South Atlantic League Top 20 Prospects
By Gene Sapakoff
"Hes our guy, but I watched him pretty much dominate," the Hagerstown manager said. "Even on nights when he didnt have his best stuff, he could give you six innings and give up only three or four hits."
A half-dozen other Class A South Atlantic League managers cast similar praise upon their top pitchers. Its traditionally dubbed a pitchers league. Never mind that the cliché owes something to teenagers adjusting to wood bats, thick humidity and inferior lighting.
In 2001, pitchers dominated Baseball Americas annual prospect poll of SAL managers. Six of the top 10 propects and 13 of the top 20 were pitchers.
Anthony Pluta and Mike Nannini came from a Lexington Legends staff that also included Robert Stiel, Rodrigo Rosario and Nick Roberts. The Wilmington Waves featured not only Ben Diggins, but also prospects Jose Rojas, Fernando Rijo and Jesus Cordero.
Most of the managers raved about Adam Wainwright, the most prominent member of a promising Macon pitching mound corps that also included Ben Kozlowski, Bubba Nelson and Brett Evert.
"Wainwright is an outstanding pitching prospect," Augusta manager Mike Boulanger said. "But there were so many this year, its hard to separate them."
1 BOOF BONSER, rhp
There was little doubt about his curveball when he came out of high school, but both his breaking pitch and changeup improved. Managers loved his work ethic as he pushed himself to stay in superb condition, shedding both pounds and a bad-body rap with a rigorous workout program.
"He has such a good arm," Charleston, W.Va., manager Rolando Pino said. "You can see he has a strong body. Boofs a great competitor and we saw his breaking ball continue to get better."
"I like Boof a lot," Kannapolis manager Razor Shines said. "Hes a power pitcher but a good offspeed pitcher too. Whats not to like about that?"
Capital City Bombers (Mets)
The comparisons to Rafael Furcal are obvious, even to those who didnt see Furcal jump from the Sally Leagues No. 1 prospect in 1999 to the National League rookie of the year in 2000. Like Furcal, Reyes is a switch-hitting Dominican who offers big league-ready defense, makes good contact at the plate and runs well. Hes also two inches taller.
For Mets fans, how about defense comparable to Rey Ordonez (minus the sauce) with more offensive potential? Reyes hit .180 in May, .288 in June and .430 in July.
"For a guy whos as young as he is, hes amazingly steady," said Charleston, S.C., manager Buddy Biancalana, a former major league shortstop. "If I were a big league manager, Id have no problem making him my shortstop next year."
Reyes has superb range and arm strength. He made just 18 errors to lead SAL shortstops with a .964 fielding percentage. Hes exceptionally smart at the plate and learns from his mistakes, though he occasionally gets overaggressive. Observers were split on his potential to hit more than a handful of home runs.
3 ADAM WAINWRIGHT, rhp
Wainwright, like Bonser a 2000 first-rounder, continues to make impressively rapid progress. His fastball works in the low 90s and his 6-foot-7 frame seems to add extra buckle to batters knees. So do his outstanding changeup, an improving curve and obvious polish.
Wainwright likes the gamesmanship and competition, and he looks like a No. 1 starter. He needs to add weight and stamina.
"He has a great body and knows how to pitch," Lakewood manager Greg Legg said. "He needs to learn how to pitch inside a little more but with such a good delivery, that shouldnt be a problem."
Hayes compared Wainwright to highly regarded Giants prospect Kurt Ainsworth.
"Great extension, great movement on the ball," Hayes said. "Hes simply able to strike people out."
4 CORWIN MALONE, lhp
"The thing I liked most about him was his competitiveness," Shines said. "He competes no matter what. Just playing catch, hes competing. He always wants the ball with the game on the line."
Malones fastball usually clocks in at 93 mph, and his curveball went from a once-in-a-while pitch to a weapon. That translated to a dramatic improve in command. As good as he was in the Sally League, he fared even better in the Carolina League and in Double-A.
5 KELLY JOHNSON, ss
Johnson showed the kind of lefthanded power the Braves hoped for. He has a beautiful swing and makes shrewd adjustments at the plate.
"You get the ball up and hell hit it out," Hayes said.
"Hell steal some bags too," Macon manager Randy Ingle said.
The big question with Johnson is his defense. He projects as a second or third baseman, though Ingle said Johnson made daily improvement at shortstop. He has a strong throwing arm and decent hands, but poor footwork led to many of his league-high 45 errors.
6 COREY SMITH, 3b
"He showed me a little bit of everything," Legg said. "Hes a good athlete at third base and potentially a great hitter who has power."
Smith has power to all fields. He didnt wear down in his first full pro season and has good speed, particularly for his build. Hell need to cut down on his strikeouts and eliminate something in a swing thats too stiff at times.
7 SEUNG SONG, rhp
Song throws his fastball in the low to mid-90s, and his curveball improved enough to give him a second plus pitch. Even without a quality changeup, he overmatched the league with a rare mix of heat, control and command.
"He has excellent poise for his age," Boulanger said. "Hes still learning but it looks like hes been pitching for a long time."
8 ANTHONY PLUTA, rhp
"We saw a very young pitcher who got better between starts," Legg said. "He made rapid progress, particularly with his fastball."
Its been that way since Pluta started his pitching career as a high school freshman and reached 90 mph during his first workout. Despite crude mechanics, he hit 99 mph in instructional league last fall and had one of the best fastballs in the SAL. Hell be even tougher once he gains command of his curveball and changeup.
9 TONY BLANCO, 3b
"Tools-wise, hes got it," Boulanger said, "and he really came on late in the season for us. His ceiling is extremely high."
Blanco hit .378 with six homers in his final 10 games and figures to get stronger. He must eliminate overaggressive mistakes at bat and make more consistent contact. He was below average at third base because of poor footwork and anticipation, but his arm and range are excellent.
10 BEN KOZLOWSKI, lhp
A prototype power lefthander, Kozlowski has a low-90s fastball, a good curveball and an improving changeup. Ingle said Kozlowski made as much progress as any player on a talented Macon team.
"He was able to work in the strike zone with all three of his pitches," Hayes said. "Hes definitely not afraid to throw inside."
11 DAVE MARTINEZ, lhp
"He was very poised with a good idea of how to pitch in various situations," Biancalana said. "Im glad we only had to see him once."
Martinez was improved from his eight-start stay in Greensboro last year, when he went 2-5, 2.92. The location on his 92-94 mph fastball went from OK to nasty. He also made great strides with his curveball, among the best in the SAL, and his changeup.
12 GUILLERMO REYES, ss
"He was simply the best shortstop in this league," Shines said. "He has exceptionally soft hands out there. Hes very mature and he made all the plays."
Three inches shorter than Jose, Guillermo isnt as imposing at the plate and doesnt have nearly as much pop. Its unlikely hell ever hit for power, but he needs to get stronger. Reyes is quick enough with the bat to turn on pitches and significantly improved his plate awareness during the summer.
13 SEAN BURNETT, lhp
Burnett used his three-pitch arsenal to dominate SAL batters at age 18. He isnt overpowering, with a fastball around 90 mph, but his curveball is outstanding and hes a bulldog. His learned approach and competitive nature make the fastball more effective, and Burnetts real strength is location.
"When he got into trouble, which wasnt very often, he knew what he was doing out there," Pino said. "He didnt lose his composure under pressure."
14 RICH RUNDLES, lhp
Rundles occasionally reached the low 90s with his fastball, though he pitched more in the mid-80s after switching organizations. He effectively mixed curveballs and changeups and displayed fine control.
"He had a real good feel for pitching," Boulanger said. "Velocity isnt going to be his ticket. He has good command right now and doesnt need to throw much harder."
15 TAYLOR BUCHHOLZ, rhp
His 91-mph fastball didnt scare anyone, but his curveball and changeup made him tough to hit. So did his thinking mans approach to pitching. Buchholz didnt panic after starting the year with a 1-10 record, finishing with eight wins in his final 12 decisions.
"He looked much more in control in the second half of the season," Pino said. "He had a good arm, good curve and good control and wasnt afraid to throw that changeup anytime in the count."
16 MIKE NANNINI, rhp
Because hes 5-foot-11 and has a live arm, Nannini draws comparisons within the organization to Houston ace Roy Oswalt. Like Oswalt, hes a gritty battler with a mid-90s fastball. One manager thought Nanninis slider was the best breaking pitch in the league.
"I saw him in 1999 and his fastball and his command have improved considerably," Legg said. "Hes throwing in and out, up and down, using the other pitches behind in the count and was just very consistent very deep into games."
17 BEN DIGGINS, rhp
He stood as tall as his 6-foot-7 frame while flirting with no-hitters in back-to-back starts. The zip was back in a fastball once timed at 98 mph while he was in college. It had dipped into the high 80s during a midseason slump.
"He pitched inside much better later in the season and did a better job of locating his fastball," Biancalana said. "And you have to like those long arms."
Diggins continues to work extensively with Dodgers coaches on his mechanics and a slider, both with mixed results. If pitching doesnt work out, some scouts have considered him a better prospect as a power hitter.
18 SETH McCLUNG, rhp
McClung aggressively goes after hitters but sometimes relies too much on either his mid-90s fastball or his plus curveball. With the proper balance, McClung was nearly unhittable and looks and acts a lot like a future closer. His changeup is an ongoing project and was used with mixed results.
The Devil Rays appreciate McClungs outgoing nature but have worked with him on managing his emotions on the mound, a weakness in his first two pro seasons.
19 KOYIE HILL, c/dh
A switch-hitter, Hill led Wilmington with 47 walks and demonstrated enough power and speed to project as a 20-20 big leaguer. The Dodgers are making a catcher out of a college third baseman, and Hill is responding well.
His throwing arm is above average, he works well with pitchers and he moves exceptionally well behind the plate. Some of his mechanics need attention, a project for instructional league.
20 ROCCO BALDELLI, of
The sixth pick in the 2000 draft, Baldelli is refining his raw tools en route to a future Tampa Bay outfield of himself, Hamilton and Carl Crawford. Few players are quicker or more exciting on their way around the bases.
Minor back and hand injuries held Baldelli back, and he wore down in his first full season. But he just needs at-bats, as his arm is the only tool he has that isnt above average.
"Rocco is capable of being a real fine major league player," Biancalana said. "But he has to decide thats what he wants to do. If he does and stays healthy, nothing will stop him."
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