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2003 Arizona Fall League Preview

By Josh Boyd
August 21, 2003

The annual prospect stomping grounds, a.k.a. the Arizona Fall League, is set to kick off its 12th season on September 30. Cutbacks have reduced the number of venues from six to three, but the talent level hasn't been affected at all.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer, Devil Rays shortstop B.J. Upton, Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman, Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore, Dodgers pitchers Edwin Jackson and Greg Miller lead a strong representation of many of the best prospects in the game. Eight 2002 first-rounders, including Khalil Greene, James Loney and Nick Swisher also highlight the 2003 rosters.

Several spots are still to be determined within the next week, and USA Baseball will be fielding a team to prepare for the Olympic qualifier in Panama, starting in late October.

Baseball America will provide coverage throughout the two-month long schedule and we've broken down each team's top prospects to watch here.


Current Rosters:


Grand Canyon Rafters

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:
Joe Mauer, c, Twins

Mauer heads an outstanding crop of 2003 fall leaguers that includes many of the top prospects in baseball. Mauer hit .400 in 20 at-bats in big league camp this spring and after hitting .340 between Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain this year, his AFL objective is to prepare for the big leagues in 2004. Mauer's power has yet to come, but his approach is so advanced that scouts say it's only a matter of time. He's already regarded as one of the best defensive receivers in the minors.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
J.D. Durbin, rhp, Twins
Durbin followed Mauer to Double-A and they also starred together in the Futures Game. Durbin has added velocity to his fastball this year, and it now peaks at 98 mph and sits in the mid-90s. He also added depth and power to his breaking ball. He is also on course for a big league job in 2004, though the Twins will be less willing to rush his 21-year-old arm. Durbin is already approaching a career-high 170 innings this year.

BOUNCING BACK:
Andy Phillips, 2b, Yankees
Coming off a breakthrough 2002 when he hit 28 home runs in the upper levels of the Yankees system, Phillips missed most of this year with a strained right elbow. The 26-year-old doesn't profile that well, but his power potential makes him an intriguing prospect.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
Jesse Crain, rhp, Twins
Crain hasn't enjoyed the same meteoric rise through the minors as Ryan Wagner, his successor as Houston's closer, but he has soared from Class A to Triple-A in his first full season. Crain could beat both Mauer and Durbin to the big leagues by breaking camp with the Twins next spring. His fastball/slider combo is a deadly tandem.

KEEP AN EYE ON:
Sam Marsonek, rhp, Yankees
A Rangers first-rounder in 1996, Marsonek has overcome several elbow injuries, including Tommy John surgery. Now he's a candidate for the Yankees' 40-man roster and should garner a look as a reliever next spring. His fastball has been up to 96 mph and he flashes a power slider.


Mesa Desert Dogs

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:
Grady Sizemore, of, Indians
Sizemore is on track to do what AFL alumni Joe Borchard and Drew Henson haven't--fulfill his potential after receiving a multimillion-dollar bonus to give up college football. Sizemore succeeds because he has a much more disciplined approach. A well-rounded athlete with solid skills across the board, Sizemore was the MVP of the Futures Game.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
Mike Wood, rhp, Athletics
Called a poor man's Tim Hudson by some scouts, Wood's stuff is a couple of notches below Hudson's, but he operates with a similar repertoire featuring a splitter. Movement and command are the key to his success. He'll likely never generate the same power as Hudson, but he has a future in the majors. He's been hampered by nagging injuries, including a strained right elbow, over the past two years.

BOUNCING BACK:
J.R House, c, Pirates
Nothing has gone right over the last couple of years for the former Pirates top prospect. He made his last AFL appearance following a .258-11-56 season in Double-A Altoona in 2001, but his 2002 season was marred by injuries, including hernia surgery and Tommy John surgery. House needed more surgery on his ailing arm this spring and didn't play until after the all-star break. The good news is he was swinging the bat well and healthy enough to handle the rigors of catching.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
David Wallace, c, Indians
Like Sizemore and House, Wallace was a two-sport star. But he's the only one with actual college football experience. He passed for 678 yards as a freshman at Vanderbilt in 1998. He signed as a nondrafted free agent in 2002 after Indians scouts spotted him in the Alaska League. The Indians want to move Wallace along, as he turns 24 in October. He shows tremendous raw power and is already an above-average catch-and-throw backstop.

KEEP AN EYE ON:

Rich Thompson, of, Pirates
Acquired by the Pirates for journeyman righthander John Wasdin, Thompson is a darkhorse in the Pirates' center field picture. He was considered surplus by a Blue Jays front office that doesn't value his plus tools--speed and defense--as much as some other teams. He has limited power and ideally profiles as a throwback leadoff hitter with the ability to steal a base at any time.


Peoria Saguaros

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:
Jason Stokes, 1b, Marlins
Stokes was slowed early by offseason wrist surgery. He regained his power stroke in the middle of the season, but hasn't finished strong. The Marlins cleared his path to the big leagues by dealing Adrian Gonzalez, whom he will split time with in the AFL, to the Rangers. Stokes' plate discipline has suffered this season and will need to improve as he moves towards Florida.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
Matt Peterson, rhp, Mets
Peterson showed flashes in the past two seasons, but consistency eluded him. He broke through this year, emerging as one of the top prospects in the Mets organization. He's projectable with a live arm and a good breaking ball and was more efficient this year in Class A St. Lucie, though he has struggled with his command in Double-A.

BOUNCING BACK:
Ben Hendrickson, rhp, Brewers
Hendrickson missed about half the season with nagging shoulder soreness, and will be looking to rebound. He works with a solid-average fastball and outstanding breaking ball, but he's been unable to find a consistent groove in the second half.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
Josh Willingham, c, Marlins
Willingham is coming back from a nagging knee injury that shelved him for most of the second half, following his promotion to Double-A Carolina. In addition to making up for lost at-bats, Willingham will continue working on the nuances of his new position. He moved behind the plate last fall in instructional league. The former college shortstop has tremendous power.

KEEP AN EYE ON:
David Wright, 3b, Mets
Wright struggled to adjust to the Florida State League, hitting .200 in May and June, before rebounding to hit .301 in July and finish strong in August. Wright's slump was attributed to overworking himself before games, and the Mets altered his schedule. He topped 30 doubles for the second straight season and was working on reaching 40.


Scottsdale Scorpions

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:
Casey Kotchman, 1b, Angels
Injuries have interrupted each of his first three pro seasons, but Kotchman just keeps coming back raking. He is already showing more power, and he has plate discipline beyond his years. Kotchman will be joined by fellow Angels prospects Jeff Mathis and Dallas McPherson to complete a trio of future franchise cornerstones.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
Edwin Jackson, rhp, Dodgers
The Dodgers assigned their top five prospects to the AFL, including their three best pitching prospects in Jackson, Greg Miller and Joel Hanrahan. Jackson reaches 96-98 mph on a regular basis, and his slider has developed into a second plus pitch. He was used a two-way player as recently as two years ago after the Dodgers drafted him out of a Georgia high school, but he didn't miss a beat when he skipped high Class A this season.

BOUNCING BACK:
Wily Mo Pena, of, Reds
Pena tore his hamstring early in last year's AFL season, costing him valuable at-bats heading into spring training. After sitting on the bench for most of the year in Cincinnati, his 2003 AFL assignment is as crucial to his development as that of any prospect in the game. His contract status is going to be a difficult hurdle for him to overcome because he needs more seasoning but must be carried on the 25-man roster or be exposed to waivers. He will likely play in the Dominican following his AFL duty.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
Nick Gorneault, of, Angels
A product of the Angels' outstanding 2001 draft, Gorneault was uncovered by part-time scout Jon Bunnell at the University of Massachusetts in the 19th round. Gorneault has an unorthodox swing and approach, but he produces above-average juice with late snap on his swing.

KEEP AN EYE ON:
Greg Miller, lhp, Dodgers
Miller has already doubled his career-high workload and reached Double-A as an 18-year-old, which begs the question of what else he can accomplish with another two months in the AFL. He's moved into the upper echelon of pitching prospects with his 95 mph fastball, power slider, curveball and changeup.


Peoria Javelinas

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:
Jeremy Reed, of, White Sox
Reed has already exceeded expectations as a 2002 second-rounder and has developed into one of the best hitting prospects in the minors. He has uncanny control of the strike zone, drawing 64 walks against 34 strikeouts between Class A Winston-Salem and Double-A Birmingham. He shows power to the gaps, and projects to have average home run power down the road.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
Neal Cotts, lhp, White Sox
White Sox general manager Kenny Williams may have pulled one over on A's GM Billy Beane by getting Cotts in last December's Billy Koch-Keith Foulke swap. Cotts held hitters to a .160 average in the Double-A Southern League this year before making his major league debut in August. Not overpowering, Cotts is deceptive but needs to hone his command.

BOUNCING BACK:
Jamal Strong, of, Mariners
Strong started the year on the disabled list after he separated his shoulder in spring training. He returned in June and was hitting better than .350 for Triple-A Tacoma. Strong also improved his strike-zone judgment. Coupled with his blazing speed, that will make him a more attractive leadoff prospect.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
Justin Leone, 3b, Mariners
Leone spent last winter playing in Australia at the urging of his friend and Double-A San Antonio teammate Travis Blackley. It paid major dividends this season, as he's more apt to lay off offspeed stuff and is having a breakout year. After consecutive seasons in the California League, Leone has ripped 34 doubles and 19 home runs.

KEEP AN EYE ON:
David DeJesus, of, Royals
Most baseball people projected DeJesus as an extra outfielder when the Royals drafted him in the fourth round out of Rutgers in 2000. When injuries ravaged his first two pro seasons it looked less likely that he'd even reach goal. DeJesus, who missed all of the 2001 season due to Tommy John surgery, injured his shoulder this spring and missed more time. After returning to the Double-A Wichita lineup, he hit .338 and quickly earned a promotion to Triple-A, where he continued to hit around .300. DeJesus' emergence has thrust him into the forefront of the Royals 2004 plans as a potential replacement for Carlos Beltran.


Mesa Solar Sox

BEST POSITION PROSPECT:

B.J. Upton, ss, Devil Rays
Upton, 18, was promoted to Double-A Orlando after going on a tear for low Class A Charleston. Devil Rays GM Chuck Lamar has said the team will give Upton a look in September, though he's just a year and a half removed from high school. Upton shows five-tool potential, but needs to improve on his defense. He is listed on the taxi squad, meaning he will be available to play on Wednesdays and Saturdays only, at least initially. Players sometimes move from the taxi squad to full-time duty as the season wears on.

BEST PITCHING PROSPECT:
Brett Evert, rhp, Braves
Evert's star has faded since he made an appearance on the Braves Top 10 Prospects list two years ago. He stumbled in Double-A last year and lost the sharpness on his curveball. He is still trying to re-establish himself. With his size and projectability, the Braves haven't given up and hope he can assert himself in the AFL.

BOUNCING BACK:
Ben Christensen, rhp, Cubs
The Cubs are trying to salvage their 1999 first-rounder's career. Christensen missed most of 2001 with shoulder problems and then fell to Tommy John surgery just after the 2002 season began. He had another setback in his recovery this spring and has yet to show the same stuff he had in the past.

EMERGING PROSPECT:
Jayson Nix, 2b, Rockies
Nix has come on strong with the bat this season. His 43 doubles are tops in the minors, while his 15 home runs are a personal best. The younger brother of Rangers rookie and 2002 AFL alum Laynce Nix, Jayson has also developed into a much better defensive second baseman.

KEEP AN EYE ON:
Dewon Brazelton, rhp, Devil Rays
Brazelton's mechanics have been overhauled for a second time. He was sent down to high Class A after opening the year in Triple-A Durham and then making 10 starts for the Devil Rays between May and June. Brazelton has gone back to the drop-and-drive, arms-and-legs delivery he used in college.

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