League Top 20 Prospects

Arizona League Top 20 Prospects

The Rookie-level Arizona League has only a few veterans: the managers and coaches who return to the league year after year. Ruben Escalera was in his sixth season as Athletics manager, as was Bert Hunter with the Giants. Cubs coaches Carmelo Martinez and Rick Tronerud have combined for nearly 20 years of AZL experience.

1. *Felix Pie, of, Cubs
2. Micah Schnurstein, 3b, White Sox
3. Justin Jones, lhp, Cubs
4. Jesse English, lhp, Giants
5. Carlos Sosa, of, Giants
6. Daniel Haigwood, lhp, White Sox
7. *Matt Brown, 3b, Angels
8. *Travis Ishikawa, 1b, Giants
9. *Billy Petrick, rhp, Cubs
10. Ryan Rodriguez, lhp, White Sox
*Has played in major leagues
These veteran AZL observers and others say the league has gotten younger as more organizations emphasize Latin American scouting and send those players to complex leagues for their first U.S. pro experience. The two best prospects in the league were Latins: Giants third baseman Angel Villalona and Rangers outfielder Engel Beltre.

The most important number regarding Villalona isn't $2.1 million (the bonus he got when he signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2006) but rather 1990 (the year he was born). He played most of the season at 16. Beltre, who signed for $600,000 out of the Dominican last year, hit much better following his inclusion in the Eric Gagne trade.

The new Aug. 15 signing deadline for draft picks led to protracted negotiations that precluded many first-rounders from arriving in the AZL early enough to qualify for this list. That's why the likes of Cubs third baseman Josh Vitters (who went just 2-for-30 with nine strikeouts) and righthanders Tim Alderson (Giants) and Michael Main (Rangers) aren't on the Top 20.

Several of the league's stats leaders didn't make the list mostly because of their advanced age, such as Giants first baseman Andy D'Alessio (14 homers) and Angels outfielder Anthony Norman (.362 batting average). Both were 22.

1.Angel Villalona, 3b, Giants
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 200 Age: 17 Signed: Giants FA '06
Angel VillalonaVillalona thought he would open the season as the Northwest League's youngest player ever, and he wasn't happy to find himself in the AZL. The youngest player in the league, he began the summer by trying to prove the Giants wrong, muscling up too often and expanding his strike zone in an effort to hit home runs.

He acted like many 16-year-olds do when things didn't go their way, taking poor at-bats into the field with him, but he also made adjustments as the year went along, showing signs of maturity and professionalism. He also showed all the tools that prompted the Giants to make him a millionaire: premium bat speed and strength, power to all fields, a feel for hitting and a plus throwing arm that's well-suited for third base.

Villalona will have to watch his body to make sure the Miguel Cabrera comparisons he engenders are made for the right reasons.

"When he stays on his backside and uses the middle of the field, he hits it harder than anyone I've ever seen at this level," Hunter said. "Even when he's on his front foot, he can hit it out, hit with power. He's got big forearms, big legs, big shoulders, uses his lower half. The ball comes off his bat like it does for older players. It's like he's already a Triple-A hitter."
2.Engel Beltre, of, Rangers
B-T: L-L Ht: 6-1 Wt: 170 Age: 17 Signed: Red Sox FA '06
The Rangers wouldn't agree to send Gagne to the Red Sox until Boston included Beltre in the deal. He hit just .208 in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League but improved his average 102 points in the AZL. His bat is still raw, as his huge power potential leads him to take big cuts and jump at pitches.

League observers agreed that Beltre will hit for a solid average. He has easy power despite his undeveloped frame, with natural whip in his swing. His pitch recognition improved as the year progressed, as he learned which pitches he could drive and which he should hit on the ground and try to beat out with his plus-plus speed.

In center field, he glides to the ball and could become a premium defender. When all is said and done, his only below-average tool should be his arm strength.

"He made everyone around him better," Rangers manager Pedro Lopez said. "He bought into our plan and got better. It's almost harder for him being 17 and having that power. He'll hit, but whether he'll hit .270 or .300, I don't know."
3.Nick Noonan, 2b/ss, Giants
B-T: L-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 180 Age: 18 Drafted: Giants '07 (1s)
Noonan will have to endure Chase Utley comparisons as his career progresses, because he's an offense-oriented second baseman who bats lefthanded. That parallel only works to a certain extent, as Noonan doesn't have Utley's power or long frame. Utley was a college product, while Noonan impressed in the AZL with his polish fresh out of a San Diego high school

He should move faster than his AZL peers, and his instincts will help his cause. Noonan has an advanced, balanced approach that should help him hold his own against lefthanders as he moves up, because he trusts his hands and has good barrel awareness. At his best, he uses the whole field, showing solid power from gap to gap.

He runs a tick above average and is an intelligent baserunner who should be good for 20 or more steals annually. He shared the middle infield with fellow Giants supplemental first-round pick Charlie Culberson, but Noonan is better suited for second base because he has average range and arm strength.
4.Danny Duffy, lhp, Royals
B-T: L-L Ht: 6-2 Wt: 185 Age: 18 Drafted: Royals '07 (3)
Duffy had the best pro debut of any young pitcher in the league, striking out 15.2 batters per nine innings and going 37 innings without allowing a home run. He did it mostly by working off his fastball. The Royals precluded Duffy from throwing his two-seam sinker and his slider, preferring for him to focus on improving the command of his four-seamer and curveball and using his changeup.

The Royals also worked on making Duffy's mechanics more consistent and keeping him from rushing through his delivery. He made progress on all fronts. His fastball sits at 88-92 mph and touches 94, and his curveball at times is a plus pitch.

"He got better at repeating his mechanics and maintaining his stuff late in games as the year went on," Royals pitching coach Mark Davis said. "His fastball was firm and live, and he really located down and away well."
5.Wilmer Font, rhp, Rangers
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt: 210 Age: 17 Signed: Rangers FA '06
The Rangers have increased their international scouting efforts in recent years, and they placed three Latin Americans on this Top 10. Font already has a strong, physical body already despite being one of the league's youngest players. His fastball was as good as any in the league, often sitting at 93-96 mph and reaching as high as 98.

Font remains raw, as most pitchers his age are. The ball comes out of his hand easy but his fastball loses life and he loses command when he muscles up to the high 90s. His changeup is his second pitch for now.

He's just learning the fundamentals of a breaking ball, how to repeat his mechanics and maintain his arm speed when throwing something that spins. He's shown the hand speed to develop a curveball down the line.
6.Wilber Bucardo, rhp, Giants
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 175 Age: 19 Signed: Giants FA '05
Bucardo spent two successful seasons in the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League and was prepared to succeed in the AZL, unlike several younger Latin pitchers with similar velocity. He had the league's heaviest sinker, sitting in the low 90s and peaking at 95 mph. He yielded just one homer in 60 innings and had a 3.14 groundout/flyout ratio.

Bucardo also throws a slider that has future plus potential and a four-seam fastball. He'll need to improve his rudimentary changeup to aid him against lefthanders at upper levels.

"He's more fluid than when I saw him in extended spring training, and the ball comes out of his hand well," Hunter said. "His ball has a lot of life down in the zone."
7.Drew Cumberland, ss, Padres
B-T: L-R Ht: 5-10 Wt: 175 Age: 18 Drafted: Padres (1s)
Cumberland hurt his hamstring late in the high school season, and he also missed time this summer after dislocating a finger while trying to catch a popup. In the month he was on AZL diamonds, he showed the tools that prompted the Padres to draft him in the supplemental first round, starting with plus-plus speed (he can get to first base in 3.9 seconds on drag bunts). He also has good bat speed and should be able to drive balls to the gaps consistently.

Cumberland has more work to do defensively than offensively. He made 12 errors in 21 games at shortstop and will need to take to the Padres' throwing program to improve his arm strength if he's to remain on the left side of the infield. He should fit at second base if needed and is athletic enough for center field if he can't handle the infield.
8.Danny Carroll, of, Mariners
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-1 Wt: 175 Age: 18 Drafted: Mariners '07 (3)
Not many teams rated Carroll highly enough to draft him in the third round like the Mariners did, but his early returns have Seattle excited. He finished in the top five in the AZL in batting (.323), hits (65), steals (27) and on-base percentage (.415). Teammates nicknamed him "Machine" for his ability to repeat his swing with ease and for his high-energy disposition.

Carroll could be an ideal No. 2 hitter, using the whole field and having potential gap power as he gets stronger. He should be able to stay in center field thanks to average speed and fine instincts, and his plus arm would play in right field.

"He plays with polish and energy," Hunter said. "He's got good hands at the plate, good speed and plays a good center field."
9.Cristian Santana, c, Rangers
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt: 175 Age: 18 Signed: Rangers FA '05
Santana was a key member of the Rangers' 2005 international signing class, but labrum surgery forced him to miss the 2006 season and he didn't make his pro debut until this summer. He made up for lost time, hitting his way to a promotion to the Northwest League by season's end.

Santana has the bat speed, strength and athleticism to repeat his swing and hit for at least gap power, if not above-average power down the road. He's a plus runner underway, particularly for a catcher.

Compactly built and athletic, Santana was the league's best catching prospect, with raw arm strength and receiving skills that project as above-average. Both tools need refinement, however, as he tied for the league lead in passed balls (12) and lost his feel for throwing mechanics as the year progressed. He threw out just 18 percent of basestealers.
10.Mario Martinez, ss/3b, Mariners
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 175 Age: 17 Signed: Mariners FA '06
The Mariners won the AZL title, beating the Giants in a one-game playoff, and Martinez was a key to their success. He made the game look easy with a sound swing he repeated easily and smooth actions in the field. His 6-foot-2, 175-pound frame leaves scouts plenty of room to project future power potential as Martinez adds strength.

Martinez shared shortstop with promising South African import Anthony Phillips and performed better defensively at third base. That may be his future home, particularly if his power develops as projected. He'll have to tone down his aggressiveness for that to happen.
11.Mason Tobin, rhp, Angels
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt: 210 Age: 20 Drafted: Angels '07 (16)
The Braves controlled Tobin's rights for two years as a draft-and-follow, first at Western Nevada CC and later at Everett (Wash.) CC. When Atlanta couldn’t sign him, the Angels drafted Tobin in the 16th round this June. They got a relatively polished righthander who pumps his fastball in the 89-92 mph range.

Tobin has excellent mechanics with an effortless delivery that adds deception and helps his fastball play up. At times, he can rely on his heater alone, but he'll need to refine his slider and particularly his changeup as he moves up the ladder. His slider at times is a plus pitch but lacks consistency.

Concerns about his work ethic dogged Tobin as an amateur. But once he's on the mound, he's a bulldog who challenges hitters.

"He loves to pitch inside," Angels manager Ty Boykin said. "He threw strikes and was aggressive, and he succeeded at this level because he commanded the fastball and used both sides of the plate."
12.Michael Anton, lhp, Angels
B-T: L-L Ht: 6-3 Wt: 195 Age: 22 Drafted: Angels '07 (12)
Like Tobin, Anton is a 6-foot-3, 195-pound lefthander who slipped through the cracks until the Angels drafted him in the middle rounds this year. Anton spent two seasons at Virginia Military Institute but hadn't pitched since 2005 because of academic difficulties and injuries related to a December 2004 car accident. He was working out with Angels farmhand Jesse Smith in Arizona when the Angels spotted him.

Anton pitched like a 12th-round steal in Arizona, commanding three pitches and showing perhaps the league's top offering, a plus-plus changeup with screwball action. He threw it for strikes and also got hitters to chase it out of the zone.

His 86-88 mph fastball has room to grow as he continues to gain strength, and his curveball is solid average. Anton will be even more effective when he learns to work inside.
13.Matt Mitchell, rhp, Royals
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 205 Age: 18 Drafted: Royals '07 (14)
Mitchell lasted until the 14th round of the 2007 draft in part because he was harder to see than many other southern California prospects. He playing in relatively remote Barstow, northeast of Los Angeles. AZL hitters saw enough of him, though, as he won the league ERA title (1.80) and ranked fourth in strikeouts (72 in 55 innings).

Mitchell's strong suit is his ability to throw his upper-80s fastball on a good downhill plane to both sides of the plate, and he reaches as high as 93 mph. He threw strikes early in the count and consistently overmatched hitters with his control and aggressiveness.

For an encore in full-season ball, Mitchell will have to improve both the spin and feel for his curveball, a below-average pitch at this time. He has confidence in his palmball changeup, which helped limit lefthanders to 11 hits (one for extra bases) in 61 at-bats. He should gain better command as he improves his mechanics.
14.Yefri Carvajal, of, Padres
B-T: R-R Ht: 5-11 Wt: 190 Age: 18 Drafted: Padres FA '05
Carvajal had to repeat the league after a hand injury curtailed his season last year. He needed the experience because he had gotten just 75 at-bats since signing for $350,000 in late 2005 out of the Dominican Republic. He's still raw, particularly in terms of pitch recognition and plate discipline, but he also has some of the best bat speed in the Padres system and enough athletic ability to play well in a short trial in center field.

According to AZL Padres manager Tony Muser, the former Royals skipper, Carvajal profiles best as a left fielder with good defense and enough power for the position.

"He has a lot of upside because he can do a lot of things," Muser said. "He can run, he's got a plus arm, he's got raw power. A lot of times with young players like him, it can take longer getting on their feet, and he lost time, but now he's making progress."
15.Charlie Culberson, ss, Giants
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-1 Wt: 185 Age: 18 Drafted: Giants '07 (1s)
AZL managers found Culberson, a surprise supplemental first-round pick in June, far from conventional but nonetheless to their liking. He rebounded from a terrible start to help drive the Giants into the championship game, leading the team with 19 stolen bases (in 20 tries) and batting .354 in August.

Culverson showed pull power, savvy baserunning skills and above-average bat speed, and he made progress on learning when to be aggressive and when to be smart. Culberson hit 16 homers as a high school senior, but homers aren't likely to be a significant part of his game as he moves up the ladder.

The unconventional part comes with his glove. Culberson has excellent arm strength despite an unusual, almost sidearm release point, and as he learns to trust his arm, he'll improve his fringe-average range by playing deeper and learning better positioning. His aggressive nature led to mistakes, but he worked hard with roving instructor Fred Stanley and showed enough aptitude (one error in his last 12 games in the AZL) to keep playing shortstop in instructional league.
16.Larry Suarez, rhp, Cubs
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt: 245 Age: 18 Signed: Cubs FA '06
Suarez signed out of Venezuela for $850,000, the second-largest bonus for a pitcher on the international free-agent market in the summer of 2006. The only pitcher to get more was Korean righthander Young-Il Jung, who signed with the Angels for $1 million.

Suarez gets compared to Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano because he's a big and burly and from Venezuela. His 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame is softer than Zambrano's, as is his stuff—but not by a whole lot.

Suarez was one of the league's harder throwers, regularly peaking at 95 mph with his fastball while sitting at 89-91, though he tends to work up in the strike zone too often. He made significant improvement with his curveball this summer, tightening the pitch and improving his control of it. While he has flashed a solid changeup, he was hit hard by lefthanders (.344) and needs to improve his arm speed on the pitch.

17.Clay Fuller, of, Angels
B-T: B-R Ht: 6-2 Wt: 180 Age: 20 Drafted: Angels '05 (4)
A year after signing as a fourth-rounder, Fuller repeated the league while he learned to switch-hit. He displayed top-of-the-order tools and led the league with 55 runs, and also showed how raw he remains. One of the Angels' fastest prospects, he's a 70 runner on the 20-80 scale, and has well above-average range in center field.

Fuller, whose older brother Cody played in Double-A for the Angels this year, has surprising power, especially from his natural right side, where he hit three of his five homers in just 49 at-bats. He still has trouble making consistent contact as a lefty, but his speed and athletic ability give the move a good chance for success. He lacks the feel for hitting of nondrafted free agent Anthony Norman, his teammate who won the AZL batting title (.362), but Fuller has better pure tools and athleticism.

While he still needs work on his routes to balls, he has an average arm and projects as an asset defensively.
18.Sam Runion, rhp, Royals
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt: 220 Age: 18 Drafted: Royals '07 (2)
The Royals had several raw players whose tools outstripped their performance, such as Puerto Rican third baseman Fernando Cruz and Canadian righthander Peter Hodge Nielsen. Runion was the best of the group, though he's still far from consistent. He pitched five scoreless innings in his first two outings and threw six zeroes at the Cubs in his best start, but also had five starts in which he allowed more runs than innings.

Runion's sinker-slider approach worked when he maintained his delivery and stayed on top of his pitches, and his feel for throwing strikes with his 88-90 mph fastball allowed him to average a strikeout per inning. He'll have to be more consistent with his release point and use his projectable 6-foot-4 frame more to his advantage.
19.Ivan Contreras, 2b, Angels
B-T: R-R Ht: 5-9 Wt: 155 Age: 20 Drafted: Angels FA '05
Even after trading the likes of Alberto Callaspo and Alexi Casilla for little in return, the Angels still have an excess of middle infielders at the upper levels. The system hopes to be sprouting a new era of middle-infield prospects with its AZL combo this summer, featuring Contreras and shortstop Darwin Perez, another switch-hitter but one with less offensive upside than Contreras.

Though short, the Dominican native Contreras has added strength and has surprising pop in his swing, producing average power to the gaps. He has a feel for squaring balls up, as he led the AZL with 69 hits, and he's a well above-average runner as well. His aggressiveness gets the best of him at times in terms of pitch recognition and baserunning.

"He thinks he's Jose Reyes," Boykin said with a chuckle. "He's a lot of fun to watch, has an effusive personality and loves the game. More important, he can hit."
20.Jake Wild, rhp, Mariners
B-T: R-R Ht: 6-5 Wt: 195 Age: 23 Drafted: Mariners '07 (26)
Wild turned 23 in August, making him an old man in the AZL. Still, he has a chance to be more than an organizational soldier because he has a big, projectable, athletic frame and he's relatively inexperienced for his age. He pitched just three innings in high school and got hammered as a senior at Pacific, posting a 7.07 ERA.

Against wood bats in Arizona, Wild went wild, ranking second in the league in ERA (1.88). He struck out 14 batters and won the league championship game.

Wild throws downhill with a fastball that ranges from 87-92 mph and touches 93. He pitches downhill despite a lower three-quarters arm slot that gives his fastball some sink and induces groundballs. He also throws a slider, changeup and splitters

"He's tough," Mariners pitching coach Chris Sinacori said. "He hit his spots with his fastball and knew what to do to get outs. He's going to have to be pushed, but I think he's up to it."