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Double-A Texas League

Top 10 Prospects

BY GEORGE SCHROEDER

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.–Before the season began, it looked as if 1999 would be the year of the pitcher in the Texas League.

Lefthander Rick Ankiel dominated in a short stint at Arkansas. Righthander Tim Hudson was on the same track but he left the league before most teams saw him. Ditto for El Paso righthander Byung-Hyun Kim.

As the season progressed, the hitters stole the headlines. First baseman Erubiel Durazo’s batting average hovered above .400 when he was promoted from El Paso in early June. Midland third baseman Adam Piatt achieved the TL’s first triple crown since 1927.

But when it came time for the league’s managers to name their Top 10 Prospects, it turned out the early billing was correct. Even without Hudson and Kim, seven of the TL’s Top 10 are pitchers, led by Ankiel.

1. RICK ANKIEL, lhp
Arkansas Travelers (Cardinals)

Ankiel didn’t stay long, but he left a definite impression. His combination of superlative skills–he has three quality big league pitches–and uncanny maturity made for a formidable combination that wasn’t solved by Texas League hitters.

"He’s got great poise for a young kid," Midland pitching coach Glenn Abbott said after Ankiel’s last start. "You don’t see that. He’s beyond his years as a pitcher."

"I liked his poise and his command for a 19-year-old," Midland manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "And the breaking ball he has."

Ankiel led the league in strikeouts when he left. Had he remained, he would have shattered records. But the Cardinals would have been happier with fewer strikeouts and more innings. Kept on a strict pitch limit, he often worked too deep into counts and usually didn’t get past the sixth inning. He needs to learn to get outs earlier in the count to lengthen his outings.

After spending three months at Triple-A Memphis (and turning 20), Ankiel was promoted to St. Louis in late August. He is expected to stay in the major league starting rotation in 2000. The Cardinals believe he is a future No. 1 starter.

2. DEE BROWN, of
Wichita Wranglers (Royals)

Brown didn’t arrive until midseason, but his offensive approach reminded one manager of Ray Lankford, the Cardinals outfielder who was the TL’s player of the year 10 years ago.

Brown is a pure hitter, Wichita manager John Mizerock said. He has the potential for both power and average.

"He has the quickest bat speed in the league," DeFrancesco said. "He has the ability to drive the ball to all fields. He’s very selective for a kid."

But Brown must improve defensively to become an all-around star. Managers said he needed to improve his jumps and refine the angles he takes to balls. They also weren’t overly impressed with his arm.

3. ERUBIEL DURAZO, 1b
El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

The Diamondbacks weren’t sure what they were getting when they purchased Durazo’s contract from the Monterrey Sultans of the Mexican League. He had hit well, but he was an unknown.

"The guy had real good success in Mexico, but we were throwing him into Double-A," El Paso manager Don Wakamatsu said. Now that the season is done, Arizona couldn’t be happier. Durazo hit .403 in 64 Texas League games, and demonstrated power, an ability to hit to all fields and an ability to make adjustments to pitching.

"He’s a polished-looking hitter," Arkansas manager Chris Maloney said. "I didn’t see many weaknesses."

Durazo isn’t fast, and he needs work on his defense. But he finished the season in the big leagues, still hitting.

4. JOHN PATTERSON, rhp
El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

The 1-2 pitching punch of Patterson and No. 5 prospect Brad Penny was much anticipated in El Paso, after creating a sensation in the California League last year.

Both pitchers struggled early with command and composure. Like other young power pitchers, Patterson doesn’t have complete control of his fastball, and that caused a rough transition to Double-A. But gradually, he began to harness the mid-90s fastball and big, biting curveball that the Diamondbacks paid millions to acquire.

By the time he was promoted to Triple-A Tucson, Patterson appeared on track to the big leagues. San Antonio manager Jimmy Johnson said he could become a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

"He throws free and easy, effortless," DeFrancesco said.

Mizerock even saw some more projectability in him: "He’s a young kid who could fill out and get even better."

5. BRAD PENNY, rhp
El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

Penny, who was ranked fifth on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects entering the season, was the more heralded of the two Diablos pitchers coming in.

Like Patterson, Penny is a power pitcher. And like Patterson, he struggled with consistency. Early on he seemed to lack an out pitch, but his potential was readily apparent and managers liked his aggressive demeanor.

"I liked the way he went about his business," DeFrancesco said. "He’s competitive and he’s got a plus fastball."

"He’s got to learn to handle the mental part of the game a little better," Maloney said.

If Penny achieves that, he’ll help someone other than the Diamondbacks. The Penny-Patterson duo was broken up when Penny was traded to the Marlins. He finished the season in the Eastern League.

6. ERIC GAGNE, rhp
San Antonio Missions (Dodgers)

Two years after major arm surgery, Gagne proved he was healthy–and talented. He was named the TL’s pitcher of the year and won the ERA title, then went to the Dodgers.

Gagne has big league stuff in his fastball, curve and changeup. Most important, he was able to pitch to spots. Managers noted no obvious weaknesses; one suggested Gagne could tighten his curve.

Gagne’s best attribute may be mental. Johnson noted his mound demeanor, calling him fierce. Others noticed as well.

"He seems to be an outstanding competitor," Mizerock said.

7. CHAD HARVILLE, rhp
Midland RockHounds (Athletics)

Harville also left the league early, but he showcased his talent as the RockHounds’ closer. His high-90s fastball alone makes him formidable.

"He can throw the heck out of the ball," Maloney said.

But Harville’s slider, a high-80s pitch with a sharp break, is what differentiates him from many other hard throwers.

Plenty of minor league closers rack up impressive statistics with less than impressive ability. TL managers believe Harville combines the ability and attitude to dominate the late innings at the big league level.

"He has the makeup to be a quality major league closer," DeFrancesco said. "He’s competitive and has the fastball and slider."

8. TONY McKNIGHT, rhp
Jackson Generals (Astros)

McKnight was a model of consistency, the best pitcher on what was the league’s best pitching staff for most of the year. He has a nice fastball and exceptional control, but his curveball is outstanding.

"He has a great curveball, and his changeup is getting better," Johnson said.

If there’s a knock on McKnight, it’s that he relies too much on the breaking pitch.

A midseason bout with shoulder tendinitis slowed McKnight, but it didn’t stop him. He held the TL’s ERA lead for much of the second half. Managers said he has a chance to develop into a solid big league starter.

9. ADAM PIATT, 3b
Midland RockHounds (Athletics)

Piatt achieved the TL’s first triple crown since 1927, so his offensive credentials are well-established.

Yes, he played in Midland, which certainly accounts for some of his power numbers. One manager said a natural dip in his swing, which caused him to uppercut balls, made him a natural in windy West Texas. But plenty of other people have played there since 1927, and none of them achieved what Piatt did.

"He’s doing something right," Maloney said.

Piatt’s third professional season was a breakout year. He led the league in several offensive categories and shot up the prospect charts.

The question remaining for Piatt is: Where will he play? His third-base defense needs improvement, and the Athletics have Eric Chavez. Piatt’s bat may get him to the big leagues. He’ll have to improve his glovework to find a home there.

10. CHAD HUTCHINSON, rhp
Arkansas Travelers (Cardinals)

Like his teammate Ankiel, Hutchinson is immensely talented. Unlike Ankiel, he hasn’t yet figured it all out.

Hutchinson has a mid-90s fastball and a hard breaking ball that sometimes left batters’ knees buckling. When he was on, he was almost unhittable.

The problem was consistency. Hutchinson struck out 150 batters in 142 innings, but led the league with 85 walks.

"He’s got to smooth out his mechanics and get better command of his fastball," Maloney said.

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