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Eastern League Top 20 Prospects

By Andrew Linker

Top 20
HARRISBURG, Pa.–There was no problem finding prospects in the Double-A Eastern League, even if many of them were no longer in the league when the season ended on Labor Day.

Six of the Top 20 Prospects–pitchers Josh Beckett, Nate Cornejo, Juan Rincon, Luis Pineda, Casey Fossum and Ryan Drese–found their way to the major leagues before Sept. 1. Possible triple crown candidate Juan Rivera was promoted to Triple-A by the all-star break.

"There's more depth this year than last year," one longtime Eastern League scout said. "Just trying to come up with only 15 to 20 guys for a list of top prospects is difficult.

"As far as a group going to Cooperstown one day, I don't think there are many of those this year. But with the possible exception of New Haven, everybody had a couple of guys who are not just going to go to the big leagues, but are guys who are going to help in the big leagues."

Beckett
Josh Beckett
Photo: Ken Babbitt
1 JOSH BECKETT, rhp
Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)
Beckett arrived in Double-A at midseason, preceded by massive amounts of hype. He then lived up to all expectations, winning eight of nine decisions with a 1.82 ERA that would have been the best in the EL if he had enough innings to qualify.

He worked seven innings of a combined no-hitter against Binghamton. His fastball hit 97 mph and his curveball also overmatched hitters. In September, he won his first major league start as well as Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award.

"He's a lot like Nolan Ryan, but he's far more advanced than Nolan was with his breaking ball," said New Britain manager Stan Cliburn, who caught a young Ryan during his career with the Angels. "Back then, early in his career, Nolan would bounce his breaking ball. But Beckett can throw his breaking ball for strikes."

Portland manager Rick Renteria compared his ace to a righthander he faced in the EL 18 years earlier.

"Obviously, Josh is a little younger than Roger Clemens was when he was here," Renteria said. "But if I had to compare Josh to anybody, it would be Clemens."

2 MARLON BYRD, of
Reading Phillies
The most complete position player in the EL started the season as one of its most inexperienced players. The first Phillies position player to skip the high Class A Florida State League in a decade, Byrd has a combination of speed, power and defense that makes him extremely dangerous.

"Man, he just killed us," Binghamton manager Howie Freiling said. "He's a five-tool player. He can be a 30-30 guy in the major leagues, and there aren't many of those around."

Only a late-season slump kept Byrd from joining Jeromy Burnitz as the only 30-30 players in the league's 79 seasons.

" What he's done makes Doug Glanville tradable in Philadelphia," one scout said. "And if I'm Reggie Taylor, I'm looking over my shoulder. Byrd goes hard all the time. There's nothing fancy about him and there's nothing phony about him."

3 NATE CORNEJO, rhp
Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
Cornejo was expected to spend the entire season in Erie. Instead, he finished the summer in Detroit's rotation.

Managers were impressed with his 6-foot-5 frame and his heavy, low-90s sinker. He also throws a slider and changeup.

"He just comes after you with that heavy sinker," Freiling said. "He's a workhorse. I can see him pitching 200 innings a year in the big leagues."

"He has no idea how strong he is," one scout said. "He's everything you want to see in a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the big leagues."

4 MICHAEL CUDDYER, 3b/1b/of
New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Cuddyer was eaten alive by inside pitches in 2000, when he got his first taste of Double-A. He had no such problems this season, solidifying his prospect status with across-the-board career highs on offense.

His 30 homers were five times as many as he hit for New Britain last season and nearly as many as he bashed in his first 397 games as a pro. He added 38 points to his batting average while finishing second in the EL in on-base percentage (.395) and extra-base hits (69), third in runs and homers, and fourth in doubles and slugging percentage (.560).

A former shortstop who spent the last two years at third base, Cuddyer still is searching for a defensive home. He logged plenty of time at first base and in the outfield this summer. Because of Cuddyer's tools and shuttling between positions, Cliburn compared him to Albert Pujols.

"He plays beyond his tools and he may continue to do so," one scout said. "My concern is he won't have the glove for a quality third base and he won't have the bat for a quality first base."

5 BRAD THOMAS, lhp
New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Think the Dodgers might like a second chance to keep Thomas, whom they released in 1997 because of visa problems? The Australian Olympian was the best pitcher on the EL's best pitching staff.

Thomas throws strikes with a low-90s fastball, a curveball and a changeup, though his command deserted him when he was briefly promoted to Minnesota at midseason. His fluid delivery reminded Cliburn of former big leaguer Jerry Koosman's.

"He has all the makings of a classic lefthanded starter," Freiling said. "He has a good delivery and his fastball has velocity. He has a real sharp breaking ball and his changeup is improving. That's a guy who can have three major league pitches, and he's still young."

6 JUAN RIVERA, of
Norwich Navigators (Yankees)
Rivera might have won the EL triple crown if not for a midseason promotion to Triple-A Columbus, where his .327-14-40 numbers in 55 games mirrored those of what he did in 77 games with Norwich.

Rivera has a quick bat and a clean swing that gives him good plate coverage. His combined 28 homers doubled what he produced in each of his two seasons at high Class A Tampa in the pitcher-friendly FSL.

"He's made some big strides from a couple of years ago at Tampa," Harrisburg manager Luis Dorante said. "He puts more power numbers up now and he's a good two-strike hitter. Defensively, he's solid and he has a good arm. He's one of those four-tool guys.

"The one tool he's missing is running, but maybe that's because of the organization. The Yankees just don't run a whole lot. He gets down the line pretty good. I don't know why they don't let him steal more."

7 BRANDON CLAUSSEN, lhp
Norwich Navigators (Yankees)
The Yankees wanted Claussen to improve his mechanics and his command within the strike zone this season. He did just that while leading the minor leagues in strikeouts.

His fastball tops out at 94 mph, while he also throws a cutter, curveball and changeup. None of his pitches are easy to hit.

"He has a great understanding of how to pitch," Reading manager Gary Varsho said. "He has everything you're looking for when you're breaking down skills. He has command, location and he can throw a breaking ball when he's behind in the count. He's tough to steal on. He's just not going to beat himself."

Cliburn compared Claussen to another slightly built Yankees lefthander of the past, Ron Guidry.

"He's got a tough out pitch with that cut fastball of his," Cliburn said. "It's a natural cutter at 90 mph. He's a lot like Ron Guidry was with that late breaker. Guidry had a slider, but Claussen's cutter may as well be a slider with the way it moves."

8 MARCUS THAMES, of
Norwich Navigators (Yankees)
For all of his tools, Thames struggled for much of his first two seasons in Norwich. His third stop in the EL was entirely different, though Thames had to wait until Rivera left for Triple-A to get his proper acclaim.

He led the league in runs, doubles, extra-base hits (78), on-base percentage (.410) and slugging percentage (.598). He'll have to prove himself in Triple-A because he was 24 and taking his third shot at Double-A, but EL managers think he'll do so. His all-around package of tools is impressive.

"He's a good example of patience being rewarded," one scout said. "He's starting to put things together now. He's going to be a frontline outfielder. He's not a good center fielder yet, but he's going to be one."

9 JUAN RINCON, rhp
New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Rincon rebounded from his worst season as a pro with his best. All without leaving New Britain, except for a midseason stay with Minnesota. After going 3-9, 4.65 in 15 starts last season with the Rock Cats, Rincon ranked third in the EL in victories and eighth in ERA.

Cliburn likened Rincon to a hard-throwing version of Rick Reed, whom the Twins acquired from the Mets in July for Matt Lawton.

"He's going to start and relieve on the big league level," Cliburn said. "He has a 91-mph fastball with movement. He has a real good changeup and he loves to compete. He's pretty solid, but you don't find too many guys in this league who are 5-10, 5-11 in size who are starters down the road."

10 OMAR INFANTE, ss
Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
The Eastern League's youngest player, Infante played well above his age in 2001. He hit 35 points above his previous career average and set career highs in nearly every category.

Infante makes line-drive contact and shows decent patience at the plate. He isn't the quickest shortstop, but he's a solid fielder who reminded Cliburn of Omar Vizquel. Some managers said Infante needs to grow up, because they thought he was too lackadaisical and flashy.

"It's tough for me to watch him, because he doesn't hustle enough for my standards," said one manager, who nonetheless ranked Infante among the EL's best prospects. "Tools-wise? What doesn't he do? He fields. He hits. He knows the strike zone. I see him as a frontline second baseman in the majors."

11 MIKE RESTOVICH, of
New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
Cuddyer wasn't the only Twins slugger who recaptured his power stroke at New Britain this year. Restovich isn't as disciplined as Cuddyer, but he may have more raw pop and he's a good athlete for his size.

Always one for comparisons, Cliburn likened Restovich to former Twins outfielder Tom Brunansky.

"He can really steal bases for a big man, and he has instincts on the basepaths," Cliburn said. "He has power from gap to gap, and he can hit the ball as hard to right field as anybody I've ever seen."

"He's taken his time going through the system like Cuddyer has, but he's showing his power now," one scout said. "His power, too, is to the big part of the ballpark. He hasn't even learned to pull the ball yet."

12 BRANDON PHILLIPS, ss
Harrisburg Senators (Expos)
The Expos have developed plenty of five-tool outfielders but haven't had the same success with infielders. Phillips may change that.

He joined Harrisburg in midseason, becoming the Senators' youngest player since Ugueth Urbina in 1993. Phillips quickly became the Senators' best all-around player as well. His combination of offense and defense separates him from other shortstops Montreal has sent through the Eastern League, such as offense-minded Mark Grudzielanek or the defense-first duo of Orlando Cabrera and Tomas de la Rosa.

"He's a Jimmy Rollins-type of guy," Dorante said. "He has some occasional power. He can run the bases. He can play defense. And I think Phillips will be more of a threat at the plate than Jimmy Rollins."

13 LUIS PINEDA, rhp
Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
Pineda needed six seasons to escape Class A, but after a few appearances with Erie he had one scout thinking of Pedro Martinez.

"He's got a little Pedro in him with his delivery and he competes like Pedro," the scout said. "The only question about him is whether he's going to be strong enough, but that's the question with Pedro now, too."

Pineda's breakthrough season also came with his third organization, as he previously was released by Texas and Arizona. Though he was used primarily as a starter, his high-90s fastball and power slider could make him a closer option if Matt Anderson doesn't work out for Detroit.

His stuff and lack of size reminded Varsho of Mariano Rivera.

"He has two major league pitches that attack the strike zone," Varsho said. "As a hitter, you have to hit him to beat him."

14 CASEY FOSSUM, lhp
Trenton Thunder (Red Sox)
Fossum had the worst luck in the EL. He allowed one earned run or less in 12 of his 20 starts, yet had a 3-3 record in those outings and was 3-7 overall. He joined Boston in July after posting a 0.97 ERA in his final seven starts.

Fossum's has split time between starting and relieving with the Red Sox, and scouts always have been divided about his long-term role because his fastball has only average velocity. His delivery, arm speed and arm angle make his heater look quicker.

"His fastball has very good life in the strike zone," Trenton manager Billy Gardner Jr. said, "but the pitch that makes him effective is his curveball. It's tight and it has good bite in the strike zone. He also has brought along his changeup to give him three pitches."

15 MIKE RIVERA, c
Erie SeaWolves (Tigers)
Playing in his first full season in Double-A, Rivera led the EL with 33 home runs as managers named him the circuit's best power prospect. His 101 RBIs were second in the league only to teammate Eric Munson.

Critics will claim Rivera benefited from playing his home games at cozy Jerry Uht Park and they may be right. He batted .306-23-59 in Erie and .273-10-42 elsewhere. But one scout said, "I've seen him hit at home and on the road, and he uses most of the park wherever he hits."

Rivera's improving defense also attracted attention. He has above-average strength and threw out 31 percent of basestealers. Yet another scout wasn't totally sold on Rivera as a catcher.

"He's come a long way as a defender but I think he's going to be a backup catcher in the big leagues," that scout said. "He has some power, so that's going to help him in the American League, where he can DH."

16 RYAN DRESE, rhp
Akron Aeros (Indians)
Drese couldn't find his way onto Baseball America's preseason Indians Top 30 Prospects list. But he found his way to the majors by July and was in Cleveland's September rotation as it tried to wrap up the American League Central.

Once a highly regarded college prospect who was sidetracked by injuries for years, Drese now throws 91-92 mph and can reach 95 with his lively fastball. He also has a hard slider and goes after hitters. Both Freiling and Gardner envisioned Drese becoming a big league workhorse.

17 CARLOS SILVA, rhp
Reading Phillies
The scouting report on Silva entering 2001 was that he had a live arm, a mid-90s fastball and the ability to eat innings, but couldn't put hitters away because he lacked secondary pitches. While that combination resulted in leading the FSL in losses a year ago, this summer he topped the EL in victories.

"He fits right in there with Nate Cornejo," Freiling said. "He's a big, strong guy with a heavy sinker. His ball really runs into righthanders. That sinker just eats up hitters. He looks smooth for such a big guy."

Silva's future may be in the bullpen, though the Phillies have resisted that move to this point.

"He has trouble with his offspeed pitches," a scout said. "But he has that heavy, hard fastball that will make him very tough in relief."

18 JOHN STEPHENS, rhp
Bowie Baysox (Orioles)
Stephens dominates hitters though his fastball arrives 10 mph slower than Silva's. He led the EL with a 1.84 ERA and tossed a no-hitter while rarely topping the mid-80s.

"He's got a sneaky fastball," said Dorante, "but it may be tough for him to pitch in the big leagues with that changeup and that rainbow he throws for a curveball."

His overall stuff isn't impressive, but his results are. In five pro seasons, Stephens has gone 36-25, 2.73 with 646 strikeouts in 570 innings. At least one scout believes in him.

"He's like Josh Towers. He's a magician out there," the scout said. "I've sat with other scouts who say this guy is not a prospect. But batters don't get good swings at him and to me, that makes him a prospect. Very few pitchers can throw two or three changeups in a row and get you out, but he can."

19 ABRAHAM NUNEZ, of
Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)
Nunez already has big league swagger--think of Jim Thome's bat pointing toward the pitcher, and you get the idea--to go along with his big league tools. Now all he has to do is perform with more consistency in the minors.

While Nunez's numbers this season declined from his performance in an injury-filled 2000 season at Portland, his skills still commanded attention. He's a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, plus he owns a cannon for an arm.

"He really hasn't come into his own yet, but he has all the tools and he has the best arm in the league by far," Cliburn said. "He's a free-swinging guy who has to cut down on his strikeouts. But when you're evaluating players, you have to look at their talent and their tools, and he has all of them."

20 ROBERT STRATTON, of
Binghamton Mets
That Stratton strikes out a lot is a given. No one in the EL swung harder and missed more often, as his league-record 201 strikeouts will attest. But, no one in the EL hit the ball farther, period.

Stratton showed why he is the among the minors' most feared power hitters when he launched a mid-90s fastball from Franklin Nunez over the brick wall that stands well beyond the left-field wall at Reading's GPU Stadium. The homer, easily measured at more than 500 feet, was the first to clear that wall since a Greg Luzinski blast in 1970.

"He can be your stereotypical corner outfielder in the major leagues, a guy who can hit for power and drive in runs," Freiling said. "He has a very good arm, so he can play right field, and his bat can be as awesome as anybody's."

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