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Class A California League

Top 10 Prospects

BY LANCE PUGMIRE

ONTARIO, Calif.–A year after placing their big-time talent at higher levels, player-development directors again turned the California League into one of the minors’ best talent pools.

The generosity went beyond that initial investment, however, as many top-tier prospects were left in the league for major chunks of the season.

Organizations such as the Athletics, Dodgers and Padres pursued the belief that it was better for younger players to remain in a successful situation than to risk the possibility of failure and frustration that sometimes accompanies a promotion.

League MVP Chin-Feng Chen stuck around long enough to become the league’s first player with 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases. High Desert outfielder Jack Cust challenged for the triple crown, and San Bernardino closer Bill Everly established the league’s all-time saves record as a result of newfound patience.

1. CHIN-FENG CHEN, of
San Bernardino Stampede (Dodgers)

The first Taiwanese product to play for a major league organization in nearly a quarter century, Chen signed with the Dodgers in January and missed time only because of a September departure to play for Taiwan in the Asian Games.

Managers named Chen, who possesses remarkable bat-head accuracy, the league’s best hitting prospect and best power prospect. The power was expected, while the steals were not.

"His baserunning has exceeded expectations," Stampede manager Rick Burleson said. "He’s become very explosive. He still has to learn how to run the bases better, outside of pickoff situations, and he could pick his (steal) spots a little better, but that’s the area he’s shown most improvement in."

Chen’s defense has a ways to go. His routes to balls and aggressiveness in charging liners and hits are a bit tentative, as if he’s too conscious of making a mistake.

"It’s all very correctable, though," Burleson said.

2. ABRAHAM NUNEZ, of
High Desert Mavericks (Diamondbacks)

Nunez showcased an incredible arm that managers ranked as the best in the league.

"He can play in the big leagues right now as a defensive outfielder simply because of that arm," High Desert manager Derek Bryant said.

Nunez’ speed only enhances his main strength. Scouts envision him as a five-tool player once he fills out his lanky frame, and in the process adds bat speed and power.

Maturity is an issue with Nunez, who taunted some opponents after home runs. "He’s turned the corner with his attitude and mannerisms lately," Bryant said. "Remember, he’s a 19-year-old kid. We all needed to mature at 19."

3. JACK CUST, of
High Desert Mavericks (Diamondbacks)

Cust produced 10 homers and 22 RBIs in a late-season, 13-game tear, launching the Mavericks on a league-best 15-game winning streak.

Cust led the league in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He was second in hitting and fourth in RBIs. His strike-zone knowledge is on par with big leaguers, and he’s tightened up his body.

His shortcoming is defense, where his arm and ball pursuit both rank as below average.

4. BARRY ZITO, lhp
Visalia Oaks (Athletics)

Fresh from a dominant college season, Zito was one of the few phenoms quickly ushered in and out of the league. Zito spent less than two months with the Oaks after signing with Oakland in June, and eventually helped Vancouver win the Triple-A World Series.

Zito continued his confident ways by piling up strikeouts and missing bats–opponents hit .156 against him–relying on his big-moving curveball and good command.

"If you fell behind in the count against him, it was over," San Jose manager Lenn Sakata said.

"Attitude and makeup, that’s why he’ll make it," Visalia manager Juan Navarette said. "He’s a fierce competitor, loves to challenge hitters and is one of the smartest, most dedicated players I’ve ever come across. When I see that kind of desire with those kind of tools, all I can think is can’t-miss."

5. WASCAR SERRANO, rhp
Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Padres)

The lanky Serrano ranked second in the league in strikeouts when he was promoted to Double-A Mobile, but it was his grasp of the pitches complementing his 93-mph fastball that so impressed his followers.

"Everybody talks about his arm," Quakes pitching coach Darrel Akerfelds said. "The fact that he learned command and how to use those pitches in the right situations means he doesn’t overuse the fastball anymore."

Serrano added a reliable changeup and a crisp slider to his two-seam and four-seam fastball arsenal, and made a breakthrough in realizing the importance of varying locations and pitch counts.

"He’s well on his way to being a four-pitch pitcher, plus he’s a good athlete," Akerfelds said. "If the ball’s bunted or hit in front of him, he’s going to make the play." Serrano is only lacking the game experience it takes to refine his lessons.

6. JESUS COLOME, rhp
Modesto A’s (Athletics)

Last year’s No. 1 prospect from the Rookie-level Arizona League closed the Cal League season with a stirring run of five consecutive wins that included a 32-inning stretch of 29 strikeouts, nine walks and a 1.74 ERA.

Colome’s fastball has reached the high 90s, and he gave up just six homers all season. He added a two-seam fastball after league hitters handled his four-seamer. The A’s are grooming him as a closer of the future, partly out of consideratoin of his slight build.

"If he keeps learning and stays healthy, he won’t just be a big league pitcher," Modesto manager Bob Geren said. "He’ll be an all-star."

Colome was devoting more time to his changeup and slider, and in an effort to refine his somewhat unorthodox delivery, was scheduled to attend instructional league.

7. MIGUEL OLIVO, c
Modesto A’s (Athletics)

Olivo showed the league’s strongest arm. One of his throws to second base was clocked at 90 mph. "Not bad for a throw without a windup," Geren said.

Olivo also showed acumen at a catcher’s more subtle contributions: blocking balls, holding runners, framing pitches. His pitchers’ only complaint is with his lack of command of English.

"Unless you know catching, you could overlook him, but I think he’s the No. 1 prospect in the league," said Geren, a former major league catcher. "He’s raw, but there’s great talent there. His arm is Pudge Rodriguez-like."

Olivo, who played last year in the Arizona League, hit above .300 for the second straight season and showed better power.

"The question is his hitting," Geren said. "Yeah, he can hit the balls over the scoreboard, but I’ve also seen him miss balls by two feet. Of the catchers in this league you could ask yourself, who would you draft first now? It’d be him."

8. JAKE ESTEVES, rhp
San Jose Giants (Giants)

Another stiff adversary of hitters, Esteves ranked among the ERA leaders when a promotion called. He won six games for San Jose and eight more at Double-A Shreveport.

Esteves’ control, four-pitch repertoire and maturity make him a candidate for the Giants rotation in 2000. In San Jose, he showed he could induce groundball outs with a devastating sinker–his best pitch–while overpowering big hitters with high fastballs.

He also flashed strong fielding skills, a tribute to his athleticism.

"It’s the sum of all the pitches that make a good pitcher and because of that, he’s got a lot going for him," Sakata said. "That feel for pitching was advanced for someone at this level. He was the best pitcher in the league when he left."

9. SCOT SHIELDS, rhp
Lake Elsinore Storm (Angels)

Shields was not coddled in his time in the league, cut short by a promotion to Double-A Erie. The Angels once allowed him to throw 138 pitches in a game, and the all-star responded with a victory. He also went eight innings in three consecutive August starts.

Shields continued his success after his promotion by dealing a fastball with movement and a hard breaking pitch that was considered one of the Cal League’s best. Mound presence was another Shields strength.

"He had better stuff and better deception than you’re used to seeing here," said Akerfelds, a former major leaguer.

10. ERIC BYRNES, of
Modesto A’s (Athletics)

Byrnes, a fourth-round pick in 1997 who returned to UCLA for his senior season, was the James Brown of the league: its hardest-working member.

Byrnes once got off the team bus following a seven-hour trip from Modesto to Rancho Cucamonga and refused to join his teammates for a pregame meal, opting instead to take extra batting practice with veteran teammate Jacques Landry.

"He’s got something very few people in this game have: the desire to improve in every part of the game," Geren said. "That attitude and the fact he has enough physical skills make me believe he’ll make it."

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