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Class A California League

Top 20 Prospects

By Lance Pugmire

Antonio Perez
Antonio Perez
Photo: Larry Goren

LOS ANGELES—It was the year of the JetHawk in the high Class A California League.

After a disastrous 1999 that featured last-place finishes in both halves, Lancaster was stockpiled with plenty of talent. This time, the JetHawks won titles in both halves, an unprecedented reversal of fortune, and showcased many of the Mariners' finest prospects.

The cream of the crop was shortstop Antonio Perez, who began the season as an 18-year-old confronting the daunting task of making a position change from second base while attempting to compete in a league that typically overwhelms and deflates teenagers. If that wasn't enough, Perez also was the key minor leaguer packaged by the Reds in the Ken Griffey Jr. trade.

The Dominican's undeniable tools actually were somewhat obscured by his teammates. Outfielder Juan Silvestre threatened for the triple crown, utilityman Craig Kuzmic racked up a 100-RBI season and double-play partner Willie Bloomquist led the batting race before he was promoted to Triple-A.

Monstrous offensive numbers, a staple of the league, also seized attention. Modesto outfielder Ryan Ludwick swatted a startling series of tape-measure home runs, justifying his second-round selection in 1999. High Desert was treated to an amazing carryover of production from catcher Brad Cresse, who led NCAA Division I with 30 homers and 106 RBIs this spring, including the game-winning hit in the College World Series.

The league that has spawned Matt Clement, Brad Penny and Barry Zito in recent years also showcased another impressive array of arms, from the dazzling control of San Jose's 18-year-old phenom Jerome Williams to the biting slider of Rancho Cucamonga's Mike Bynum to the unharnessed power of Mudville's Nick Neugebauer.

In the end, as in the beginning, however, Lancaster dominated Cal League conversation.

1 ANTONIO PEREZ, ss, Lancaster JetHawks (Mariners)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  175  19  Dominican Republic  Reds FA '98  .276  395  90 109  36  6 17  63  28

As he watched the season-long brilliance of Perez, JetHawks manager Mark Parent was reminded of when he played with a young middle infielder on the Padres.

"He has the most potential of anyone in this league, no question," Parent said. "When I look at Tony, I have to look back at Robby Alomar. The only difference is that Tony didn't grow up in the game like Robby. But he does show the same amazing speed, with the good hands, the strong arm and the ability he shows hitting. The ball just jumps off his bat."

During a stretch of 13 plate appearances in August, Perez was 9-for-10 with six doubles, two homers and three walks. In a game just after that streak, he was forced hard to his right on a sharp grounder by Rancho Cucamonga's Jeremy Owens, the league's fastest baserunner. Perez scooped the ball, fired across the landscape and beat Owens by a full step.

The lone criticism of Perez is his immaturity. He’ll sometimes mope and take an inning off following a disappointing moment at the plate or in the field.

2 RYAN LUDWICK, of, Modesto A's (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-L  6-3  200  22  UNLV     Athletics '99 (2)  .264  493  86 130  26  3 29 102  10

At 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, Ludwick came to the Athletics with a penchant for power. He boosted his stock while improving his skills on the same field where Mark McGwire broke into pro ball.

Ludwick came out swinging for the fences, resulting in a .198 average through May 10. Once he started using the whole field and refined his two-strike approach, he began blasting the ball and got up to .264 by season’s end.

"Ryan's a tremendous worker first," Modesto manager Greg Sparks said. "His bat speed is off the charts and he's a physical specimen. He's been measured having 7-8 percent body fat. It's an electric body, like lightning in the box. So none of his homers are cheap. Seriously, they're mostly all 400 feet or beyond."

Ludwick shows the plate discipline that Oakland emphasizes in its farm system. He has an unorthodox swing that relies too much on the strength in his hands, and the A’s are trying to get him to incorporate his legs more. With above-average speed and a strong arm, he was respected as a center fielder, though he may wind up on a corner in the majors.

3 JEROME WILLIAMS, rhp, San Jose Giants (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  190  18  HS--Waipahu, Hawaii  Giants '99 (1)    7  6  2.94  23   0 126  89  48 115

The two Giants-affiliated managers in the Cal League, San Jose’s Keith Comstock and Bakersfield’s Lenn Sakata, both compared Williams to the most precocious teenage pitcher in recent years: Dwight Gooden. Hitters batted just .201 against him, as he showed command of four pitches, including a low-90s fastball.

What’s most promising about Williams?

"His physique, the way his mechanics are so fluid, that he doesn't put any pressure on his arm," Comstock said. "He already has a good presence, his arm action is good and he has late life on his fastball. And he's getting better."

"Great control," Sakata said. "He throws four pitches for strikes. His velocity is above average. For someone that young to be that complete is something else."

There are no negatives with Williams, save for his inexperience. He’s very mature, mentally and physically, for his age.

4 MIKE BYNUM, lhp, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-4  200  22  North Carolina   Padres '99 (1)   9  6  3.00  21   0 126 101  51 129

Bynum was the Cal League’s most poised and polished pitcher. He has a devastating slider and good control for a lefthander.

"He has the awareness, the ability to read swings and know what each guy wants to do against him," Rancho Cucamonga manager Tom LeVasseur said. "Character and composure are the big issues with him. He's pitched in several games and wants to be out there for nine innings every time he pitches. He's not scared of anything that develops out there."

After his infrequent rough starts, Bynum often complained that he couldn’t command his fastball. His velocity didn’t raise eyebrows, though LeVasseur said he believes that's a result of Bynum's hatred of walks.

"His fastball was erratic at times and when you're trying to locate, you take stuff off in order to get your location back," LeVasseur said. "By the time he's up there, he'll have a major league fastball. With the way he locates his other pitches, though, he may not ever need it."

5 BRAD CRESSE, c, High Desert Mavericks (Diamondbacks)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  225  22  Louisiana State  D'backs '00 (5)  .324  173  35  56   7  0 17  56   0

What strides Cresse must make as a catcher are made less worrisome by his skills as a hitter. After signing as a fifth-round pick in June, he came straight to high Class A and banged out 17 homers and 56 RBIs in 48 games before moving up to Double-A.

"He's in the Piazza mold," High Desert manager Scott Coolbaugh said. "The offense overwhelms whatever deficiencies he has a catcher. What you don't usually see from a kid right out of college is power to all fields, but he has it.

"He's a quick learner and can do what you show him. We shortened up his swing and he started hitting balls the other way. The biggest question about him is arm strength, but he worked on his arm action and he was getting better by the time he left."

One manager saw Cresse during his first week in the league and was prepared to write him off, criticizing his insistence to pull balls and his shoddy defense, which included a long throwing motion. Weeks later, the same manager said he was convinced Cresse would reach the majors.

6 WILLIE BLOOMQUIST, 2b, Lancaster JetHawks (Mariners)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  180  22  Arizona State  Mariners '99 (3)  .379  256  63  97  19  6  2  51  22

Bloomquist started 2000, his first full season, in high Class A and finished it in Triple-A. In the Cal League, he showed off every skill required from a middle infielder charged with batting in the No. 2 slot. His work ethic also drew praise.

"He does what's fundamentally correct," LeVasseur said "He hits ahead in the count, puts the ball in play, stays inside good breaking pitches, bunts well, runs with his head up and fields and throws as well as you'd expect. He's proven it. He's advanced from here."

Injuries in the Mariners system forced Bloomquist’s promotion. He batted .225 and was overmatched in the Pacific Coast League, though Parent noted that the majority of Bloomquist’s 0-fors included the notation, "with two liners." Bloomquist can punish mistakes but needs to improve against breaking pitches.

7 NICK NEUGEBAUER, rhp, Mudville Nine (Brewers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  225  20  HS--Riverside, Calif.  Brewers '98 (2)   4  4  4.19  18   0  77  43  87 117

Neugebauer’s fastball was clocked at 100 mph this season. Does any more need to be said?

He was promoted to Double-A in July when Brewers officials became convinced that his season-long progress toward control of his secondary pitches and his development of an 88-mph slider warranted a reward. His unique stat line at Mudville testified to his promise and flaws: 77 innings, 43 hits (including no homers), 87 walks, 117 strikeouts.

Neugebauer is likely to be bedeviled by walks for years to come, but he did improve during his stay in the Cal League.

"Early in the year, Nick was struggling with control and the batters were starting to get real picky, laying off anything that wasn't a fastball and taking their bases," Mudville manager Frank Kremblas said. "That's when he realized."

Neugebauer embraced the changeup he was taught, making his consistent 95-mph fastball even more wicked. He needs to realize that he can’t get too competitive and try to throw too hard, which costs him velocity and control.

8 TONY TORCATO, 3b, San Jose Giants (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-1  195  19  HS--Woodland, Calif.  Giants '98 (1)  .324  490  77 159  37  2  7  88  19

The kid with the sweet swing made the breakthrough realization this season that his propensity for errors was negating his contributions at the plate.

"I think he might've had 25 errors by May 10, but he then became a totally different infielder," Comstock said. "There were two things behind it. The first was a tremendous work ethic. He seriously got after it, taking a load of ground balls, of bunts, of backhanded chances, of throws to second base, of throws across the field to first.

"What began happening is the second thing, that he took his very commanding presence at the plate to third base with him. He wanted balls hit at him and he was showing the confidence that he felt he could turn any play."

The Giants always have been taken with Torcato's bravado. He improved offensively, finishing among the Cal League leaders in batting average, hits, doubles and extra-base hits at age 20. Even rehabbing major league pitchers couldn’t get a fastball by him, and Torcato’s got into such good shape that he became a basestealing threat.

9 JEREMY OWENS, of, Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  200  23  Middle Tennessee  Padres '98 (8)  .256  570  99 146  29 10 16  63  54

The league's fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder could play for the Padres right now as a late-inning defensive replacement and pinch-runner. The reason he remained in the Cal League all season was his nasty, not-so-little secret: strikeouts.

Two, three or four a game was a common event for Owens, who has fanned 430 times in 345 contests as a pro. He does draw walks, but he’s overly patient, falls behind and then is forced to hack away at pitcher’s counts. He also needs to rework his swing.

If he can, he’ll be a dangerous leadoff man. When he can find his way to first, he can turn a single or walk into a triple, and his speed also translates into superb center-field play. His above-average arm is another defensive asset.

"He's realizing if he doesn't get a hit, he can't help you," LeVasseur said. "He's coachable."

10 ELPIDIO GUZMAN, of, Lake Elsinore Storm (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-0  165  21  Dominican Republic  Angels FA '95  .282  532  96 150  20 16  9  72  53

Guzman was the Cal League’s most exciting player by season’s end. He combined solid fundamentals with what one manager described as a "wild and loose" style. In one August game, he went 5-for-5 with an opposite-field homer, two triples, two singles and a stolen base.

"He's still real young but has shown he's the whole package," Lake Elsinore manager Mario Mendoza said. "He still needs to be more consistent offensively, in every aspect of his game, but as the season has gone on he's hit the ball with more authority."

Guzman needs to work on his bunting to take more advantage of his speed, rather than trying to pull every pitch he sees. His range in center field was exceeded in the Cal League only by Owens’.

11 GARY JOHNSON, of, Lake Elsinore Storm (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-3  210  24  Brigham Young  Angels '99 (19)  .338  266  56  90  20  2 13  62  13

Until his promotion to Double-A, Johnson was engaged in an intriguing triple crown battle with Silvestre. Johnson’s swing was admired by several managers who previously had been taken by Torcato’s smooth follow-through.

At 24, Johnson was a bit old for a Cal League prospect, the result of spending two years on a Mormon mission. He showed power to both left and right field, though he‘s a project defensively. Johnson has difficulty on balls hit over his head.

12 MIGUEL OLIVO, c, Modesto Athletics (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  212  22  Dominican Republic  Athletics FA '96  .282  227  40  64  11  5  5  35   5

Olivo ranked No. 7 on this list a year ago, and returned to the Cal League only because Oakland had A.J. Hinch and Danny Ardoin in Triple-A and Cody McKay in Double-A. Once again, Olivo’s arm drew universal praise. The only catcher with a better cannon may be perennial Gold Glove winner Ivan Rodriguez.

"Olivo's arm and his quickness of release are right up there with the best in the business right now," one National League scout said.

His entire defensive package is solid, as Olivo has soft hands and moves well behind the plate. He’s less advanced as a hitter, despite a career .293 average in the United States. He should show more power once he forces pitchers to throw him more strikes.

13 TERRMEL SLEDGE, of, Lancaster JetHawks (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-0  185  23  Long Beach State  Mariners '99 (8)  .339  384  90 130  22  7 11  75  35

A shoulder injury cut short Sledge’s season just before the playoffs but couldn’t deprive him of a batting title in his first full pro season. He has limited baseball experience, not that it showed. He batted third for Lancaster but might make a good leadoff man in the future.

"With a decent arm, good speed and range, his baserunning ability and the fact that he can hit both righties and lefties well, he was strong in every category necessary," Parent said. "I'm not a scout, but I would say he has what it takes."

14 KEITH SURKONT, rhp, Visalia Oaks (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  205  23  Williams College  Athletics '99 (4)   8  7  2.72  27  22 126 104  54 122

Surkont, whose grandfather Max pitched in the big leagues from 1949-57, had the Cal League’s best curveball and kept his ERA under 3.00 all season, a rare feat in a perennial hitter’s league. Managers loved his composure, as Surkont never showed emotion or got rattled. He also never gave into batters.

"What makes him special is that he's at his most intense when he's in a hole," Visalia manager Juan Navarrete said. "You don't see him sink into a hole out there. He comes back with good command, his good changeup and his out pitch is the curve. He can get to a point where he can control all three pitches well."

15 NELSON CASTRO, ss, Bakersfield Blaze (Giants)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  190  23  Venezuela   Angels FA '94  .284  218  38  62  14  3  5  41  27

Claimed on waivers by the Giants last fall, Castro turned into the player the Angels had always hoped for. He was a disruptive force on the basepaths, displayed the best middle-infield range in the league and showed an even more potent throwing arm.

"All the skills that everyone had always raved about with Nelson came across this year," Sakata said. "His across-the-board plus tools, the arm, the range, his basestealing ability, were shown each night.

"The thing that most impressed me about him was his fielding remained above average despite the fact we play on the bumpiest infield in the Cal League. He kept his head down and played every ball with routine expertise. That's what put him over the top in my book, because he has such great range to both his left and right. Every night, he turned in an average or above-average major league play."

Sakata believes Castro was motivated by playing in the Cal League for a third consecutive season, finally understanding he was going nowhere unless he maintained an everyday commitment to the game. He smacked balls with authority and shined in the field while his speed, of course, never slumped. Castro still must improve his on-base ability and eliminate his tendency for nonchalance on defense.

16 SEAN McGOWAN, 1b, San Jose Giants (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  240  23  Boston College   Giants '99 (3)  .327  456  58 149  32  2 12 106   4

At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, McGowan is a power-hitting prospect. The main reason he hit just 12 homers was that he played his home games at Municipal Stadium, the Cal League's most expansive park.

"You don't project home run hitters to the major leagues based on their minor league home run totals," Comstock said. "It's guys like Sean, guys who hit a steady stream of line drives and doubles, who turn into the home run hitters."

McGowan finished second in the batting and RBI races. He makes exceedingly good contact for a potential slugger. His biggest need is to improve his defense at first base, where his footwork is awkward and his range deplorable.

17 JOE THURSTON, ss, San Bernardino Stampede (Dodgers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  5-11  175  21  Sacramento CC  Dodgers '99 (4)  .303  551  97 167  31  8  4  70  43

Nicknamed "Joey Ballgame" at Sacramento City College by his coach, current Dodgers farm director Jerry Weinstein, Thurston played the part this season. He hit for average, made contact and stole bases. Add in his tenacious defense, and it’s easy to see why managers rated him the most exciting player in Baseball America’s midseason Best Tools survey.

"He definitely plays the middle of the diamond with the best of them and has speed on top of that," San Bernardino manager Dino Ebel said. "His heart is what separates him. He's at 100 percent every single game and that's something you can't take from a guy. He's just 20, too, with tools: running, defense and his ability to make adjustments at the plate."

As Thurston gets stronger, he could develop more gap power. He worked with Stampede hitting coach Jack Clark to improve his pull-hitting ability, and he’s also trying to cut down his fly balls to make more use of his speed.

18 ANGEL BERROA, ss, Visalia Oaks (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  175  20  Dominican Republic  Athletics FA '97  .277  429  61 119  25  6 10  63  11

Oakland already has a young, exciting Dominican shortstop in Miguel Tejada. The Athletics now have a second one on the way in Berroa.

Berroa made his mark with power, both offensively and defensively. His occasional opposite-field bombs were a prelude of more to come, and his cannon arm at short was topped only by Castro’s.

"There have been a lot of errors with him this year, but I know he's going to get better by watching how much work he puts into the game," Navarrete said. "Plus, he already owns the tools of speed, range, arm strength and power. And there's more power in him, you just know it."

19 JUAN SILVESTRE, of, Lancaster JetHawks (Mariners)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  180  22  Dominican Republic  Mariners FA '94  .304  506 104 154  15  3 30 137   9

Perhaps it's a surprise to see the most dominant performer in the league rated no higher than 19th. But he was 22 and in his sixth professional season. His numbers were inflated by the wind-riddled Hangar, and his outfield defense remains a work in progress.

"He is tough to assess because of our ballpark," Parent said. "He has developed a right-center stroke, though, a la Edgar Martinez, and he does the little things it takes to get runs in, too. You don't get 137 RBIs by just hitting homers and doubles. He'll push the ball to second base with a man at third. I don't think he gets enough credit for his intelligence in the game."

Silvestre stayed in left field to avoid the tricky wind currents in right at the Hangar, but Parent said the Mariners project him as a right fielder.

20 JEFF HEAVERLO, rhp, Lancaster JetHawks (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  185  22  Washington   Mariners '99 (1)  14  6  4.22  27   0 156 170  52 159

The son of former major league pitcher Dave Heaverlo anchored Lancaster’s pitching staff. Yet he also aggravated Seattle brass by throwing too many sliders.

It’s his best pitch, but hitters quickly learned to look for it. The Mariners don't want the pitch to become so predictable and have stressed that Heaverlo use his fastball more often. He has enough velocity and movement to succeed.

"He kind of went backward this season because he didn't trust the fastball," Parent said. "Pitching is more important than the first pitch, and we'd rather see guys use their defense on a first pitch than throwing too many pitches and leaving a slider. Now I think he has a good mix of pitches."

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