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Double-A Eastern League

Top 10 Prospects

BY ANDREW LINKER

HARRISBURG, Pa.–Their names certainly are familiar. They have dotted nearly every prospect list in their short, albeit successful careers.

Six of the 10 players in the Eastern League’s top 10 prospects–pitchers Tony Armas of Harrisburg, Matt Riley of Bowie and Ryan Anderson of New Haven; Norwich first baseman Nick Johnson and shortstop Alfonso Soriano; and Harrisburg outfielder Milton Bradley–had yet to reach their 21st birthday when the season opened in April.

Relative age aside, three of the 10–Armas, Riley and Erie righthander Ramon Ortiz–already had been called up to the majors by the end of the EL season. Righthander A.J. Burnett (Marlins) and Gil Meche (Mariners), and third baseman Wilton Veras (Red Sox), who narrowly missed inclusion in the top 10, also debuted in the big leagues. Many more are sure to follow as the EL may have had the greatest assembly of talent of any league in the minors this season.

1. PAT BURRELL, of
Reading Phillies (Phillies)

When he was not dismantling EL pitching, Burrell was learning new positions.

The All-American third baseman at Miami and the 1998 draft’s top pick started the season playing first base, and ended his stay in Reading playing some in left field.

"He’s not going to be a liability out there," said Reading manager Gary Varsho, who used Burrell in 27 games as his left fielder. "He’s going to be an asset there. He’s going to put a lot of pressure on the guy in the third-base coach’s box, because he’s going to possess an above-average arm in left field."

Burrell’s bat, though, is why he tops the Class of ’99.

"He projects as a No. 3, 4 or 5 hitter in the major leagues for a long period of time," said Harrisburg manager Doug Sisson. "He’s somebody who’s going to hit for average, for power and drive in runs. I think he and Johnson both project that way."

2. ALFONSO SORIANO, ss
Norwich Navigators (Yankees)

Listing Soriano as a Top 10 Prospect was easy for managers. Projecting a position for him in the majors was not.

Second base, left field and third base all were mentioned. Shortstop wasn’t. Seems the Yankees already have some guy named Jeter.

"It’s my personal feeling, but I don’t think he has shortstop talent," said Erie manager and former major league shortstop Garry Templeton. "I think he’ll move over to third base and find his niche there. He’s a pure hitter. He can play some defense, but I just didn’t see the foot quickness you need to play a successful shortstop."

His offense remains his biggest asset.

"Soriano is probably as exciting a player as there is in this league," said Binghamton manager Doug Davis. "Jeez, he hit for average, he hit for power. He has the speed to run the bases and he has range on defense."

3. NICK JOHNSON, 1b
Norwich Navigators (Yankees)

Johnson’s game has been compared to those of Mark Grace and Rafael Palmeiro. His numbers supported those comparisons.

"He reminds me of Gracie to a T," said New Haven manager Dan Rohn. "He doesn’t strike out. He has a great eye. He stays in there. You can’t knock him off the plate by hitting him, because he’s been hit about 100 times this year. I love his swing. He plays way beyond his years."

Johnson’s numbers this season were way beyond most. He led the league in batting, runs and on-base percentage (.525, 85 points ahead of his nearest pursuer). That number was boosted by his league-record 37 times hit by pitches.

"He’s the best prospect I’ve seen the last two years," Sisson said. "He’s going to be a middle-of-the-order hitter in the big leagues for a team the caliber of the New York Yankees."

4. TONY ARMAS, rhp
Harrisburg Senators (Expos)

Armas was traded twice before he was 20, in deals that sent DH Mike Stanley from the Yankees to the Red Sox and Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez from the Expos to the Red Sox.

There was a reason for this: Everybody wanted Armas.

This season Armas, the son of former American League power hitter Tony Armas, was among the EL’s most dominant pitchers before he was shut down for the final week with a tired arm. At one point, Armas had thrown 24 straight scoreless innings, a streak interrupted by a brief trip to the majors.

"You don’t get a whole lot of good swings off of him," Varsho said.

5. MATT RILEY, lhp
Bowie Baysox (Orioles)

No lefthander in the league other than Portland’s Michael Tejera had more wins and a better ERA than Riley, who started the season in Class A. And no one was more competitive.

"He’s a very intense young man," said Trenton manager DeMarlo Hale. "You’re talking about a lefty with a 90-something fastball. He’s coming at you. You can see it in his makeup.

"One thing I like is that he’s not afraid of contact with his fastball. He can be down 3-1 in the count and throw the fastball. I like that aggressiveness in him. And he has a curveball that’s very effective."

6. MILTON BRADLEY, of
Harrisburg Senators (Expos)

Bradley sometimes is talked about more for his run-ins with umpires, but his skills are matched by few.

When he was in the lineup, Bradley was the league’s most dangerous switch-hitter. He batted .329 with power from both sides. And he hit the dramatic bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out grand slam to give Harrisburg its fourth straight EL title.

Too many times, though, he was out of the lineup. He missed 55 games because of injuries (29), the Pan American Games (19) and a suspension for spitting gum on an umpire (seven).

"I’ve seen some things that were negative on the field, things that have made Milton a slower progresser than his ability shows," said Altoona manager Marty Brown. "He wants to win. It’s not a bad thing, as long as he understands where the line is."

7. JULIO RAMIREZ, of
Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)

Flashy, exciting, gamebreaker. Those were the adjectives attached to Ramirez both on offense and defense.

"He brings it all," Hale said. "He can beat you so many ways. He beat us in Portland with his glove, his bat and his basestealing. He went over the wall a number of times to take away home runs. And you have to respect that arm. He’s a five-tool player who has a high ceiling."

"I love his athleticism," Sisson said. "He has a great body; nothing but muscle. He’s a 70 runner at least. He’s a 70 arm. He probably has the best raw tools in the league."

8. RAMON ORTIZ, rhp
Erie SeaWolves (Angels)

After his 1998 season was ruined by a fractured right elbow, Ortiz spent the formative months of this season ruining other teams’ chances before earning a promotion to Triple-A and eventually to the big leagues.

"He went right after us, real aggressive," Brown said. "He’s not a real big guy, but he has command of his pitches. He keeps the ball down in the zone. He was throwing as hard against us in the last inning as he was in the first inning."

"He kind of reminds me of (Octavio) Dotel a little bit," said Brown, referring to the Mets prospect. "He touches an above-average fastball, but his main pitch right now is a slider."

9. RYAN ANDERSON, lhp
New Haven Ravens (Mariners)

Anderson was compared in size and style to former Mariners lefthander Randy Johnson even before Seattle selected Anderson in the first round in 1997.

He showed sporadic brilliance in his Double-A debut, which was interrupted three times by appearances at the Futures Game, the Double-A all-star game and the Pan Am Games. He was the only player to appear in all three events.

"The potential is there," said Varsho, who was Anderson’s manager in 1998 at Class A Wisconsin. "He needs to mature and understand that his fastball is going to be his strength, not his curveball."

10. REGGIE TAYLOR, of
Reading Phillies (Phillies)

Taylor is the only player in the Top 10 who spent any time in the EL in 1998. Actually, Taylor spent all of 1998 in the EL, starting the process of putting together all of his tools.

This season, he became the first Reading player in nearly 20 years to reach double figures in doubles, triples and homers.

"You have to understand where he’s come from, a small rural area in South Carolina," said Sisson, who has managed against Taylor in three of the last four seasons. "He never got much instruction, never played much baseball and they’ve had him on the fast track. They’ve pushed him every year, and he’s always held his head above water."

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