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International League Top 20 Prospects

By Matt Michael and Lacy Lusk

Top 20
SYRACUSE, N.Y.--By the middle of July, picking the top prospect in the Triple-A International League was a Dunn deal. Slugging outfielder Adam Dunn, a 6-foot-6 former University of Texas quarterback, started this season at Double-A Chattanooga and ended it with the Reds. In between, he terrorized IL pitchers with 20 home runs and 53 RBIs in just 55 games for Louisville.

The rest of the baseball world found out what the IL already knew in mid-July, when Dunn smashed a 409-foot home run in the Futures Game, then clubbed two more home runs that totaled 870 feet in the Triple-A All-Star Game.

"And he’s only 21 years old," Rochester manager Andy Etchebarren said. "If he doesn’t get hurt, he’s going to be fantastic."

Dunn had to be fantastic to get the No. 1 ranking in the IL this season. Managers gave him the nod over league MVP Toby Hall, who won the batting title.

Dunn
Adam Dunn
Photo: Larry Goren
1 ADAM DUNN, of
Louisville RiverBats (Reds)
Ranked as Cincinnati’s No. 2 prospect behind fellow Double-A outfielder Austin Kearns at the start of the season, Dunn powered his way out of the Southern League and then out of the International League. One of his homers in the Triple-A all-star game left Indianapolis’ Victory Field, only to picked up and hauled off by a lucky motorist driving behind the right-field wall.

"Dunn’s a guy who has real good discipline at the plate," Durham manager Bill Evers said. "He obviously has well-above-average power. Defensively, he still has a little work to do, but he’s good for a big guy."

Dunn has speed that also can be described as good for a big guy. He stole more than 20 bases in each of his previous two minor league seasons, then picked his spots at running again this year--when he wasn’t jogging around the bases. He has an average but generally accurate arm.

2 TOBY HALL, c
Durham Bulls (Devil Rays)
Another nearly surefire Opening Day 2002 starter in the majors, Hall put up monstrous offensive numbers, especially for his position. He previously had a reputation for being one-dimensional, but managers also rated him the IL’s best defensive catcher.

Hall hits to all fields and does so with power. He had nearly as many homers (19) as strikeouts (22). Behind the plate, he cleaned up his footwork and erased 45 percent of basestealers. The only tool he lacks is speed.

"He has a chance to be an offensive catcher for years to come," Richmond manager Carlos Tosca said. "I think he receives and throws fine. The book on him before this year may have been all O and no D, but he certainly has defensive ability."

Lopez
Felipe Lopez
Photo: David Schofield
3 FELIPE LOPEZ, ss/2b
Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
For the first three years of his pro career, Lopez figured his talent would carry him to the major leagues. So he failed to study the game, made errors in the field because he didn’t concentrate, and at times he loafed to first base after hitting routine grounders.

But last fall, a light went on. Lopez’ wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child, and Lopez realized he had to take his life and his job more seriously. Not coincidentally, he moved up as soon as he grew up. He climbed from Double-A Tennessee to Triple-A Syracuse in late April, then became the Blue Jays’ regular third baseman in early August.

The Jays aren’t ruling out keeping Lopez at third, but he’s a natural middle infielder with power. Though he has played mostly shortstop as a pro, Toronto would like to move him to second base eventually. He strikes out a lot and still is prone to silly errors, but he has an electricity in his game that makes him a potential superstar.

"He’s got bat speed," Etchebarren said. "He just needs to get more consistent hitting the ball. When he does that, he’ll be an outstanding hitter because you can’t teach bat speed."

4 NICK JOHNSON, 1b
Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
The minors’ OPS darling had a healthy wrist in 2001, so he went back to doing what he does best. Johnson hit just .256, but he had 38 extra-base hits in 359 at-bats and drew 81 walks. He’s major league-ready and could make Tino Martinez expendable in New York.

"I think he answered the questions about his health this year by him playing every day," Evers said. "Next year will be a big year for him. I think when he’s stronger next year, you’ll see better power numbers. His defense is already good."

Tosca called Johnson "the closest thing you’ll see to a Mark Grace." Johnson weighs a good 25 pounds more than Grace, however, so he could develop considerably more power.

5 BRANDON DUCKWORTH, rhp
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
As Philadelphia’s minor league pitching coordinator last year, Goose Gregson said he was one of Duckworth’s biggest critics. As the Red Barons’ pitching coach this season, Gregson became one of his biggest fans.

Gregson said the Duckworth of 2000 was a fly-ball pitcher who was preoccupied with strikeouts and had a curveball that too closely resembled his slider. This year’s version focused on keeping the ball down, getting outs with one pitch instead of three, and developing a 12-to-6 curveball that gave him four major league-quality pitches (fastball, curveball, slider and changeup).

Despite getting promoted to Philadelphia in early August, Duckworth won the IL’s most valuable pitcher award and nearly won the pitching triple crown by leading the league in wins and ERA while finishing third in strikeouts. He joined fellow rookies Dave Coggin and Nelson Figueroa in the Phillies’ rotation and turned in eight quality starts in his first nine outings, going 2-1, 2.93.

"Early in the year, he was absolutely not ready," Gregson said. "But he was blossoming as a pitcher when he was called up. The other two having success gave him the confidence that he could do the same thing."

6 TIM SPOONEYBARGER, rhp
Richmond Braves
Spooneybarger is flat-out untouchable. He held opponents to a .179 average in 1999, .110 last year and .205 in his first taste of Double-A and Triple-A ball this season.

He shows good command and movement with his two-seam and four-seam fastballs, with the latter pitch arriving in the low 90s. His velocity should pick up when he throws out of the windup, something he’s planning on working on in Puerto Rico this winter after working out of the stretch all season.

But his out pitch is a slurve that ranked as one of the best breaking balls in the league by anyone’s reckoning.

"I call it a power curveball," Tosca said. "We rated it as a 70 on the 20-to-80 scale. It has good, late, hard bite and he complements it with a fastball that’s above average. If his breaking ball is in the strike zone, it’s not so hard and so big where he fools the umpire, but it’s unhittable."

7 ALEX ESCOBAR, of
Norfolk Tides (Mets)
Nothing could stop the managers from including Escobar in the Top 10. Not his 146 strikeouts in 397 at-bats at Norfolk. Not his mediocre power numbers for the Tides. And not his .216 average in his first 12 games for the Mets.

"I’ve picked him No. 1 three of the last four years," said Buffalo manager Eric Wedge, who has climbed through the minors also step by step with Escobar. "He’s a five-tool guy who has the ability to be an all-star for years to come."

In a league where center fielders like Milton Bradley and Vernon Wells routinely made highlight-reel catches, managers rated Escobar the best defensive outfielder. If he can get a better grasp of the strike zone, the Mets’ center-field problems will vanish immediately.

"He’s going to hit for average sooner or later," Pawtucket manager Gary Jones said. "And when he does, he’s going to be an impact player."

8 ERICK ALMONTE, ss
Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
Like Alfonso Soriano, Almonte is another free-swinging shortstop prospect who’ll have to find a new position when and if he cracks the Yankees lineup. He resembles Derek Jeter physically but isn’t about to take his job.

"I think he’s got an upside, maybe 20 homers in the big leagues," Evers said. "Defensively, if he grows out of shortstop he has enough power to play third. He has instincts on how to play and a pretty good arm. I’d say his arm is above average, plus he has good first-step quickness."

Almonte has the ability to dazzle scouts one night and disappoint the next. He led IL shortstops with 27 errors and struck out too much, yet he also draws walks and is so athletic. It’s conceivable that Soriano eventually could move to the outfield, with Almonte taking over at second base.

9 JUAN RIVERA, of
Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
After tearing up the Double-A Eastern League, Rivera did the same to the IL. He always has been a free swinger, but the difference in 2001 was that he began driving balls out of the park rather than into the gaps.

"Wow. He has some kind of juice in his swing," Tosca said. "He hits to all fields. You see him recognize the breaking ball. He doesn’t necessarily hit it, but he’ll be a great hitter."

Rivera has a plus arm and decent speed, but his routes to fly balls could use improvement. Soon after Paul O’Neill retires, Rivera should be ready to take over in right field at Yankee Stadium.

10 CESAR IZTURIS, ss/2b
Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
The IL’s 98-pound weakling in 2000, Izturis was the one kicking sand in people’s faces this season. As a 20-year-old rookie who never had played above Class A, Izturis batted just .218 a year ago. But this year, armed with a better knowledge of how to work the count, he hit .292 in 87 games for the SkyChiefs and spent a considerable amount of time in Toronto.

Still one of the youngest players in the league, he was also its most improved. He made more contact and was steadier in every aspect of the game, though he still could use more patience at the plate.

"Compare last year to this year," said Omar Malave, his manager. "He’s been solid the whole year. And next year there will be a spot open for him up there."

Izturis is a defensive whiz who can play shortstop or second base, and now he has dispelled worries about whether he would hit enough to play in the majors. He’ll never put up A-Rod numbers at shortstop, but his performance will make Toronto consider trading veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez.

11 JOE CREDE, 3b
Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
The White Sox have the arms to maintain an American League Central contender for years, and developing more hitters could give them one of the best young teams in the game. Crede, their third baseman of the very near future, and outfielder Aaron Rowand were the best of the bunch at Charlotte this season.

"He has a good arm and I like his makeup," Indianapolis manager Wendell Kim said. "He’s a hard-nosed guy with extra-base power. I think he has a good glove, but young players can alternate between getting too aggressive and waiting too long. He’ll just have to play some more and he’ll have it down."

Crede doesn’t have much speed and his power is just developing, but he has the skills to play solid defense and he has hit for average in the minors.

"I think Crede has a chance to have some power," Tosca said. "He already plays good defense. For me, he’s more of a player who should be at the bottom of a top 10 because his ceiling’s not quite as high.

"There’s a little panic in his swing than some of these other guys. I think he’ll be a guy who really, really has to guard the inner half. And when he does that, the outer half could be trouble."

12 VERNON WELLS, of
Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
Either Wells is all hype, or he’s going to be a much better player in the major leagues than he was in the minors. He was No. 1 on this list in 1999, but he has followed up with two ho-hum seasons at Syracuse. His numbers weren’t awful, but they weren’t exactly in the Dunn or Hall category either.

Still, the Blue Jays refused to trade Wells, preferring to shop Shannon Stewart and Jose Cruz Jr. instead to make room in their outfield for the defensively gifted Wells. The Blue Jays will likely deal one of those veterans in the offseason. Then we’ll find out if Wells is the star the Blue Jays believe he’ll be, with five tools and 30-30 potential, or closer to the .267 hitter he was in two-plus years at Syracuse. His plate discipline and basestealing skills regressed in 2001.

"In my opinion, Vernon will be better up here than he ever was in the minor leagues," Toronto manager Buck Martinez said. "He just thrives on the atmosphere of the major leagues."

13 AARON ROWAND, of
Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
Rowand made a seamless transition to Triple-A and then the big leagues in 2001. He’s no longer lost in an organization that includes some of the best young pitching in the game and $5.3 million man Joe Borchard.

Rowand hit .292 with flashes of power and speed in his first 58 games with the White Sox. He has a strong arm and could be the center fielder Chicago is looking for, though he spent much of his minor league career in right field.

"He has some pop in his bat, and defensively he looks like he can play all three outfield positions," Evers said. "To me, he’s more of an alley-type power hitter. But he has good instincts in right and seems to know how to play the game."

14 DREW HENSON, 3b
Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
The Yankees gave Henson a $17 million contract this spring to have him give up football–he was a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft as a University of Michigan quarterback–but he didn’t provide an immediate return. He broke his left hand when hit by a pitch in April and had a rough time at the plate.

Yet he did show off many of the tools that made the Yankees covet him so much. He has a huge arm, looks the part of a third baseman and has the ability to hit for monstrous power. He hit seven of his 11 homers in the season’s final four weeks.

"The first time we played them, he was pulling the ball way too much," Kim said. "But I could see a big difference a month later when we played them again. He has pretty good first-step quickness, right off the bat," Kim said. "His hands are OK. His backhand is really good, he can move to his left and he has a good arm."

"I don’t think it’s very fair to judge him on this season," Tosca said. "He made some plays to his right where he showed a tremendous arm."

15 MARCUS GILES, 2b
Richmond Braves
Like his brother Brian before him, Marcus has made more of an impression the farther up the ladder he’s gone. When the Braves lost Rafael Furcal for the season, Giles stepped in to fill the leadoff role and acquitted himself well before slumping in September.

"If he doesn’t start in the long-term, he’d make a great utility guy," Kim said. "He even played shortstop against us and when I did see him, he did an adequate job. So he can play both positions, but he’s mostly an offensive player."

The Braves won’t be asking him to play short in the big leagues. He doesn’t have great speed or range, but he has the Giles family strength and work effort.

"He’s got that strong, stocky body," Evers said. "I think he’s got to be an offensive guy if he plays second base. But he’s a hard-nosed player."

16 ERIC VALENT, of
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
Though Valent is an above-average outfielder with a strong arm, he’s not going to stick in the major leagues simply because of his glove. Nor is he going to stay there because of a high batting average or an ability to steal bases.

If Valent is going to play regularly in the majors–and it may be tough to budge Pat Burrell or Bobby Abreu from one of Philadelphia’s outfield corners–it will be because he has a knack for driving in runs. He has 327 RBIs in 425 minor league games, the equivalent of 125 in a 162-game season.

Valent had just four hits in his first 41 major league at-bats, but IL managers believe he’ll make the necessary adjustments to hit major league pitching.

"Even though he didn’t hit the first time around, he’s a young kid and keep an eye on him," Malave said. "When he gets his feet on the ground, he’ll stay there a long time."

17 DAVE COGGIN, rhp
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
It didn’t surprise Wedge that Coggin didn’t blink when the Phillies threw him right in the middle of a pennant race. Coggin went 5-7, 4.40 in his first 16 starts for Philadelphia this season.

"He’s got a lot of composure," Wedge said. "He doesn’t get caught up in the situation."

Scranton pitching coach Gregson said at the start of 2001, Coggin had better command of his slider than his fastball. Once he started to harness his low-90s fastball, it wasn’t long before he was promoted to Philadelphia. Coggin also throws a curveball and changeup.

"He’s a fierce competitor, a really mentally tough kid," Gregson said. "It speaks to his character that he could do what he did right in the middle of a pennant race."

18 BRIAN ROBERTS, ss
Rochester Red Wings (Orioles)
Like most of the Orioles’ top prospects, Roberts had to be placed on the fast track in 2001. But he held his own in Baltimore and is in line to succeed Mike Bordick as the Orioles’ starting shortstop after the 2002 season.

Roberts opened the year at Double-A Bowie, moved to Rochester and then made his major league debut when Bordick was injured. Though error-prone at every stop, Roberts provided some speed for the Orioles out of the No. 2 slot. He’ll need to draw more walks to justify batting high in the order.

Some managers said Roberts’ lack of arm strength may force a move to second base, but Jerry Hairston already gives Baltimore a young, promising option there. With Bordick under contract for another season, Roberts could return to Rochester for part of 2002.

"He’s a baseball player is what he is," Etchebarren said. "He needs to get 500 at-bats here next year and then he can play in the big leagues when Bordick is gone. That would be ideal if that happened."

19 ORLANDO HUDSON, 2b
Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
For the first three years of his professional career, Hudson was off the radar screen when it came to Toronto infield prospects. Part of the reason had to do with the wealth of talented middle infielders in the system, including Brent Abernathy, Cesar Izturis, Felipe Lopez and Mike Young. And part of it had to do with Hudson’s nondescript .274 batting average as a third baseman in his first three seasons.

Hudson took to a move to second base, hitting a combined .306 between Double-A and Triple-A and looking strong defensively. He may have a higher offensive ceiling than Izturis or Lopez, though he’ll have to contend with both to get regular playing time in Toronto.

"He's right up there with Lopez and Izturis," Ottawa manager Stan Hough said. "Where do they keep getting these guys?"

20 BRAD WILKERSON, of
Ottawa Lynx (Expos)
In 2000, Wilkerson was the Expos' minor league player of the year and the starting center fielder for the U.S. Olympic team. But his Arizona Fall League season was cut short by pain in his throwing shoulder, and in December he underwent surgery to repair the labrum and rotator cuff. He missed spring training and the start of this season while recovering.

Rusty when he returned, Wilkerson still showed his usual fine bat, gap power and batting eye. He has the tools of a right fielder, but the presence of Vladimir Guerrero means Wilkerson will have to play left field in Montreal. He struggled in his initial big league exposure but should win an everyday job next spring.

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