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Eastern League Top 20 Prospects

By Andrew Linker
September 26, 2002

HARRISBURG, Pa.--The Double-A Eastern League has been spoiled over the last decade.

Some years, there have been debates as to which wunderkind is the best prospect. In 1993, it was Cliff Floyd vs. Manny Ramirez. Three years later, Vladimir Guerrero vs. Scott Rolen.

Last season, there was no discussion. Josh Beckett was the top phenom not only in the EL, but in the entire game.

The one constant: the EL generally has been loaded with talent from year to year. That wasn't the case in 2002, despite the presence of shortstops Jose Reyes and Brandon Phillips.

"This year has been an average year for prospects," said a longtime scout, who has covered the league since Bernie Williams played center field for the old Albany-Colonie Yankees. "I don't think it's been great like it has been. I've seen better. I've also seen worse."

reyes
Jose Reyes
Photo: Morris Fostoff
1. Jose Reyes, ss, Binghamton Mets
Reyes started impressing Mets officials in spring training, four months before getting promoted from high Class A St. Lucie to Binghamton. He ranked second to Mark Teixeira on the Florida State League Top 20 list, and earned top honors in the EL. He also was named MVP of the midseason Futures Game.

"He has five outstanding tools," a National League scout said. "He's so young, so prideful. He's still raw at the plate and in the field, but there doesn't appear anything he can't do and do well. He should be one of the best players in the game in a couple of seasons."

Reyes can hit for average and has some pop, has the speed to steal bases and is a stellar defender. He improved his plate discipline in 2002, though he'll have to continue to do so after regressing in Double-A.

"He has above-average tools across the board, and he uses them well," an American League scout said. "There is some concern about the youthful mistakes now becoming habits later. The one thing he must do is learn the strike zone better or he'll get carved up at higher levels."

2. Brandon Phillips, ss, Harrisburg Senators (Expos)
Until Reyes arrived in Binghamton at midseason, Phillips was the consensus pick as the EL's most dynamic prospect. Like Reyes, he made a lasting impression in March during big league camp. The key player for the Indians in the June trade of Bartolo Colon, Phillips instantly became a cornerstone of Cleveland's rebuilding efforts.

He might have to move to second base with Omar Vizquel on the Tribe, but Phillips has the arm and range to handle the defensively responsibilities at shortstop. Like many young middle infielders, he needs more consistency.

He's even more exciting as an offensive threat, hitting for average, projecting to have 20-homer power and owning basestealing speed.

"He has excellent tools at a premium position," an AL scout said. "He has a chance to hit for power and he's above average with his glove, and that makes Omar Vizquel replaceable in Cleveland."

3. Victor Martinez, c, Akron Aeros (Indians)
Akron was the winningest team in the minors with 93 victories. Martinez spearheaded that effort, capturing his second straight MVP award and batting title while also leading the EL in runs, on-base percentage (.417) and slugging (.576).

While no one questioned his bat, his work behind the place received mixed reviews. While managers have named him the best defensive catcher in his league for two years running, Martinez threw out just 25 percent of basestealers, the fourth-worst mark in the league. His receiving skills and game-calling abilities received praise.

"If he threw better, he'd be a future all-star catcher," one scout said.

Countered another: "He does it all. He is a plus defender who can hit for average and power."

4. Justin Morneau, 1b, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)
An intestinal infection during spring training kept Morneau from starting fast in the EL. He lost 17 pounds and missed the first nine days of the season. Once healthy, he wasted little time impressing people--just as he did last year in the low Class A Midwest League, where he ranked behind only Adrian Gonzalez on BA's Top 20 list.

"He has the best bat I've seen in a long time," said an AL scout with more than 20 years of experience in covering the league. "He has the chance to develop into a guy who hits 40 or more homers. He'll hit for average, too. Despite his lack of speed, he's playable at first base."

Morneau has a terrific stroke, good size and leverage. He makes good contact for a slugger and has a sound understanding of the strike zone. He doesn't have the most live body, but he's not a terrible athlete either.

5. Cliff Lee, lhp, Harrisburg/Akron (Expos/Indians)
Another key component to the Colon trade, Lee got a higher profile when he changed organizations. He was the EL's runaway leader in strikeouts before he was promoted to Triple-A in mid-July.

Lee attacks hitters with a varied arsenal that includes two- and four-seam fastballs, a slider, a curveball and a changeup. He doesn't throw exceptionally hard, usually pitching around 90 mph with his sinker, but he's difficult to hit because he generates a lot of movement with his pitches. That also means he sometimes struggles to throw strikes.

"He's competitive, he's athletic and he has the potential for four outstanding pitches," an NL scout said. "If he keeps getting command, he might even have ace potential at the major league level. But sometimes he battles himself and his command. That should change with maturity."

6. Aaron Heilman, rhp, Binghamton Mets
The 18th overall pick in the 2001 draft, Heilman reached Triple-A in little less than a year after he signed. He doesn't project as a staff ace, but he has more than enough stuff to be a solid No. 3 starter.

"He has the best sinker I've seen in the league in years. He's a Kevin Brown type," one AL scout said. "He has plus command of his fastball and he has the potential for a nasty slider. He needs to get a consistent offspeed pitch and better command of his splitter."

Heilman should be able to develop an effective changeup because he has made considerable strides with it during his short time as a pro. He needs to add some tilt to his slider, which may be tougher because he throws from a low arm slot.

7. Adrian Gonzalez, 1b, Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)
After being named the top prospect in the Midwest League last year, Gonzalez skipped a level and headed to Double-A before turning 20. His average dropped 46 points to .266, but he continued to show a terrific stroke and finished second in the EL in RBIs.

"For a 19-year-old at this level, he has unlimited bat potential," said an AL scout. "He has a great command of the strike zone. He has line drive and gap power, but he's going to develop and hit home runs. He's a future Gold Glover."

Another scout expressed concerns about Gonzalez' lack of athleticism and quickness, but he had no doubts about his bat.

8. Kevin Youkilis, 3b, Trenton Thunder (Red Sox)
Youkilis had one of the best bats, if not the best body, in the EL. His 6-foot-1, 220-pound build is anything but classic, but the 2001 eighth-round pick had a breakthrough season.

Youkilis already had displayed one of the minors' best batting eyes at three previous stops in the Red Sox system. After joining Trenton, he started to show more of the power required from third basemen. He works hard, gets the job done at the hot corner and doesn't clog up the bases.

"When you first look at him, you think his rear end is five yards wide," an AL scout said, "but if you get a closer look, you see he has an OK body. He has good bat speed and good lift on his swing. He's a typical Boston player and with that swing, he's made for that big wall at Fenway."

9. Erik Bedard, lhp, Bowie Baysox (Orioles)
Bedard was unquestionably Baltimore's top prospect and arguably had as much upside as any southpaw in the minors at midsummer. Then he was shut down for the year in late June with elbow problems. The Orioles hoped he could avoid Tommy John surgery, but he had the operation in September and will miss all of 2003.

Akron manager Brad Komminsk had three of the EL's best lefties in Lee, Billy Traber and Tallet, but he couldn't help but admire Bedard.

"Bedard can hold his own with them, definitely," Komminsk said. "It's a shame he blew out his elbow. He can do it all. He has good velocity on his fastball and he has good breaking stuff."

Bedard has good life on his low-90s fastball and his curveball. He needs to improve his changeup but his biggest goal will be staying healthy. Arm problems also abbreviated his 2001 season.

10. Freddy Sanchez, ss/2b, Trenton Thunder (Red Sox)
It's tough to be a shortstop in the Red Sox organization. Trenton fans still remember when Nomar Garciaparra played for the Thunder, and he's an icon in Boston.

That won't necessarily be a problem for Sanchez, as scouts long have felt his arm, range and agility would be a better fit at second base. A career .319 hitter in the minors, he has fine instincts and a knack for putting the ball in play. He occasionally will steal a base or drive a double into the gaps.

"He makes good contact, plus he can run," one scout said. "They're going to have to move him to second because of Nomar, or they're going to have to trade him."

11. Jimmy Journell, rhp, New Haven Ravens (Cardinals)
In his first start for New Haven, at the end of the 2001 season, Journell tossed a no-hitter. It took a while for him to provide an encore, as he missed April after having a bone chip removed from his elbow in January. Almost immediately after being promoted to Triple-A in late June, he sat out another month, this time with shoulder stiffness.

And that's the problem with Journell: injuries. He had Tommy John surgery while at Illinois, and physical concerns continue to dog him. His stuff is fine, as he throws in the low to mid-90s and has a hard slider--when he's healthy.

"I've been watching him since high school," an AL scout said. "He has good stuff, but he scares the heck of me with his body. His delivery puts an awful lot of stress on that arm.

"He's already had surgery, but he's added velocity since then. I still believe he's going to break down. It's just a matter of when. Of course, when might not be for 20 years down the road."

12. Billy Traber, lhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)
Alex Escobar was the biggest name among the prospects the Indians received from the Mets last December. Escobar tore up his left ACL in spring training, and big leaguers Matt Lawton and Jerrod Riggan also were disappointments.

At least Traber , whose 17 victories between Akron and Triple-A Buffalo were one off the overall minor league lead, salvaged something for Cleveland. He's a savvy lefthander who throws strikes with four pitches and changes speeds. His high-80s sinker and his curveball are both plus offerings.

13. Brian Tallet, lhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)
Like Traber, Tallet is a tall lefty who won big for Akron in 2002. Tallet throws a little harder, reaching the low 90s, though he's also nearly two years older and doesn't have Traber's command.

His slider eats lefthanders up and he's working on his changeup. He looked sharp in his major league debut in September, spinning six shutout innings against the Red Sox.

"He's a competitor. He wants the ball," Komminsk said. "He's smart and he knows how to pitch. He never throws the ball straight."

14. Ryan Madson, rhp, Reading Phillies
After breaking out in low Class A in 2000, Madson slumped and came down with a tired shoulder last season. This year he returned with a vengeance, leading the EL in victories while ranking second in strikeouts and third in innings.

Madson was more aggressive in 2002, going after hitters with a low-90s fastball and a changeup that serves as his out pitch. His overhand curveball continues to get better. He does a fine job of pitching down in the strike zone, which leads to lots of groundouts and few homers.

15. Danny Borrell, lhp, Norwich Navigators (Yankees)
Borrell has been compared to another former two-way Atlantic Coast Conference star, Eric Milton, since his days at Wake Forest. He had more success as a hitter with the Demon Deacons but quickly took to becoming a full-time pitcher as a pro. Borrell made a mockery of the league ERA race, beating Justin Wayne by 0.81.

Borrell's fastball sat in the low 90s in 2002, as he recovered fully from shoulder pain that bothered him last year. He's more advanced than expected, considering his limited experience, and doesn't beat himself with walks or homers. He also throws a curveball and changeup.

16. Seung Song, rhp, Trenton/Harrisburg (Red Sox/Expos)
Song started the season as Boston's top-ranked prospect and finished the summer under the care of Montreal's medical staff. He was prepared to pass Lee as the EL's strikeout leader when he joined Harrisburg as part of a trade-deadline deal for Cliff Floyd

Song, though, lasted just one start for Harrisburg, before missing the rest of the season with a shoulder injury. When he was healthy, he threw in the low 90s and also had a tough curveball. His control always has been a strength.

"He has a good idea how to pitch," an AL scout said. "He changes speeds and he has good command, but I would be concerned with his health. He needs conditioning and he needs to add strength."

17. Josh Karp, rhp, Harrisburg Senators (Expos)
The sixth overall pick in the 2001 draft, Karp signed last September and thus didn't make his pro debut until this spring. He needed just seven FSL starts before being deemed ready for Double-A.

Karp has three plus pitches and just needs to be more consistent with them. His fastball works in the low 90s and has good life, as do his curveball and changeup. He'll need to find a way to succeed against lefthanders after they hit .331 against him in the EL.

He has all the tools to be a No. 1 starter, though Karp had a reputation for never living up to his stuff at UCLA. He shed that label in 2002, and now easily ranks as the best prospect in a Montreal system depleted by trades.

18. Julio DePaula, rhp, Norwich Navigators (Yankees)
When the Yankees designated righthander Chris Dingman for assignment in March 2001, they found an interested taker in the Rockies. Colorado gave up DePaula to get Dingman, who since has returned to the Yankees via a trade with the Reds.

Meanwhile, DePaula has blossomed into a viable starting pitcher. He has a low-90s fastball that touches 94 mph, along with a slider and a changeup. His arm action is quick, making his pitches more deceptive.

DePaula made progress this year, learning how to change speeds more effectively and developing his secondary pitches. The Yankees like the way he aggressively challenges hitters.

19. Covelli Crisp, of, New Haven/Akron (Cardinals/Indians)
Crisp made a name for himself as one of the EL's top prospects rather than just becoming a novelty for his nickname, Coco. He's the third member of this list to have been acquired by the Indians during the season, leaving the Cardinals as part of the Chuck Finley trade.

A switch-hitter, Crisp makes contact, sprays line drives and steals bases. He has the range to play center field, though his arm isn't an asset.

"He's a throwback to the Cardinals' old Gashouse Gangs of the '30s," one AL scout said. "He's aggressive, athletic and fast. He's the prototypical leadoff hitter who's also an excellent defender. How the Cardinals gave up on him is a mystery to me."

20. Jesus Medrano, 2b, Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)
Norwich's Andy Phillips was leading the EL in homers when he was promoted to Triple-A in July, but among the league's second basemen, Medrano intrigued scouts the most. They liked his presence at the top of the batting order and his ability to steal bases.

Medrano plays to his strengths, bunting and keeping the ball on the ground to take advantage of his speed. He has cut his errors from 29 to 17 to 14 over the last three seasons, and has played shortstop well in a pinch.

"He has really improved his plate discipline and became a good leadoff hitter--and that's a rare commodity these days," a NL scout said. "He's still too upright and nonchalant at times at second base, but he's a good athlete who should keep improving."

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Mark Kotsay, of, Portland (Marlins)
2. *Derrick Gibson, of, New Haven (Rockies)
3. *Jaret Wright, rhp, Akron (Indians)
4. *Alex Gonzalez, ss, Portland (Marlins)
5. *Preston Wilson, of, Binghamton (Mets)
6. *David Ortiz, 1b, New Britain (Twins)
7. *Michael Coleman, of, Trenton (Red Sox)
8. *Orlando Cabrera, ss, Harrisburg (Expos)
9. *Sean Casey, 1b, Akron (Indians)
10. *Brad Fullmer, 1b, Harrisburg (Expos)

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