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Texas League Top 20 Prospects

By Will Lingo
September 26, 2002

Ask people who follow the minor leagues, and they'll tell you: The Double-A Texas League is a hitter's league. With Mark Teixeira and Todd Linden on hand this season, the TL had its share of premium bats.

But the strength of the league clearly was in its pitching. After Teixeira and Linden, no other hitters made it onto the Top 10 Prospects list and only five more are in the Top 20.

Beyond the Top 20, there weren’t many quality position players who got pushed out. On the other hand, arms such as El Paso’s Andrew Good and Oscar Villarreal, Midland’s Jason Arnold and John Rheinecker and San Antonio’s Rett Johnson would have made the list in a typical year.

All the standout pitching led to a lot of upward mobility. Four of the pitchers in the Top 10–Rafael Soriano, Francisco Rodriguez, Kirk Saarloos and Ben Kozlowski–were pitching in the big leagues by the end of the season, and only one (Mike Gosling) spent the entire season in the TL.

Mark Teixeira
Photo: Rick Battle
1. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)
Though his season almost ended before it started because of a spring-training elbow injury, Teixeira made quite an impression, Managers tabbed him as baseball's next great power switch-hitter.

"To get him out, he takes it as a personal insult," said Tim Ireland, Teixeira's manager at Tulsa. "He has all the attributes of a natural hitter, and that's from both sides of the plate."

Some teams tried to pitch him in with fastballs, while others thought he had more trouble with pitchers who changed speeds. Overall, managers were just wowed by his approach and his power.

What's more, Teixeira's defense was better than expected. Some said his rumored move to first base shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion and that he will be a better third baseman than fellow Rangers prospect Hank Blalock. Teixeira has better agility and is more athletic than he looks at first glance.

2. Jesse Foppert, rhp, Shreveport Captains (Giants)
Pick your favorite manager in the Texas League and you can attribute this quote to him when asked about Foppert: "We couldn't do anything with him."

In 11 starts with Shreveport, Foppert made sure he would be remembered with his exceptional mechanics and mound presence. And that's aside from his mid-90s fastball, above-average slider and improving changeup.

Foppert, who converted from first baseman to pitcher in a summer college league in 2000, has moved through the Giants organization at light speed. He pitched well enough to get called up to Triple-A in June. His record for a dreadful Shreveport team was nothing special, but holding batters to a .199 average was.

"Against us he didn't really have his breaking ball but he didn't even need it," Ireland said. "There's so much life to his fastball that we couldn't even hit it. He is just impossible to hit."

3. Todd Linden, of, Shreveport Captains (Giants)
Linden and Foppert were two of the only bright spots in a depressing final season in Shreveport. The franchise will move to Frisco, Texas, next season, and just 24,569 fans came out all season to see the Captains off. Linden also had to contend with one of the better pitcher's parks in the league. He handled it well, earning a promotion to Triple-A for the last month of the season.

Like Teixeira, Linden had no professional experience coming into the season. Also like Teixeira, Linden is a switch-hitter with a smooth, natural stroke who tasted immediate success.

Managers said Linden was better from the left side than the right. He has the power and athleticism to be a potential 30-30 player, and no one could overlook his confidence either. He improved his defense and arm strength from right field.

4. Rafael Soriano, rhp, San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
Another converted hitter also made an impression in a limited run in the league. Soriano actually pitched more regular-season innings in the big leagues than the TL, going 0-3, 4.56 in Seattle before he went on the disabled list in July with shoulder soreness.

When Soriano returned to action, the Mariners sent him back to San Antonio, where he continued to baffle Double-A hitters. He held them to a .190 average and saved his best work for the playoffs. In Game Seven of the finals, Soriano struck out 14 in seven innings as the Missions beat Tulsa 4-1 for their ninth league title.

That game showed all Soriano has to offer. He gave up two hits and two walks and struck out seven of the last eight batters he faced, one with a 97-mph fastball and the next with an 82-mph changeup. The changeup, in addition to his slider, will allow Soriano to take the final step into the Seattle rotation, as he learns to pitch and not just try to throw the ball past everyone.

5. Francisco Rodriguez, rhp, Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
The live-armed Rodriguez had been touted in the Angels organization since he signed for a $900,000 bonus in 1998. Because of injuries and inconsistent performance, though, the results never measured up to the promise.

Moved to the bullpen this year, Rodriguez took off. He jumped to Triple-A in June and then to Anaheim in September, where he pitched well in the heat of a playoff race.

Rodriguez was a completely different pitcher in relief, bringing energy and two plus pitches to the mound every time out. His fastball was 93-96 mph with late life, and his slider is already a major league out pitch and makes him effective against both lefthanders and righthanders.

"He should be a great set-up guy and grow into the role of closer, like Mariano Rivera," Arkansas manager Doug Sisson said. "He has the aptitude, competitiveness, makeup and stuff."

6. Kirk Saarloos, rhp, Round Rock Express (Astros)
In a league full of big pitchers who could throw the ball in the mid-90s and beyond, the most effective pitcher was a guy who's barely 6 feet tall, rarely touches 90 mph with his fastball and wasn't drafted after his junior year of college.

Saarloos was voted the league's outstanding pitcher even though he made just 13 starts and was promoted out of the league in June. His ERA easily would have led the league if he had enough innings to qualify, and he held TL hitters to a laughable .168 average. He ended the season in the Astros rotation, following Mark Prior as the second player from the 2001 draft to reach the majors.

Saarloos succeeds with a lot of movement and a lot of deception. He can change speeds masterfully and puts the ball wherever he wants it, so batters rarely see the same pitch twice. His best pitch is his changeup.

"He's a great argument for movement and location," Sisson said. "Our hitters were completely befuddled. It was like that Bugs Bunny cartoon where guys are swinging before the ball even gets there."

7. Mike Gosling, lhp, El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)
Gosling is the third player among the top seven who had no pro experience coming into the season–a remarkable figure for a Double-A league. After a strong career at Stanford, Gosling signed last August for $2 million, the largest bonus outside the first round.

To welcome him to the organization, the Diamondbacks sent him to El Paso, one of the best hitter's parks in the minors. Gosling more than held his own, finishing third in the league in ERA. He was downright dominant on the road, compiling a 2.25 ERA in 12 starts.

"For him to put up those numbers in that park is mind-boggling," Ireland said.

Some managers compared Gosling to Eric Milton. He usually threw in the high 80s but could dial his fastball up to 90-92 mph when needed. He has a good curveball but really attacks hitters by changing speeds. He has good mound presence, competes hard and does a good job of keeping his pitches down and on the black.

8. Rich Harden, rhp, Midland RockHounds (Athletics)
Midland had the pitching staff with the most potential from top to bottom. The leader of that pack was Harden, a Canadian who signed as a draft-and-follow last May. After arriving in the TL in June, he was just as dominant as he had been in the high Class A California League.

Harden threw his fastball up to 96 mph, but managers said his cutter was a more effective pitch. He also showed a plus curveball, and his changeup was good considering his level of experience.

What sets Harden apart is his aptitude for pitching. He showed a good feel for mixing his pitches, and his command improved as the year went along.

9. Ben Kozlowski, lhp, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)
The Braves haven't made many player-development mistakes in the past decade, but Kozlowski could be a big one. After the Rangers were able to get him for lefthander Andy Pratt when they had a 40-man roster crunch in April, Kozlowski went from high Class A through Tulsa to the big leagues.

Kozlowski held batters to a .155 average in eight regular season starts but got really nasty in the playoffs. He made three starts and didn’t allow a hit in the last two.

He has good stuff, with a fastball in the low-90s and a plus curveball. His changeup is a work in progress but shows potential. He also throws on a good downward plane, and hitters have a hard time picking him up.

"He has the biggest heart of any kid I've ever had," Ireland said. "He is such a competitor, it's really a thrill to watch."

10. Bobby Jenks, rhp, Arkansas Travelers (Angels)
Few people would argue that Jenks had the best pure stuff in the league. Questions about his makeup returned after the Angels suspended him at the end of May and eventually demoted him to the Cal League. But few people view Jenks as a malcontent and managers said he just needs to grow up.

What's more, there's that arm. In a seven-inning complete game against Midland, Jenks threw his fastball at 96-102 mph all night and was hitting 100 in the seventh.

"I had heard about his arm, and it's not just a myth," Sisson said. "The ball explodes out of his hand."

Jenks also has a good 12-to-6 curveball and a strong body that drew comparisons to Roger Clemens’.

"He has a chance to be a top-of-the-rotation starter or a closer," one manager said. "But he has to realize he needs the game a lot more than the game needs him."

11. Runelvys Hernandez, rhp, Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
In just his second season in the U.S., Hernandez jumped from Class A through the Texas League to the big leagues. In part that was because he pitched so well, but it was also because he ages two and a half years in the offseason because of baseball's visa crackdown. So while the Royals thought he would start the season as a young 21-year-old, Hernandez actually turned 24 in April.

But Hernandez showed the maturity befitting his actual age, moving up to Wichita after just two starts in the Carolina League. Managers were impressed with his fastball, which he throws 89-93 with good sink, and his slider. He became more comfortable with his changeup as the season went on, and it became an effective third option for him in the big leagues.

The Royals called Hernandez up for an emergency start when they had a run of doubleheaders, but he pitched so well that he soon earned a permanent callup. He held his own in Kansas City but will have to sharpen his command to stay in the major league rotation next season.

12. Franklyn German, rhp, Midland RockHounds (Athletics)
A bullpen of Texas League relievers from this season would be formidable right now, and in coming years you should see several of these pitchers as major league closers. The first one to reach that goal could be German, who left the league in July when he was traded to the Tigers in the three-way deal involving Jeff Weaver and Carlos Pena. He finished the season in Triple-A and was called up to Detroit in September, allowing no runs, three hits and two walks in seven appearances.

After signing as a skinny teenager, German's fastball and fortunes have risen dramatically in the past couple of seasons as his body matured. He's now an intimidating presence on the mound, and his 96-99 mph fastball just adds to the package.

German also throws a splitter and slider, though neither has developed into a consistent, reliable second pitch yet. He needs more work with his command, which improved as the season went on. He had seven wild pitches in his first 21 appearances but none in the final 16.

13. Alexis Gomez, of, Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
Gomez was a clear choice as the most athletic player in the league this year, and one manager said he was the best position player prospect, period. A former standout volleyball player in the Dominican Republic, Gomez' tools create that kind of excitement, but he still has work to do to get the most out of them.

He has the skills to be a five-tool player, with tremendous bat speed and above-average running speed. He already uses the whole field at the plate. He's average in center field now but has the instincts and arm to get better.

Gomez is aggressive in everything he does, which is a blessing and a curse at this point. Aside from his 36 steals this season, he was caught 24 times, indicating that he needs to channel his energy better. He can get out of control at times, and his swing can get long.

"His tools are always in use, but not always at the level they should be," one manager said. "If he can harness his total game, he can be an impact player."

14. Chad Tracy, 3b, El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)
Tracy hit so consistently early in the season that "Red-hot" just became part of his name. He didn't fall below .400 for good until June 8, and from there he cruised in with the TL batting title, beating his closest competitor by 22 points.

Tracy has been noted for his sweet swing since he was drafted out of East Carolina, and he has raked from day one for the Diamondbacks. He is a polished hitter who knows how to get the barrel on the ball, and he hits lefthanders and righthanders equally well. Standout offensive years in El Paso always draw skepticism, but Tracy hit on the road, too.

He doesn't profile as a prototype third baseman because he lacks power, though some managers think he'll develop enough for the middle of the order. He's adequate defensively, and managers did not think he would need to change positions.

15. Jeremy Hill, rhp, Wichita Wranglers (Royals)
Royals fans looking for reasons to have hope for the future turned to Wichita, where Hill joined Hernandez and Gomez before all three finished the season in Kansas City. That's a surprise after Hill washed out as a catcher and the Royals tried him as a pitcher, starting with instructional league in 2000.

Just like when he was a hitter, Hill misses a lot of bats. He does it now almost exclusively with his fastball, which peaks ranges anywhere from 95-99 mph. With a catcher's build, he's a horse on the mound who just rears back and throws the ball.

To continue his progress, Hill needs to refine his breaking ball. After working on a curve, he turned to a slider this year and still needs to work on it to effectively attack big league hitters.

16. Aaron Taylor, rhp, San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
Frustrated so much that he actually quit baseball briefly before last season, Taylor continued the roll that started last season in the low Class A Midwest League. He improved steadily throughout the season and earned a September callup to the Seattle bullpen.

Though he was starting his seventh season, Taylor came into the season without a refined approach to pitching. After succeeding in the Midwest League with his fastball, he continued that approach early in San Antonio--reasonable given that he dials it up to 94-97 mph.

But Double-A hitters hammered him when he tried to blow the ball by them. So Taylor learned to use his slider and splitter more, and he became much more effective. Both are average major league pitches and make his fastball that much better.

"He's built like a Greek god and throws like one," DeFrancesco said.

17. Travis Hughes, rhp, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)
The Rangers' patience with Hughes is starting to pay off. Signed as a draft-and-follow out of the 1997 draft, he's a project who didn't play in high school because his school didn't have a team.

Before the season Hughes was viewed as a reliever, but he held his own in the Tulsa rotation and piled up a career high in innings, including the postseason. While he seemed to tire down the stretch, he bounced back with two strong starts in the playoffs, including a 10-strikeout, no-walk outing against San Antonio in the finals.

Hughes throws 91-94 mph with easy effort, and he shows a plus-plus slider at times and a potentially above-average changeup. His complementary pitches need work, though, and he does not use them enough. His command improved significantly this year, but it's still inconsistent: His great outing against San Antonio came after a four-strikeout, four-walk start. Even in that game, though, he gave up just one run in eight innings.

18. John Buck, c, Round Rock Express (Astros)
As far as what they showed in the league this year, Buck was outshined by Gerald Laird. But he rates higher on this list because he's a bit younger and has more offensive potential.

Buck impressed managers early but wore down in a full season in the Texas heat. He hit just .202 in August as his swing got long and his approach at the plate deteriorated. But after two seasons in low Class A, Buck survived the jump to Double-A pretty well.

Buck has a classic power stroke and should be a standout offensive catcher as he gets stronger and refines his game. He has holes in his swing right now. On defense, he has a plus arm and is a tough competitor who blocks the plate well. He threw out 36 percent of basestealers this season.

19. Jamal Strong, of, San Antonio Missions (Mariners)
After two months of the season, Strong was hitting .230 and while he had stolen 12 bases, he had also been caught nine times. Then he started to adjust to Double-A, raising him average nearly 50 points by season's end, stealing 34 more bases and getting caught just six times and igniting the San Antonio offense as the Missions won the TL.

"He showed as much improvement as anyone in the league," Sisson said. "He really has an idea of who he is and looks to me like a kid who will continue to get better."

Who Strong is (or can be) is a prototype leadoff hitter. He has a nice stroke and stays on breaking balls well, and he can run balls down in center field. He made great strides as a basestealer after learning that he couldn't run wild the way he did at lower levels and became adept at reading pitchers.

20. Gerald Laird, c, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)
Laird signed with the Athletics as a draft-and-follow out of the 1998 draft, but his progress was stunted by a series of injuries. A's-turned-Rangers executive Grady Fuson still saw his potential, though, and Laird was included in the six-player deal that sent Carlos Pena to Oakland in January.

That's looking like a good move after Laird's season in Tulsa. He put up the best offensive numbers of his career, but more important than that he stayed healthy all season. And his catch-and-throw skills were as good as ever: He threw out 52 of 117 basestealers, or 44 percent. Managers said he clearly rated as the best defensive catcher in the league, and he has uncanny accuracy on his throws.

"Catching in the Texas League is no easy task," Brundage said. "Laird is ahead of Buck on defense and he held up better throughout the season. They both should play in the big leagues."

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Fernando Tatis, 3b, Tulsa (Rangers)
2. *Scott Elarton, rhp, Jackson (Astros)
3. *Daryle Ward, 1b, Jackson (Astros)
4. *Dennis Reyes, lhp, San Antonio (Dodgers)
5. *Steve Woodard, rhp, El Paso (Brewers)
6. *Matt Perisho, lhp, Midland (Angels)
7. *Joe Fontenot, rhp, Shreveport (Giants)
8. *Mike Kinkade, 3b, El Paso (Dodgers)
9. *Curtis King, rhp, Arkansas (Cardinals)
10. Kevin Gibbs, of, San Antonio (Dodgers)

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