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Southern League Top 20 Prospects

By Mark McCarter
September 26, 2002

HUNTSVILLE, Ala.--Ah, how they bloomed in April. Stunning prospects with platinum-level credentials and breathtaking promise. The Double-A Southern League, lukewarm in the prospect department in recent years before a bountiful 2001 season, was again almost embarrassingly rich with phenoms

Mark Prior began the season at West Tenn and became the biggest thing to come out of Jackson, Tenn., since rocker Carl Perkins and game-show icon Wink Martindale. But the Cubs called him up for good on May 22, leaving the Diamond Jaxx to ration Prior game-worn caps and other souvenirs to collectors over the Internet.

Austin Kearns didn't even last that long at Chattanooga. He homered five times in 12 games before being summoned to Cincinnati on April 17. He spent the rest of the season there, save for two days in Triple-A.

It soon became a story of "Where have all the prospects gone?" Nearly a third of the players chosen for the league's mid-June all-star game were promoted within two weeks of the contest. Carolina righthander Jase Wrigley was playing in the all-stars' golf tournament when the Rockies tracked him down and ordered him to Triple-A.

As a result, some players who had passed ideal prospect age dominated the league. Birmingham second baseman Aaron Miles, 25, was the MVP. Chattanooga outfielder Bobby Darula, 29, led the league in hitting after being jettisoned by the Brewers in the offseason. Lookouts first baseman Tom Nevers, 30, finished third in the batting race--12 years after the Astros made him a first-round pick.

peavy
Jake Peavy
Photo: Michael Walby
1. Jake Peavy, rhp, Mobile BayBears (Padres)
Peavy was the only Southern Leaguer with his face on a soft-drink can. A Mobile native and an offseason employee of the BayBears, Peavy's photo and signature graced some 228,000 Pepsi and Mountain Dew cans in the Mobile area.

But Peavy's stuff is even more marketable than his image--as witnessed by a late-June promotion to San Diego. He has a glove-popping fastball that can touch the mid-90s, and enough finesse to put all of his pitches wherever he wants. He also throws a curveball, slider and changeup, which have their moments.

He certainly wasn't intimidated by facing big league hitters at age 21. Peavy went 6-7, 4.50 with 85 strikeouts in 92 innings over his first 16 Padres starts. He held the Yankees to one run in six innings in his debut.

2. Aaron Cook, rhp. Carolina Mudcats (Rockies)
Like Peavy, Cook left the SL in June and finished the season by holding his own in the majors. He entered the Rockies rotation in late August and went 2-1, 4.20 in his first five starts.

Cook was untouchable in Double-A, leading the league with a 1.42 ERA when he was promoted in mid-June. He showed pure velocity, reaching 97 mph with his fastball, and made progress with his solid slider and sinking changeup.

His control is so good that it almost works against him. Cook doesn't miss as many bats as someone with his stuff should, probably because hitters know he'll be around the plate.

3. Frank Beltran, rhp, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
During a season marked by extraordinary relief pitching in the SL--Birmingham's Joe Valentine tied the league record for saves and Mobile's J.J. Trujillo was on pace to surpass it before a promotion--the towering Beltran was most impressive. He had arguably the best fastball in the league, consistently pitching in the mid-90s throughout the year.

Beltran didn't make it past high Class A in his first five years as a pro, yet he finished his sixth in the majors. He has found a niche in the bullpen after being tried as a starter, a role in which his lack of an offspeed pitch hurt him.

He still needs to improve the consistency of his slider and his control, as his struggles in Chicago would indicate. He remains a raw talent, one the Cubs can afford to nurture.

4. Jason Young, rhp, Carolina Mudcats (Rockies)
Young and Cook roomed together at high Class A Salem, Carolina and again at Triple-A Colorado Springs before Cook departed for the majors. They're the top two pitching prospects in the Rockies system.

"Young is very close behind Cook," Carolina manager P.J. Carey said. "Young is not the overpowering pitcher like Aaron is, but Young has above-average stuff across the board on all his pitches. When he's on, he can be as dominant as he wants to be."

Young has a taller, stronger frame than Cook but usually pitches in the low 90s. He also has a slurvy breaking ball and a plus changeup. After elbow tenderness interrupted his 2001 season, he stayed healthy all year.

5. Ricardo Rodriguez, rhp, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Baseball America rated Rodriguez the Dodgers' best prospect entering 2002, but Los Angeles didn't hesitate to include him in a July trade with Cleveland for Paul Shuey. Rodriguez' status within the organization had slipped some by that point, but his upside is still obvious.

He missed April with shoulder tendinitis, then didn't allow an earned run in his first three starts with the Jacksonville. He throws his two-seam fastball in the low 90s and also beats hitters with a hard curveball. Rodriguez also harnessed his control, though it deserted him somewhat after he joined Cleveland's rotation in late August.

6. Miguel Olivo, c, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Olivo got back on track in 2002. After the Athletics discarded him in a December 2000 trade, the biggest news he made in 2001 came when he got caught with a corked bat. (He said he didn't know it was illegal.)

This year, he was the best position-player prospect in the SL. Managers raved about his catch-and-throw ability, which already is at a major league level.

He also hit .306 and showed some power potential. He even has plenty of speed for a catcher, leading the league in triples and stealing 29 bases.

7. Choo Freeman, of, Carolina Mudcats (Rockies)
The first insightful scouting report on Choo Freeman read: "Great hands and tremendous concentration . . . also has outstanding size, speed and strength." That was from his days as a Texas A&M wide receiver recruit.

The hands are still impeccable. So is the speed. And finally in his fifth pro season, he made strides in making baseball as instinctive as, well, a down-and-out pattern.

Extra time in the batting cage made him a more selective hitter, as he turned his nose up at curveballs he used to fish for. He increased his walk total from 31 in 2001 to 64 and set career highs in several categories while continuing to play a sterling center field.

"One of the most improved players I've seen," Greenville manager Brian Snitker said. "He's not a football player any more."

8. Vinnie Chulk, rhp, Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)
The league's most outstanding pitcher apparently has a weakness: Mexican food. It was the only thing to stop him all season.

After winning 10 of 13 starts, Chulk was done in by bad Mexican food before a late July start at West Tenn. He lasted just three innings, though he blanked the Diamond Jaxx before departing.

Hitters praised Chulk's ability to keep them off balance. He throws in the low 90s and has picked up a cut fastball to go with a slider and changeup. "He's learned his delivery, to pitch within himself and hit his spots," Smokies pitching coach Craig Lefferts said.

9. Ben Hendrickson, rhp, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
Several of Milwaukee's top prospects spent time in Huntsville this summer, including Ben Diggins, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart and Dave Krynzel. The best was Hendrickson, who has jumped on the fast track in the last two years.

His out pitch is a curveball that ranks among the best in the minors. Hendrickson backs it up with a low-90s fastball and a changeup. The lanky Hendrickson's durability was a mild concern, but he pitched a career-high 151 innings between the California and Southern Leagues without missing a start.

10. Dennis Tankersley, rhp, Mobile BayBears (Padres)
Tankersley took a step back when he was promoted to San Diego in mid-May, and again when he moved up to Triple-A in late June. But in his two brief stints in Mobile, he was every bit as dominant as he had been in 2001, when he was one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

Hitters continued to chase his dastardly slider and he threw his fastball in the low 90s. Tankersley permitted more than two earned runs just twice in 10 starts and yielded just one homer. After pitching well in his first two big league outings, he got hit hard and seemed to lose some confidence and command.

11. Koyie Hill, c, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Hill continued to amaze with his preternatural ability as a catcher despite being in just his second full season at that position. He has a quick release that enabled him to erase 33 percent of basestealers this year, and he also receives well. Jacksonville manager Dino Ebel praised his ability to handle a pitching staff.

Hill doesn't have great power, but he's an adept switch-hitter who offers occasional pop. He had some peaks and valleys at the plate in 2002, and at times seemed more adept at hitting breaking pitches than fastballs.

12. Dewon Brazelton, rhp, Orlando Rays (Devil Rays)
Brazelton was considered very advanced when the Devil Rays took him third overall in the 2001 draft, but he needed some time to adjust to jumping from Middle Tennessee State to Double-A. It didn't help matters that Tampa Bay asked him to reduce his full windup at the beginning of the season.

He struggled, losing eight consecutive decisions and carrying a 1-9 record into late July. But after being allowed to use his old delivery and having time to acclimate himself to pro ball, Brazelton surged in the final weeks. He rolled out a 24-inning streak without allowing an earned run and went 4-0, 1.15 in his last six starts before a late promotion to Triple-A.

Brazelton can make hitters look silly with his low- to mid-90s fastball or his tantalizing changeup. His curveball and command still need improvement, though he had enough stuff to hold the Yankees to two runs over seven innings in his second big league start.

13. David Kelton, 1b, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
Because Hee Seop Choi is set as the Cubs' first baseman of the future, they need Kelton to establish himself at third base. But repeated throwing problems led Chicago to move Kelton to first base in 2002, which meant he had to return to West Tenn because Choi was in Triple-A.

Kelton wasn't as productive as he was last year, when he hit .313-12-45 in 58 Double-A games before injuring his left hand. He was up and down all year, but he still led the SL in homers and RBIs.

"He's got potential for power and average," one scout said, "and few players in this league have that."

Kelton's short, quick swing still stood out in a league short on legitimate hitting prospects. Managers also liked his approach. He'll give the hot corner another try this winter in Mexico.

14. Corwin Malone, lhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Malone made great strides with his command during a breakthrough 2001 season, but relapsed this year. He led the SL in walks despite being shut down in early August with elbow inflammation.

At times Malone got hammered, and at others he dominated with his 93-94 mph fastball and his curveball. He gave up 11 hits and 10 runs in three innings in his worst start, then bounced back with his only two scoreless outings of the year.

Some White Sox instructors have tried to refine his raw talent and make him more of a finesse guy, but that has been counterproductive. Malone has balked at that--"I'm a strikeout guy," he said--and Barons manager Wally Backman agreed.

"He's had some struggles when he's tried to be more of a pitcher," Backman said. "He's a power guy. He reminds me of a young Vida Blue, and he needs to pitch that way."

15. Kevin Cash, c, Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)
The SL had a lot of catching talent in 2002, with Cash joining Olivo and Hill as backstops who project as everyday big leaguers. Cash never caught before signing with the Blue Jays as a nondrafted free agent, but he since has forced Josh Phelps and Jayson Werth to other positions.

Using a strong arm, quick release and solid footwork, Cash can shut down the running game. He erased 41 percent of basestealers in the SL, then upped that mark to 46 percent in Triple-A.

Cash isn't one-dimensional, either. He set career highs this year with 33 doubles and 18 homers between his two minor league stops, and he knows the strike zone.

16. Joe Valentine, rhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Valentine tied the league saves record of 36 set just last year by former Baron Edwin Almonte. Valentine initially wasn't destined for the SL, as the Expos took him in the major league Rule 5 draft last winter and immediately sold him to the Tigers. When Detroit couldn't keep him on its big league roster, the White Sox reclaimed Valentine.

He overpowered SL hitters with his mid-90s fastball and his slider, holding them to a .173 average and a lone home run. Valentine can be wild at times, though that didn't prevent him from closing out games.

"He's a power pitcher and he's got the perfect makeup," Backman said. "He's smart and he wants the ball in the close games. He's everything you'd want in a pitcher."

17. Jung Bong, lhp, Greenville Braves
Snitker admits that at midseason Bong wasn't close to belonging on this list. He posted a 5.20 ERA in his first 12 starts, losing the last six. But Bong found himself following a demotion to the bullpen, then returned to the rotation in August and went 3-1, 1.14.

Pitching in relief, Bong started being more aggressive with his low-90s fastball that touches 94, his sharp curveball and his changeup. That approach helped his control as well as his bottom line.

"As a starter he was trying to pace himself," Snitker said, "to go nine innings and pick here and pick there and save and save and save. Later, it was a night and day difference."

18. Wily Mo Pena, of, Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)
There were three strikes against Pena, one being that he often uses three strikes without putting the ball in play. He also didn't have a very strong season, with hamstring problems partially to blame. And because the Yankees signed him to a $3.7 million major league contract in 1999, he's now out of options.

Acquired in the Drew Henson trade with New York, Pena has to stick on the Reds' 25-man roster next year or be exposed to waivers. Cincinnati likely won't run that risk because of Pena's out-of-sight tools, but that scenario will make it hard for him to hone his ability.

"It's going to be hard for him to grow and develop and learn if he's sitting in the big leagues and not playing a whole lot," Chattanooga manager Phillip Wellman said. "There's no question he's got superstar qualities."

Pena has frightening bat speed that generates Sammy Sosa-like power. He also is quick on the bases and in the outfield, and he owns a powerful arm. Until he learns the strike zone, however, he'll only be a tease.

19. Brett Evert, rhp, Greenville Braves
Evert progressed in the opposite direction as his teammate Bong. He pitched well in April, faded in May and bombed in June, prompting a demotion to the high Class A Carolina League.

Even while he struggled, Evert continued to pile up strikeouts, a testament to his quality stuff. He has two above-average pitches: a fastball that reaches the low 90s, and a tight 12-to-6 curveball. But as his command slipped, so did his performance.

Evert is young and just needs to pitch. He fared well in his last five starts in the Carolina League, setting the stage for his return to Greenville in 2003.

20. Steve Colyer, lhp, Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Colyer had little success as a starter in the first four years of his pro career. He never picked up an effective changeup or threw strikes with regularity, leading to an 18-26, 4.77.

Moving Colyer to the bullpen this year helped cure his woes. He was able to be aggressive rather than conservative, taking advantage of his overpowering 97 mph fastball. Not too many lefthanders can match that velocity.

Colyer's overhand curveball gives him a second plus pitch, and he no longer needs to fret over his changeup. His control still isn't impeccable but isn't as much of an issue. He was especially harsh on lefthanders, allowing just one extra-base hit in 63 at-bats.

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Miguel Tejada, ss, Huntsville (Athletics)
2. *Ben Grieve, of, Huntsville (Athletics)
3. *Juan Encarnacion, of, Jacksonville (Tigers)
4. *Kerry Wood, rhp, Orlando (Cubs)
5. *Chad Hermansen, 2b, Carolina (Pirates)
6. *Kris Benson, rhp, Carolina (Pirates)
7. *Matt Clement, rhp, Mobile (Padres)
8. *Ken Cloude, rhp, Memphis (Mariners)
9. *Juan Melo, ss, Mobile (Padres)
10. *Kevin Witt, 1b, Knoxville (Blue Jays)

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