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Carolina League Top 20 Prospects

By Dave Utnik

Top 20
WOODBRIDGE, Va.--The Braves violated Major League Baseball rules by signing Wilson Betemit before he was 16. They were fined $100,000 and prohibited from signing Dominican players for six months. As if that wasn’t punishment enough, Betemit then tried to get out of the deal.

He walked out of spring training prior to the 2000 season and filed a lawsuit through his agent in an attempt to become a free agent. Eventually, the Braves struck a deal without going to court and Betemit returned from a half-season layoff to become Atlanta’s top-rated prospect.

Betemit didn’t do anything to lessen his status this year. In his first full professional season, Betemit showed the rest of the baseball world why the Braves refused to let him go. Despite making a difficult jump from the short-season New York-Penn League to high Class A (and eventually the big leagues), Betemit was a near-unanimous choice as the Carolina League’s No. 1 prospect.

In a league typically dominated by pitching stars, Betemit was the one position player who truly stood out. Managers also named him the league’s best defensive shortstop, best infield arm and most exciting player.

"He was the best athlete in the league," Wilmington manager Jeff Garber said. "He has the ability to be a five-tool player."

Tankersley
Wilson Betemit
Photo: Robert Gurganus
1 WILSON BETEMIT, ss
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Betemit is a switch-hitter who can produce for average and power. It’s what he can do with the glove, however, that makes league managers believe he will be a success in the major leagues. Betemit has all the tools to win a Gold Glove at shortstop: size, arm strength and outstanding range.

He made so much progress with Myrtle Beach that Pelicans manager Brian Snitker envisioned him being part a regular of the Atlanta infield within the next two seasons. With Rafael Furcal at shortstop and Marcus Giles at second base, Betemit could fit in at third base, pushing Chipper Jones to the outfield permanently.

"He’s going to elevate his game wherever he’s at," Snitker said. "Obviously, the tools are there."

Salem manager Dave Collins likened Betemit to another Carolina League all-star shortstop: Tony Fernandez, who earned that honor in 1981--a year before Betemit was born. Fernandez went on to win four Gold Gloves with the Blue Jays.

Betemit needs to make some minor adjustments, such as drawing more walks and cutting down on his errors, but no one doubted he’ll become a star.

2 JIMMY JOURNELL, rhp
Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
After working nearly two years to come back from Tommy John surgery, Journell was one of the minors’ most dominating pitchers in 2001. His 42 1/3-inning streak without an earned run was the longest in the minors. He won the Carolina League ERA title and shared the pitcher-of-the-year award. In his lone start in Double-A, he tossed a seven-inning no-hitter.

At the University of Illinois and last summer at short-season New Jersey, Journell’s success came in relief. The Cardinals envisioned him as a big league closer, but his path to St. Louis may have been altered a bit following a 14-win season as a starter.

Journell had one of the league’s premier fastballs. He complements that mid-90s offering with a nice slider. All of his pitches have life.

"Anybody who throws as hard as he does will be in the big leagues quickly," Snitker said.

3 ANGEL BERROA, ss
Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
Berroa was the key player for the Royals in the three-team Johnny Damon trade with the Athletics and Devil Rays last offseason. Kansas City lacked a pure shortstop prospect, and that’s exactly what Berroa gives them.

He’s regarded primarily for his defensive prowess. He has outstanding range and a strong, accurate throwing arm. After making 54 errors at high Class A Visalia last year, Berroa’s consistency improved in 2001. He made more of the routine plays and dazzled managers by coming up with many of the difficult ones.

They also liked Berroa’s ability to hit for average and gap power, plus to steal an occasional base. His main weakness is his lack of strike-zone discipline.

"He’s a tough out," Collins said. "You can put him in a lot of different places in the lineup."

4 RYAN KIBLER, rhp
Salem Avalanche (Rockies)
Keeping the ball down in the strike zone is essential to winning in Coors Field. That’s why Kibler’s fastball, which has plus velocity and natural sink, is so appealing to the Rockies.

Winston-Salem manager Wally Backman said Kibler’s sinker was the best in the league by far. Kibler complements it with a quality changeup and an unflappable demeanor. He also works effectively on both sides of the plate.

Put that package together, and it’s easy to see why Kibler reached Double-A before he turned 21. He’s still developing a consistent breaking pitch.

5 CHRIS NARVESON, lhp
Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
The comparisons to Rick Ankiel aren’t surprising. Narveson is a quality lefty who dominated the Carolina League as a teenager. Four seasons after Ankiel set a Cannons franchise record with 181 strikeouts, Narveson had little difficulty following a midseason promotion from low Class A Peoria.

He has command of four pitches: a low-90s fastball, a slider, curveball and changeup. Narveson’s stuff isn’t as good as Ankiel’s, though it’s superior to Bud Smith’s. If Ankiel can recover from his control difficulties, the St. Louis rotation could be loaded with lefties in the near future.

Narveson also impressed managers with his confidence. His season ended when the Cardinals shut him down as a precaution when he suffered a slight tear in his elbow in mid-July.

6 BRETT EVERT, rhp
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
The Braves have been known for their pitching for years. Betemit notwithstanding, their system currently is far deeper in mound prospects than it is in position players. Evert’s emergence in 2001 added one more name to Atlanta’s stockpile.

Backman called Evert a 20-year-old kid with a big league arm. He was the best starter on a Pelicans staff that also featured Top 20 Prospects Jung Bong and Trey Hodges, the Carolina League co-pitcher of the year. Evert showed a 91-95 mph fastball, plus curveball and satisfactory changeup.

"He’s the total package," Snitker said. "There’s more in there than you’re even seeing now."

The only downside was a shoulder strain that ended Evert’s season in early July.

7 BOBBY BRADLEY, rhp
Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
Bradley was another of the league’s top pitching prospects who couldn’t stay healthy. His development has been slowed the past two seasons by elbow problems, a strained ligament in 2000 and bone chips in 2001.

When he’s 100 percent physically, Bradley has the ability to dominate. He throws two- and four-seam fastballs and is capable of reaching 92 mph. Yet it’s his sharp-breaking curveball that always has been his out pitch. It’s one of the best curves in the minors, though he may rely on it too much, to the detriment of his elbow.

"There’s no question about his competitiveness. He’ll never have a problem with that part of the game," Lynchburg pitching coach Blaine Beatty said. "There are still some things he needs to achieve and learn, but he has so many things to offer."

8 JIMMY GOBBLE, lhp
Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
The Royals had nine first-round picks from 1997-2000, and they used them all on pitchers. The best of that group is lefthander Chris George, who led Wilmington to a Northern Division title two years ago. Second in line is Gobble, another lefty who did the same in 2001. Snitker even compared the two.

With a curveball that already is regarded as the organization’s best, a low-90s fastball and quality changeup, Gobble rarely looked like a teenager on the mound. He finished second in the ERA race and third in strikeouts while limiting opponents to a .226 average.

"He showed poise for a 19-year-old," Garber said. "He has the ability to develop three above-average pitches and use them at the big league level."

9 JASON YOUNG, rhp
Salem Avalanche (Rockies)
In his first professional season after receiving a Rockies-record $2.75 million signing bonus, Young showed off a mid-90s fastball and the ability to consistently throw it for strikes. A potential No. 1 starter, he also throws a hard slider, changeup and curveball.

"He’s one of the few pitchers in the league who has such good control that he can get by with throwing his fastball 80 percent of the time," Collins said. "What I like other than his ability is he has a warrior’s mentality. He’s not afraid out there."

10 VICTOR MARTINEZ, c
Kinston Indians
Kinston’s 2.73 team ERA was the best in the league. While Top 20 prospects Alex Herrera, Shane Wallace and Brian Tallet (plus righthander Kyle Denney) received most of the acclaim, it was impossible to overlook Martinez.

Martinez won the MVP award and batting title. He also has gap power and decent plate discipline, and he was much improved after batting a weak .217 in 26 Carolina League games in 2000.

But it was his work behind the plate that managers wanted to talk about. They named him the league’s best defensive catcher, praising his game-calling ability and his strong, accurate arm.

"He might be the best all-around catcher I’ve seen in this league," said Snitker, who has managed the Pelicans since their inception in 1999.

11 KEN HARVEY, 1b
Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
Because Harvey has what charitably can be called a stocky build and isn’t much of an athlete, he lasted until the fifth round of the 1999 draft. He sandwiched the NCAA Division I batting title (.478) and short-season Northwest League crown (.397) around his selection.

It took a right toe injury to finally get him out, as he missed most of 2000. He returned to ravage Carolina League pitching so thoroughly that he was promoted to Double-A in mid-May. His wide-open stance allows him to turn on inside pitches, making him a threat to all fields.

"He was the purest hitter in the league," Garber said. "He has the ability to hit to all fields with power."

Harvey’s strikeout-walk ratio deteriorated significantly after his promotion, a flaw he’ll need to address. His bat will have to carry him because he’s stiff at first base and is better suited to DH.

12 ED ROGERS, ss
Frederick Keys (Orioles)
Rogers made such a terrific showing during spring training that he skipped the Carolina League and began the season in Double-A at age 19. After hitting .199 at Bowie he was demoted to Frederick, where he hit 61 points higher while showing gap power and good speed.

He already is considered Baltimore’s shortstop of the future. With the best arm, range and hands among Orioles infield prospects, he’ll force major leaguer Brian Roberts to second base or a utility role in a year or two.

"He plays a very smooth shortstop," Garber said. "With his short swing, he has a chance to hit for a high average at the major league level."

To do so, Rogers will have to show more patience. He walked just 20 times in 521 plate appearances between the two levels.

13 BLAKE WILLIAMS, rhp
Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
An emotional young prospect with a red-hot intensity and the skills to match it, Williams likely would have won the Carolina League’s ERA title had he not injured his elbow late in the season. His 2.43 ERA in 17 starts was much more indicative of his talent than his 4-10 record.

Williams went from short-season ball to high Class A, and there’s no question he’s talented enough to pitch in the major leagues. When he gets there depends on how quickly he comes back from Tommy John surgery.

Managers rated his slurve the best breaking ball in the Carolina League. Williams complements that pitch with a mid-90s fastball and a changeup.

"He’s got a good arm and a good breaking ball," Cannons manager Joe Cunningham said. "What it boils down to is being consistent with his pitches."

14 ALEX HERRERA, lhp
Kinston Indians
Nothing in Herrera’s past indicated he was headed toward the type of success he had in 2001. The Indians knew Herrera had talent. They liked his low-90s fastball and were impressed with his slider, but he advanced through the bottom of the minor league system without really being noticed.

This summer, however, Herrera stood out. A rare power level, he reached 95 mph with his fastball while his slider was untouchable at times. He struck out 12.5 batters per nine innings and held opponents to a .171 average. After a promotion to Double-A, he continued to pitch well.

He threw mostly in middle relief in order to get him consistent innings. He’s working on making his delivery and command more consistent.

15 JUNG BONG, lhp
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Bong’s fastball isn’t considered overpowering by major league standards, but it is deceptively difficult to hit because he works it so effectively through the strike zone. That makes him a perfect fit for the Braves organization, because he has tremendous control and the ability to work on both sides of the plate.

After going 4-5, 5.23 in the first two months, Bong went 9-4, 1.97 the rest of the way.

"He was our most improved pitcher this season," Snitker said. "He struggled a little bit in April and May, but he really came around. His command got better, his breaking ball improved and his fastball had some life on it."

16 ERIK BEDARD, lhp
Frederick Keys (Orioles)
Bedard, a Canadian, has been a winner everywhere he’s pitched. He helped Norwalk (Conn.) CC reach the Junior College World Series as an amateur and was part of a low Class A South Atlantic League championship in 2000.

Bedard’s best pitch is a low-90s fastball that he keeps down in the strike zone. He also has a hard breaking ball and a changeup.

A sore shoulder cost him two months in the middle of the season, but Bedard returned to help Frederick earn a wild-card berth. He permitted just eight runs in his final 69 innings, which also included 97 strikeouts.

17 SHANE WALLACE, lhp
Kinston Indians
Wallace followed up a solid 2000 season in the South Atlantic League by overmatching Carolina League batters before an elbow injury shut him down. While he has spent parts of the past two years on the disabled list and needed Tommy John surgery this time, his talent is unmistakable.

He has a low-90s fastball, nice velocity for a lefthander who still can’t drink legally. He also mixes in curveballs, sliders and changeups to keep hitters guessing.

"He’s a lefty who is smart beyond his years," Garber said. "He changes speeds and showed the ability to work the ball in the zone."

18 TREY HODGES, rhp
Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
The temptation to swing at Hodges’ slider was too much for most teams to overcome in 2001. The more he teased batters with breaking pitches off the plate, the more they swung. Mostly, they missed.

He shared pitcher-of-the-year honors with Journell after leading the league in victories and finishing third in ERA. Most of Hodges’ success was the result of getting ahead in the count. He made that a priority at Louisiana State, where he was named MVP of the 2000 College World Series, and walked just 18 batters in a league-high 173 innings in his first full year as a pro.

Hodges isn’t just a soft tosser who relies on finesse and command. He has a solid fastball to go with his slider.

19 BRIAN TALLET, lhp
Kinston Indians
The Carolina League hosted a 2000 College World Series championship game reunion. Tallet started that contest for Louisiana State against Young and Stanford, with Hodges earning the victory in relief.

Pitching in big games for college baseball’s premier program prepared Tallet for success in professional baseball. Despite just 16 innings of previous pro experience, he led the league in strikeouts.

Tallet has a lot going for him. He’s lefthanded and he has size (6-foot-7). He also has good stuff, featuring a low-90s fastball, a slider and a changeup.

20 COVELLI CRISP, of
Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
St. Louis has had success recently drafting players out of Los Angeles-area junior colleges. The Cardinals landed Bud Smith out of Harbor JC and Jack Wilson from Oxnard CC in 1998. A year later, Crisp arrived from Pierce JC.

Crisp batted a combined .256 in his first pro season before challenging the Cannons record for hits in a season and settling for leading the Carolina League. Snitker said Crisp had the best hands among hitters in the circuit.

A switch-hitter, Crisp batted in the leadoff spot for most of the year and did a good job of getting on base and running once he got there. He also has enough power to bat lower in the lineup.

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