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Arizona Fall League Top 30 Prospects

By Josh Boyd
November 20, 2001

AFL Best Tools
Best Outfield Arm Austin Kearns, Grand Canyon (Reds)
Best Defensive Outfielder Alex Requena, Scottsdale (Indians)
Best Infield Arm Brandon Phillips, Scottsdale (Expos)
Best Defensive Infielder Cody Ransom, Grand Canyon (Giants)
Best Defensive Catcher Corky Miller, Grand Canyon (Reds)
Best Catcher Arm Miguel Olivo, Mesa (White Sox)
Best Fastball Bobby Jenks, Peoria (Angels)
Best Breaking Ball Francisco Rodriguez, Scottsdale (Angels)
Best Pure Hitter Hank Blalock, Peoria (Rangers)
Best Raw Power Drew Henson, Grand Canyon (Yankees)
Fastest Baserunner Alex Requena, Scottsdale (Indians)
Heading into the Arizona Fall League, all eyes focused on Devil Rays outfielder Josh Hamilton. The No. 1 prospect in the game entering the season was hoping to rebound from a dismal .180-0-4 season that was marred by injuries, but the recurring back injury foiled his comeback attempt after just two games.

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."

Hank Blalock
Photo: Greg Wagner
1. Hank Blalock, 3b, Peoria (Rangers).
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.

Drew Henson
2. Drew Henson, 3b, Peoria (Yankees).
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.

Brandon Phillips
3. Brandon Phillips, ss, Scottsdale (Expos).
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."

Austin Kearns
Photo: Michael Walby
4. Austin Kearns, of, Grand Canyon (Reds).
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).
It's official: Chen has re-established himself as a top prospect. The Taiwan native was hampered with a shoulder injury in an uninspiring 2000 season. After an offseason operation, Chen started slowly at Class A Vero Beach this season, but a midseason promotion to Double-A Jacksonville sparked his resurgence.

"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).
Byrd didn't have much to work on after hitting .316-28-89 with 32 stolen bases at Double-A Reading, but that didn't stop him from working hard. The Phillies call him a manager's dream because of his work ethic. At a rock-solid 6 feet, 225 pounds, Byrd resembles a young Kirby Puckett.

"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).
Cuddyer was expected to play more right field in Arizona in order to compete for the big league position in spring training, but he was stuck on a team loaded with outfielders.

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 only pitcher to warrant top 10 consideration, Jenks was alternately erratic and dominant. With an overpowering fastball that flirted with triple-digits, Jenks led the league in strikeouts by a wide margin.

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.

Kenny Kelly
Photo: Michael Walby
9. Kenny Kelly, of, Peoria (Mariners).
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).
Crawford played in just 17 games before he left with 13 other fall leaguers to represent Team USA at the World Cup in Taiwan. The 20-year-old didn't need much time to make a positive impression with his rapidly developing tools, though.

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.

Joe Borchard
11. Joe Borchard, of, Mesa
He left early for the World Cup, and struggled when he was there at the end of a long season, but his tools were still evident. "You could tell there's something there, it just wasn't working here," Cron said. "He's going to be a special player."

12. Francisco Rodriguez, rhp, Scottsdale
The 19-year-old was dominant at times with his mid-90s fastball and hard slider.

13. J.R. House, c, Maryvale
He split time between first base and catcher, but showed the tool that will carry him to the big leagues--a power bat. "He is one of the best fastball hitters in this league," the AL executive said.

14. Ty Howington, lhp, Grand Canyon
He wasn't consistently dominant as he was during the regular season, but he still showed overpowering stuff at times from the left side, which is hard to ignore.

15. Eric Cyr, lhp, Peoria
Coming off a breakthrough season, Cyr has pitched extremely well despite facing consequences for off-the-field troubles. Bosley compared him to Anaheim's lefthanders Jarrod Washburn and Scott Schoeneweis. Cyr pitches aggressively with a command of a polished four-pitch repertoire.

16. Gabe Gross, of, Scottsdale
The Blue Jays first-rounder this June, Gross is known for his pure hitting ability. He is rapidly developing into a well-rounded outfielder. He improved his throwing and routes in right field and projects as a prototypical right fielder with 30-homer potential.

Orlando Hudson
17. Orlando Hudson, 2b/3b, Scottsdale
Though he didn't qualify for the batting title, he left for the World Cup with a .426 average in 68 at-bats. He compensates for a lack of pure tools with outstanding baseball instincts and makeup. After hitting .306 between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Syracuse this season, Hudson is poised to compete for the Blue Jays second base job in spring training.

18. Angel Berroa, ss, Scottsdale
Acquired from the A's prior to the 2001 season as part of the three-way deal involving Johnny Damon, Berroa was among the best defensive infielders in the AFL. But he also has shown potential with the bat. One scout compared him to Neifi Perez.

19. John Buck, c, Phoenix
Despite coming into the AFL from the low Class A South Atlantic League, Buck has held his own and displayed advanced receiving skills. "He has a great idea on how to call a game," Bosley said. He has an above-average accurate arm.

20. Ben Diggins, rhp, Scottsdale
Diggins has made major strides with Scottsdale pitching coach Kent Willis with his slider. It was flattening out, but after practicing some routine drills with Willis, Diggins has been able to add necessary depth and tilt to the pitch. His fastball sits in the 90-96 range and he shows a feel for the changeup.

21. Jason Young, rhp, Mesa
Young was added to the AFL after the group left for Taiwan, but he made good use of his four starts after missing a portion of the season with a elbow tenderness. He was a little rusty, but showed well above-average stuff at times.

22. Nic Jackson, of, Mesa
He drew comparisons to Corey Patterson for his broad base of tools. Jackson began the season on the Wednesday/Sunday-only taxi squad, but his manager was pleased when the taxi squad was done away with. "Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita told me he was going to be a guy I'd want to have on a daily basis," Cron said. "He was right. Nic enjoys to play the game. Whether it's a popup or into the gap, he runs his tail off."

23. Nathan Haynes, of, Peoria
Another player making up for lost time due to injury, Haynes showed no signs of rust. One of the top defensive players in the league, he's an exciting leadoff-hitting prospect.

24. Josh Phelps, c, Scottsdale
Phelps played with torn miniscus in his knee for 14 months. It hindered his defense, but didn't slow his bat. After hitting .292-31-97 at Tennessee, he hit .333 for Scottsdale before having surgery.

25. Mike Restovich, of, Grand Canyon
He hit towering home runs with his raw power and showed athleticism on the bases and in the field.

26. Bobby Hill, 2b, Mesa
Still improving at second base, and looks like a prototypical table-setter at the plate.

27. Bill Ortega, of, Phoenix
He's developed slowly for the Cardinals, but led the league in hitting and made adjustments at the plate.

28. Joe Thurston, 2b, Phoenix
"Joey Ballgame" impresses everyone he comes across with his work ethic and instincts for the game, but more people were talking about his skills this time around.

29. Jeremy Affeldt, lhp, Scottsdale
Steadily improving southpaw survived live-ball league by changing speeds and using a tight spinning 12-to-6 curveball.

30. Freddy Sanchez, if, Grand Canyon
No matter where he plays in the field, he's sure to put the bat on the ball.

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