Southern League Top 20 Prospects
By Mark McCarter
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 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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
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)
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
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)
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
1. *Miguel Tejada, ss, Huntsville (Athletics)
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