Southern League Top 20 Prospects
By Bill Ballew
Managers agreed that the pitching was strong across the board this season. In addition to the seven hurlers ranked among the Top 20 Prospects, numerous other pitchers enjoyed significant success and could be headed for the big leagues.
Those receiving several positive citations included lefthander Steve Smyth (West Tenn) and righties Chris Booker (West Tenn and Chattanooga), Scott Cassidy (Tennessee) and Luke Hudson (Carolina). Greenville righthander Tim Spooneybarger might have cracked the Top 10 if he had made enough relief outings to qualify.
The league was also as deep with position players as it has been in the last several seasons. While injuries limited the efforts of such high-profile talents as Josh Hamilton and Austin Kearns, no fewer than six players on the Top 20 will receive serious consideration as the best position prospect in their organizations: Wilson Betemit, Joe Borchard, Josh Phelps, Carl Crawford, Orlando Hudson and Chin-Feng Chen.
"The league was loaded with future big leaguers this season," Tennessee manager Rocket Wheeler said. "It was fun watching these guys develop into some of the game's future stars."
1 ADAM DUNN, of
"He was a one-man wrecking crew in this league," Greenville manager Paul Runge said. "He demonstrated tremendous raw power. He has a serious presence out on the field. He's a bona fide, up-and-coming major league star."
Managers were most impressed with how hard Dunn hit the ball and how quick his swing was for a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder. He also displayed a good knowledge of the strike zone. His defense at the corner outfield positions needs some work, but he displayed good mobility and improved arm strength.
Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
No Southern League pitcher was more overpowering than Neugebauer. After battling control problems during his first three professional seasons, he found the handle on his devastating fastball and reached the big leagues by mid-August.
Neugebauer is a traditional power pitcher who had a comfort zone of 93-97 mph and was clocked as high as 101 by Mobile. He also reached 90 mph consistently with his hard slider, and showed improvement with his developing changeup. Managers were impressed with how Neugebauer seemed to reach back for a little more when the situation presented itself, usually resulting in a strikeout or double play.
"He's learned how to pitch a little bit," Orlando manager Mike Ramsey said. "The command of his offspeed stuff is getting better and that's only going to make him that much tougher, more than just a hard thrower."
3 WILSON BETEMIT, ss
Betemit impressed managers with his fluid body, above-average arm strength, budding power and plus speed. There was some concern about his inside-out swing, but the results, both in terms of average and power, were hard to dispute. While some managers wondered if his future would be at shortstop, others liked what they saw at the critical position.
"He gets to the ball easy and he makes tough plays look easy," Jacksonville manager John Shoemaker said. "He has tremendous arm strength. He can throw the ball from the hole without putting any effort into it. I think this guy is going to move quick."
Managers didnt like Betemits tendency to put some mustard on routine plays. One skipper said Betemit would be better off playing third base because he would have less time to think about plays.
4 JOE KENNEDY, lhp
Working off his 91-94 mph fastball with excellent movement, Kennedy's success came from moving his heater in and out while changing speeds. He also tied up Southern League hitters with his sharp curveball and a decent changeup that he used only sparingly. Prior to his departure, several managers said he had nothing left to prove at the Double-A level.
"He was definitely one of the top guys in the league," Huntsville manager Ed Romero said. "He throws in the low 90s with excellent movement on the ball. He also throws strikes with a good breaking ball and good command of all his pitches. He's a pitcher who really knows what he's doing."
5 JOE BORCHARD, of
"He's had a real consistent season," Shoemaker said. "He came into the season with high expectations and I feel he lived up to that. He's a switch-hitter who moves fluidly in the outfield. He seems to be a hard worker and is able to make adjustments."
Most managers rated Borchard as a solid four-tool player. Though his speed is not exceptional, he knows how to run the bases and gets good jumps on balls hit to center field. While he will be able to hit for average and power, a few skippers had concerns about the holes in his long swing.
6 DENNIS TANKERSLEY, rhp
Tankersley, however, proved to be a late bloomer. This year he drew comparisons to Kevin Brown and Greg Maddux after a midseason promotion to the Southern League. Managers loved his determination on the mound and his willingness to throw inside to righties with his two-seam fastball. He also intimidated hitters with his easy three-quarters arm angle that produces 93-95 mph fastballs and sliders in the 88-90 mph range.
"He's an electric pitcher who has a live fastball and really knows how to pitch," West Tenn manager Dave Bialas said. "He went through us like butter. He stood out as one of the top pitching prospects in the league. I think the Padres hit the jackpot with him."
7 JUAN CRUZ, rhp
Some managers admitted they were surprised Cruz was having success in the majors this early in his career, because they thought he was immature. But every skipper loved his arm and said he had as high a ceiling as anyone in the league.
They raved about his savvy when he was focused. They also liked his deceptive delivery, his hard slider and his moving fastball that averaged 93-96 mph.
"He's a young kid who got better and better as the season progressed," Bialas said. "He's got a live fastball with great movement. He gets a lot of sinking action with his two-seam fastball to go with his four-seamer. He has a good changeup, and he gained better command of all his pitches throughout the season."
8 DANNY WRIGHT, rhp
"He stayed strong through the eighth inning against us," Shoemaker said. "We had him clocked a couple of times at 95. He moved the ball around the strike zone and really showed he has a good idea about what he's doing out there."
Wright also has an above-average curveball with a sharp break and a decent changeup. He got better as the season progressed, topped by a three-start stretch in July that included 23 consecutive shutout innings with 26 strikeouts and five walks. That effort led to a promotion to Chicago.
9 JOSH PHELPS, c
While Phelps silenced his critics at the plate by using a shorter swing, some managers still had concerns about his defense. They admitted that all aspects of his catching have improved, particularly his footwork and ability to block balls, but questioned if he was of major league caliber. Others said Phelps was adequate.
"He's picked it up behind the plate," Carolina manager Ron Gideon said. "Is he a frontline catcher? No. But he's a guy who can catch four or five times a week and his bat will stay in the lineup at DH or first base. He's come a long way over the past year or two."
10 CARL CRAWFORD, of
With his athleticism and all-out approach, he drew comparisons to Terrence Long. A renowned football player in high school, Crawford has lightning-quick hands that help him compensate for some of his mistakes at the plate.
Most managers agreed that he needs some refinements with his swing and must stay within himself instead of trying to do too much at the plate. Some skippers thought those adjustments would come with experience, while others were not as sure.
"He's got great tools, great speed and a good idea about how to hit," Jacksonville hitting coach Gene Richards said. "You can't beat a guy with the tools he has. And the scary part is he's only going to get better."
"I don't know if there's enough baseball instinct there," an Eastern Division manager said. "Things don't come real easy on the diamond for him. He could be a solid role player, but I don't know if he's going to hit for enough power to earn a starting job in the big leagues."
11 ORLANDO HUDSON, 2b
"He's a gamer who comes to the ballpark every day to beat you," Runge said. "He'll do everything he can to win. He makes contact at the plate and he drives in runs. He's a good baserunner, a baseball-alert type of player."
Hudson blossomed this season by moving to second base from third. He displayed good hands, a strong arm and the ability to turn the double play. He also served as Tennessee's tablesetter at the top of the lineup.
"He's a guy I'd want on my team," Gideon said. "He reminds me of Chipper Jones with the way he hits for power and average."
12 DAVID KELTON, 3b
"He has power to all fields and has a good feel for hitting," Bialas said. "He can handle offspeed pitching. He's a power guy who is going to hit some home runs."
Yet for every positive thing said about Kelton's hitting, there was a negative comment about his defense. He hurt his shoulder in high school and it has bothered him ever since. He has modest arm strength and poor accuracy because of an inconsistent release point, and the Cubs plan to move him to left field.
13 MATT GUERRIER, rhp
A strikeout pitcher in the lower minors, Guerrier proved he could get hitters out without overpowering them. He kept his low-90s fastball and his slider down in the strike zone. His curveball also had a much sharper break than in previous years.
"He's a solid control type of pitcher," Shoemaker said. "You could tell with his ability to change speeds, his ability to throw the curveball and the location of his pitches that he will be very effective at higher levels."
14 JORGE CANTU, ss
Cantu attracted comparisons to Nomar Garciaparra with his tall, lean body and developing all-around game, though hes not nearly the same offensive force yet. Cantu has quick hands, bat speed and excellent hand-eye coordination. He also drives the ball well and should become a power threat once he adds strength to his 165-pound frame.
His defense, conversely, produced mixed opinions. Cantu displayed average range at best. He also doesnt possess an explosive first step, which could prevent a move to third base. His footwork and throwing mechanics also require significant improvement if hes going to remain an infielder.
"He's young and he swings the bat good for a 19-year-old," Ramsey said. "He's got a lot of work to do defensively, but with his work ethic and tools, I think he's going to be a major league player."
15 BEN BROUSSARD, 1b
Managers raved about the minor adjustments Broussard made at the plate. He shortened his stroke, thereby improving his ability to hit for power and average. He drove the ball more consistently.
"I really like his bat," Richards said. "He has the best idea of what he wants to do at the plate of anyone in the league."
Broussard also made some adjustments on defense while moving from the outfield to first base. He wont win Gold Gloves in the future, but he has enough athleticism and instincts to play either position at higher levels.
16 CHIN-FENG CHEN, of
Chen showed he has the power to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. He makes quick adjustments at the plate and is equally adept at hitting fastballs and breaking pitches. Though not particularly fast, he also proved to be an effective baserunner with outstanding baseball instincts.
"Chen is a hitter. There's no doubt about that," Shoemaker said. "He's swinging the bat as well as he has in two years now that he got his shoulder fixed."
Chen isnt as gifted defensively. His arm is no better than average for left field, and he doesnt do an exceptional job of cutting off balls hit in the gap. Nevertheless, hes poised to become the first native of Taiwan to reach the major leagues.
17 BOBBY HILL, 2b
Hill is a solid leadoff man who can hit for average, draw walks and make consistent contact. In his pro debut, he proved to be a good hitter from both sides of the plate. While his line-drive stroke can produce some occasional power, he impressed managers most with his overall feel for hitting.
"Bobby's not a big guy, but he's steady defensively and can turn the double play," Romero said. "He has above-average speed and can steal some bases, too. He makes contact and hits the ball all over the field from both sides. He's a pretty good player."
18 REED JOHNSON, of
"He's a guy you win with," Wheeler said. "His tools aren't overwhelming, but when you combine his talent with his heart and desire, youve got one heck of a player."
A scrapper, Johnson does an excellent job of working counts. Once on base, he can steal a bag or take an extra base when necessary.
"He's an interesting guy," Runge said. "He's a gamer, a blue-collar type of player who can beat you in a number of different ways. He has a good bat with a little bit of pop. He has the ability to drive in runs. He's also a very good baserunner. Guys like that find their way to the big leagues."
19 SCOTT CHIASSON, rhp
Chiasson gained velocity, increasing his fastball to the 93-96 mph range with good life. Though his slider tended to be a little flat at times, he compensated by adding a splitter.
"He's a power guy with good movement on most of his pitches," Romero said. "He's a big guy with a good downhill plane. I like his fastball, but he also has a pretty decent slider as well."
20 AUSTIN KEARNS, of
Upon his return in August, Kearns made some minor adjustments and again displayed the ability to hit for power and average. A former pitching prospect in high school, he also has an above-average arm for right field as well as the athleticism to play the position. The Reds were pleased with the effort he made to return from what might have been a season-ending injury, and they believe hes on the verge of taking off.
"He's going to be something," Gideon said. "He has a plus arm in the outfield. He's got a quick bat and he's a young kid for this league. He's got a good future ahead of him."
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