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Double-A Eastern League

Top 20 Prospects

By Andrew Linker

HARRISBURG, Pa.—The managers were split.

Some said the Double-A Eastern League had a down year in terms of megaprospects. Others disagreed. In their own ways, they were saying they actually had to think, really think hard, about whom to list as their top prospects for the Class of 2000. There were no Jeters, Garciaparras, Guerreros or Rolens, as there had been in not-so-distant seasons.

"You don't have the Pat Burrells this year, the guys who are givens," Altoona manager Marty Brown said. "You don't see that many guys who either have two exceptional tools or have that ability, down the road, to have five."

The one who comes closest to having all five is Binghamton center fielder Alex Escobar, the only player all 12 managers had on their short list of prospects to watch.

"It's a little more pitching-dominated this year than last year," Binghamton manager Doug Davis said. "There are quality players who are going to be big-league players, but there aren't quite as many guys like Escobar who have the raw talent to stand out."

But New Britain manager John Russell said there was good depth in the EL in 2000. Bowie manager Andy Etchebarren concurred.

"I'll tell you what," Etchebarren said, "I'd like to have all of them on one team. I'd take them two years from now on a big league team and I think I'd have a pretty good team."

1 ALEX ESCOBAR, of, Binghamton Mets (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  185  22  Venezuela  Mets FA '95  .288  437  79 126  25  7 16  67  24

Healthy for the first time since 1998, Escobar was the consensus choice for the league's best overall prospect. He compiled numbers similar to those he posted in 1998, when some Class A South Atlantic League observers compared him to a young Vladimir Guerrero.

"He's the most exciting tools guy in the league," Norwich manager Dan Radison said. "He's an impact player. He's something else. You can't even hit the ball anywhere close to center field with him there."

New Haven manager Dan Rohn saw some Bernie Williams in Escobar, whom he termed the best young player in the league. But not the best every night, according to one manager.

"I've seen him hit ground balls to second base, run 40 feet down the line and turn off to the dugout. That turns me off," Harrisburg’s Doug Sisson said. "I rate him high based on physical tools. If he plays for somebody that just kicks him in the ass and lets him know that that's not acceptable, then you have a pretty good player."

2 C.C. SABATHIA, lhp, Akron Aeros (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  7  3.59  17   0  90  75  48  90

Sabathia’s 3-7 record was primarily the result of being kept on tight pitch counts that made it difficult for him to pick up victories. He certainly was impressive enough to be selected for the Futures Game, the Double-A All-Star Game and the U.S. Olympic team.

"He has the potential to be a No. 1 starter in the big leagues," Akron manager Eric Wedge said. "He has a plus-plus fastball, a plus curveball and a plus changeup. He has a great makeup and a great future."

Sabathia didn’t turn 20 until midseason and pitched more innings at Akron than he did in his first two pro seasons combined. While the Indians continue to list him at 235 pounds, their top prospect is considerably larger.

"I've never seen anybody like him at 250 pounds, but those are 250 athletic pounds," Reading manager Gary Varsho said. "I really like his aggressiveness. When he learns how to pitch instead of throw, he's going to be a lot of fun to watch. He's fun to watch now, a big strong kid like him with terrific athletic ability."

3 DONNIE BRIDGES, rhp, Harrisburg Senators (Expos)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  195  21  HS--Hattiesburg, Miss.  Expos '97 (1)  11  7  2.39  19   0 128 104  49  84

Montreal’s 1997 draft already has produced three pitchers who have reached the majors in Matt Blank, Scott Strickland and T.J. Tucker. The most promising, though, is Bridges, whom the Expos selected with the first of their eight first-round picks.

"I like his command," Erie manager Don Wakamatsu said. "He has a power arm but he doesn't try to blow guys away. I like that."

Sisson sees Bridges as a No. 2 or 3 starter in the major leagues. Bridges throws 94-95 mph and his curveball is an out pitch. He’s also a dangerous batter whom Sisson used five times as a pinch-hitter. Though Sisson tried to get permission from Montreal to let Bridges DH, his future definitely is on the mound.

"He has very good stuff right now for being such a young pitcher in Double-A," Varsho said. "He knows the game, knows how to pitch. He can find weaknesses right away and expose them. I think he has a chance right away to go up and be a 12- to 15-game winner in the big leagues."

4 BRAD WILKERSON, of, Harrisburg Senators (Expos)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-0  190  23  Florida  Expos '98 (1)  .326  229  53  77  36  2  6  44   8

The Expos sent Brad Wilkerson straight to Double-A to make his pro debut in 1999, and the club believed that having him struggle would be far more valuable than sending him to dominate the high Class A Florida State League. They were right, as Wilkerson returned to the EL and sizzled in 2000.

"Sometimes you have to push a kid forward to make him a better player," Varsho said. "Last year, he didn't do much for me. You could see he was overmatched. Being brought down a notch, I think, made him work harder and get into better shape. I think it's hard to have a kid fail, but adversity is a great thing to find out just how bad you really want it. He's going to help Montreal in the future, the near future."

Wilkerson departed Harrisburg with numbers that no one rivaled, leaving the EL on pace to hit more than 60 doubles. He went on to Triple-A, then joined the U.S. Olympic team as the starting center fielder. Managers compared him to players such as Rico Brogna, Luis Gonzalez and Rusty Greer.

"He's going to be a left fielder, but he showed us this year that he could develop into a pretty good first baseman," Sisson said. "He's a heck of an athlete and he's going to hit. He's going to hit for average. He's going to hit a lot of doubles. He's going to drive in a lot of runs. He has enough bat speed and he has a little bit of lift in his swing that I think he's going to hit more home runs in the big leagues than most people project him to."

5 BRANDON DUCKWORTH, rhp, Reading Phillies (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
B-R  6-2  185  24  Cal State Fullerton  Phillies FA '97  13  7  3.16  27   0 165 145  52 178

Few noticed Duckworth in 1997, when he finished his college career at Cal State Fullerton and didn’t get drafted. It was impossible to miss him in 2000, as he may have been the EL’s most polished pitcher in three years.

His fastball has average velocity at best, but he spots it well and isn’t afraid to throw it inside. His curveball was ranked as the league’s best breaking pitch, and Duckworth can toss it for strikes or get batters to chase it out of the zone. He became the first Reading pitcher since Mark Davis in 1980 to lead the EL in strikeouts.

"There's nothing overpowering with him," Etchebarren said, "but I think he has good makeup and I think his stuff is plenty good to pitch in the big leagues. He has three pitches. He'll throw his breaking ball in fastball counts and he keeps the ball down in the strike zone."

6 ERIC VALENT, of, Reading Phillies (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-0  191  23  UCLA     Phillies '98 (1)  .258  469  81 121  22  5 22  90   2

Early in the season, Valent joked about his stature among Philadelphia's top prospects. He was, he insisted, no Pat Burrell. Yet his game played very well this season in Reading, where he replaced Burrell as the cog of the offense.

Valent has power, both to the gaps and over the fence. He drives in runs, draws walks and should hit for a better average with more experience. Managers love his makeup and he’s also quite impressive in right field, with Sisson describing Valent’s arm as a weapon.

"He's a type of player like B.J. Surhoff," said Etchebarren. "He can do everything pretty good, but nothing great. But there's nothing wrong with that, because Surhoff's a pretty good player."

"He's an above-average outfielder for a guy who can't run," Varsho said with a smile. "He makes outfield play look very easy. Because of that, he's turned himself into a terrific all-around prospect, even though his average is .258. With his 22 home runs, his RBIs, he's a run producer. He's going to have his peaks and valleys. When he peaks, he's hot. When he goes into that valley, it's a very deep valley. His consistency is what we're looking for."

7 DREW HENSON, 3b, Norwich Navigators (Yankees)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-5  220  20  HS--Brighton, Mich.  Yankees '98 (1)  .287  223  39  64   9  2  7  39   0

From mid-May through mid-July, rare was the day when Radison wasn’t answering questions about Henson. Newspapers from across the nation called to ask: "How good is he?" and "What sport will he eventually play full-time?" The answers: "Exceptional" and "I don’t know."

Henson handled the EL very well for a 20-year-old with just 79 games of pro experience. He has big-time power and a big-time arm. Of course, he also uses that arm to quarterback the University of Michigan football team, and he has serious NFL potential.

He’ll have a tough decision to make if he goes high in the NFL draft. Getting traded to the Reds with three other prospects in a deal for Denny Neagle in July only muddied the process.

"He's got easy power and good agility for a big man," Radison said. "He's 6-foot-5 and can play third base. That's unusual. He has good footwork at third. He's only 20 years old. Not only does he have tools, he has makeup. He's a smart guy. He's a winner. He's an achiever."

8 LUIS MATOS, of, Bowie Baysox (Orioles)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  180  21  HS--Bayamon, P.R.  Orioles '96 (10)  .271  181  26  49   7  5  2  33  14

Matos is arguably the best position player the Orioles have sent to Bowie since the Baysox became their EL affiliate in 1993. He went just 7-for-49 in April, getting demoted from Triple-A in the process, but righted himself in two months in the EL before taking over in center field for Baltimore.

"I think he's going to be a good big league player. He's there now, but he's not ready to hit there," Etchebarren said. "I think he will hit there when he gets bigger and stronger."

Matos offers good defense in center and drives the ball into both gaps. Rohn saw some of the same traits in Matos that he did in Escobar.

"He's such a live, graceful athlete," said one EL scout, who compared Matos to a young Moises Alou. "I think he's just going to get better and better. He's going to learn to do some things that he's not doing. I see such a rangy, interesting athlete there. He's been rushed a little, so I don't know what that's going to do for him."

9 BOBBY KIELTY, of, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  6-1  215  24  Mississippi  Twins FA '99  .262  451  79 118  30  3 14  65   6

Apparently, New Britain is relatively free of oak pollen, which caused an allergic reaction that cost Kielty much of his 1999 season at Class A Quad City. Kielty's steady if unspectacular numbers this season were impressive. More impressive were his powerful frame and his aggressiveness from both sides of the plate.

"He's really strong, so he gets away with a lot of stuff," Brown said. "He can get jammed but still has enough strength to muscle the ball into the outfield. I don't know if he's a true center fielder. He's probably a corner guy eventually."

"He's a very raw player, but he's an old country, throwback kind of player who swings the bat from both sides and lets it fly," Varsho said. "He's a very good offensive player who they need to find a corner spot. He's a guy who came out of nowhere and surprised a lot of guys in this league."

10 MICHAEL CUDDYER, 3b, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  175  21  HS--Chesapeake, Va.  Twins '97 (1)  .263  490  72 129  30  8  6  61   5

Cuddyer, the Twins' top prospect entering 2000, has drawn comparisons to a younger, smaller version Troy Glaus. Even a less-than-scintillating .263-6-61 season that also included 34 errors couldn’t dim Cuddyer’s luster.

Radison loves the way Cuddyer stays on pitches and shows power to the opposite field. When Cuddyer starts pulling pitches, watch out.

"He's going to be an outstanding hitter. He has a keen sense of bat awareness," Rohn said. "He needs to cut down on his errors, but he's going to be a heckuva hitter. I think he might end up at first base."

Brown thinks Cuddyer might be able to stay on the hot corner because he bettered himself during the season.

"At first, I really didn't like him," Brown said. "I didn't think he was going to be able to cut it. Then, we went in there last time and I saw his work ethic and how he went about swinging the bat. There are some things that he's going to learn in the next year or so. I think he's going to be all right. When we went back in there, he really improved."

11 DANYS BAEZ, rhp, Akron Aeros (Indians)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country  Signed            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  225  23  Cuba     Indians FA '99    4  9  3.68  18   0 103  98  32  77

The Indians signed Baez to a major league contract worth $14.5 million last November, anticipating that he could help their rotation quickly. That didn’t happen right away, but his occasional brilliance for Akron suggests he may do so in the very near future.

As with Sabathia, Baez' statistics seem lacking. But the Cuban defector made people notice when he unleashed a mid-90s fastball or pounced on a grounder near the mound.

"He's 93, 94 with a pretty good breaking ball that looks like it could be tightened up and made better," Sisson said. "He was much better the second time we saw him. He looks like he's fairly polished. What he has, I think, is going to work in a big-league rotation."

"He's going to have a plus breaking ball and he has a feel for a changeup, but the big thing that sticks out for me is a live fastball," Wedge said. "He's put together very well. He has a very strong lower half, which translates into a guy we feel can get the job done every fifth day."

12 JOEL PINEIRO, rhp, New Haven Ravens (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  180  22  Edison (Fla.) CC  Mariners '97 (12)  2  1  4.13   9   0  52  42  12  43

After struggling with his velocity and leading the EL in losses in 1999, Pineiro returned for nine starts. That was long enough to establish himself as one of the league's premier pitchers before he moved on to Triple-A and then the majors.

"He's got three pitches and he stays down in the strike zone, and he has movement," Etchebarren said. "Nowadays, if you don't throw 96, you better have movement on the ball or they're going to hit you. If you throw 92, 93 straight, they're going to wear you out in the big leagues. And he has good movement down in the strike zone."

Pineiro reminded Sisson of Javier Vazquez, a fellow Puerto Rican who had a similarly short stay in the EL in 1997 before moving into Montreal's rotation.

"I've liked Pineiro for two years," said Sisson. "I probably had him on my list last year, and I liked him even better this year. He was stronger this year. He was probably 10 pounds heavier, but it was good weight in his legs. He's starting to grow up and fill out. He reminds me of Javy Vazquez to the tee, and he did last year, too. He's 93, 94 mph with outstanding command of three pitches. His breaking ball is good enough to be an out pitch in certain counts. His strikeout pitch may end up being a changeup, which is the same way Javy was."

13 LUIS RIVAS, 2b, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  175  21  Venezuela  Twins FA '95  .250  328  56  82  23  6  3  30  11

With Cristian Guzman entrenched at shortstop in Minnesota, the Twins moved Rivas to second base and watched him respond without a hitch. Though it was his second year in the EL, he remained one of the league's youngest players and didn’t turn 21 until the final week of the season, when he was in Triple-A.

His tools looked better than his statistics. Rivas is athletic and has a quick bat that can catch up to any fastball. He’ll be more effective when he stops trying to pull everything.

"I know they moved him to second base, but he can play the heck out of shortstop," said Sisson. "He has value. I think he's going to be a base stealer. I think he's going to hit for some average and I think he's going to hit a lot of doubles. He shows above-average range and above-average arm strength. He has all the tools to play shortstop."

14 JUAN DIAZ, 1b, Trenton Thunder (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  228  24  Cuba      Dodgers FA '96  .313  198  36  62  14  1 17  53   0

Signed by Boston after his contract with the Dodgers was voided, Diaz emerged as the EL's premier power hitter during his 50-game stay with Trenton. Diaz blasted 17 homers before being promoted to Triple-A, where a fractured ankle ended his season.

"He's going to be a guy who hits 30-plus home runs in the big leagues," Davis said. "He has such a good swing. It's not long. He has bat speed. He's able to put the bat on the ball and when he does, it's on the good part of the bat. I don't see a certain way to pitch him where he can't hurt you."

Diaz doesn’t do much besides mash, but that’s all a first baseman is really asked to do. Not even a midseason controversy over a grooved bat could tarnish his image.

"Grooving a bat doesn't make the ball go any farther," Etchebarren said. "It's not like a corked bat. That guy has some bat speed. He was here for about a month and he hit 17 home runs. I like him a lot. I don't know what kind of first baseman he is, but he can hit."

15 DOUG NICKLE, rhp, Reading Phillies (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  210  26  California   Angels '97 (13)   8  3  2.44  49  16  77  55  22  58

Grooming a closer in the minor leagues is rare, as most big league finishers are former starters. Nickle, the league’s most dominant reliever and a member of the league’s most dominant team, may be the exception. He overmatched EL hitters with his knuckle-curve, and he also has a low-90s fastball.

"That knuckle-curve is a tremendous out-pitch," Wakamatsu said. "The adjustment I saw from him was that when he didn't throw his knuckle-curve for a strike, he had to throw his fastball and he got hit. Then he started throwing a slider for a strike so he could use that knuckle-curve for an out pitch. And, it's a major league out pitch."

Said Varsho: "He has a closer's mentality. He wants the ball late in the game. The greater the pressure, the more he wants to be on the mound. He wants to compete. In the right situation, bringing him along slowly and not throwing him into that closer's role on the major league level, he'll eventually work into being a 30-save guy."

16 PABLO OZUNA, 2b, Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  160  22  Dominican Republic  Cardinals FA '96  .308  464  74 143  25  6  7  59  35

With the exception of a brief stay with the Marlins early in the season, Ozuna spent his second full summer in the EL. This time he moved from shortstop to second base, in part because Florida has Alex Gonzalez to play short and in part to compensate for what some consider a weak arm.

Even with Gonzalez having a dreadful season, there are no plans to move Ozuna back to short. In fact, there’s some thought that he may make a better center fielder than second baseman. His offense, namely his speed, remains his best asset.

"I like his hitting ability. He stays inside the ball," Etchebarren said. "Now can he play second base? I don't know. His hands are a little hard for me for a second baseman. I think he can end up as an outfielder, but not as a power hitter. I like him. I think he's going to be a big league player. If his hands get a little softer, I think he can be a fine second baseman."

Said Brown: "Defensively, he's better than he was last year. He's playing more second this year than short, and that's probably where he should be. He has some power. He has the ability to put the ball into play. He doesn't chase as much stuff out of the zone. He's more of a line-drive, gap-type of hitter."

17 MATT KINNEY, rhp, New Britain Rock Cats (Twins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  200  23  HS--Bangor, Maine  Red Sox '95 (6)   6  1  2.71  15   0  86  74  35  93

One of the premier arms in the Twins system, Kinney finally established himself in Double-A after being sidelined for much of 1999 while recovering from elbow surgery. He reduced his ERA by 4.41 from the year before and rocketed through Triple-A en route to Minnesota.

"He has such a great delivery," said one scout who covers the EL. "He has the ability to throw four quality pitches. He can hit 91 to 94 easy. He is so smooth."

Besides his fastball, Kinney has a slider, curveball and changeup. He moves his heater around the strike zone and gets plenty of grounders. Managers also liked his mound presence.

18 RANDY KEISLER, lhp, Norwich Navigators (Yankees)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-3  190  24  Louisiana State  Yankees '98 (2)   6  2  2.60  11   0  73  63  34  70

Keisler reached Double-A toward the end of his first full pro season in 1999 and graduated from the EL after two months this year. He shows good life on his 92-94 mph fastball and his curveball, and has a potentially above-average changeup. Command is his biggest need.

"I like his arm strength," Davis said. "He's a power pitcher. There aren't a lot of lefthanders who throw that hard, and I like his breaking ball. Being at this level and doing what he's done here, and then going to Triple-A and doing the same thing, he has the raw talent that's going to carry him through the minor leagues. I'm not sure he's going to be a No. 1 guy, but he can be a No. 2 or 3 guy at the major league level."

19 CESAR CRESPO, of, Portland Sea Dogs (Marlins)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country           Signed         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-11  170  21  HS--Caguas, P.R.  Mets '97 (3)  .257  482  96 124  21  6  9  60  41

Stuck in an organization with Gonzalez and Ozuna, Crespo made the transition from second base to center field this season. He was acquired from the Mets as part of the Al Leiter trade, which also landed Florida a quality young pitcher in A.J. Burnett.

"He's an interesting guy," Wedge said. "He has had some ups and downs, but he has tremendous bat speed. He has good speed out of the box. Defensively, he tracks down the ball and has a fantastic arm. He's a little guy, but he has some tools."

Versatility is another of his talents. Rohn said Crespo has the speed, power and arm to play either middle-infield position or any of the three outfield spots.

20 PAXTON CRAWFORD, rhp, Trenton Thunder (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  193  23  HS--Carlsbad, N.M.  Red Sox '95 (9)   2  3  3.10   9   0  52  50   6  54

It took more than two seasons, but Crawford finally graduated from the EL. He didn’t stop in Triple-A either, as he also pitched effectively in Boston.

Crawford showed extraordinary command with Trenton, walking just six batters in 52 innings. He has a solid fastball that’s tough to pick up because of his funky delivery, though his key pitch may be his changeup.

"He has an outstanding changeup and that makes his fastball better. That changeup has a real good drop at the plate," Trenton manager Billy Gardner Jr. said. "He's a workhorse, very durable. He's going to give you a lot of innings."

Said Sisson: "His velocity is above average and he has a pretty good breaking ball, and he throws strikes. But, that big strong body—same thing with Baez—nowadays if you can run a guy out there and he can give 200 innings a year, those guys are worth their weight in gold. And Crawford looks like he can be one of those guys."

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