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New York-Penn League Top 20 Prospects

By Josh Boyd

Top 20
This season marked baseball's return to Brooklyn for the first time since 1957. Though it wasn't quite the same, there was some buzz in the borough.

Instead of the Dodgers inhabiting Ebbets Field, the Cyclones played in KeySpan Park. Instead of a battery of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella, it was prospects Ross Peeples and Brett Kay.

But Brooklyn still had a cross-borough rivalry with the Yankees--the Staten Island Yankees, that is. The Mets and Yankees loaded their short-season New York-Penn League affiliates with prospects at the expense of their Class A South Atlantic League clubs. Brooklyn posted the league's best overall record at 52-24 and was declared co-champions, while Staten Island featured seven players drafted in the first seven rounds in June, including first-rounders John-Ford Griffin and Jon Skaggs, but didn't reach the finals as injuries ravaged the defending champs.

Williamsport righthander/DH John VanBenschoten, New Jersey righthander Justin Pope and Jamestown second baseman Richard Lewis joined the Yankees first-round duo to give the NY-P five first-rounders from the class of 2001. However, managers weren't overly impressed with the depth of the overall prospect talent.

VanBenschoten
John VanBenschoten
Photo: Rich Abel
1 JOHN VanBENSCHOTEN, rhp/dh
Williamsport Crosscutters (Pirates)

After leading NCAA Division I with 31 home runs, VanBenschoten was highly sought after as one of the premium offensive talents on the draft board. The Pirates didn't surprise anyone by selecting him with the eighth overall pick, but a lot of heads turned when they announced their intention to try him as a righthanded pitcher. Whether it was on the mound every five days or with a bat in his hands in between starts, VanBenschoten's power potential was unmistakable.

"Whatever he does he's going to succeed," Williamsport manager Tony Beasley said.

Despite logging just 49 innings as a Kent State junior, VanBenschoten displayed a natural feel for pitching. He’s developing four pitches, including a 94-mph fastball, an average slider, a changeup and a curveball.

"I loved him as a pitcher," Utica manager Kevin Boles said. "He has a great frame and a loose, strong arm."

2 SEAN HENN, lhp
Staten Island Yankees

A week before the 2000 draft, the Yankees signed Henn for $1.7 million, the richest draft-and-follow deal in history. Yankees vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman watched Henn touch 98 mph for McLennan (Texas) Community College and wasn't about to let the powerful lefty re-enter the draft.

Just 42 innings into his pro career, however, Henn was shut down with elbow problems that subsequently led to Tommy John surgery. Even in his abbreviated debut, he was able to showcase dominant potential. He’s expected to make a full recovery.

"He has a good idea of what he is doing," Mahoning Valley manager Dave Turgeon said. "He throws an effortless 94. He can spin the ball very well, too. He has a bright future."

When he returns Henn will have to focus on ironing out his mechanics and controlling his delivery.

"He's just a raw kid," Batavia manager Frank Klebe said. "He just lets it fly. When he learns command of it, he's going to be tough to hit."

3 JASON ARNOLD, rhp
Staten Island Yankees
The Yankees seemingly took a chunk out of their draft budget by signing Henn, so they took a conservative route and tabbed eight college seniors in the first 10 rounds. Judging by his performance, Arnold, a supplemental second-round pick for the loss of free agent Denny Neagle, appeared to be anything but a conservative choice.

After three years of relieving at Central Florida, Arnold moved to the rotation as a senior and vaulted from a 16th-round pick in 2000 to 62nd overall in 2001. He made easy work of the NY-P before getting shut down with elbow tendinitis. He nearly threw a perfect game against Vermont, settling for a 15-strikeout no-hitter, with one walk.

Arnold has an 89-93 mph fastball that is capable of touching 95-97. He added depth to his changeup to make it an out pitch, and he also improved his slider.

4 JUAN FRANCIA, 2b
Oneonta Tigers
Francia was the consensus choice as the New York-Penn League’s most exciting player. He also won the batting title and reached base safely in 39 of 46 games.

The diminutive Venezuelan was compared to Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo for his speed and slash-and-run style of play. He was caught stealing 14 times in 31 tries, though Turgeon graded Francia’s speed as 80 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.

"You can't run any faster than that," Turgeon said. "This guy has jets on his feet. He’s a very potent offensive weapon."

Francia connected for just seven extra-base hits and will need to get stronger. But managers appreciated the fact that he tailored his game to his skills. He stood out defensively as well.

"He is a fun player to watch," Klebe said. "He played like he owned that side of the diamond."

5 DENNY BAUTISTA, rhp
Utica Blue Sox (Marlins)

The Braves originally signed Bautista before Major League Baseball suspended their Dominican operations because of Atlanta’s underage signing of Wilson Betemit. The Braves’ loss was the Marlins’ gain, as they jumped on Bautista in April 2000 and agreed to a $350,000 bonus.

Bautista began this season in extended spring training, then made a pair of emergency starts in Class A Kane County before being assigned to Utica. The wiry righthander needed just seven starts to impress NY-P managers with his lively 91-93 mph fastball and breaking ball, earning a return to trip to Kane County for the playoff stretch.

"He has the perfect frame," Boles said. "He could put on 40 pounds. It's only a matter of time with him. He has all the tools, but he's more polished than people think."

6 JOHN-FORD GRIFFIN, of
Staten Island Yankees

A pure-hitting machine with a sweet lefthanded stroke, Griffin produced a .450-19-75 All-American season at Florida State last spring. The first of four Yankees first-rounders, Griffin's advanced plate discipline stood out in his debut campaign. He had 50 walks and 23 strikeouts with the Seminoles, followed by 40 walks and 41 strikeouts in Staten Island.

"He has a good idea of the strike zone," Staten Island manager Dave Jorn said. "He is going to hit for more power. He needs to learn how to make adjustments, but he has tremendous hand-eye coordination."

Griffin ripped 17 doubles and five home runs, and his swing path and strength suggest he will develop more as he adapts to pro ball.

"He has some power but he doesn’t know how to use it yet," Brooklyn manager Edgar Alfonzo said. "He goes to the opposite field a lot."

One manager wasn't as enthralled, saying that Griffin has too many holes in his swing and can’t hit lefthanders.

7 ZACH MINER, rhp
Jamestown Jammers (Braves)

Miner was regarded as a potential first-round pick prior to his senior season at Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High in 2000, but teams were scared off by his commitment to the University of Miami. The Braves took a fourth-round flier and landed him that September for $1.2 million, the largest bonus they have given to a player not drafted in the first round.

Miner, who finished fifth in the league in ERA while holding opponents to a .226 average this summer, earns high praise for his intelligence and poise. He's aggressive in the strike zone with his hard, sinking fastball, which he throws at 90-91 mph.

"He has good control, but his breaking ball needs to get better," Jamestown manager Jim Saul said. "He has a good changeup and spots his fastball. He really challenges hitters."

8 DUSTIN McGOWAN, rhp
Auburn Doubledays (Blue Jays)

Managers agreed that teenagers Bautista and McGowan were the two most projectable righthanders in a league dominated by college pitchers. Armed with one of the better fastballs in the NY-P, McGowan finished third in the league with 80 strikeouts. He fared significantly better than he did in his pro debut, when he went 0-3, 6.48 in the Rookie-level Pioneer League.

"He made great improvements," Auburn manager Paul Elliott said. "He has a feel for his changeup, a power curveball and a 94-96 mph fastball."

While he was overpowering at times, McGowan was inconsistent and never lasted more than five innings. He also topped the league with 49 walks.

"It's going to take a while but he has the ability," Saul said. "His breaking ball needs to get better."

9 TYRELL GODWIN, of
Auburn Doubledays (Blue Jays)

It took three drafts, but Godwin finally started his career. The Yankees drafted him in the first round out of high school, but Godwin spurned their $1.9 million offer to play football and baseball at North Carolina. After the Rangers drafted him in the supplemental first round last year, Godwin agreed to a deal that got scuttled when he failed a physical. He had surgery to repair an injured knee last September, received his degree in December and didn’t play baseball in the spring. The Blue Jays feel like they landed a first-round talent in the third round this June.

He didn't show any signs of rust and reached base by hit or walk in 25 of his last 27 games. His physical tools are impressive across the board, particularly his speed.

"He swings the bat good," Beasley said. "He can go get 'em in the outfield. We hit a lot of balls we thought were going to drop that he ran under."

10 DOMINGO CUELLO, 2b
Williamsport Crosscutters (Pirates)
As with Francia, managers were enticed by Cuello's blazing speed and flashy defense. One of the youngest players in the league, he also showed the pop to drive the ball in the gaps. New Jersey manager Brian Rupp marveled at his ability to create havoc, and Saul concurred.

"He could be an impact player because he can cause problems for the defense," Saul said. "He's small but he's got a little punch."

"He can play, he's got range and a plus arm for a second baseman," Klebe said. "When he turns the DP, the ball hardly touches his glove."

11 JUSTIN POPE, rhp
New Jersey Cardinals
After shouldering a heavy workload along with his teammate Arnold at Central Florida in the spring, Pope might not have shown the NY-P the best he had to offer. The Cardinals kept Pope on a strict 75-80 pitch count and watched him get stronger by the end of the season.

Pope pitched at 89-90 mph and would jump up to 92-93 on occasion, but his slider is his best pitch. He’s also working on a curveball. And he’s always around the plate, as shown by his 66-14 strikeout-walk ratio.

"But the best thing about him is he is real levelheaded," Rupp said. "He works hard and kept us in the game every time out."

12 RYAN RABURN, 3b
Oneonta Tigers
Raburn was drafted by the Devil Rays in the 18th round out of high school in 1999, but instead opted to attend the University of Florida. Injuries curtailed his playing time there and he transferred to South Florida CC to become eligible for the 2001 draft. After regaining his power stroke last spring, he was drafted by Detroit in the sixth round.

He kept hitting this summer, posting an on-base plus slugging percentage of 1.114 and leading the league in triples. Raburn will need to improve his defense after making 21 errors in 40 games at third base, but his bat wasn’t questioned.

"He's going to hit," Elliot said. "He has a good body, a plus arm and he can hit any fastball out of any park."

13 CHRIS FLINN, rhp
Hudson Valley Renegades (Devil Rays)
Flinn was one of the top pitchers in the Northeast this spring and rewrote the pitching record book at SUNY Stony Brook. He's not overpowering and some teams were concerned with his size, though the Devil Rays were glad to add him in the third round as they stocked up on arms.

Flinn is a cerebral, mature pitcher with polished mechanics. One scout compared his delivery to David Cone. He spots his 89-91 mph fastball, and his knuckle-curve is an above-average pitch that features late life and depth. His stuff might be best suited for the bullpen.

14 ANGEL PAGAN, of
Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets)
Pagan was a highly coveted draft-and-follow sign last summer out of Indian River (Fla.) CC, but his debut season was cut short by a forearm injury. He started 2001 in extended spring training, and joined the NY-P late because Class A Capital City needed an emergency center fielder. Once he joined Brooklyn, Pagan batted .315 and tied for the league lead in steals.

He has an exciting combination of raw tools including well above-average speed and defensive skills. Scouts project power from the switch-hitter, though he has yet to homer in 367 pro at-bats.

"He has great wheels," Rupp said. "He looks like a guy you'd love to have at the top of the order. He slaps the ball around and forces the first and third baseman to play in because he can bunt. He'll steal second and third before you know it."

15 JASON STOKES, of
Utica Blue Sox (Marlins)
Stokes was considered the most promising power bat in the 2000 draft, but after spending much of his first pro season nursing a sore lower back, he has yet to show it. But managers could see his potential.

"He has above-average power," Boles said. "But he also has a chance to be a pretty good hitter. He has a good idea at the plate, he just hasn't had enough at-bats yet."

A first baseman in high school, Stokes has been learning to play the outfield because of the presence of 2000’s top overall draft pick, Adrian Gonzalez, in the Marlins organization. It has been a difficult adjustment for a player charitably described as thick, though he’s making progress.

16 LUZ PORTOBANCO, rhp
Brooklyn Cyclones (Mets)
The Mets describe Portobanco as a work in progress. A 36th-rounder in 2000, he worked on developing his three-pitch arsenal in extended spring.

Portobanco showed major improvement with his 90-94 mph sinking fastball, a very good changeup and curveball. Most important, he throws a lot of strikes. Despite good size and plus velocity, Portobanco registered just 52 strikeouts in 71 innings.

"He's not a big time strikeout guy," Rupp said. "He uses a real good changeup and good curveball, but he was pitching backwards."

17 TONY PENA JR., ss
Jamestown Jammers (Braves)
Pena has the fundamentally sound baseball instincts that come with the bloodlines of a former major leaguer. His tools are still raw at the plate, though managers were able to see past his .246-0-18 performance.

"He has a little ways to go with the bat but he hits the ball to all fields," Rupp said. "He has a little pop."

Pena needs to be more selective, but Saul said he wasn't easy for pitchers to put away. Like his father, a former all-star and Gold Glove catcher, Pena excels defensively. He possesses a strong throwing arm and excellent range to both sides.

"He can flat out pick it at short," Braves scouting director Roy Clark said. "He's a defensive whiz."

18 CHARLTON JIMERSON, of
Pittsfield Astros
After leading the Miami Hurricanes to the College World Series title with an MVP performance in Omaha, Jimerson was nagged by wrist and ankle injuries in his first pro campaign. He struggled at the plate, especially with his plate discipline. But his raw tools were apparent, particularly his power and speed.

"He swings and misses a lot," Alfonzo said. "He'll make the adjustments, though. I think he'll hit for power and average and steal bases. He has an above-average arm and range."

Jimerson, who overcame a tough family background and endured 3-plus seasons as a reserve at Miami, has intangibles that can’t be measured. He plays with a lot of emotion and intensity.

"He's a great-looking athlete," Boles said. "He plays without fear."

19 AARON RIFKIN, 1b
Staten Island Yankees
Rifkin exceeded expectations as a senior drafted in the fourth round after a lackluster spring at Cal State Fullerton. He finished second in the league with a .559 slugging percentage, and Newman called him a pleasant surprise.

Though he was more experienced than the average NY-P prospect, managers believe Rifkin's ability to use the whole field will help him climb the ladder. He has a pretty lefthanded stroke.

"He can pull the ball with power, which would be good in Yankee Stadium," Saul said. "He also showed the ability to go the other way. He has good plate coverage."

20 JUAN CAMACHO, 3b
Staten Island Yankees
The NY-P had a number of young third basemen who garnered notice behind Raburn. Camacho was the best of the crop, which also included Brooklyn’s Joe Jiannetti, Hudson Valley’s Edgar Gonzalez and Auburn’s Nom Siriveaw.

Managers were split on Camacho's bat, but his defensive skills at the hot corner were unsurpassed. He committed six errors in 70 games while showing soft hands and a strong, accurate arm.

"There is a lot of movement at the plate," Rupp said. "Until he finds a way to settle down, he's going to be a guess hitter, a mistake hitter. He can be pitched to because he is focused on one pitch."

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