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Midwest League Top 20 Prospects

By Jim Callis

Top 20
The Midwest League didn’t approach the talent it had last year, but that was a nearly impossible task. The 2000 crop might have been the best in the league’s history.

A year ago, the MWL was home to Josh Beckett and Adam Dunn, the top pitcher and hitter in the minors this summer. They joined Juan Cruz, Albert Pujols and Carlos Hernandez as members of the 2000 Top 20 Prospects list who reached the majors a year after playing in low Class A.

This year’s group paled in comparison, especially on the mound. Only two of the best 12 prospects were pitchers and there wasn’t an arm anywhere near the class of Beckett or Cruz. Dayton lefthander Ty Howington stood out the most, though he didn’t stay in the league long enough to qualify for this list.

Gonzalez
Adrian Gonzalez
Photo: Robert Gurganus
1 ADRIAN GONZALEZ, 1b
Kane County Cougars (Marlins)
The Marlins say otherwise, but Gonzalez’ signability did play a major role in their decision to take him first overall in the 2000 draft. A year later, all anyone cares about is his ability. He didn’t make good on his early-season statement that he could hit .420, but he was named MVP and prospect of the year.

Extremely refined for a teenager, Gonzalez lived up to his reputation as a cross between Mark Grace and Rafael Palmeiro. He has a beautiful swing and uses the entire field, generally making everything look easy both offensively and defensively. Gonzalez led the MWL with 251 total bases and projects to hit 25-30 homers annually in the majors, though he didn’t hit for much power against lefthanders this year.

"He’s just so complete," a National League scout said. "He hits the ball to all fields and he’s a very polished, mature hitter. He’s very calm at the plate. He hits line drives, but he also can turn on a ball and win you a game. Plus he’s so polished defensively. He’s a Gold Glove guy."

2 JUSTIN MORNEAU, 1b
Quad City River Bandits (Twins)
As good as Gonzalez was, several managers and scouts thought Morneau was better. The Twins wisely gave up on the idea that he could catch and just let him concentrate on offense. He set Rookie-level Gulf Coast League records with a .402 average and 58 RBIs in 52 games last year, and kept mashing in the MWL and after a promotion to the high Class A Florida State League.

"He has a great lefthanded bat and he’s going to be a pretty good major league hitter," Dayton manager Donnie Scott said. "He and Gonzalez are both great hitters, but he’s got more raw power."

Like Gonzalez, Morneau has a picturesque lefthanded swing and an advanced approach. He understands the strike zone and rarely chases pitches. He’s improving as a first baseman.

3 WILY MO PENA, of
Dayton Dragons (Reds)
When Drew Henson used his football leverage to force the Reds to trade him back to the Yankees, Cincinnati received Pena in return. That deal may just work out, as Pena reminded the NL scout and Michigan manager John Massarelli of the same player: Sammy Sosa.

Pena and teammate Samone Peters had easily the most raw power in the MWL, and no one approached Pena’s all-around skills. He has 30-30 potential–and that home run estimate is conservative–to go with center-field range and a right-field arm.

"He’s the type of kid who can hit the ball out anywhere in the ballpark and then hit a routine ground ball to shortstop and beat it out," Burlington manager Joe Szekely said. "That’s very special right there. He’s so big and strong, and he has the best package of tools in the league."

There are two major concerns with Pena. He struck out 177 times, though managers believe he can correct that flaw because it’s the result of horrid plate discipline rather than holes in his swing. More problematic is a major league contract that will force the Reds to call him up for good by Opening Day 2003, and he doesn’t figure to be ready that quickly.

4 CLINT NAGEOTTE, rhp
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)
The Timber Rattlers easily led the MWL with a 2.96 ERA, and rival managers commented that Wisconsin’s entire rotation seemed to be made up of guys who could throw three pitches for strikes. Lefthander Derrick Van Dusen and righthander Rett Johnson are solid prospects, but Nageotte was clearly the ace of the staff.

He won the league strikeout crown thanks to three above-average pitches. His fastball works in the low 90s with nice life, and he added a wicked slider to go with his curveball. His changeup is his fourth pitch and needs the most work.

5 CHRIS NARVESON, lhp
Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
The Cardinals have drafted lefthanders as well as any team in recent years. They signed Rick Ankiel in 1997 and Bud Smith in 1998, and two years later found another winner in Narveson. He was so untouchable in the MWL that it took just eight starts for St. Louis to promote the teenager to the high Class A Carolina League.

Both Narveson’s stuff and command are impressive. He throws a lively 88-92 mph fastball; a hard, short slider; and a changeup. He hasn’t had trouble with righthanders or with home runs. The only drawback is that he went down with a slight elbow tear in July.

6 GARETT GENTRY, c
Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)
More than one manager thought Gentry deserved the MVP award that went to Gonzalez. He averaged more than an RBI per game before a slight labrum tear finally sidelined him in mid-August. There have been reports, yet to be made official, that he’ll be the player to be named in Houston’s July trade with Colorado for Pedro Astacio.

Gentry offers lefthanded power from gap to gap. He has a short stroke that doesn’t leave him vulnerable to strikeouts and reminded the NL scout of Ted Simmons, an eight-time all-star.

Managers were divided on whether Gentry has the defensive skills to catch in the majors, but the consensus was that he does. His proponents said he has at least average arm strength, plus good blocking and receiving skills. His detractors said he lacks mobility and a quick release.

7 JAMAL STRONG, of
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)
Peoria’s Chris Morris led the minors with 111 steals and was one of several MWL outfielders who could wreak havoc with their speed. Strong was the one member of the group, which also included South Bend’s Victor Hall and West Michigan’s Nook Logan, who had a well-rounded game.

Named the league’s most exciting player by the managers, Strong may have the best package of leadoff skills in the minors. He hits for average, bunts, makes contact, draws plenty of walks and is a high-percentage basestealer. A left fielder in college, he has dramatically improved his jumps in center.

"He knows the type of game he has to play," said Wisconsin manager Gary Thurman, once a speedy outfield prospect himself. "He doesn’t try to play the big man’s game. His swing is suited for line drives and he knows the strike zone. And he’s not just fast, but he also knows how to pick up the tendencies of pitchers."

8 CHRIS BURKE, ss
Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)
Burke went 10th overall in the June draft despite questions as to whether he has the arm for shortstop. MWL managers certainly thought he did, noting his quick release and ability to make plays from the hole.

Regardless of whether he moves back to second base, where he played his first two years in college, Burke is projected as the eventual successor to Craig Biggio as Houston’s leadoff man. Speed is Burke’s best tool, and he also can hit for average and gap power. He showed good plate coverage and the ability to make adjustments in his pro debut.

9 MIGUEL CABRERA, ss
Kane County Cougars (Marlins)
The youngest player at the midsummer Futures Game, Cabrera is still a work in progress. He gave a hint at what’s yet to come by his drastic improvement in his first full pro season. He hit .227 with no homers and made 14 errors in April, then batted .280 with seven homers and 18 errors the rest of the way.

"He’s the top prospect among position players," Massarelli said. "He plays so smooth and easy. His power will develop when his body fills out, and he puts the ball in play to all fields. He’ll be something special in five years."

Cabrera had the strongest infield arm in the league, and he also showed good hands and fine range at shortstop. He’s expected to add considerable strength and power, which may necessitate a move to third base.

10 GRADY SIZEMORE, of
Clinton LumberKings (Expos)
Sizemore was another teenager who got considerably better during his first full season. He hit just .218 through June, then finished with a .327 surge. Caught stealing in nine of his first 27 attempts, he succeeded on 14 of his last 16.

A coveted quarterback who turned down a University of Washington football scholarship to sign for $2 million, Sizemore has plenty of raw tools, including speed and as-yet-untapped power potential. He needs to make some adjustments to his swing, which can get out of control, but he already has good patience. He can play a shallow center field because of his outstanding range and ability to go back on balls.

"He looks like the whole package to me," Fort Wayne manager Don Werner said. "He’s really athletic, he can do a lot of stuff and he’s 18. He’s incredible."

11 DAVID ESPINOSA, ss
Dayton Dragons (Reds)
There were mixed opinions on Espinosa and Lansing’s Luis Montanez, two shortstops taken in the first round of the 2000 draft. More managers preferred Espinosa, especially those who saw him progress in the second half. After hitting .239 with 35 errors through mid-June, he hit .285 with just 13 miscues afterward.

Espinosa is a switch-hitter with speed, good pop for a middle infielder and the willingness to take a walk. To maximize his use of those gifts, he’ll need to stop chasing pitches and learn to read pitchers better once he gets on base.

Defensively, he has the hands, range and arm strength for shortstop, and cut down on his throwing errors once he improved his mechanics. Yet some observers think he’ll have to move to second base or center field.

"He’s so young and you can see flashes of his athleticism," Werner said. "I think he’s going to be pretty good. He showed me he could play shortstop, and he switch-hits and runs well. It looks like he enjoys playing the game.

12 WILL SMITH, of
Kane County Cougars (Marlins)
Smith had the most unorthodox stance in the MWL, starting with the bat laying on his shoulders and his elbows raised, and for two months he was as effective as any hitter. He batted .347-9-52 in April and May, then wore down and hit .235-7-39 afterward.

Smith’s defensive skills and speed are average at best, so his bat will have to carry him. Managers believe that once he gets stronger and acclimated to the long pro season, it will do just that. He has a pretty swing but will need to become more disciplined at the plate.

13 CHAD QUALLS, rhp
Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)
Beyond Nageotte and Narveson, there was little consensus as managers tried to identify the MWL’s top pitching prospects. Qualls, who led the league in wins in his pro debut, ranked atop the second tier. In a midseason survey of the managers, he actually beat out Nageotte and Narveson and was named the league’s best pitching prospect.

He had the best slider in the league and mixed it well with a low-90s sinker that topped out at 94 mph. Qualls challenged hitters yet made few mistakes, permitting just eight homers in 162 innings. His changeup has promise but he’ll need to use it more as he moves up.

14 AARON TAYLOR, rhp
Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)
A 1999 Double-A Rule 5 draft pick from the Braves, Taylor looked like a waste of that $4,000 investment when he left the Mariners organization in spring training. His ERA for five pro seasons was 6.26. But once he rejoined the team and arrived in Wisconsin in mid-June, he suddenly blossomed into what Massarelli called "a righthanded Randy Johnson."

Taylor had the best fastball in the league, throwing 93-98 mph with regularity. The combination of his velocity and his intimidating 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame make the ball get on hitters in a hurry, and they managed to bat just .184 with two extra-base hits against him.

Batters couldn’t sit on his fastball because his splitter is nasty, and he also added a slider, another potential plus pitch. He was old for the league at 23, but seems poised to advance rapidly now that he’s turned the corner.

15 BEN HENDRICKSON, rhp
Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
Managers rated Hendrickson’s curveball the top breaking pitch in the MWL. Massarelli and one scout, who both saw Hendrickson reach 94 mph with his fastball, went a step further and called him the best pitching prospect in the league.

He more commonly pitches at 90-91 mph, though he has a projectable body and could pick up more velocity. His curve is definitely his out pitch, and he had some success using his changeup against lefthanders. If he continues to refine his changeup while addressing some command and delivery issues, Hendrickson could be special.

16 BELTRAN PEREZ, rhp
South Bend Silver Hawks (Diamondbacks)
The Diamondbacks have few legitimate starting pitching prospects in their system, so Perez’ development in his first full season in the United States provided a nice boost. Managers rated his control as the best in the MWL, and he’s more than just a finesse guy who lays the ball over the plate.

Still a teenager, Perez can touch 92-93 mph with his fastball, which has nice life. Though his slider is inconsistent, it has the making of an above-average pitch. He needs a changeup or some kind of offspeed pitch, but had no trouble batting lefthanders because he spots and mixes his pitches so well.

17 JOSE CUETO, rhp
Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
Few organizations have as many promising young arms as the Cubs, and another wave showed up this year in Lansing. Managers mentioned virtually every Lugnuts starter–including Wilton Chavez, Aaron Krawiec, Jon Leicester, Roberto Miniel and Todd Wellemeyer–and liked Cueto the best. He began the season in Lansing’s bullpen and finished it in Double-A.

Cueto can reach 94-95 mph with his fastball, though he achieves more sink when he doesn’t throw quite as hard. His slider may be even more impressive than his fastball, and he has some nice fade on his changeup.

He still needs to work on his change, though it has improved enough to where hitters have to respect it. Cueto pitches inside aggressively, and switches to sliders away if a batter starts to cheat on the inner half.

18 OLIVER PEREZ, lhp
Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)
Mark Phillips and Nobuaki Yoshida figured to be Fort Wayne’s lefthanded aces this summer. But Phillips showed up out of shape in spring training and breezed quickly through the MWL after arriving late, while Yoshida had shoulder and pectoral injuries. Up stepped Perez, who spent most of 2000 in the Mexican League.

Perez has a loose arm with a lot of upside, though he could clean up his delivery. He has a generally average fastball that peaks at 94 mph, and his slider is his best pitch. He’s still working on a changeup and has a decent feel for pitching.

The toughest pitcher to run on in the MWL, Perez permitted just five stolen bases in 15 tries.

19 JOSH HALL, rhp
Dayton Dragons (Reds)
Once Howington departed, Dayton lacked a power arm but relied on starters who won by throwing multiple pitches for strikes. Hall stood out the most among 2000 first-round pick Dustin Moseley, Ryan Mottl and Ryan Snare. Hall led the MWL in ERA, an encouraging step in his recovery from reconstructive shoulder surgery two years ago.

Still regaining velocity, Hall was up to a consistent 89-90 mph in 2001 and reached as high as 93. His curveball was his most effective pitch, and while his changeup is just average it helped him keep lefthanders at bay. He worked both sides of the plate and kept hitters off balance.

20 TODD WELLEMEYER, rhp
Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
Hitters cuffed Wellemeyer around pretty good in the first half, when he used his offspeed stuff too much to the detriment of his fastball. Once he adjusted his approach, Wellemeyer won his final 10 decisions, with a 3.34 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 73 innings.

By the end of the year, Wellemeyer was throwing 93-94 mph and his fastball was exploding at the plate. He also gets a lot of movement on his changeup, which runs and sinks so much that several opponents thought it was a splitter. His curveball and command, especially within the strike zone, need more consistency.

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