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Pacific Coast League Top 20 Prospects

By Will Lingo

Top 20
The Pacific Coast League has evolved from one of minor league baseball's most storied leagues to one of its oddest.

Sprawling from New Orleans to Edmonton, the 16-team league has lost much of the West Coast flavor that provided its original notoriety. The new configuration also makes it difficult for managers to get any kind of comprehensive handle on the prospect outlook for the league.

Add in the usual shuttle between Triple-A and the majors that affects a significant number of players each year, and you have a real mess. Cubs outfielder Corey Patterson, for example, got called up twice during the year, making it harder for managers to get a read on his progress.

One thing they could agree on this year, though, was the stardom that awaits Padres third baseman Sean Burroughs. He was the league's rookie of the year despite missing a month with a torn meniscus in his knee, as well as the clear choice as top prospect.

Beyond that, where you stood depended on where you sat. In the West, league co-champion Tacoma presented a strong crop of prospects to provide further evidence of the resurgence of the Mariners system. In the former American Association territory, co-champion New Orleans provided plenty of pitching--though Roy Oswalt and Tim Redding didn't stay in the league long enough to qualify for the Top 20 Prospects list--as further evidence of the resurgence of the Astros system.

The size of the PCL left little room on the list for solid prospects who didn't distinguish themselves this season, such as Colorado Springs righthander Jason Jennings, or darkhorses whose ceilings aren't as high as players who made it, such as Calgary second baseman Matt Erickson.

1 SEAN BURROUGHS, 3b
Portland Beavers (Padres)
Regarded as the best hitting prospect in the minors coming into the season, Burroughs did nothing to diminish that reputation. He was consistent throughout the year in spite of his injury, going as many as three games without a hit only once. And as he has been throughout his career, he again was one of the youngest players at his level.

Burroughs showed his same strong approach at the plate, though for the first time in his career he struck out more than he walked. He continued to display outstanding control of the strike zone and a great swing and bat speed. His defense and arm at third base, on top of his offensive talent, should keep him at the hot corner despite the Padres organization's logjam at the position.

His own manager, Portland's Rick Sweet, called him a potential Hall of Famer and said Burroughs could adapt to a change in position if needed.

"Everything in baseball is in pencil and not ink," Sweet said. "I told Sean that all year: 'It better be in pencil because you know I'm going to change it.' That's the way baseball works."

The only knock on Burroughs has been his power, and that has started to emerge. He surpassed his previous career home run total with nine in 394 at-bats this season.

2 CARLOS PENA, 1b
Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
After a slow start, Pena left no doubt that he's the Rangers' first baseman of the future. If Rafael Palmeiro will accede to it, Pena should be ready to take over next season.

Pena’s average didn't get above .260 for good until August as he battled nagging injuries, but then he finished at a blistering .375 with seven homers in the final month to leave a definite impression on the league. He also showed his plus power with several tape-measure shots.

"Some of his home runs, I haven't seen any longer here," Oklahoma manager DeMarlo Hale said.

This was the first time in three seasons that Pena didn't have at least 100 RBIs, but managers had little doubt that he’ll be a consistent run producer in the big leagues. Though he passed 100 strikeouts again, his power and ability to draw walks more than make up for it. He also showed a willingness to go with pitches more this year, and his defense at first base is impeccable.

Patterson
Corey Patterson
Photo: Cosimo Mellace
3 COREY PATTERSON, of
Iowa Cubs
Patterson remains one of baseball's premium young talents, but his less-than-inspiring performance in the PCL added a few more doubters to the bandwagon. His average slipped for the second straight year, and more notably his run production was way off.

The Cubs called him up at the end of June and again in the middle of August, and some thought the constant distraction of whether he was ready for Wrigley Field wore on him.

"I didn't think he was quite ready for the big leagues," one manager said. "When your team's going good like they're doing in Chicago, it's mostly a matter of fitting the pieces in and hoping they perform. I think Corey will perform there eventually, but not yet."

As Patterson showed in both Iowa and Chicago, he hasn’t figured out how to attack advanced pitching. His tools are still hard to argue with, as he has great speed and defensive instincts that make him useful in the big leagues despite his struggles with the bat. He has a good stroke and power potential, and should come around with more at-bats.

4 BUD SMITH, lhp
Memphis Redbirds (Cardinals)
Smith never seems to get the ink of other pitching prospects--even Rick Ankiel drew more attention for his disastrous season--and splitting the season between Memphis and St. Louis meant he didn't get his due in either place. His big league no-hitter should go a long way toward rectifying that situation and establish him as one of the best young lefthanders in the game.

Managers were impressed with Smith's approach more than his stuff. He has a slightly below-average fastball that can reach the high 80s, but he makes up for it with his curveball and changeup. He also has above-average command and a great understanding of how to keep hitters off balance.

5 JUAN URIBE, ss
Colorado Springs SkySox (Rockies)
Neifi Perez said he expected Uribe to push him to second base. Uribe actually pushed him out of Colorado altogether.

He played so well in a 13-game audition in Colorado when Perez was hurt early in the season that the organization was comfortable trading the veteran to the Royals. Uribe was called up after the trade and held his own as the starting shortstop.

Though he played just three games in Double-A before moving up to the PCL, Uribe showed the flashy defense that has been his calling card. He has a strong, accurate arm and great shortstop actions. He's still hit or miss at the plate, showing power potential but not enough patience.

"He has tremendous physical tools, but he also has instinct for the game," Tucson manager Tom Spencer said. "He adjusts quickly, and his ceiling might be higher than Perez'."

6 CHRIS GEORGE, lhp
Omaha Golden Spikes (Royals)
George continues to be a pitcher who looks better in retrospect than when he's out there facing your team on the mound. He wasn't overpowering in the PCL but ended up among the league leaders in wins and ERA. He also made his major league debut and showed enough that he should be able to stick there.

George has above-average velocity for a lefthander, but his changeup remains his best pitch. He had more success with his slider this year than his breaking pitch, and he’s most effective when he pitches down in the strike zone.

"He's the type of kid who can learn from his mistakes and improve," Omaha manager John Mizerock said. "Everybody has seen his improvement from start to start."

7 RAMON VAZQUEZ, ss
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
The Mariners' Antonio Perez was considered the best shortstop prospect in the game coming into the season, but after missing most of the year he might not even be the best in his organization. Vazquez emerged after six nondescript years with a breakthrough season, nearly making the Mariners roster in spring training, drawing frequent trade inquiries and earning a big league callup in September.

Vazquez has soft hands and good range for a shortstop, and he committed just 12 errors this year after 31 in 1999 and 22 last year. He has improved the accuracy of his throws significantly. He’s a solid offensive player who recognizes his limitations and doesn't try to mash the ball, and he earns high praise for his approach.

"He's out here working early, every day," Tacoma manager Dan Rohn said. "There's nobody who wouldn't want him on their team. There's a confidence about him. He knows he belongs. He makes plays that astonish us in the dugout."

8 KURT AINSWORTH, rhp
Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
Ainsworth recovered from a disastrous start to make his big league debut by season's end and put himself in contention for a rotation spot in San Francisco next year. His ERA was 6.51 going into June, but he righted things and posted a 2.73 ERA in August.

When Ainsworth was off it was because of his command, which resulted in a few brutal starts, and because he relied too much on his fastball. He also battled blister problems. When he was on, he showed up to four quality pitches: a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, a curveball, slider and changeup.

"What stands out is he has three major league pitches or maybe even four," Sacramento manager Bob Geren said. "When you're looking for big league starters, you have to look very seriously at him."

9 TONY MCKNIGHT, rhp
New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
McKnight almost serves as a representative for all the great pitching that passed through New Orleans this year. Like Oswalt and Redding before him, McKnight spent significant time in the big leagues this year. Unlike them, he has spent most of it with the Pirates, who acquired him for Mike Williams at the trade deadline.

"We had some thoroughbreds," New Orleans pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "We're not getting pack mules or anything like that."

McKnight showed a low-90s fastball consistently and got knocked around at times this season when he tried to overpower hitters. He was more effective when he used his curveball and changeup to their full effect. Managers who didn't like him say he simply doesn’t miss enough bats.

10 JOEL PINEIRO, rhp
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Pineiro actually didn't get as much recognition in the league as teammate Denny Stark, but his ceiling gives him the nod on the prospect list. He spent the first two months of the year as a starter before moving to the bullpen in June to accommodate the wealth of pitching in Tacoma. He got called up to Seattle in July and quickly pitched his way from the bullpen into the rotation and helped to continue the Mariners' amazing run.

"It was tough to try to match up against them with the pitching they had," Iowa manager Bruce Kimm said. "Tacoma's the best team we faced this season."

Pineiro showed an average fastball as well as two breaking balls and a changeup. He would have impressed managers more had he not struggled with his command. His control seemed to improve after he moved to the bullpen, which along with his durability raises questions about his long-term role.

11 CARLOS ZAMBRANO, rhp
Iowa Cubs

In their search for pitching help after trading Ruben Quevedo and getting hit by injuries, the Cubs gave Zambrano an audition in Chicago. He failed, giving up seven runs in four innings in a start against the Brewers, and returned to Iowa until the end of the PCL season. When called up again in September, he was used out of the bullpen, as he had been in Iowa in 2000.

Zambrano was in the Iowa rotation all season this year and continued to show nasty stuff. His mid-90s fastball and slider are a lethal combination when they're on. He remains inconsistent as a starter, however, and his curveball and changeup still aren’t refined.

"He could be a guy who could come in and get a strikeout, he could come in and get a double play and he's a guy who could go long if they need to have someone eat up a lot of innings," Kimm said.

12 MORGAN ENSBERG, 3b
New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)
As with the Mariners, the Astros get more attention for their pitching but have a good number of quality position prospects as well. Ensberg torched the Texas League in 2000 and earned a September callup, but this year he missed almost two months of action after surgery on the hamate bone of his left hand. Still, he put up impressive numbers for just 316 at-bats: .310-23-61.

"I think he would have had numbers that nobody at the Triple-A level would have matched because of the way he was swinging the bat and the way he went into the game every night," New Orleans manager Tony Pena said.

Ensberg has plus power and continues to improve his plate discipline. His defense is still inconsistent and some managers wondered if he might have to move to first base or the outfield.

13 DENNY STARK, rhp
Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)
Stark was regarded as a prospect before injuries hit in 1998 and limited him that season and again in 2000. He finally had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder last June. He rejuvenated his career in 2001, earning PCL pitcher-of-the-year honors and getting called up to Seattle in June and again in September.

"He's been unbelievable this season," Rohn said. "For him to be throwing this well coming off surgery is amazing."

Stark has slightly above-average stuff and has success when he spots and mixes his pitches. He has two fastballs and a curveball, and his changeup still needs work. He profiles as a No. 3 or 4 starter.

14 HEE SEOP CHOI, 1b
Iowa Cubs
Unfortunately, Choi's 2001 season will be more remembered for what happened off the field than on it. He was dragged into a story that got national attention when a Nashville Sounds employee played the song "Kung Fu Fighting" when Choi, who is Korean, came to bat. The employee was fired.

More important, Choi got in just 266 at-bats this season because of a hand injury. He played for the first two months of the season with the pain but finally went on the disabled list at the end of May--after a game in which he hit two home runs. The injury was diagnosed as tendinitis in his left hand and just required rest.

Choi showed flashes of his true talent when he returned to action in August, with immense power potential and an advanced feel for hitting. Managers expect to see him back in the league to start next season, though, unless he shows tremendous progress in the Arizona Fall League.

15 JOAQUIN BENOIT, rhp
Oklahoma RedHawks (Rangers)
Benoit wasn’t a huge favorite among PCL managers, but the Rangers have to be excited about his 157 innings of work as he moved from Double-A to make his big league debut. He had shown great stuff but never had thrown more than 105 innings in a season.

Benoit has a fastball than can reach the mid-90s as well as an above-average slider. His other pitches and command need work, but he appeared to get better as the season wore on. His last PCL effort was a 12-strikeout, three-hit shutout over Memphis.

Those who doubt Benoit's long-term value say he leaves too many balls over the heart of the plate and might not develop the command necessary to get advanced hitters out.

16 RYAN VOGELSONG, rhp
Fresno Grizzlies (Giants) and Nashville Sounds (Pirates)
Vogelsong made an impression both in the PCL and in the big leagues, and was a key player in the Jason Schmidt deadline deal between the Pirates and Giants. That's all by the boards for now, however, as Vogelsong's season ended during a start in September. He tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow and is expected to miss all of next season after Tommy John surgery.

Vogelsong showed a 93-mph fastball and knee-buckling curveball when he was on this season. He's aggressive and goes right after hitters.

"He's good. I didn't understand why he was in the minor leagues," Geren said. "I've seen him for three years, and from what I've seen he looks like a major league pitcher."

17 MARIO RAMOS, lhp
Sacramento RiverCats (Athletics)
Ramos continues to overcome the doubts brought on by his height (generously listed at 5-foot-11) and slender build. After spending the first half of the season in Double-A, he stabilized the RiverCats rotation. He carried no-hitters into the eighth inning of four different games this year.

Determined and intelligent, Ramos is the classic crafty lefthander. His fastball peaks at 87-88 mph, but he changes speeds and spots the ball well to keep hitters off balance. His preparation between starts quickly got noticed.

"He knows what kind of pitcher he is," Geren said. "He seems to be deceptive. Hitters can't pick the ball up. He gets a lot more swings and misses from the velocity he has than guys who throw much harder."

18 JACK CUST, of
Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks)
For a player regarded as a premium prospect, Cust has followed a slow and steady progression in the Diamondbacks organization, finally making his major league debut in September. He remains one of the top power prospects in the game and was named the PCL's best power hitter by managers at midseason.

Cust's average dipped a bit this year, but he continued to show his outstanding patience by walking more than 100 times for the second straight year. Appropriately enough, he walked in his first major league plate appearance. His power can put the ball out of any park and is a willing tradeoff for all his strikeouts.

The problem remains on defense, where Cust still shows no real aptitude. He made 11 errors in left field and left several managers regarding him as a DH prospect.

19 TONY TORCATO, of
Fresno Grizzlies (Giants)
Torcato didn't get seen by a lot of managers after spending the last quarter of the season in the PCL, but as one of the youngest players in the league this season he bears watching next year. He spent the first half of the season in the high Class A California League before earning a promotion to the Double-A Texas League and then the PCL. He got off to a slow start before an 11-game hitting streak that raised his average from .167 to .355.

Torcato is another prospect who will get as far as his swing takes him. Like Burroughs he hasn't shown a lot of power yet, but that’s expected to come. Torcato’s 38 doubles this season are indicative of his stroke. He can hit the ball to all fields and has one of the best swings in the minors.

Unlike Cust, Torcato has earned positive reviews for his work in the outfield. He had to move there after shoulder surgery ended his days at third base. He played both corners well and left field seems to be his long-term home.

20 CESAR CRESPO, util
Portland Beavers (Padres)
Crespo got lost in the shuffle a bit after changing organizations for the second time. A third-round draft pick of the Mets in 1997, he was traded to the Marlins in 1998. Florida sent him to the Padres with Mark Kotsay at the end of spring training this year in a deal for Matt Clement and Eric Owens.

Crespo quickly showed his value as a utilityman, playing second base, third base, shortstop and the outfield for Portland. That earned him an extended trial in San Diego, where the Padres wanted to see if he could be a full-time player at second base. In addition to his versatility on defense, Crespo is a switch-hitter with a bit of pop.

"Crespo is a great guy to have in any situation," Sweet said, "because he can play anywhere."

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