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Class A Carolina League

Top 20 Prospects

By Dave Utnik

WOODBRIDGE, Va.—In a league noted for exceptional pitching, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans were kings of the hill in 2000.

The Carolina League's Southern Division champions didn't just have the best pitching staff in the high Class A circuit. The Pelicans led the minors with a 2.51 ERA and 27 shutouts, reaching the CL’s Mills Cup championship series for the second straight summer.

"You can't afford to make any mistakes against them," Winston-Salem manager Brian Dayett said. "Good pitching beats good hitting, and it showed with them."

Myrtle Beach had three pitchers ranked among the league’s top five in ERA, the top two winners in the league, and two of the top five save leaders. It’s pitching depth was evident when it came time to select the league's Top 20 Prospects. CL pitcher of the year Christian Parra, 15-game winner Horacio Ramirez, Tim Spooneybarger and closer Billy Sylvester were targeted as potential big leaguers.

"Pitching's largely the reason for our success," Pelicans manager Brian Snitker said.

That was the case for most of the league's top teams. Though no organization came close to matching the Braves for their quantity of top-rate pitchers, there was an abundance of quality arms.

Eight of the 10 best prospects were pitchers, and most of the 11 hurlers on the Top 20 didn't spend the entire season in the CL. Salem fireballer Craig House finished the year in the major leagues.

Several position players made a lasting impression as well. Lynchburg slugger J.J. Davis, Wilmington’s precocious Alexis Gomez and record-setting Potomac speedster Esix Snead showed the ability to excel in one of baseball's most demanding and humbling circuits.

"This is a make-or-break league for pitchers and hitters," Potomac manager Joe Cunningham said. "You have to be able to make adjustments. The players who make adjustments move on. The players who don't come back."

These guys won't be back.

1 C.C. SABATHIA, lhp, Kinston Indians (Indians)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-7  235  20  HS--Vallejo, Calif.  Indians '98 (1)   3  2  3.54  10   0  56  48  24  69

As his 6-foot-7, 235-pound body strides off the mound and the ball begins its rapid, short journey toward home plate, Sabathia looks anything like a 20-year-old. It isn't so much his towering, intimidating frame that tends to keep opposing batters on edge. It's his 96-mph fastball and the notion that this kid is only beginning to fulfill his promise as a future big league ace.

"He's got a great chance to be a No. 1, power-pitching starter at the major league level," Wilmington manager Jeff Garber said. "He's got an unlimited ceiling."

Sabathia has raised the ceiling during each season of his brief professional career. His invitation to Cleveland's major league camp last spring was no lark. Neither is his rating as the Indians' top minor league prospect or his invitation to pitch for the U.S. Olympic team. Cleveland recalled Sabathia from Sydney after he failed to make the rotation.

For a guy who began the season as a 19-year-old, Sabathia has been everything the Indians envisioned when they made him their first-round pick two summers ago. Recovered from a bone bruise on his left elbow that sidelined him for part of 1999, he improved his mechanics and developed enough control of four different pitches to earn a promotion to Double-A.

"He's a pretty intimidating presence on the mound," Kinston manager Brad Komminsk said. "We have a lot of hope for him. He's working on things and getting better. He has the ability to learn stuff and take it right to the mound."

2 JON RAUCH, rhp, Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-11  230  22  Morehead State  White Sox '99 (3)  11  3  2.86  18   0 110 102  33 124

All Rauch had to do to intimidate opposing hitters was step on the mound. At 6-foot-11, Rauch was the tallest player in the league, though he drew comparisons to Arizona's Randy Johnson for much more than his lanky frame.

Rauch distinguished himself as one of the White Sox' most exciting young pitchers during his half-season in the Carolina League. His reputation grew after a promotion to Double-A, and he won Baseball America’s 2000 Minor League Player of the Year award.

"That kid's tough," Cunningham said. "He's got a good arm and keeps his pitches down for the most part."

Rauch throws in the mid-90s with above-average breaking stuff. Throw in his combination of size and control, and it’s easy to see why he’s so highly regarded. Rauch might have reached Chicago in September had he not been part of Team USA’s Olympic rotation. In 11 innings in Sydney, Rauch struck out 21.

3 J.J. DAVIS, of, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                    Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-6  230  21  HS--Baldwin Park, Calif.  Pirates '97 (1)  .243  485  77 118  36  1 20  80   9

The Pirates used the eighth overall pick in the 1997 draft to select Davis because they liked his strong right arm. They liked his bat even more, which is why they converted the 6-foot-6 righthander into an everyday player.

It took a couple of seasons for Davis to adjust to using a wooden bat—and professional curveballs—but he’s beginning to prove that the switch to right field was worthwhile. His arm is just as menacing in right as it was on the mound, and the Pirates also like his speed.

But what makes Davis special is his ability to swing the bat. He has a tendency to strike out, but when he hits the ball, amazing things generally happen.

"He's the best power hitting prospect in the league," Garber said. "He has the potential to hit 35 to 40 homers in the bigs."

Part of Davis' development as a power hitter has been learning to recognize breaking pitches and resisting the temptation to swing at stuff out of the strike zone. That hasn't been easy, but Davis has made strides in both areas.

4 CHRISTIAN PARRA, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  255  22  None               Braves FA '99   17  4  2.28  26   0 158  98  56 163

One of the many talented pitching prospects stockpiled in the Braves system, Parra teamed with Spooneybarger on a no-hitter against Frederick and went more than two months without a loss. Parra didn't have the league's best fastball or the top breaking pitch, but his ability to mix speeds and work pitches on both corners of the plate made him nearly unbeatable.

If he had five more strikeouts and his ERA were 0.02 lower, Parra would have won the CL pitching triple crown. Parra had all the elements typically associated with a staff ace: he threw hard, worked fast and stayed ahead in the count.

"He has tremendous poise and throws four pitches for strikes," Frederick manager Dave Machemer said.

5 MIKE MacDOUGAL, rhp, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-5  190  23  Wake Forest   Royals '99 (1)   9  7  3.92  26   1 145 115  76 129

Those who watched MacDougal pitch this season marveled at his fastball. It was considered the best in the league, mainly because it has so much life. It doesn’t hurt that he can throw it in the mid-90s, either.

"He's got the best sink and movement on his fastball of any pitcher in the league," Garber said. "He's got the velocity of a power pitcher and the sink of a sinkerball pitcher."

This season MacDougal showed better command of all his pitches, including a curve and changeup. But MacDougal's rapid journey through the Royals organization, which took him to Double-A in August, ultimately will be traced to his fastball.

6 HORACIO RAMIREZ, lhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-1  170  20  HS--Inglewood, Calif.  Braves '97 (5)  15  8  3.22  27   0 148 136  42 125

If Parra was the most effective righthander in the CL, Ramirez was his counterpart among lefties. Thanks to his ability to throw three pitches for strikes and aggressiveness in the strike zone, Ramirez ranked among the league leaders in wins and ERA. He projects as a quality No. 3 starter at the major league level.

Ramirez’ best pitch is his slider, which is especially tough against righthanders. Surprisingly, righties hit 62 points lower against him than lefthanders. He also has a fluid motion that makes it difficult to distinguish one pitch from another.

7 ALEXIS GOMEZ, of, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-2  160  20  Dominican Republic  Royals FA '97  .254  461  63 117  13  4  1  33  21

Gomez signed with the Royals when he was 16. After playing two seasons in his native Dominican Republic and one year of Rookie ball, he showed tremendous maturity and skill level in a veteran league that’s often a challenge even for players with college experience.

One of the youngest players in the CL, Gomez excelled as the Blue Rocks’ center fielder. His speed enabled him to cover a lot of ground and he was a catalyst out of the leadoff spot. He’s a lefthanded hitter with size and speed.

"He's still learning the game but he has five-tool potential," Garber said. "He has the potential to be another Carlos Beltran."

That’s high praise. Beltran, a former Blue Rock, was the 1999 American League rookie of the year.

"To go from the Gulf Coast League to this league is a huge jump, but he showed he could handle it," Lynchburg manager Tracy Woodson said. "He's the best position player prospect in the league."

8 BILLY SYLVESTER, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-5  218  24  Spartanburg Meth. JC  Braves FA '97   3  0  0.79  32  16  46  16  15  48

Myrtle Beach’s bullpen was as deep as its rotation. With four relievers capable of closing out a game, there was an arm for almost any occasion.

Sylvester may have been the best of the four. With an overpowering fastball and a slider that league MVP Troy Farnsworth described as the best he ever has seen, Sylvester rarely blew a save opportunity.

Before a hand injury abruptly ended his season in July, Sylvester was selected to the all-star team and was named by managers as the league's top relief pitcher. Small wonder, what with his 0.79 ERA and .105 opponent batting average.

9 CRAIG HOUSE, rhp, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School    Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  210  23  Memphis   Rockies '99 (12)   2  0  2.25  13   8  16   7  10  24

A 12th-round draft pick in 1999, House was a starter at the University of Memphis. The Rockies liked his fastball so much that they wanted to try him in a closer’s role, and the experiment obviously worked. He made it to the majors 14 months after he signed.

House has a herky-jerky delivery and a three-quarters release point that make his sinking fastball even more intimidating. As if 100-mph heat isn't imposing on its own merits. He also throws a slider that darts quickly out of a batter's reach. "He has stuff that's hard to find," Machemer said.

His unorthodox motion also works against him, however. His command is inconsistent and was problematic in Colorado. There’s also the fear that his delivery could lead to an arm injury.

10 DAN WRIGHT, rhp, Winston-Salem Warthogs (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School     Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-5  225  22  Arkansas   White Sox '99 (2)   9  8  3.74  21   0 132 135  50 106

By emphasizing pitching in recent drafts, the White Sox have amassed more mound depth throughout the minors than any other organization. Wright, a second-rounder, was part of a banner 1999 class that also included Rauch (third round) and Matt Ginter (first), who pitched in Double-A and Chicago this year.

Wright has blazed a path through four levels of the minor league system in two seasons. He's capable of throwing in the high 90s, and his curveball almost acts like a sinker. He had no problem making the jump to Double-A in August.

"He has a great winning mentality," Dayett said. "He's one of the hardest throwers in the league and he goes right after hitters."

11 TIM SPOONEYBARGER, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  190  20  Okaloosa-Walton JC  Braves '98 (29)  3  0  0.91  19   0  50  18  19  57

A strength-building program helped Spooneybarger battle through a bout with shoulder tendinitis that cost him a couple of months on the disabled list. He returned to the Pelicans in time to help them clinch the league title.

Spooneybarger has exceptional life on his pitches. His best is his fastball, which has outstanding velocity and movement. His curveball also is considered above average, and he has consistently improved his control of both pitches.

"He's got an exploding fastball. It's electric," Garber said. "His ability to command his pitches will dictate his future success."

12 JASON JENNINGS, rhp, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-R  6-2  230  22  Baylor   Rockies '99 (1)   7 10  3.47  22   0 150 136  42 133

Just a year removed from winning BA’s 1999 College Player of the Year award at Baylor, where he hit 35 home runs in his final two seasons, Jennings easily could be one of Colorado's top power prospects. But his professional at-bats will be limited because his future is on the mound.

"He has a very good slider and he can mix in 10 or 15 changeups, but everything comes off the fastball," Salem pitching coach Bob McClure said. "The advantage he has is that his fastball has movement. He already has average major league movement."

Jennings tops out at 92 mph, but location rather than velocity makes him so difficult to hit. His two-seam fastball is particularly effective because it has a tendency to dart or dip away from batters at the last second.

13 ESIX SNEAD, of, Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted              Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-10  175  24  Central Florida  Cardinals '98 (18)  .235  493  82 116  14  3  1  34 109

It has been said that Snead is so fast, his speed actually slows a game down. When Potomac’s leadoff man got on base, the tempo of a game typically slowed to a crawl. Pitchers repeatedly stepped off the rubber and threw over to first in an attempt to keep the all-star from getting too big a lead.

Nothing really worked. Not even pitchouts. Snead simply outran the baseball en route to a CL-record 109 stolen bases.

An offseason hitting program made Snead a better offensive threat this season, though he still must get stronger and make more contact. He already could star in the big leagues defensively as a center fielder.

"He reminds me of Otis Nixon. He's got explosive, scary speed," Dayett said. "He's easily the most exciting player in the league."

14 JUAN URIBE, ss, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  173  21  Dominican Republic  Rockies FA '97  .256  485  64 124  22  7 13  65  22

The Rockies discovered Uribe at a Latin America tryout camp when he was 17. It was clear when he signed in 1998 that his powerful arm is certainly his greatest asset. But he’s also a polished fielder who revealed remarkable range on his way to earning all-star honors.

"He makes big league defensive plays," Dayett said.

Only Potomac shortstop Jason Bowers rivaled Uribe for his ability to snuff out a rally by making a seemingly impossible play look routine. No one came close to matching Uribe’s strong, accurate arm. His defensive prowess has reached such a high level the past two seasons that his offensive game, which includes a little pop and some speed, gets overlooked.

15 MATT HOLLIDAY, 3b, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  215  20  HS--Stillwater, Okla.  Rockies '98 (7)  .274  460  64 126  28  2  7  72  11

The only question about Holliday's ability to play baseball is whether he's better suited for third base or the outfield. For now he’s an infielder, though some suspect he may wind up patrolling left field once he reaches Coors Field.

Regardless of his position, the Rockies know Holliday, the son of Oklahoma State baseball coach Tom Holliday, can hit. He has the build of a home run hitter and also is adept at poking an outside pitch into right field. He makes solid contact and is a good athlete who once ranked among the nation’s top quarterback prospects.

"He's probably going to end up in the outfield, but he's going to be a good one," Dayett said. "He's got raw power and he's already shown the ability to hit to the opposite field."

16 KEITH REED, of, Frederick Keys (Orioles)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School      Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  215  22  Providence  Orioles '99 (1)  .235  243  33  57  10  1  8  31   9

The Orioles have several promising outfield prospects in their system, including four who appeared at Frederick in 2000, plus big league rookie Luis Matos and former football star Darnell McDonald. Reed compares favorably to Matos and it may not be long before he’s playing alongside him in the Baltimore outfield.

"He has all the tools," Machemer said "He is very raw, but he's only going to get better."

Reed's ability is obvious. He’s an athlete with all the natural skills scouts covet: speed, a strong arm and a quick swing that produces both base hits and home runs.

CL baserunners learned quickly not to challenge his throwing ability. Reed has the quickness to play anywhere in the outfield, and his arm is a perfect fit for right field.

17 PAPY NDUNGIDI, of, Frederick Keys (Orioles)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-2  200  21  HS--Montreal  Orioles '97 (1)  .284  313  53  89  16  4 10  59  16

The Keys fielded one of the top outfield combinations in the minor leagues this season with Larry Bigbie, Ndungidi, Tim Raines Jr. and Reed passing through Harry Grove Stadium. Out of that group, Ndungidi made the most progress.

A .244 hitter with nine career homers in three minor league seasons prior to 2000, the Zaire native and Canadian resident blossomed into the power-hitting left fielder the Orioles were hoping for when they made him a supplemental first-round pick in 1997. An offseason weight-training program added some pop to his quick bat.

"He is the best pure hitter in the league," Garber said. "He has beautiful looking swing and the ability to hit for both average and power."

Said Snitker: "He always had bat speed. But now he can hit."

Ndungidi also has the tools to be a star outfielder. He’s a quality defensive player with a strong arm and good range.

18 TIM RAINES JR., of, Frederick Keys (Orioles)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  183  21  HS--Sanford, Fla.  Orioles '98 (6)  .236  457  89 108  21  3  2  36  81

Already considered the fastest baserunner and best defensive outfielder among Orioles prospects, Raines set a Keys franchise record for stolen bases this summer. He swiped 23 in a row before he was caught for the first time in 2000.

The Orioles hope that he can approach the accomplishments of his father Tim Sr., a possible Hall of Famer who retired last year with 807 career steals.

"He's grown up with the game and he's had a head start in that area," Snitker said. "He can be a real solid player in the future."

Learning to switch-hit has been somewhat of a challenge, but Raines has youth on his side. For now, he‘s much more comfortable batting from the right side. Though he needs to make better contact, he already has the patience to bat leadoff.

19 MARK ELLIS, ss, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  180  23  Florida  Royals '99 (9)  .302  484  83 146  27  4  6  62  25

Machemer paid Ellis a huge compliment when he compared him to big league all-star Mike Bordick. "He's a winner," Machemer said.

Ellis has earned all-star honors in each of his two professional seasons, hitting better than .300 with 20-plus steals and more walks than strikeouts at each stop. He was one of the CL’s most proficient defensive players as well. He wasn’t flashy but he caught everything that came his way.

"He's a versatile athlete and he plays the game under control," Snitker said. "He makes all the plays at shortstop."

20 CRISTOBAL CORREA, rhp, Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  175  20  Venezuela   Cardinals FA '98   6  6  3.24  18   0 100  82  49  76

Correa enjoyed a breakout year with an all-star campaign, though his season ended a month early when he tore a ligament in his right elbow. Though he had Tommy John surgery in late July, the Cardinals are confident he’ll regain his form.

In his first exposure to a full-season league, Correa put together a 20 inning scoreless streak and the league batted just .212 off him before his elbow began bothering him in July. His breaking ball was the CL’s best, and he set it up well by working his fastball to both corners of the plate.

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