International League Top 20 Prospects
By Will Kimmey
The Triple-A level increasingly gets a reputation as a holding cell for prospects whose paths to the majors are blocked and a staging area for 30-year-old backups and injury insurance policies. But this year, the International League boasted as many top young position prospects as most managers could recall.
A fleet, athletic group of players with a blend of speed and power--Carl Crawford, Orlando Hudson, Marlon Byrd, Brandon Phillips, Juan Rivera and Joe Borchard--led the charge. (Minor League Player of the Year Rocco Baldelli fit right in with them, but didn't play with Durham long enough to qualify for this list.) Right behind them were a quartet of slugging third basemen: Joe Crede, Drew Henson, Chase Utley and Brandon Larson.
There wasn't enough room on the Top 20 for all of the IL's talented position players. Syracuse catcher Kevin Cash, Buffalo first baseman/outfielder Ben Broussard and Pawtucket middle infielder Freddy Sanchez just missed the cut.
"This was one of those years where five or 10 position players really stood out," Norfolk manager Bobby Floyd said. "There weren't as many strong pitchers."
Brett Myers easily earned the distinction of top pitching prospect, and there were no close seconds or thirds. The bulk of the league's best mound performers were 30 or older and featured more command than stuff. That contingent included Scranton's Joe Roa (14-0, 1.86) and Richmond's Doug Linton (9-11, 2.53) and Joey Dawley (9-7, 2.63).
Crawford has flashed all five tools at times, and his best two are his speed and ability to hit for a high average. As one of the youngest players in the IL, he jumped out to a hot start, hitting .350 through early June. He has shown the ability to make adjustments at the plate, though he still needs to hang in better against lefties.
He possesses explosive speed but still needs to work on reading pitchers and getting better jumps to become more of a basestealing threat. If he can learn to draw walks, he'll become a prototypical leadoff man.
Crawford can really run down balls in the outfield, but may play left field because his arm is below average. Durham manager Bill Evers did say Crawford threw better than expected and has improved his accuracy.
"He can be a very special player," Evers said. "He should hit a few more homers the older he gets, and he won't have too many long slumps with his speed. And he can bunt."
2. Brett Myers, rhp, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
Myers is a poised, professional pitcher who goes right after batters with three above-average pitches. Managers rated his fastball the best in the league. His four-seamer tops out at 96 mph, and his two-seamer has a lot of life. He also has a dominating curveball and a plus changeup.
"He has a bright future," Toledo manager Bruce Fields said. "Barring injury, the sky's the limit. He dominated every time he pitched against us. The command of his pitches and his presence was spectacular."
3. Orlando Hudson, 2b, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
A former third baseman, he uses his speed to chase down balls at second, where his defense improved a great deal in 2002. Syracuse manager Omar Malave said Hudson worked hard to improve his pivot and positioning.
"He's going to be a .300 hitter in the big leagues," Fields said. "And he's a vacuum at second base who can turn the double play."
4. Marlon Byrd, of, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
Byrd shows a working knowledge of the strike zone--though he needs to walk more often--and uses the entire field. He's more suited for the middle of the order rather than the top. And he isn't complacent, as he works to improve his game every day.
"He plays the game 110 percent all the time," Scranton manager Marc Bombard said. "You should play the game like that, but not everyone does. Put that with those tools and you have something special."
5. Brandon Phillips, ss/2b, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
Phillips is equally adept defensively. He possesses a strong arm and has the athleticism to make acrobatic plays. Throw in average to above-average speed, and Phillips' five tools compare favorably to a young Barry Larkin, his favorite player.
Phillips struggled initially after Expos promoted him to Triple-A and traded him to the Indians 13 days later. But he took it all in stride with his plus makeup and great personality.
"He came here with a lot of hype and had some growing pains," Buffalo manager Eric Wedge said, "but he's been everything we heard he could be and more."
6. Josh Phelps, c/dh, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)
Malave, however, said the organization feels Phelps has too much talent to settle for just being a DH and that he could return to catching if he can stay healthy and improve his throwing. IL basestealers succeeded at an 89 percent clip against him.
Offensively, Phelps has the potential to become a middle-of-the-order force with his power. His 24 homers led the minors when he was called up to Toronto on June 30, and he hit .310-15-58 in his first 72 big league games this year.
"He sees the ball well and can stick with some nasty pitches," Ottawa manager Tim Leiper said. "He hits the ball to all fields and has really good at-bats."
7. Juan Rivera, of, Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
By the time Rivera returned from the DL in August, Raul Mondesi had been acquired and Rivera returned to Columbus. Despite the injury, he continued to refine his raw tools.
Managers said he matured from a sloppy hitter to one who makes pitch-to-pitch adjustments. The ball really jumps off his bat, and he has power to all fields. Rivera also possesses a strong outfield arm.
"Next year he should be the right fielder in New York," Malave said. "He's a five-tool player. Seeing him last year to this year, there's been a lot of improvement. He's got more patience at the plate and is not chasing everything."
8. Joe Borchard, of, Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
Borchard started his second full pro season on the DL after fouling a ball of his right foot and breaking it in spring training. He still can crush balls from both sides of the plate, but strikes out too much and realizes he must become a more disciplined hitter with a better grasp of the strike zone.
"I'm still not sold on him, but he's definitely a prospect because of that power," one manager said. "Not enough average and too many strikeouts. He has a slow bat to me. But he'll make adjustments because he's a smart kid."
Borchard also runs well and has a plus arm. A right fielder in college, Borchard has learned to play center the last two years but doesn't have great range there.
9. Eric Munson, 1b, Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers)
The second-half Munson showed more patience. He went up the middle and to left field. He took his walks. And he kept crushing fastballs. He finished with 58 extra-base hits, just one shy of Byrd's league-leading total.
"It was a complete turnaround from the first half to the second," Fields said. "He's ready to be a good major league hitter with power as his best tool. I didn't think much of him in the first half."
The converted catcher has also improved defensively, especially with his ability to dig bad throws out of the dirt and his overall footwork.
10. Joe Crede, 3b, Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
Crede is a polished hitter who punishes mistakes. He has good power to right-center and has cut down on his strikeouts. He quickly became one of the White Sox' top hitters when they finally wisened up and gave him an everyday job in August.
"He can hit for average, power and drive in runs," Charlotte manager Nick Capra said. "He has a good eye and is patient. He knows what he can handle and what he can't. He doesn't get himself out very much."
Voted the league's best defensive third baseman by the managers, Crede plays smooth around the bag. He has soft hands, moves from side to side well and is good at going to his backhand.
11. Franklyn German, rhp, Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers)
German allowed three earned runs in his Triple-A debut, but just one more over his next 22 appearances. He didn't allow a hit in 13 of those outings, including five straight at one point. He wasn't scored on in his first six big league outings either.
Dubbed the Dominican version of Lee Smith for both physical appearance and stuff, German consistently hits 96 mph with his fastball and has reached 99. He sometimes leaves his fastball up and over the plate, where it can get hammered if a hitter can catch up to it. His hard-diving splitter gives him a second plus pitch, and he also employs an average slider.
"He has been unbelievable, just outstanding," Fields said. "He'll be the closer in Detroit, if not next year then the year after. When he comes in, he smells blood and goes after it. He definitely has the mentality to do it."
12. Wilson Betemit, ss, Richmond Braves
Despite the growing pains, managers recognized his potential. He started to deliver in the final two months, batting .292-4-17 over his final 46 games.
"He's only 20--he's a baby--plus he was hurt," Fields said. "He's very athletic and moves well, plus he's got pop."
One manager even compared Betemit's career path to that of Chipper Jones. Like Jones, Betemit possesses plenty of arm strength but struggles with the accuracy of his throws. A move to third wouldn't be a surprise, and Betemit has ample power for a corner infielder.
As Betemit struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line, word circulated that the Braves were frustrated with his play and poor attitude. Managers saw nothing of the sort, and Richmond skipper Fredi Gonzalez praised his shortstop's determination.
13. Drew Henson, 3b, Columbus Clippers (Yankees)
Henson batted just .202 over the final three months to finish at .240. His biggest problem lies in a lack of plate discipline. He whiffed 151 times in 471 at-bats, including 40 strikeouts in his final 28 games.
Despite his woes, Henson still possessed the best package of tools and biggest upside of any IL third baseman. He improved his defense, showing better actions around the bag to go along with his plus arm. His power potential is off the charts.
"He just needs more at-bats to get better offensively," Evers said. "His power's going to play. He's just behind as far as making contact and making adjustments."
14. Chase Utley, 3b, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)
Utley's sweet line-drive stroke and alley-to-alley power produced a league-leading 39 doubles. He displayed a solid approach at the plate and handled breaking pitches well, especially for a player making that kind of jump.
"He started off the season trying to pull everything, but then he showed he could drive the ball to left-center," Leiper said. "He's going to hit. Defensively, mechanically he needs to shore up some things to get better. He's unfamiliar over there."
Managers were split on whether Utley can handle third base, where he made 28 errors. His detractors said he had shoddy footwork and lacked the arm strength get the ball across the diamond.
15. Brandon Larson, 3b, Louisville Bats (Reds)
After hitting .255-14-55 in the IL a year ago, he had laser surgery. He credits his improved vision and Triple-A experience for his breakout year. He had taken over the league's home run lead when the Reds called him up in early July.
While power always has rated as his best tool, Larson topped .300 for the first time this year. Like Crede he has reached his ceiling but has solid overall skills. He's not in Crede's class with the glove, but he's an average defender.
"Watching him last year to this year is like night and day," Evers said. "He showed much more power and the ability to adjust to the breaking ball."
16. Endy Chavez, of, Ottawa Lynx (Expos)
He's on the move as a player as well. He chases down anything hit into the outfield, beats out grounders and bunts, and swipes plenty of bases.
"Endy's the best center fielder in the league, one of the top center fielders playing the game today," Leiper said of Chavez. "He goes and gets everything. He saves the team more runs than I can imagine. Everything that goes in the air he gets."
Chavez' only defensive shortcoming is his throwing arm. Offensively, he doesn't provide many extra-base hits or walks, so he has to hit for a high average to contribute. He did that this year, and his small-ball skills are a perfect fit for Montreal's Olympic Stadium.
17. Omar Infante, ss, Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers)
If Infante can answer questions about his bat, he could be a major league shortstop for years to come. He reminds Fields of Omar Vizquel for his defensive wizardry and his potential to become a .280 hitter who can hit-and-run and move runners over.
Battting .213 heading into a mid-June series at Syracuse, Infante got some advice from Malave, who coached him last winter in Venezuela. Malave told him he wasn't a power hitter and should stop trying to pull pitches. Infante listened and batted .321 the rest of the way.
Just 20, Infante showed his youth. He occasionally seemed moody and unmotivated. "I like his skills," one manager said, "but I question his intensity. He's a little immature at times."
18. Aaron Heilman, rhp, Norfolk Tides (Mets)
"He's got a good idea of what he wants to do on the mound," Norfolk manager Bobby Floyd said. "He's got good command, and he's consistent. It's only his first full season, and he's pitched in Triple-A, got a respectable ERA and competes in every game."
Heilman is a very polished pitcher with a loose three-quarters delivery. He throws a heavy fastball with plenty of sink. It registers 92-93 mph on the radar gun, but managers described it as sneaky fast.
He keeps most of his offerings down in the zone by virtue of his above-average command. He can throw any of his pitches, including a downward-biting slider, a changeup and a splitter, for strikes. His splitter showed a great deal of improvement, and it's his top choice to finish off hitters.
19. Willie Harris, 2b, Charlotte Knights (White Sox)
"He's a Ray Durham type," Wedge said. "He can put it on the ground, beat it out and steal bags. He's got a lot of energy."
A former center fielder, Harris has worked hard to transform himself into a solid defender at second base. He has improved the most at turning double plays, which now is a strong suit for him.
20. Josh Bard, c, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)
"I love Josh Bard," Leiper said. "He's the best young catcher I've seen in a long time and is the reason Buffalo led the league in pitching. He's such a good catcher, it's just a matter of how far his bat takes him."
While Bard doesn't show Phelps' offensive explosiveness, he's no slouch at the plate. A switch-hitter, he has improved offensively and could blossom into a 15-homer, 75-RBI hitter.
Top 10 prospects five years ago
1. *Carl Pavano, rhp, Red Sox
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