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Rookie-Level Gulf Coast League

Top 10 Prospects

BY ALLAN SIMPSON

Players from Latin America had a profound impact on the Gulf Coast league in 1999. Dominicans and Venezuelans dominate the list of Top 10 Prospects, and they played an instrumental role in the Mets rolling almost uncontested to their second league championship in three years.

"The Mets kicked our ass mainly because they had a lot of Latin players," Expos manager Bill Masse said. "At this age, Latin players are more mature. They play the game with more instincts."

1. CHIP AMBRES, of, Marlins

Ambres, the lone American to crack the top eight, was the Marlins’ first-round pick in 1998 but signed late and didn’t debut until this year. He spent the first half of the season in the GCL before his talent merited a promotion to the New York-Penn League.

Managers saw no weaknesses in his game. They liked his short, quick swing that produces line drives now but should result in power down the road. Speed is his best tool at present.

"He just needs more experience," Marlins manager Jon Deeble said. "I was impressed with the way he recognized breaking balls."

2. RAMON SANTIAGO, ss, Tigers

Tigers manager Gary Green spent parts of five seasons as a shortstop in the big leagues and believes Santiago, who turned 18 after the season, has the special gift.

"He’s got all the actions you look for," Green said. "He’s got an extremely strong and accurate arm. I never saw him throw a ball away after March–and I had him in spring training, extended spring training and the Gulf Coast League."

3. JOSE MORBAN, ss, Rangers

A pure shortstop with a long, lean body, Morban makes all the plays in the field. He has excellent lateral movement and arm strength. He also switch-hits, has gap power and is an above-average runner.

"All his tools are solid," Red Sox manager John Sanders said. "He was the top prospect in our division."

4. ALEXIS GOMEZ, of, Royals

A tall, lanky natural center fielder and lefthanded hitter, Gomez has excellent tools in all phases, particularly speed.

"He plays hard and is very mature for his age," Royals manager Andre David said. "Even though this was his first year in the United States, he could easily have played at a higher level."

5. FERNANDO RODNEY, rhp, Tigers

Only 5-foot-11 but exceptionally strong, Rodney easily had the best velocity in the Northern Division. He occasionally touched 98 mph and mixed in a quality slider, giving him the two power pitches needed to become a closer. He’s also got closer makeup to go with his stuff.

6. LUIS TORRES, rhp, Pirates

Torres has four workable pitches but lacks consistency. On a given day, his fastball reaches 98 mph and his power slider can be unhittable.

"He has the best arm I’ve seen in this league since Don Robinson in 1975," said Pirates manager Woody Huyke, who has managed in the league every year but two since 1974.

7. ENRIQUE CRUZ, ss, Mets

The lone Met to crack the top 10, Cruz hit game-winning home runs in both games of the playoff series against the Rangers. He has a short, quick stroke, stays inside the ball well and should become a legitimate power hitter once he fills out his upper half. He does everything well except run.

"He’ll be a third baseman down the road because he can really swing the bat," Mets manager John Stephenson said.

8. WILY MO PENA, of, Yankees

Pena was signed by the Yankees to a $3.7 million bonus in April, after the commissioner’s office ruled that both the Marlins and Mets had signed him illegally. He was flanked in the Yankees outfield by prospects Yhensy Brazoban in left and Tommy Winrow in right, but Pena was given the best chance of becoming a five-tool player.

"He’s got real thunder in his bat," Green said. "He can really drive balls a long way to all fields."

9. HANK BLALOCK, 3b, Rangers

Blalock had an excellent idea at the plate for a young player. He handled offspeed stuff well and led the league with a .361 average. That led to a late-season promotion to the South Atlantic League.

Though his arm is average at best, Blalock’s third-base play improved as the summer went along, quieting talk that he may face a switch to first base or the outfield.

10. PAT MANNING, ss, Braves

One of the premier high school hitters in the 1999 draft, Manning overmatched the GCL with a .414 average before being promoted to the South Atlantic League.

"The numbers speak for themselves," Braves manager Rick Albert said. "He’s a pure hitter. He has really sound mechanics with the bat."

Manning’s arm is a little short for shortstop, and he will begin the move to second base in instructional league.

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