never really wanted to be in Class A. When he heard that Angels broadcasters were talking about him during one telecast, he asked, "Did they say anything about Double-A?"

Bootcheck moved up after a dominating July in which he went 4-0, 1.63 with 39 strikeouts in as many innings. He had struggled early, possibly putting too much pressure on himself, and landed on the disabled list in late April with shoulder stiffness.

Managerial reviews were a bit mixed, though his stuff is obviously there. Bootcheck owns a low-90s fastball, a nasty cutter, a curveball and a changeup. "He figured out how to use his fastball better later in the season," Colbert said.

11 MATT THORNTON, lhp
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
While fellow 1998 first-round picks Sean Burroughs, J.D. Drew, Mark Mulder and Carlos Pena are on the brink of major league stardom, Thornton has progressed slowly. He finally broke out in 2001, earning Cal League pitcher-of-the-year honors while leading the circuit in strikeouts.

He was quite old for the league at 24, which is obviously a drawback, but the fact that he had thrown just 134 professional innings entering this season must be taken into account. Thornton always has had size and a quality fastball going for him, and this season he improved his command and the consistency of his secondary pitches, a slider and changeup. He was a reliever in college and could return to that role, though the pressing issue right now is getting him innings.

12 TONY TORCATO, dh/of
San Jose Giants
A first-round pick in 1998, Torcato thought he had seen enough of the Cal League after playing 229 games there in 1999 and 2000. Yet offseason shoulder surgery sent him back to San Jose again for the start of this season, and he showed no ill effects at the plate.

A pure line-drive hitter, Torcato is expected to develop power with experience. He has been a poor man’s Sean Burroughs thus far, which isn’t a bad thing. Originally a third baseman, he served as a DH for most of his time in the Cal League this year and has become a full-time left fielder.

13 RAINER OLMEDO, ss
Mudville Nine (Reds)
Despite 40 errors in 129 games, Olmedo was considered the best defensive shortstop in the league. He also had the top infield arm and soft hands. "He makes dumb errors because he’s young," Colbert said.

Olmedo has been compared to Omar Vizquel, but he made Sparks think of the other half of Cleveland’s double-play combination.

"He reminds me a lot of Roberto Alomar, who I played with in ’85," Sparks said. "He has the same build and the same approach, plus he’s just learning how to switch-hit."

Olmedo actually fared much better hitting lefthanded for the first time (.259) than he did from his natural right side (.159). He’s a stolen-base threat, but that’s his only offensive asset at this point. He doesn’t hit for average or power, and his plate discipline is nonexistent.

14 FREDDIE BYNUM, ss/2b
Modesto A’s
A surprise choice as Oakland’s top pick (second round) in 2000, Bynum is still putting everything together. He didn’t hit for much average and has no power, and he led the league with 41 errors.

What he does have is speed, though he needs to develop his on-base ability to use it more often, and the raw tools to play either second baseman or shortstop. He got going offensively in the middle of the season, hitting a combined .318 with 15 steals.

"There’s a lot there," Colbert said. "He’s still trying to figure it all out."

15 DAVID KRYNZEL, of
High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
Kyrnzel batted .305 in 35 games in the Midwest League, but didn’t do much else offensively except hit for average. Nonetheless the Brewers promoted him to High Desert at age 19, and he played to mixed reviews.

Those who saw him shortly after his late May callup were left unimpressed. But those who had to play against him when he hit .378 over the final month saw why he was a first-round pick in 2000. His speed makes him an outstanding center fielder and basestealer, though he needs to get better reads on pitchers.

16 BEN JOHNSON, of
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
Johnson has all the tools, including power, speed and a right-field arm. But like Krynzel he made his Cal League debut at age 19 and his numbers suffered somewhat. His biggest deficiency was making contact, as he whiffed 141 times in 136 games.

"He’s a 20-year-old with power that is just starting to come out of his bat," Colbert said. "He strikes out a lot, but that’s to be expected for a 20-year-old kid in this league."

17 DANE SARDINHA, c
Mudville Nine (Reds)
Every manager but one singled out Sardinha as the best defensive catcher in the league. As evidence, he twice picked off Strong and threw out 38 percent of basestealers, the second-best rate in the league.

But scouts have questioned Sardinha’s offense since he struggled with wood bats in the amateur Cape Cod League, and he didn’t resolve any of those doubts this year. His lack of success at the plate wasn’t aided by Mudville’s Billy Herbert Field, a pitcher’s park in a hitter’s league, but he also didn’t help himself with his atrocious plate discipline. He does have some power to the gaps.

18 ERIC CYR, lhp
Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)

Cyr just missed qualifying for the league’s ERA title, mainly because of legal trouble he ran into in May. He was arrested by the FBI and accused of having sex with a 15-year-old girl in an airplane bathroom on an Australia-to-Los Angeles flight in January.

He returned to the Storm at the beginning of June, replacing Tankersley in the rotation. He throws 91-92 mph and though Colbert said that Cyr’s curveball isn’t in the same class as the breaking pitches of Tankersley, Peavy and Howard, the Canadian had little difficulty with Cal League hitters. Cyr averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings and limited opponents to a .184 average.

19 MIKE O’KEEFE, of
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
After a tremendous debut in the short-season Northwest League in 1999, O’Keefe admittedly rested on his laurels and slumped in the Midwest League last year. After an offseason of hard work, O’Keefe was productive again and challenged for the batting and RBI crowns.

He hit for average and gap power, held his own against lefties and stole 20 bases in 21 attempts. A college first baseman, he needs to work on his left-field play.

20 CRAIG ANDERSON, lhp
San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
Mariners officials have compared him to Jamie Moyer and John Halama, lefthanded finesse pitchers on the parent club. Despite being 20 and throwing in the mid-80s, Anderson won the Cal League ERA title and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning. He ended the season with 19 consecutive quality starts.

Anderson’s best pitch is his changeup, and he has impeccable control. Despite his lack of overpowering stuff, hitters don’t get good swings off him. Righthanders batted just .207 against Anderson this year.

"The bottom line is keeping people off balance," Coolbaugh said. "He’s the type of guy who has to be on the top of his game all the time, and I wouldn’t put it past him."

Patrick Laverty covers the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes for the Los Angeles Times.

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