Arizona Fall League Top 10 Prospects
By Josh Boyd
As doctors considered surgery to repair Hamilton's injury, an impressive corps of young bats took over in the desert with Rangers phenom Hank Blalock leading the way. The sweet-swinging lefthanded hitter mashed everything within his reach.
"This is probably the best offensive year I've seen in the last seven or eight years I've been going," said one longtime American League scout. "Some of that may be a little skewed because I think the basic philosophy for teams is that most frontline pitching prospects throw so much during the summer, you don't send them.
"Whether it's good pitching or not, it's the best offensive crew I've seen."
Blalock is at it again. Since hitting .415 in the first month of the season at Class A Charlotte, the 1999 third-round pick hasn't stopped raking. He earned recognition as the best position prospect in the Florida State League and ranked No. 1 in the Double-A Texas League. As if he needed to further prove himself, Blalock tore the cover off the ball in Arizona.
He may be one of the youngest players in the league at 20, but it's hard to tell. He takes an advanced approach to each at-bat, stays back on offspeed stuff and hits the ball where it's pitched. He's making all of the routine plays at third base.
"I think he'll play in the major leagues for a long time," Phoenix manager Thad Bosley said. "His presence at the plate is already major league level." Blalock led the AFL with 11 home runs and established a new league record with a .715 slugging percentage.
While Henson picked apart defenses on the gridiron at this time of year in the past, he adjusted nicely in his first baseball-only fall. After forgoing a potential NFL career and walking away from his quarterback job at Michigan, Henson was slowed by a broken hand in 2001.
Most scouts say he's not quite ready to assume Scott Brosius' position for the Yankees, but it was apparent in Arizona that he is their future. The 21-year-old struggled with fastballs up and in, but managers thought he made good adjustments. He was among the league leaders in most offensive categories, including 18 extra-base hits and 33 RBIs.
Scouts regarded the Expos' top prospect as the best athlete in the league. Despite his youth, the 20-year-old is on the fast track to the big leagues. A natural shortstop, he moved to third base in the AFL to make room for Royals shortstop Angel Berroa. Phillips' athleticism would allow him to play almost anywhere on the field.
His energy level caught the eye of one National League executive. "Even in a dead environment, he played with a lot of energy," he said. "He was flying all over the place."
It was a disappointing regular season for Kearns, who had a torn ligament in his hand and watched his friend Adam Dunn leave him in the dust. But Kearns finished strong at Double-A Chattanooga before reporting to the AFL and continuing his success. Dunn may have separated himself from Kearns, but Kearns' tools mean he won't be far behind.
"He's pretty impressive," the NL executive said. "He hits the ball hard to right-center field and showed the ability to turn on the ball."
Kearns trailed only Cardinals outfielder Bill Ortega in average and on-base percentage. Like Dunn, Kearns' size belies his athleticism, and his baseball instincts and plate discipline give him a further advantage.
5. Chin-Feng Chen, of, Phoenix (Dodgers).
"He has power to all fields," Bosley said. "He hits fastballs, curveballs, sliders and changeups. He started driving balls out to right field."
The 24-year-old has his bat speed back and impressed those around the league with his approach. He hit .329-7-19 in 79 at-bats before leaving to play for Taiwan in the World Cup.
"He never seems to get fooled," Mesa manager Chris Cron said. "He lets the ball get to him then he explodes."
6. Marlon Byrd, of, Grand Canyon (Phillies).
"I've never seen a man that big accelerate that well when he's running," the AL scout said. "He's going to have plenty of power, but if he can maintain his ability to run, which he has is capable of, it will be huge for his career. "
In addition to his offensive tools, Byrd continues to surprise people by handling center field. "He shocks you with his speed," the NL executive said. "The prototypes are changing, especially at shortstop and center field."
7. Michael Cuddyer, 3b/of, Grand Canyon (Twins).
The Twins still look at Cuddyer as a possible answer in right field because of his power stroke. He's more than an all-or-nothing slugger, though. "He makes good adjustments at the plate and that gives him a better chance to be a better hitter," the NL executive said.
Cuddyer showed a passion for the game and the ability to handle good fastballs as well as breaking balls. "He always seems to put a good at-bat together," Cron said.
8. Bobby Jenks, rhp, Peoria (Angels).
The raw 20-year-old has the build of a frontline workhorse, and he is just starting to develop a feel for pitching. Jenks has a loose arm action and is still learning to repeat his mechanics. His fastball sits anywhere between 90-97 mph, and some scouts think his power curveball was the best breaking pitch in the league.
"He has power galore in his arm," the AL scout said.
Like Henson and Mesa outfielder Joe Borchard, Kelly left college football for baseball. A former Miami quarterback, Kelly came to the Mariners from the Devil Rays for cash in April and showed surprising power in the AFL.
Kelly, who can play anywhere in the outfield, drove the ball to all fields with authority. He hit .351-7-21 and appears to have made key adjustments at the plate.
"It was just a matter of getting enough at-bats and him being patient enough not to give up on it," said the AL scout. "He's just beginning to learn his swing; it doesn't surprise me."
10. Carl Crawford, of, Maryvale (Devil Rays).
Another former football standout, he is more refined than most for his age and experience and has proved it against top-level competition, having spent 2001 in Double-A. Crawford had nine stolen bases before he left, after stealing 36 during the regular season and 55 in 2000 at Class Charleston. He hit .386 in 70 at-bats with three doubles and three triples.
"He's got a big game," Bosley said.
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