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Class A Florida State League

Top 10 Prospects

BY SEAN KERNAN

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.–The Florida State League has a reputation for being a pitcher’s league.

So much for reputation.

The summer of 1999 saw the scales of talent tip toward everyday players. Sure, there were some solid pitching prospects in the 14-team league, but when it came time to select the 10 best major league prospects, FSL managers overwhelmingly chose everyday players.

Even the majority of players who just missed the list–Clearwater outfielder Eric Valent, Charlotte first baseman Carlos Pena, Tampa outfielder Jackson Melian and Dunedin second baseman Mike Young–were known for their hitting. Besides the two pitchers who did make the list, Dunedin’s John Sneed and Daytona’s Mike Meyers were the pitchers who came closest to cracking the top 10.

1. VERNON WELLS, of
Dunedin Blue Jays (Blue Jays)

A nearly unanimous selection as the FSL’s top prospect, Wells began the year in the Sunshine State and was north of the border even before September callups.

The center fielder impressed managers with his tools and his desire to use his talents, which include all five tools in abundance.

"This guy can hurt you with a home run, double, bunt, a great play in the outfield, his arm," Jupiter manager Luis Dorante said. "You don’t see many guys like him with all those plus tools."

As for Wells’ hitting, Dorante said: "He’ll hurt you if you leave the breaking ball up. He doesn’t have a lot of holes (in his swing), but it seems like he’s guessing at times."

Although Wells reached the majors this season, it may take a few years before he reaches his projected potential.

"I think eventually you’ve got to put him as another Shawn Green," St. Petersburg manager Roy Silver said. "But you can’t put a strong label on him without saying, ‘Not yet.’ "

2. DREW HENSON, 3b
Tampa Yankees (Yankees)

The only thing that will slow Henson’s rise to the big leagues, according to FSL managers who got a good look at him in his abbreviated stay, is his college football career at Michigan.

"I’ve never seen a ball hit so far, so hard, so long in my life as I did when he hit a ball on the clubhouse roof beyond left field (at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter)," Dorante said. "This guy’s got some serious power and he’s a pretty decent third baseman. He throws the ball like a football, but he’s going to be something special if he decides to play baseball."

The lure of college football, particularly playing in front of more than 100,000 fans at Michigan home games, can’t be matched by minor league baseball. Some managers expressed concern that a serious football injury could jeopardize a promising baseball career, however.

"If he can put the numbers up he did in Tampa playing part time, I’d say his baseball potential is really, really high," Lakeland manager Mark Meleski said. "He’s got a very high ceiling."

3. MICHAEL CUDDYER, 3b
Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)

Cuddyer is mature beyond his years. His makeup, tools, and power at the plate have drawn comparisons to the Phillies’ Scott Rolen.

Cuddyer, a first-round pick who signed too late to play in 1997, struggled at shortstop (61 errors) in his pro debut last season. However, his conversion this year to third base (14 errors) was successful.

"He’s a future all-star with the bat," St. Lucie manager Howie Freiling said. "The defensive package will come."

"His arm is a plus and he’s a decent third baseman," Dorante said. "If you throw a fastball he’ll hurt you; he has a few holes with the slider, but overall his hitting is solid."

4. WILFREDO RODRIGUEZ, lhp
Kissimmee Cobras (Astros)

No prospect did more in the FSL to improve his status than Rodriguez, who has a fastball in the mid-90s. That alone will get some attention, and then you add a hard breaking ball and decent changeup. It all added up to an impressive season.

"Throw 97 mph with a good slider from the left side and you’re going to move through an organization very quickly," Meleski said. "He has good size, body and mechanics."

"He has a little trouble throwing strikes, but when he’s on he’s unhittable," said Dorante. "He’s got a hard breaking ball that’s unhittable for lefthanded batters and his changeup is good. He’s got good size and is intimidating to hitters."

5. CESAR IZTURIS, ss
Dunedin Blue Jays (Blue Jays)

Many managers felt Izturis was the most exciting player in the league after Wells was promoted. This Venezuela product impressed managers as a future big league shortstop.

"He has the best hands in the league," Clearwater manager Bill Dancy said. "He’s got outstanding range. He’s capable of hitting from both sides of the plate."

Izturis ranked sixth in the league in batting, third in triples and second in hits while always being on top of his game defensively.

"I liked the way he went about his business," Dorante said. "He’s a line-drive hitter, switch-hits, can bunt, runs pretty good. I remember when I saw him last year in the South Atlantic League and I thought, ‘Man, where’d this guy come from?’ "

6. JARED SANDBERG, 3b
St. Petersburg Devil Rays (Devil Rays)

Sandberg continues to develop into a player who could make opponents cry uncle when comparing him to his famous uncle, former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

"I like his power to all fields," Brevard County manager Dave Huppert said. "His numbers for (Al Lang Field) are great. His hitting is the main thing for me. Defensively, he’s got first-step quickness, an average arm and good hands."

The savvy, polished Sandberg has good agility. In a league with some other hot corner fielders who could have overshadowed him, Sandberg more than held his own. He ranked second in the league in homers and third in RBIs.

"He really belongs on this list," said Silver, who managed Sandberg. "You shouldn’t be overshadowed if you hit 22 homers and drive in 96 runs."

7. JASON GRABOWSKI, 3b
Charlotte Rangers (Rangers)

Maybe it was the conversion from catcher to third base. Or maybe it was some needed tinkering with the mechanics of his swing. Whatever the problem was early in the season for Grabowski, he found out the answer and fixed it in time to rank third in the FSL in hitting and sixth in RBIs by season’s end.

"He made a lot of improvement in the season," Dorante said. "He was overswinging and had a long swing. Now he’s not taking that long swing and he’s making adjustments. He’s making some contact and he’ll get more power when his body fills out."

Grabowski handled the conversion from catcher to third base with relative ease. Managers pointed out soft hands and strong arm as his strong points to go along with average range.

"He had some trouble against the bunt because he’s not used to coming in on the ball," Dorante said.

8. MATTHEW LeCROY, c
Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)

Exceptionally strong with short muscular arms and a compact swing, LeCroy had a .526 slugging percentage before getting promoted to Triple-A Salt Lake. He tied for fourth in the league in homers despite his promotion. However, the big question remains about his potential to catch on the big league level.

"He’s a hard guy to figure out," one manager said. "He’s got excellent power. After that, I’m not real sure. We could steal bases on him, and you have to be able to throw some runners out in the big leagues."

"I like his bat–his power," added another manager. "I’m not so sure about him behind the plate. He may have to DH or play first."

9. MATT WHITE, rhp
St. Petersburg Devil Rays (Devil Rays)

A mid-90s fastball is where it all starts with White, the $10.2-million bonus signee. White also features a power curveball and straight changeup, but it’s his fastball that is both his best friend and enemy.

White’s habit of throwing strikes in the hitting zone sometimes nullifies his mid-90s power, leading to too many hits.

"It doesn’t matter how hard you throw if it’s down the middle," Meleski said. "He has to throw his curveball for strikes. But he’s 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and throws 95-96 mph. That’s where it starts. You develop the rest."

Managers said White still has plenty of time. "He’s got all the raw ability–the velocity, a good changeup, great makeup," Silver said. "He’s really handled the pressure well, better than I would."

10. JASON ROMANO, 2b
Charlotte Rangers (Rangers)

Romano doesn’t turn heads with tools as much as with desire and the results he produces.

"He comes to play every day," Huppert said. "I like him a lot. He seems to be the total package. Day in and day out, he really makes the ballclub go."

Romano ranked fifth in the league in batting and with a .516 slugging percentage, and continued to show plus speed with a league-leading 14 triples.

"He can hit, has speed and knows how to play," Sarasota manager Butch Hobson said.

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