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Class A South Atlantic League

Top 10 Prospects

BY GENE SAPAKOFF

CHARLESTON, S.C.–There’s enough poetic potential among the South Atlantic League’s top prospects to make for country music lyrics. The two Jasons. Two Hickory catchers. A pair of multi-tool, switch-hitting shortstops.

A former quarterback who broke hearts when he turned down Auburn and a former wide receiver who said "sorry" to Texas A&M. A double-play combination from Hagerstown.

Ultimately, the common refrain is talent. Macon hitting coach Tommy Gregg considers shortstop Rafael Furcal "a natural" and some league managers thought Hagerstown shortstop Felipe Lopez was better.

Jason I was Standridge, the Charleston righthander who terrorized hitters during the first half of the season before a promotion. Jason II was Jennings, an older and no less dominant, polished righthander who wowed ’em in Asheville in the second half despite a brief stay and low pitch counts.

1. RAFAEL FURCAL, ss
Macon Braves (Braves)

If winning the South Atlantic League batting title was all Furcal did in 1999, that would have been impressive enough. But he also led the league in stolen bases playing in just 83 games, and played a dazzling shortstop in his first year at the position after a move from second base. Managers named Furcal the league’s most exciting player.

"He did everything well and he was enthusiastic and aggressive," Greensboro manager Stan Hough said. "He looked older and he played older than he actually is. He shouldn’t have been in this league."

Soon he wasn’t, promoted to Class A Myrtle Beach. First-step quickness is the first thing most scouts noticed about Furcal. That and the range. Well, maybe the arm. He didn’t show much pop but almost certainly will add bulk. Stamina wasn’t a problem. More importantly, Furcal refined virtually all other facets of the game–fielding, throwing, running, situational hitting and bunting.

2. JASON STANDRIDGE, rhp
Charleston RiverDogs (Devil Rays)

Standridge, once Auburn’s top quarterback prospect, brings a football mentality to the mound and was still dashing on and off the field in the late innings. A seven-inning no-hitter against Hickory in late June was the highlight, but Standridge was consistently terrific.

Along with a good fastball, Standridge wasn’t afraid to attack with a curve and changeup. He has a superb build and an exceptional attitude. While maintaining good control, Standridge got into the 90s with his fastball and made a big jump from the 4-10, 5.37 record he posted over two Rookie-level campaigns.

"He has a great heart," Charleston manager Charlie Montoyo said. "The guy is a real warrior. I’ve seen a lot of pitchers with his size and build, but not many with his attitude and heart."

3. JASON JENNINGS, rhp
Asheville Tourists (Rockies)

Jennings was Baseball America’s 1999 College Player of the Year, when he doubled as a power-hitting DH. The Rockies’ brass wisely limited him to the mound, and to 75 or so pitches per outing. Jennings mixed four- and two-seam fastballs to hitters on both sides of the plate. Most foes were overmatched.

"First of all, he has a tremendous personality," Asheville manager Jim Eppard said. "He’s also very, very talented. He throws his fastball on the inside part of the plate and the outside part of the plate. His slider is very sharp, very quick and very small, and he consistently has good control of it."

Even tired from the combined college/pro season, Jennings was stellar. He probably will throw 91-93 mph in 2000, up from 87-89. Some scouts liken his arsenal and body to Toronto’s Joey Hamilton.

4. FELIPE LOPEZ, ss
Hagerstown Suns (Blue Jays)

A bigger and slightly less polished Furcal? Lopez, a native of Puerto Rico, got only 96 pro at-bats after signing last August but showed why Toronto invested a club-record $2 million bonus.

"Felipe has amazing tools," Hagerstown manager Rolando Pino said. "Rafael Furcal might be more advanced in how to play the game, but just barely. Felipe can hit, hit with power, he has a great arm, good hands and can run. He has a chance to become a major league all-star, not just a good player."

Though not as fast as Furcal, Lopez has legitimate power potential. He’s a natural shortstop with range and arm strength, but requires more discipline and game awareness in the field and at-bat. He’s still better from the left side but made improvements as a righthanded hitter.

5. BRAD BAISLEY, rhp
Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)

Still a relatively raw talent, Baisley went from a basketball prospect with an 87-mph fastball to a dominant pitcher with a 93-mph fastball over his last year of high school. The progress continues as Baisley developed his fastball/curveball package while showing superb control and mature mechanics.

"He was as good as any pitcher in the league," Montoyo said. "He has good command of three pitches and threw them at any time in the count."

Baisley can and must add weight to his frame. Otherwise, there’s not much to complain about. The fastball ought to his best pitch, but the curve has come along so quickly, it’s hard to tell.

6. RICO WASHINGTON, c
Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

No SAL player made a greater jump in 1999. The Pirates drafted Washington in 1997 as a third baseman but converted him to catcher after two pro seasons in which he hit .301 in 345 at-bats. Hickory manager Tracy Woodson said, "He may be the best hitting prospect I’ve ever seen."

Showing maturity beyond the Class A level, Washington consistently worked counts to his favor and then took advantage–often with power. He hit well against lefthanders and finished just behind Furcal in the midseason managers’ voting as best hitting prospect. Of course, Washington is still learning behind the plate.

"He was the best hitter in the league–a pure line-drive hitter," Pino said. "He still has a long way to go as a catcher, but he has a chance."

7. J.J. DAVIS, of
Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

Davis looks more like a first baseman or a pitcher; he was both in high school. But with power and athleticism there’s also a fine arm and good instincts. Davis’ transformation to power-hitting right fielder was right on schedule with lots of upside, with season-ending elbow surgery the only negative.

"It seemed like at the beginning of the year he wasn’t doing much, but the more he played the more scarier he became," Eppard said. "You have to like the overall strength, size and presence."

8. JORGE NUNEZ, 2b
Hagerstown Suns (Blue Jays)

Playing next to Lopez, it’s easy to get overlooked. But Nunez, as fast as anyone in the league, showed power and advanced defensive skills.

"He has a cannon for an arm," Pino said. "For as small as Jorge is, he has really good power. He has better first-step quickness than anyone I’ve ever seen. He just needs to play more."

Nunez lacks size but the pop and progress are intriguing. His power came as a surprise, as he had 18 professional home runs in 868 at-bats (all but 16 in Rookie ball) entering the season. He must improve his plate discipline.

9. CHOO FREEMAN, of
Asheville Tourists (Rockies)

Freeman’s first full pro season was full of lessons and strikeouts, but the five-tool potential more than survived. Freeman learned with patience and enthusiasm; this is a guy who tracks down nearly every batting practice fly ball within reach.

Offspeed pitches bothered Freeman early, but he began hitting them and hitting them hard in the second half. A former blue-chip wide receiver who picked the Rockies over Texas A&M, Freeman has the speed to steal more bases at higher levels. Freeman’s mistakes on offense and defense are usually because he’s too excited.

"He struck out quite a bit this season but he’s going to be a guy who in the major leagues strikes out maybe 50 times in a season," Eppard said.

10. HUMBERTO COTA, c
Charleston, S.C. (Devil Rays)/Hickory (Pirates)

Yes, another Hickory catcher. Washington’s promotion made room for Cota, acquired from the Devil Rays in the second half as part of the Joe Oliver/Jose Guillen trade. Cota spent the first half of the season in the SAL with Charleston.

"He has a great catcher’s body and he handles pitchers very well," Eppard said. "I like the way he throws. He can swing the bat, too."

Originally signed by the Braves at 16, Cota was released in 1996 after a dispute over an injury. Some in the Devil Rays organization questioned his work ethic, but Cota is personable and gregarious. His well-rounded game includes power, knowledge of the strike zone and solid overall defense.

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