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South Atlantic League Top 20 Prospects

By Bill Ballew
September 24, 2002

ASHEVILLE, N.C.--A run at the second-half crown in the South Atlantic League's Southern Division may be all the members of the Macon Braves have to show for their efforts in 2002, but that is expected to change.

Every manager said the league's youngest team has a chance to give the final Braves-affiliated club in Macon its best single-year crop of future major leaguers. Atlanta fielded legitimate prospects, including four ranked in the top 20, at nearly every position.

"You remember the Great Eight in Richmond?" said Lakewood manager Jeff Manto, recalling the Braves' 1993 Triple-A affiliate that featured Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko and Javy Lopez. "That Macon club could be even better. There was some incredible talent on that team, especially at this level, and many of them are going to make it to the top."

Macon was not the only Sally League city bursting with prospects. The Columbus rotation featured five solid starters in Travis Foley, Dan Denham, J.D. Martin, Mariano Gomez and Jake Dittler. Denham, Martin and Dittler were drafted in the first 51 picks in 2001, and all five made impressive strides.

"All five starters are in the same batch in terms of long-term potential," Columbus manager Torey Lovullo said. "Mariano and even Travis were a little more unheralded than the others, yet they all proved they have bright futures with the improvements they made this year."

The pitching was deep enough this season that several good pitchers failed to make the list. Among them were Asheville lefthander Zack Parker, who led the league with 16 wins, and Charleston (S.C.) righties Chad Gaudin (2.26) and Chris Flinn (2.31), who finished third and fourth in the league in ERA. Other righthanders receiving consideration include Augusta's Manny Delcarmen, Hickory's Ian Oquendo and Chris Young, and Capital City's Len DiNardo and Matt Peterson.

"I saw a lot more pitching talent this year than the past two seasons," said Joe Mikulik, in his third season as Asheville's manager. "There were not as many position prospects, but the ones who stood out have a chance to move fast."

Floyd
Gavin Floyd
Photo: David Schofield
1. Gavin Floyd, rhp, Lakewood BlueClaws (Phillies)
The Phillies wanted Floyd, the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft, to focus on throwing his fastball for strikes this season. He responded to the challenge, shown by his no-hitter against Lexington on July 24, when he threw 79 fastballs among his 97 pitches. He also showed his durability by ranking fourth in the league in innings.

Floyd, however, is more than a durable fastball pitcher. While his plus heater sits in the 94-96 mph range, his best pitch is a sharp-breaking curveball that buckles hitters' knees. His changeup is nothing less than an average major league offering and improving. Managers loved his smooth mechanics and effortless delivery, which allow him to work both sides of the plate with pinpoint control.

"His makeup for a teenager is the best I have ever seen," Manto said. "Most kids his age are just trying to fit in, but Gavin has a unique intangible that lets him to know what it takes to succeed. He knew how to budget his time with his workouts, studied hitters, did everything he could to understand why certain things were done the way they were. Then you add his ability to throw the ball, and he's as polished as any kid you'll see."

2. John VanBenschoten, rhp, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
Several managers felt VanBenschoten was the league's most advanced pitcher. Several wondered why the Pirates kept him in Hickory the entire season.

"He didn't belong in this league in the second half," a Northern Division manager said. "I asked a friend of mine with the Pirates why he didn't move up and he said they didn't want to put any pressure on him. But he wasn't challenged much of the time after the all-star break."

VanBenschoten showed the league's best overall command of all his pitches. He has a low-90s fastball with plus movement, along with a nasty, sharp-breaking slider that ties up hitters. He didn't use his changeup that often, something he'll have to address in the future.

3. Macay McBride, lhp, Macon Braves
The Braves planned to start the 19-year-old McBride in Rookie-level Danville before injuries in Macon necessitated a promotion. McBride made the most of the situation, establishing himself as the staff ace. He did not allow an earned run in 11 of his 25 starts, won nine of his last 10 decisions, and led the league in ERA. He was the league's most valuable pitcher.

McBride has outstanding arm strength and impressive command for a pitcher in his first full pro season. Known as a fastball pitcher who threw in the mid-90s in high school, McBride showed a plus slider and a changeup that improved considerably as the season went on. In a late start against Asheville, he broke three bats with his changeup.

"I love lefthanders, especially lefties that throw consistently in the 90s," Mikulik said. "With the command and savvy both McBride and VanBenschoten have, those young men could reach the big leagues in a hurry."

4. Andy Marte, 3b, Macon Braves
After a six-month ban on signing Dominican players for inking Wilson Betemit when he was too young, the Braves returned to the fray by acquiring Marte for $600,000 in September 2000. He struggled in Rookie ball last year before blossoming in Macon. He led the league in RBIs and ranked second in homers.

Marte impressed observers with his cool demeanor, patient approach at the plate and determination to battle pitchers in every at-bat. He showed power to all fields, using his quick wrists to turn on most fastballs. Several managers mentioned how he learned to wait on breaking balls as the season progressed. Marte also has soft hands and a good arm, which should allow him to remain at third base.

"I love his attitude at the plate," Manto said. "You never know if he's made an out or gone deep. He never took his at-bats to the field. He's an impressive hitter with an incredible ceiling."

5. Francisco Rosario, rhp, Charleston Alley Cats (Blue Jays)
Few hitters shed tears when Rosario was promoted to high Class A Dunedin in mid-June. He overpowered the SAL with a fastball clocked as high as 96 mph that sat at 92-94. He also threw a nasty breaking ball with a tight spin that many managers called a slurve.

Rosario has good arm speed on his changeup. He possesses outstanding athleticism for a pitcher with excellent defensive skills and a quick delivery to the plate. He's a complete package, and several skippers couldn't stop raving about the movement of his fastball.

"He's a special guy who is not afraid to throw any of his pitches at any time in the count," Augusta manager Arnie Beyeler said. "The thing I like most about him is the way he really turned it up a notch when he got into trouble. He didn't run and hide like some guys try to do."

6. Francisco Liriano, lhp, Hagerstown Suns (Giants)
Shoulder injuries prevented Liriano from pitching after July 21, but he showed enough before that to convince all observers that he has a bright future. He's yet another blue-chip mound prospect in a Giants organization loaded with them.

Liriano succeeds with a 92-94 mph fastball and a plus curveball. A former outfielder, he also has smooth mechanics and an impressive feel for pitching for an 18-year-old.

Durability remains the biggest question mark for Liriano, who threw more than five innings just five times in 16 starts. His shoulder wasn't expected to keep him from participating in instructional league.

7. Kris Honel, rhp, Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox)
A few scouts voiced their concern this season when Honel's velocity fell to 86-90 mph and topped out at 91. Some wondered if he was a dead arm during his first full professional season, but managers didn't have the same anxiety because his curveball and changeup are above-average offerings.

Possessing outstanding control, Honel accrues strikeouts with an unconventional arm action. His motion includes a long and loose delivery before an unusual jerk at the end, which creates considerable deception. He also locates his fastball well and does an outstanding job of moving his pitches around the strike zone.

"He didn't throw hard but he didn't need to throw any harder," Beyeler said. "Our hitters kept saying they couldn't see the ball that well because it jumped on top of them even though he wasn't overpowering."

8. Francisco Cruceta, rhp, South Georgia Waves (Dodgers)
Several observers said the Indians pulled a coup when they acquired Cruceta from the Dodgers in a trade for Paul Shuey in July. He dominated, tossing a seven-inning no-hitter against Delmarva in the first game of a doubleheader on April 29 as part of a 21-inning scoreless streak.

Attracting comparisons to Ricardo Rodriguez, who joined him in the Shuey deal and was ranked as Los Angeles' top prospect last offseason, Cruceta showed a 91-93 mph fastball along with a tight curveball and a solid changeup. He has good fastball command and an easy arm action that allows the ball to get on top of hitters quickly.

The lone criticism centered on Cruceta's immaturity, which some managers believed played a role in the Dodgers' decision to trade him.

9. Justin Huber, c, Capital City Bombers (Mets)
Huber showed that he could be the catcher who finally forces Mike Piazza to move to first base. The Australian put together a dominating first half that led to a mid-July promotion to the FSL. He returned to Capital City in late August in time for the playoffs.

Huber has a quick bat that should produce 25-30 home runs annually in the major leagues. Not surprisingly, his power suffered as the constant catching demands and Southeastern heat took its toll. After hitting his 10th home run on May 23, Huber went deep only four more times the rest of the year.

Nevertheless, he continued to display quick feet and excellent mobility behind the plate. His arm is considered a little above-average, and he does an excellent job of working with pitchers.

"Justin is a tough kid, a gamer who loves to play," Capital City manager Tony Tijerina said. "He's no maintenance and has all the intangibles you want in a catcher."

10. David Wright, 3b, Capital City Bombers (Mets)
Wright entered 2002 with a reputation as one of the game's best young pure hitters and didn't disappoint. His approach at the plate is impeccable and the ball jumps off his bat. Several managers rated Wright's bat speed as the league's best, adding that he'll hit for more power as he continues to develop.

Wright further stood out with his defense at third base. He moves well to both sides and does an excellent job of coming in on grounders. He also has a strong and accurate arm.

"David is like Justin in that he's a 19-year-old kid going on 30," Tijerina said. "He's so mature and he has a passion for the game that is unmatched. He's a professional in every sense of the word."

11. Edwin Jackson, rhp, South Georgia Waves (Dodgers)
No player in the league improved his status more than Jackson did with the Dodgers. He didn't make his first appearance with South Georgia until May 17, yet looked like a seasoned veteran. One manager rated him as one of the top three pitching prospects on the circuit.

Jackson shocked the competition early in the season with his 94-96 mph fastball. He overpowered hitters up in the strike zone and locked them up by pitching inside. Though he showed signs of tiring toward the end of his first full season, he continued to work hard on improving his secondary offerings, and had developed a decent changeup by the end of the year.

"He's got a good, athletic body and a great feel for all of his pitches, especially when you consider how inexperienced he is," Beyeler said. "You can tell he's headed in the right direction."

12. Carlos Duran, of, Macon Braves
Macon and Capital City fielded the league's most athletic outfields. The Braves featured three tools-heavy flycatchers, with Duran overshadowing Gregor Blanco and Angelo Burrows.

A pure five-tool player, Duran combined speed and hitting skill to lead the circuit in triples while ranking fourth in hits and fifth in runs. He has a strong arm, and his instincts for the game are obvious. Most managers liked the way he carried himself much more than the way Blanco did.

"He's just a puppy," Macon manager Lynn Jones said. "He's still learning the game and getting stronger. When everything comes together as he continues to mature, I think he's going to be a productive all-around player."

13. Ryan Hannaman, lhp, Hagerstown Suns (Giants)
Hitters were more than a little hesitant to face Hannaman. He buckled knees while throwing his hard, tight slider with a low three-quarters delivery. His fastball sat in the 92-93 mph range, and all of his pitches showed the natural movement that tends to separate the premier lefties from the common ones.

Hannaman improved as the season progressed. His mechanics became more consistent and he showed a better feel for setting up hitters. In his last eight starts, Hannaman fanned 68 batters in 49 innings.

"He could be real nasty when everything was working for him," Manto said. "He has pretty good command for a lefthander at his age. He has a high ceiling."

14. Scott Thorman, 1b, Macon Braves
Thorman missed all of last season after shoulder surgery and battled an ailing hand at times in 2002, yet looked like an advanced all-around hitter for a player in his first full year as a pro. Several managers said he reminded them of Ryan Klesko with his potent lefthanded swing.

A Canadian, he's just beginning to realize his potential. Thorman overcame a sluggish start during which he tried to hit every pitch 500 feet.

"When I saw him early in the year, I thought he was trying to do too much at the plate," Mikulik said. "But he really settled down and proved he can hit to all fields with authority. He's an intense young man, a real competitor."

Thorman made considerable strides with his glove at first base after previously toiling at third base. He threw 95 mph as a high school pitcher, and has quick feet and good hands to go with his arm strength.

15. Walter Young, 1b, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)
Young headlined a potent Hickory attack by making a serious run at the triple crown. In addition to leading the league in home runs, the mammoth first baseman placed second in RBIs and third in hitting. The league named him its MVP and top prospect.

While the 22-year-old Young proved he could rake in low Class A, there are questions aside from his age. He has a long swing with some serious holes that will be exposed at higher levels. The 6-foot-4 Young weighs more than 300 pounds, which limits him to first base and DH.

Yet while some observers see the next Sam Horn or Calvin Pickering, others believe Young could be a poor man's Cecil Fielder after watching him hit .333 against both lefties and righties. He also concluded the season by hitting .384-8-24 in August.

"He's a guy who is going to hit for power and average if he keeps his body in shape," Manto said. "He has the same approach against lefthanders and righthanders, and he can absolutely crush the ball. He's going to make a lot of money with his bat if he stays on track."

16. Victor Diaz, 3b/2b, South Georgia Waves (Dodgers)
Managers rated Diaz the league's best batting prospect in the midseason Best Tools survey, and he led the league in hitting despite a mid-July promotion to Double-A. The Dodgers may have pushed him too aggressively, as he batted just .211 in the Southern League.

A capable defender at second base as well as the corner infield positions, Diaz continues to show steady improvement with the glove. He has decent hands and a strong, accurate arm.

South Georgia manager Scott Little raved about Diaz' work ethic and instincts on the diamond. While his hitting skills are obvious, the 6-foot, 200-pounder also possesses deceptive speed for his size.

"He was one of the toughest outs in the league this year," Beyeler said. "He can drive the ball to all fields and has a knack for coming through with a key hit. He's an impact player who rises to the occasion."

17. Dustin McGowan, rhp, Charleston Alley Cats (Blue Jays)
McGowan continued to show all the raw tools scouts love in a young pitcher. Wiry and athletic, he has a live arm and easy delivery that allows the ball to explode out of his hand. He throws a 94-96 mph fastball with plus movement, a 12-to-6 power curveball and a decent changeup.

As with many inexperienced pitchers who throw heat, McGowan's command leaves something to be desired. His inconsistent mechanics led to a rough start but he gained consistency and led the SAL in strikeouts.

18. Seung Lee, rhp, Lakewood BlueClaws (Phillies)
Lee struggled in 2001, his first year in the United States. The Korean had difficulty dealing with a back problem that limited his development and adjusting to a new culture, which created some concerns for the Phillies.

The 2002 season proved to be a different story. Lee made the necessary adjustments–though at 23 he was old for the league.

At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Lee has excellent command of both sides of the plate with his 92-94 mph fastball and frustrates hitters with his backdoor slider. He threw strikes consistently, earning him two promotions during the summer.

"Last year he didn't understand how to react to our culture and to an injury," Manto said. "This year he became more comfortable and by the end of the season he was one of clowns in our clubhouse. His comfort level really allowed him to become a better player this season."

19. Travis Foley, rhp, Columbus RedStixx (Indians)
Foley nudged to the head of the Columbus staff with the most consistent season among the Fab Five. He maintained his focus and mental toughness throughout the campaign, and showed a willingness to do whatever necessary to improve.

"His determination to be one of the game's best pitchers is unmatched," Lovullo said. "He learned how to trust his pitches, and all of his pitches improved. His desire is incredible. He will be a major league pitcher for that reason alone."

Foley throws an 89-92 mph fastball with excellent movement. His curveball became tighter and developed into a plus offering, while he showed an excellent feel for his improving changeup. Those abilities were evident down the stretch, when he allowed one run or less in eight of his final 10 starts.

20. Phil Dumatrait, lhp, Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
The GreenJackets had difficulty scoring runs this year, but Dumatrait never let the lack of support bother him. He didn't allow an earned run in four of his last six starts in Augusta before earning a promotion to the FSL.

The 22nd overall pick in the 2000 draft, Dumatrait has sound mechanics and a compact delivery. He tended to fall in love with a plus curveball that was considered the league's best breaking pitch. He needs to go after hitters with his solid two-seam fastball more often, a lesson Augusta pitching coach Dave Tomlin imparted on him.

"He improved every time he took the mound and that's what you want to see in a young player," Beyeler said. "All of his pitches became better, and his pickoff move really improved."

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Ryan Minor, 3b, Delmarva (Orioles)
2. *Grant Roberts, rhp, Capital City (Mets)
3. *Bruce Chen, lhp, Macon (Braves)
4. *Odalis Perez, lhp, Macon (Braves)
5. *Jason Marquis, rhp, Macon (Braves)
6. *Alex Sanchez, of, Charleston (Devil Rays)
7. *Shawn Chacon, rhp, Asheville (Rockies)
8. *Jake Westbrook, rhp, Asheville (Rockies)
9. *Buddy Carlyle, rhp, Charleston (Reds)
10. *Jimmy Rollins, ss, Piedmont (Phillies)

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