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Texas League Top 20 Prospects

By Michael Point

Top 20
ROUND ROCK, Texas–A season after sending more pitchers than position players to the majors, among them Roy Oswalt, Luke Prokopec and Bud Smith, the Double-A Texas League continued to defy conventional wisdom and its offense-oriented history.

Despite an infusion of highly touted young hitters, the league again featured widespread pitching excellence. Power hitters Jason Lane (Round Rock), who led the minors in RBIs for most of the year, and Brandon Berger (Wichita), who became the first TL player to hit 40 home runs since 1964, had big years, but it was the power arms that dominated the action and attracted the most prospect attention.

The league benefited by having the affiliates of several pitching-strong organizations, most notably Round Rock (Astros), San Antonio (Mariners) and Midland (Athletics). These organizations, already overstocked with young talent on the major league level, showcased frontline pitching prospects in the TL. Several of those arms might have been competing at higher levels in other systems.

The TL was unusually weak at catcher and in the middle infield. Chris Tremie, a 31-year-old backup, often looked like the league’s best prospect behind the plate. Beyond the two shortstops who made the Top 20 Prospects list, there was little talent of note other than Round Rock second baseman David Matranga and Shreveport shortstop Nelson Castro.

Blalock
Hank Blalock
Photo: Greg Wagner
1 HANK BLALOCK, 3b
Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)
Despite the wealth of pitching, a young third baseman stood out as the TL’s top prospect. With bat control and plate discipline beyond his age, Blalock amassed 61 RBIs in 68 games and walked more than he struck out, even while facing some of the best pitching seen in the circuit in years.

Blalock hit .380 in the high Class A Florida State league before his promotion to Tulsa. A lefthanded hitter, he has no problems with southpaws, hitting .307 against them in Double-A.

"He's very young but he's very close," Tulsa manager Paul Carey said. "He’s a tough out already and he isn’t afraid of facing anyone at any level."

Blalock also improved defensively, though he may ultimately be ticketed for an outfielder corner. Texas signed 2001 first-round draft pick Mark Teixeira to a $10 million major league contract, and Teixeira isn’t as versatile as Blalock. But as one American League scout asked, "Why give Mark Teixeira millions when you've already got Blalock?"

2 TIM REDDING, rhp
Round Rock Express (Astros)
Round Rock pitching coach Mike Maddux preaches "location with conviction," and the hard-throwing Redding is an excellent example of the approach’s success. After an Opening Day loss, he reeled off 10 consecutive wins to earn promotions to Triple-A and the majors, as well as Texas League pitcher-of-the-year honors

"He's got a lot to learn, but he's got some of the ingredients that you can't teach, like a 95-mph fastball and the heart and desire to compete," Astros manager Larry Dierker said.

Redding’s curveball and changeup have their moments as well. He needs to learn to pitch inside more effectively to righthanders in order to cut down on his home runs allowed, a failing Enron Field magnifies. If he can’t get his pitch count down and go deeper into games as a starter, his fastball and attitude make him a prime candidate for a setup role. He served as a closer for part of 1999 in Class A.

3 CARLOS HERNANDEZ, lhp
Round Rock Express (Astros)
The surprise success story of the Astros system made his first Enron Field appearance April 1, throwing five perfect innings in an exhibition game against the parent club. Four months later Hernandez, who had made a spring-training start for the Astros in a game against the Indians in his native Venezuela, was back throwing shutout innings in Enron.

He gave up two runs in three starts for Houston before partially tearing his rotator cuff on an awkward slide on the basepaths. Dierker, who had a similarly rapid rise to the majors at an early age, expects to see him pitch many more scoreless frames in the future.

"He's got a soft, easy throwing motion and an above-average fastball, changeup and curve," Dierker said. "To have that at 20 years old and be a lefthander is just a great opportunity, and I’m sure he’ll make the most of it."

Hernandez is small in stature but has sneaky heat on his low-90s fastball and an old-fashioned curve that can break a foot or more. Other than his baserunning, he doesn’t have any obvious flaws.

"His fastball has that true backspin where they foul it back and have trouble centering it," Dierker said. "His control doesn't have to improve much and he's got that pop right at the end like Billy Wagner."

4 RAFAEL SORIANO, rhp
San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
The converted outfielder made just eight TL starts but he made a big impression on both scouts and batters, chalking up 53 strikeouts in 48 innings with an explosive mid-90s fastball and a hard slider.

"He's still learning to pitch but he's learning fast," San Antonio pitching coach Steve Peck said. "He has more than enough stuff to get batters out, and as he learns to use it more effectively he’s going to present a problem to hitters at any level."

For all his inexperience on the mound, Soriano has a natural delivery and few mechanical problems. He has developed a passable changeup, though it’s the movement on his fastball that is his calling card. While he has encountered questions about his durability–he was shut down for the season’s final three weeks with an impingement in his right shoulder–he has the stuff to develop into an intimidating closer.

5 JEFF HEAVERLO, rhp
San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
The highly competitive Heaverlo, who pitched in the TL playoffs with a black eye, led the league in strikeouts, complete games (four) and shutouts (four). While he doesn’t have teammate Soriano’s raw stuff, Heaverlo is armed with pitchability and a top-notch slider.

"He's done everything the organization has asked him to do, and he's done it better and faster than we ever hoped," Mariners GM Pat Gillick said. "We like what we’ve seen and we expect to see a lot more of him in the future."

The son of former big league reliever Dave Heaverlo, Jeff mixes pitches and speeds. He isn’t a hard thrower, but his command and composure are assets, as is a deep arsenal of pitches that also includes two- and four-seam fastballs and a changeup.

6 MARIO RAMOS, lhp
Midland Rockhounds (Athletics)
The stealth pitching star of the Oakland organization continued his quiet campaign for a major league starting spot, picking up 16 wins, equally split between Double-A and Triple-A, to run his professional record to 30-9. Ramos, who led Rice to the 1999 College World Series, does it on brains, not brawn.

His fastball rarely touches 90 mph but he has the best control in the system. His changeup is his best pitch, and his curveball improved this year. Ramos combines finesse and an enlightened pitching approach to maximize his ability to pick apart opposing hitters.

"He just goes about his business of getting batters out," Midland pitching coach Curt Young said. "There’s no wasted pitches, no wasted motion. He knows what he wants to do with each batter and he gets it done."

7 ANGEL BERROA, ss
Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
As the Royals’ main payoff for the three-team Johnny Damon trade in the offseason, the dazzling Berroa has begun to live up to his hype. He has expansive range at shortstop and a big league arm capable of throwing strikes to first base from shallow left field.

"Berroa goes after everything and he gets almost all of it," an AL scout said. "He tends to show off his arm more than he should, but that’s about all he does wrong."

Berroa needs to have more of a leadoff hitter’s approach at the plate, taking more pitches and settling for walks occasionally. But he has surprising power and some basestealing ability, and his defense is more than ready. The presence of Neifi Perez in Kansas City complicates his future, though Berroa’s golden glovework is too valuable to get lost in a logjam.

8 LYLE OVERBAY, 1b
El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)
The sweet-swinging Overbay began the year with .342 minor league career average and improved it by leading the TL with a .352 mark. He doesn’t have big-time home run power, but he stroked 49 doubles and had a .528 slugging percentage.

"He’s always on base and you know he's going to get a hit before the game is through," Midland manager Tony DeFrancesco said, "so you just try to limit the damage."

Overbay doesn’t offer much other than offense, so his bat will have to carry him. His defense, merely adequate but improving, shouldn’t prevent him from reaching the majors, though Mark Grace, Erubiel Durazo and Jack Cust loom ahead on Arizona’s organizational depth chart.

9 KEN HARVEY, 1b
Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
A former NCAA Division I batting champ, Harvey makes consistent, hard contact. He’s below average with a glove, as much a product of his size as his ability, but he’s at home with a bat in his hands.

"I'm still not sure about his defense, but he handles a wood bat as well as he did a metal one," an AL scout said. "He reminds me a lot of Daryle Ward when he started with the Tigers."

"I like the sound he makes in batting practice," said a man who knows about such things, Royals vice president George Brett. "It has that explosive pop that will get your attention even if you’re looking the other way."

As happy to take an opposite-field double as to swing for the fences, Harvey has yet to display power proportional to his bulk. He also needs to increase his walk total.

10 JASON LANE, of
Round Rock Express (Astros)
The Texas League player of the year, Lane offered a well-rounded offensive package along the lines of a Lance Berkman. Astros farm director Tim Purpura also praised Lane’s consistency and improved defense, while Round Rock manager Jackie Moore appreciated his big-game mindset.

"It seemed like he was in the middle of every rally we had, and if he didn’t have a big night at bat he’d be the one making the game-saving catch," Moore said. "The games that mattered the most were the ones he was at his best in, and that’s the sign of a true competitor."

11 NATHAN HAYNES, of
Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
The fleet-footed Haynes had 33 stolen bases in 79 games, and his speed was evident every night as he stretched singles into doubles and routinely ran down seemingly uncatchable fly balls. The former Oakland first-round pick has yet to play a full professional season without injury, but that seems to be the only question about his potential.

"Haynes could start on a few major league teams already," an AL scout said, "and if he's not in the Angels outfield next year I'm sure Anaheim will be getting serious offers for him.

Haynes’ Arkansas teammate Elpidio Guzman has arguably better tools but isn’t nearly as refined. Haynes tightened his strike zone and improved as a hitter after batting .254 in Double-A a year ago.

"When he’s at full speed," Arkansas manager Mike Brumley said, "he can help a team in just about every way possible."

12 JEROME WILLIAMS, rhp
Shreveport Swamp Dragons (Giants)
Williams seemed poised for a breakthrough season, but that didn’t happen after he missed most of spring training to deal with the death of his mother. Though he was kept on a strict pitch count until the end of May and didn’t get his ERA under 5.00 for good until mid-July, he made steady progress.

He looked poised and professional as a 19-year-old taking on older TL hitters, and he had stretches of absolute domination. Williams, who has a plus curveball, a slider and changeup to go with his mid-90s fastball, went 3-0, 1.74 in the final month. The fact he was pitching for the league’s worst team in one of the minors’ worst situations--Shreveport averaged just 913 fans a game--made his performance look even better.

"He’s the real deal," Shreveport manager Bill Russell said. "He’s obviously a first-class pitcher but he’s also a great athlete who can field his position and handle the bat when he needs to."

13 RYAN LUDWICK, of
Midland RockHounds (Athletics)
If it wasn’t for his home run totals Ludwick, a sort of 21st-century Dale Murphy, would be attracting attention for his glovework and arm. The big power hitter, who gets a good read and jump on almost every batted ball, has surprising speed in the outfield but it won’t be his defensive expertise that lands him a big league job. "He can drive the ball with the best of them," DeFrancesco said.

There are a few doubters, such as an NL scout who said, "Until he has to hit somewhere other than Midland we won’t know how much of his power is a product of the west Texas winds." Ludwick did bat just .213-10-38 in 59 road games, compared to .324-15-58 in 60 home contests, and past Midland sensations Adam Piatt and Jason Hart haven’t been as effective at higher levels.

14 JOHN LACKEY, rhp
Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
Many of Anaheim’s top pitching prospects, including Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Torres and Derrick Turnbow, had physical problems in 2001. That’s why Lackey’s continuing workhorse efforts were welcomed by the Angels. He averaged more than seven innings per start in Double-A and totaled 185 in the minors–though that workload isn’t the best way to keep a 22-year-old pitching prospect healthy.

"He's one of the most dependable pitchers I've ever seen at this level," Brumley said. "He kept us in games until we could get in position to win better than anyone on our staff."

Lackey uses a motion that exaggerates his 6-foot-6 height, giving hitters the impression he’s on a taller mound than normal. He has a solid fastball, though his curveball is usually his better pitch.

15 ALFREDO AMEZAGA, ss
Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
Before the season the Angels thought Amezaga was more of a second baseman, but he proved that wrong and ended the organization’s search for a true shortstop prospect in the upper minors. Voted the league’s most exciting player at midseason, he used his incredible quickness and aggressive attitude to stir up things all across the diamond.

"He was everywhere against us," Moore said. "He made plays on the second base side of the infield, beat out bunts and drove our pitchers and catchers wild when he got on. He’s a little guy but he makes a big impact on a game."

Amezaga excelled at shortstop, demonstrating a stronger arm than previously seen. He does everything right at the plate, taking walks and avoiding fly balls, and is a major disruption on the bases.

16 JOSE VALVERDE, rhp
El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)
When Matt Mantei got hurt and the Diamondbacks were trying to decide on a closer, there was talk of promoting Valverde. They resisted, but it’s easy to understand their temptation. He throws in the upper-90s and averaged 15.7 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He’s just overpowering," El Paso pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn said. "His splitter is actually his best pitch, but the fastball is so hot and hard that he doesn’t need much else when his control is on."

Valverde, who also has a hard slider in his repertoire, throws the ball past most hitters with a relaxed motion and advanced mechanics usually not seen in such a big pitcher. With a menacing demeanor and a flaming fastball, he’s a prototypical closer who allowed only one home run all year. Valverde made strides with his control problems before being shut down for the season with a triceps strain in late July.

17 KENNY KELLY, of
San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
In a move that typified the fortunes of the Devil Rays and Mariners, Tampa Bay designated Kelly for assignment in March and sold him to Seattle for $350,000 in order to save $1.25 million on the contract it gave him to give up playing quarterback at the University of Miami. Afterward, Kelly started hitting the ball with more authority and refining his raw tools.

"He started the year as an athlete," an AL scout said, "and turned into a ballplayer before it was over."

Kelly has speed to spare and a strong, accurate arm. He still relies more on reactions than instincts in the field and on the basepaths.

18 WILFREDO RODRIGUEZ, lhp
Round Rock Express (Astros)
After two erratic and exasperating seasons Rodriguez has slipped from the Astros’ top prospect to becoming one of the organization’s most problematic pitchers. But any young lefty with consistent 95-mph heat is going to get additional opportunities to overcome his problems.

"He's got dominating stuff, an above-average fastball and an above-average breaking ball," Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker said. "His big problem has been command."

Rodriguez runs into trouble when he loses control of his curveball, which invariably leads to him trying to aim subsequent pitches, resulting in home runs. The Astros have experimented with Rodriguez as both a starter and reliever. He’s already capable of filling a big league situational lefty role, one he auditioned for with a September callup, but the enormity of his tantalizing talent still holds hope for something bigger.

19 MIKE TONIS, c
Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
The Royals took Tonis in the second round of the 2000 draft because they felt he was advanced defensively and was promising offensively. He lived up to that assessment in the TL, where he hit better than he did in the high Class A Carolina League.

"He definitely knows his way around home plate," Wichita pitching coach Steve Crawford said. "He presents a good target, has an excellent arm and calls a good game. He gives pitchers more confidence just by being back there."

Tonis, whose throwing ability is already at a big league level, nabbed 38 percent of basestealers. He’s athletic for his size, making him an unusually deft defender when it comes to bunts and foul pops. He’ll need to shorten his swing to get on base consistently but his strength should continue to produce a substantial amount of extra-base hits.

20 TOM SHEARN, rhp
Round Rock Express (Astros)
Shearn has taken a while to get his due as a prospect. He threw 52 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the low Class A Midwest League in 1998 and was a TL all-star in 2000, yet he wasn’t protected on the Astros' 40-man roster and was asked to repeat Double-A.

He moved into a swingman role this season, overmatching hitters with his rising fastball, slider and deceptive delivery. Such attributes may not be enough to earn a starting role in Houston’s overstocked rotation, but he’ll compete for a big league bullpen job next spring.

"He pitched his way to prospect status," Astros scout Scipio Spinks said. "He’s a big guy with a plus fastball and he doesn’t back down from any batter."

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