California League Top 20 Prospects
By Josh Boyd
RIVERSIDE, Calif.--The fans in Lake Elsinore have been treated to the high Class A California League's best since the club affiliated with the Padres before 2001. A year ago, Storm righthander Dennis Tankersley was the best prospect in the high Class A league, followed by slugging teammate Xavier Nady.
Lake Elsinore righthanders Jake Peavy and Ben Howard also made the Top 10, and like Tankersley rapidly ascended and made their big league debuts this year. All told, the Storm placed six players on the 2001 Top 20 list, tying for the most in the league.
Lake Elsinore couldn't quite duplicate its 2001 playoff championship (which it shared with San Jose), losing in the finals to Stockton, but again had more Top 20 prospects than any team. Leading the Storm's contingent of five was previously unheralded lefthander Oliver Perez, who finished the year in the Padres rotation.
Nady checked back in at No. 6 before heading to Triple-A, while San Diego's top picks from the last three drafts--lefthander Mark Phillips and infielders Jake Gautreau and Khalil Greene--made the second group of 10. First baseman Tag Bozied and flamethrowing relievers Rusty Tucker and Mike Nicolas also received support.
Though much attention was focused on Lake Elsinore, the league's most outstanding played in Bakersfield. After two lackluster seasons, outfielder Rocco Baldelli watched his stock skyrocket and ended 2002 as Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year.
Baldelli entered the season as the other outfield prospect on the Blaze. But as injuries continued to cloud Josh Hamilton's future, Baldelli flourished. "He pretty much does it all," Stockton manager Jayhawk Owens said.
A potential five-tool star, Baldelli blitzed through the league before promotions to Double-A and Triple-A. About the only thing he didn't do was draw walks, but pitchers weren't able to exploit that weakness.
"He was the second- or third-best prospect I saw all year, next to Brandon Phillips and Mike Restovich," a well-traveled American League scout said. "He's a center fielder who hit and hit with power. He can fly and appears to have good makeup.
"He made adjustments for me. In one at-bat he'd wave at a breaking ball, but when they tried again he smoked it to right-center field."
Oliver Perez, lhp, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
"He has electrifying stuff," Padres scouting director Bill Gayton said. "He's somebody that if things aren't going well, he's the guy to stop it."
Perez has a loose, whip-like arm action with outstanding arm speed, generating velocity up to 93 mph. He varies his release points, and especially likes to drop down against lefties. He has a good, quick slider and a deceptive changeup.
He still needs to learn to harness his stuff. He tends to go deep into counts, leading to higher pitch counts and shorter outings. One scout expressed some concerns about Perez' slight build, but he surpassed 150 innings for the second straight season without injury.
Clint Nageotte, rhp, San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
"He's athletic, young and aggressive," an AL scout said. "He was 91-94 with good life and one of the best breaking balls in league."
A year after Nageotte put his name on the map by leading the Midwest League with 187 strikeouts in 152 innings, he led the minors in strikeouts and broke the San Bernardino record set by Matt Thornton a year earlier. He had a streak of six games with double-digit strikeouts. His biggest needs are to fine-tune his changeup and command.
Jeremy Bonderman, rhp, Modesto A's (Athletics)
With all that behind him, Bonderman's first taste of pro ball came in high Class A, which didn't stop him from experiencing immediate success. He was able to adjust to more experienced hitters because of his advanced feel for pitching.
"He throws four pitches for strikes and mixes well, including an above-average changeup," a National League scout said. "He's a little rough around the edges, but he has the makings of pretty good stuff."
Bonderman was regularly clocked at 89-93 mph, touching 94, and his breaking ball is another hard pitch. He finished the year in the high Class A Florida State League after joining the Tigers as part of the three-team Jeff Weaver trade.
Ben Hendrickson, rhp, High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
Hendrickson's top pitch is an 81-mph spike curveball that draws comparisons to the late Darryl Kile's 12-to-6 bender. His fastball features good arm-side movement to go with 89-92 mph velocity.
Hendrickson also takes a little off his regular curveball and mixes in a changeup. His control has room for improvement, but his arm works well and his delivery is clean.
Xavier Nady, dh, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
He wasn't ready to play a position until the end of May, when he was promoted to Triple-A. The injury didn't seem to affect him at the plate, though. "He looks like an extremely strong human being," High Desert hitting coach Rich Morales said. "He looks like a prototypical power-type guy in the big leagues."
After spending 2001 at first base, partly because of his elbow problems, Nady became an outfielder in the Pacific Coast League. He showed the potential to become an average left fielder.
Boof Bonser, rhp, San Jose Giants
Bonser's delivery got out of whack during his five-start stint in Shreveport, and it took him a few starts to get back in sync. He didn't match the mid-90s heat he showed off in 2001, but he sat comfortably at 90-91 mph. He's making progress with his curveball, changeup and command.
Jose Lopez, ss, San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
"At first he didn't look real sure, played some balls off to the side," Morales said. "The plays he's making now look so effortless compared to three months ago.
"When you see a prospect, he looks like he's here on rehab, like he doesn't belong. I think that swing is going to develop into something. He has a chance to be special. He reminds me of Roberto Alomar."
Lopez had the best infield arm in the league, and he displayed natural actions and agility in the middle of the diamond. At the plate, he makes contact, hits for average and has some pop. He's also a solid average runner with good basestealing instincts.
Josh Hamilton, of, Bakersfield Blaze (Devil Rays)
Hamilton has suffered from back pain since a car accident in 2001 spring training, and also has had hamstring and ribcage pulls. He made three trips to the disabled list this year before being shut down with a torn left rotator cuff in July. That injury isn't a long-term concern and was corrected via arthroscopy.
Relegated to DHing for much of the season, Hamilton still showed a power bat and above-average speed. When he was able to take the field, he also displayed plus arm strength and solid defensive skills.
J.J. Hardy, ss, High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
Scouts tend to initially doubt Hardy's tools at shortstop before his work ethic, competitiveness and instincts win them over. While he doesn't have flashy actions, he plays the position well, along the lines of Cal Ripken.
"He was a pleasant surprise for me," an AL scout said. "Most young guys make a lot of errors, but he's always in the right spot and he catches the ball. He has big feet, but it didn't affect him at short. He's light on his feet."
Hardy held his own at the plate, though some observers did question his offensive potential. He made consistent hard contact but needs to add some loft to his swing and draw more walks.
Dustin Moseley, rhp, Stockton Ports (Reds)
His fastball tops out around 92 mph and he pitches at 86-90 with occasional late tailing action, so he relies more on setting hitters up than overpowering them. His fastball is deceptive when he sets it up with his late biting 76-mph hammer curveball. One scout graded his breaking ball as a future 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.
He also demonstrates good command of his changeup. With command of his three-pitch mix, Moseley is able to keep hitters off balance.
"As a hitting coach, I look for comfortable swing versus uncomfortable swings," Morales said. "And hitters don't take comfortable swings against him. He has that late explosive movement."
Rich Harden, rhp, Visalia Oaks (Athletics)
Relatively unknown before the season, Harden emerged as the most promising member of the next wave. A power pitcher, he dominated the short-season Northwest League in his 2001 pro debut and finished his first full pro year in Double-A Midland.
Harden's fastball topped out at 95 mph. He spun his curveball for strikes, added a splitter and improved his changeup. All thatequated to 187 punchouts--second in the minors to Nageotte--in 153 innings.
Harden's command wavered in Midland, perhaps because he threwing his splitter more. His one-piece arm action also concerned for scouts and is a potential stumbling block for improved control.
Dave Krynzel, of, High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
He seems to be convinced he's more of a power threat than a top-of-the-order threat. Just 20, he could develop into both, according to one scout.
"I don't know which way he'll go," the scout said. "One direction, he could be like Steve Finley, or he could become a prototypical leadoff hitter. He's got some juice, but I don't know if it's a help or a hindrance."
Krynzel can put a charge into the ball but his strikeout totals have been lofty for a leadoff-type. He did display more patience and draw more walks this year. Defensively, his speed allows him to cover both alleys from center field and he has a cannon arm, but some scouts question his instincts.
Khalil Greene, ss, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
Greene has plenty of skeptics who don't think he can stay at short and think the Padres overdrafted him at 13th overall in June. "That's not what first-rounders are supposed to look like," one scout said.
A baseball rat, Greene's tools aren't overwhelming but they grade out as average to plus across the board.
"I'm not so sure that he doesn't have a half step to a step better than average range," another scout said. "He has first-step quickness and instincts. He can make throws off balance, off one foot or in the air."
At the plate, Greene can drive the ball out of the park and uses all fields. He has outstanding bat speed and control. He understands the strike zone and makes consistent hard contact without sacrificing his aggressive approach.
Corey Hart, 3b/1b, High Desert Mavericks (Brewers)
After spending most of his career at first base, the wiry-strong Hart shifted across the diamond to third. Because of his long arms and legs, it wasn't an easy transition, and some scouts project him as more of a corner outfielder down the road.
At the plate is where Hart will make his money. While Hart took advantage of Mavericks Stadium, when he gets his arms extended hell hit the ball out anywhere in any park.
There are some holes to his swing, a given for a 6-foot-6 player, but his quick hands help him get to the ball and he keeps his stroke surprisingly compact. He still needs to work on recognizing breaking pitchers.
Rich Fischer, rhp, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
Primarily a shortstop before Anaheim drafted him, Fischer shows a surprisingly advanced feel for pitching. He also has the ability to make adjustments and not just depend upon his pure arm strength, which is what attracted the Angels in the first place.
"He keeps his cool pretty good," Owens said. "He's able to keep location on the ball, impressive location."
Fischer can fire his fastball up to 95 mph. He also has improved his slider and changeup.
"I think he can be a starter in the big leagues," Rancho Cucamonga manager Bobby Meacham said. "He showed life on his fastball at times. If he maintains that, he has big league stuff. He needs to consistently get movement."
Mark Phillips, lhp, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
He made some strides, but his path may be one that requires more patience with a potentially greater reward at the end.
"When he finds the zone, he's as tough as anyone," Gayton said. "He has the potential to be a frontline starter when he throws strikes."
The problem is that Phillips led the minors in walks and was unable to string together a consistent run of dominant starts. His fastball approaches 95 mph and he works around 93. His curveball has all the makings of a big league strikeout pitch, but he lacks a consistent changeup.
While his arm action is clean and effortless, his delivery needs refinement. Phillips tends to rush, which leaves his pitches up and out of the zone.
Bobby Jenks, rhp, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Angels)
If he figures that out, he'll have a chance to top any list. But it has been a struggle for Jenks, whos still immature and hasnt learned to harness his tremendous power arsenal. Typical of his inconsistency, he fired a 13-strikeout shutout against High Desert in mid-July, then couldnt get through the fifth inning against the Mavericks in his next start.
Jenks can blow the ball by any hitter in baseball. He has topped 100 mph on several occasions, and he sits in the mid- to upper 90s on most nights. He demonstrates a feel for his changeup, but rarely throws it because he's usually behind in the count.
He started the year in Double-A Arkansas. After violating team rules he was sent to extended spring training before spending the rest of the season in Rancho Cucamonga.
Travis Blackley, lhp, San Bernardino Stampede (Mariners)
Where Anderson throws in the mid-80s, Blackley gets his fastball up to 91 mph. Both pitchers fill the strike zone with three pitches, including an above-average curveball and changeup.
At 19, Blackley was the youngest regular starting pitcher in the league. His season didnt begin until May while he recovered from fracturing his elbow in instructional league last fall.
Jake Gautreau, 2b, Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres)
Some scouts were concerned about Gautreau's defense in college. And while he might never develop into a Gold Glove candidate, his defense at second base is playable. His bat will be his calling card, though his first full season didn't exactly evoke the Jeff Kent comparisons that were floating around after his move.
"His bat plays, but he still needs a little work over there at second base," Morales said. "It's a pretty easy position to play average."
Gautreau has a line-drive stroke with power to the gaps. He plays with intensity and displays a natural feel for the game.
Top 10 prospects five years ago
1. *Travis Lee, 1b, High Desert (Diamondbacks)
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