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Class A Florida State League

Top 20 Prospects

By Will Lingo

The high Class A Florida State League celebrated its last season (for the time being) with 14 teams in style, as the diehards who actually attend FSL games were treated to a steady stream of talented prospects.

The FSL will drop to 12 teams next season, losing Kissimmee (Astros) and St. Petersburg (Devil Rays). The Astros are likely to have two low Class A affiliates next year, while the Devil Rays will ship their high Class A players to the California League.

Befitting such a large league, prospects were in abundance, and the FSL lived up to its reputation as a pitcher's circuit. There were so many to choose from that managers had a hard time picking the best. One of the problems was that so many pitchers just passed through the league for part of the season—even more than usual, it seemed.

So while the league didn’t have a slam-dunk top prospect this year, as Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells was in 1999 at Dunedin, it does present a solid lineup of players who have big league futures.

1 KEVIN MENCH, of, Charlotte Rangers (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School    Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  215  22  Delaware  Rangers '99 (4)   .334  491 118 164  39  9 27 121  19

Mench was a terror in college at Delaware, winning the NCAA Division I home run title as a sophomore in 1998, but he was not regarded as a premium prospect last year. Even after hitting .357 in his pro debut, he didn't show up on any prospect lists.

That changes now, after a dominant offensive year that should remove doubts about his adjustment to wood bats. In addition to appearing at or near the top of all the FSL offensive categories, Mench was second in the minors in slugging percentage—the only member of the top five who didn't play in the Pacific Coast League.

Mench has power to all fields and was noted as the most polished hitter in the league. Unlike many Class A players, he goes to the plate with a plan and is already a good situational hitter. Managers said he was deadly in RBI situations, and the numbers certainly bear that out. He’ll be adequate defensively in left field.

Yet what managers liked most about him was his approach to the game. Mench plays with tremendous passion.

"He has great bat speed and loves to play," Charlotte manager Bob Miscik said. "If there is one thing that stands out about him over everything else, it's how much he enjoys playing the game."

2 JUAN CRUZ, rhp, Daytona Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  155  20  Dominican Republic  Cubs FA '97   3  0  3.25   8   0  44  30  18  54

He wasn't around very long, but no pitcher made a stronger impression than Cruz in the final third of the season, including the playoffs. He came up after making 17 starts in the Class A Midwest League, and like any wiry Dominican pitcher with great stuff, he evoked the name of Pedro Martinez.

Though he's just 19, Cruz overpowered older hitters and kept them on their heels. He has a low three-quarters delivery and can reach 97 mph with his fastball. He has two breaking pitches and a good changeup. Managers said he's the kind of pitcher an organization builds around.

"He really shoved it up our tailpipe in the playoffs," St. Lucie manager Dave Engle said. "I'm talking about my 3-4-5 hitters, they're just walking back to the dugout. He's just buckling guys on the slider. They couldn't get a swing off against him."

3 ROY OSWALT, rhp, Kissimmee Cobras (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  170  23  Holmes (Miss.) JC  Astros '96 (23)   4  3  2.98   8   0  45  52  11  47

Oswalt went from relative obscurity to the U.S. Olympic team this season, and Kissimmee was his launching pad. He made just eight starts there before making an emergency start in Double-A, and his 15-strikeout shutout ensured that he wouldn't be coming back to the FSL.

Some have likened Oswalt to a righthanded Mike Hampton because of the way both are built, but he still has a ways to go to make that comparison apt. Oswalt throws a 95-mph fastball and an outstanding curveball that still needs refinement.

"You would have to call Oswalt a work in progress," Dunedin manager Marty Pevey said. "But he's a very good work in progress."

4 BRIAN COLE, of, St. Lucie Mets (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-9  170  22  Navarro (Texas) JC  Mets '98 (18)   .312  375  73 117  26  5 15  61  54

Cole was Baseball America's Junior College Player of the Year in 1998 at Navarro (Texas) JC, but he was mostly unheralded until this season because of his size. After spending a lot of time in the weight room, Cole turned his new muscle into an amazing FSL performance.

Managers voted him the league's most exciting player at midseason, and their feelings didn't change after he was promoted to Double-A. His speed-power package and developing maturity at the plate make him an intriguing leadoff prospect, and he’s becoming an outstanding defender in center field as well.

"As the season progressed he became more selective," Vero Beach manager John Shoemaker said. "Dave Engle has helped him develop into a potential leadoff hitter in the big leagues."

5 ADAM JOHNSON, rhp, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  210  21  Cal State Fullerton  Twins '00 (1)   5  4  2.47  13   0  69  45  20  92

Johnson spent the spring at Cal State Fullerton, where he set school records for strikeouts in a season (166) and career (365). The Twins made him the No. 2 overall pick in June—signability played a key factor in that decision—and he continued to pitch well and post impressive strikeout numbers.

With a fastball in the low 90s and a potentially dominant slider, Johnson has the tools for success. He pulls it all together with a bulldog approach and an advanced idea of how to attack hitters.

"He really showed the stuff," Engle said. "He was poised, he had the stuff, had the command. He knew what he was doing."

6 PAT STRANGE, rhp, St. Lucie Mets (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-5  240  20  HS--Springfield, Mass.  Mets '98 (2)   10  1  3.58  19   0  88  78  32  77

Strange probably would have been a first-round pick in 1998 if his velocity hadn't dropped in his senior year of high school. He appears to be completely over that now, dominating the FSL before a promotion to Double-A.

Strange throws a heavy, 91-94 mph fastball with a lot of late movement. He's very deceptive and has the makings of great complementary pitches as well. He throws a slider that still needs work and two changeups, including one that has slider-like movement.

Bringing the package together is Strange's understanding of pitching and bulldog approach. "He's the king of the throne out there," Daytona manager Richie Zisk said, "and you're not going to knock him off."

7 HEE SEOP CHOI, 1b, Daytona Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-5  240  21  Korea      Cubs FA '99   .296  345  60 102  25  6 15  70   4

Choi is part of the contingent of talented young players that gives Cubs fans reason for hope. His progress apparently has Chicago leaning toward not re-signing Mark Grace after the 2000 season.

Choi is an imposing specimen who should hit for both average and power, though both areas are still developing. He can crush the ball out of any part of the ballpark. He also should be a strong defensive first baseman.

"He's going to be a very consistent hitter," Zisk said. "When he realizes what people are trying to do with him at the plate, he will take the next step in his development."

8 JOE LAWRENCE, c, Dunedin Blue Jays (Blue Jays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  190  23  HS--Lake Charles, La.  Blue Jays '96 (1)  .301  375  69 113  32  1 13  67  21

Lawrence took a step back this season, but it looks like it will be a step forward in the long run. After spending most of his professional career as a third baseman, Lawrence moved behind the plate this year, the continuation of an experiment the Blue Jays last tried in instructional league in 1998.

Returning to the FSL after playing there in 1998, Lawrence impressed managers most with his bat. He’s still learning the ins and outs of catching, but he has the strong arm to become a standout there as well.

"He is a professional hitter, very consistent with a good idea at the plate," Lakeland manager Skeeter Barnes said. "He hits the ball all over the field and is very skilled at hitting it the other way. He's the kind of hitter that avoids long slumps."

9 TIM REDDING, rhp, Kissimmee Cobras (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  182  22  Monroe (N.Y.) CC  Astros '97 (20)  12  5  2.68  24   0 155 125  57 170

Like Oswalt, Redding was also a draft-and-follow sign by the Astros, one of baseball’s best practitioners of that craft. Redding flourished after a midseason switch to closer in 1999, but Houston moved him back into the rotation this season and he really came into his own, earning a late promotion to Double-A.

Maturity is probably the biggest reason Redding emerged, as bad breaks didn't bother him as much as in the past. His calling card is still his explosive, mid-90s fastball that many managers regarded as the best in the league.

Redding showed the potential to remain a starter, though, because he’s developing his complementary pitches. His breaking pitch, alternately described as a curve or a slider, was tough on Class A hitters, though it still needs refinement. He also needs to work on his changeup and on reducing pitch counts.

10 ANDRES TORRES, of, Lakeland Tigers (Tigers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-10  175  22  Miami-Dade CC North  Tigers '98 (4)  .296  398  82 118  11 11  3  33  65

If Cole was the most exciting player in the league, Torres was at least on the ballot. He was a track star in high school and started playing baseball relatively late, but his raw athletic ability is starting to translate into baseball ability now.

Torres has lots of speed, which makes him a threat on the bases and a great defensive outfielder. He can run down just about anything. He's learning to put the ball in play to make use of his speed, and he still has to learn all the fine points of basestealing.

If he develops as expected, he'll be a prototype leadoff hitter. Some managers weren't convinced he could do that.

"He's just a little speed guy who steals meaningless bases," one said. "He'll steal third late in a game when it doesn't matter."

11 BEN CHRISTENSEN, rhp, Daytona Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  205  22  Wichita State  Cubs '99 (1)   4  2  2.10  10   0  64  43  15  63

Christensen always will be identified with an incident that occurred while he was at Wichita State. He was suspended for the remainder of his junior season after beaning Evansville's Anthony Molina in the on-deck circle. With a full, successful professional season under his belt, though, he has started to put that behind him.

Christensen has superior stuff, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a developing but potentially outstanding slider. He was simply dominant in the FSL. He remains an aggressive pitcher who's willing to work both sides of the plate. In spite of missing time with shoulder tendinitis this season, he earned a promotion to Double-A after just 10 starts.

12 WES ANDERSON, rhp, Brevard County Manatees (Marlins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  175  21  HS--Pine Bluff, Ark.  Marlins '97 (14)  6  9  3.42  22   0 116 108  66  91

Anderson has a premium arm but fell in the 1997 draft because he was thought to be intent on attending the University of Arkansas. He signed too late to pitch much in 1997 and has missed significant time in each of the last two seasons with shoulder tendinitis.

With a fastball that can reach 97 mph and a good slider, Anderson's stuff can be devastating. He has the potential to have great command but needs more innings. He was dominant in his first eight starts before missing a month, and it took him some time after that to regain his form.

"When he was right he had some very good stuff," Shoemaker said.

13 DAVID KELTON, 3b, Daytona Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  190  20  HS--La Grange, Ga.  Cubs '98 (2)   .268  523  75 140  30  7 18  84   7

The Cubs' futility at third base is almost as big a part of the team's lore as its struggles to get back to the World Series. Kelton is probably the organization's best bet to fill that hole. As he and the other Cubs on this list show, the organization has hope that an infusion of young talent will rejuvenate the team.

Kelton has the potential to be an impact player in the big leagues, with legitimate 30-homer power, though he still can be out of control at the plate. He has the tools to be at least average at third base, and he made progress with both the glove and bat this season.

"His quality at-bats started to follow each other late in the season," Zisk said. "The more you're around the plate, the better he's going to be."

14 CASEY FOSSUM, lhp, Sarasota Red Sox (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School      Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
B-L  6-0  160  22  Texas A&M   Red Sox '99 (1)   9 10  3.44  27   0 149 147  36 143

Fossum is a polished pitcher who led Texas A&M to the College World Series in 1999 before the Red Sox drafted him. His first full professional season was highlighted by a no-hitter with 16 strikeouts against Clearwater in August.

Fossum looked better as the season wore on, as he learned how to use his arsenal to get righthanders out consistently. He’s a wiry pitcher who has average velocity and relies on his slider as his out pitch. He’s in many ways a typical lefthander, relying on movement and command to get hitters out.

Fossum will get every opportunity to be a big league starter but also would be an effective lefty bullpen specialist.

15 TRAVIS HAFNER, 3b, Charlotte Rangers (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-3  215  23  Cowley County CC  Rangers '96 (31)  .346  436  90 151  34  1 22 109   0

A North Dakota native, Hafner was a relative unknown coming into the season. A draft-and-follow who showed little in his first two professional seasons, he put up good numbers in a repeat of the low Class A South Atlantic League in 1999. That was nothing compared to his breakout this year, though, when he started hot and stayed hot all season.

"Big" and "strong" are the words used most often to describe Hafner. He has legitimate power to all fields and often looked like a man among boys in the FSL, and he was able to hit for average as well. He'll have to make his way with the bat because he's limited defensively. He played first base and a little bit of third this season, but appeared in nearly as many games as a DH.

16 ALEX GRAMAN, lhp, Tampa Yankees (Yankees)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-4  195  22  Indiana State  Yankees '99 (3)   8  9  3.65  28   0 143 120  58 111

Graman never has put up overwhelming numbers, but a big lefthander who shows flashes is always going to draw interest. His name came up often during trade talks at midseason, but the Yankees ultimately decided to hold on to him. He earned a late promotion to Double-A for one start.

Graman shows an above-average fastball for a lefthander, along with a solid curveball and improving command. He’s still inconsistent, as evidenced by when he followed a four-inning start when he gave up six earned runs with a seven-inning shutout.

17 MICHAEL RESTOVICH, of, Fort Myers Miracle (Twins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  233  21  HS--Rochester, Minn.  Twins '97 (2)   .263  475  73 125  27  9  8  64  19

Restovich is a Minnesota native who turned down a scholarship to Notre Dame to sign with the Twins. He is an outstanding all-around athlete who played both football and basketball in high school.

Because he played other sports and has less baseball experience than some players, Restovich is being brought along slowly by the Twins. If his bat continues to mature, he should grow into a steady run producer. He’s a tireless worker and has great strength, but needs to stay behind the ball to show his power on the diamond. He also should be an above-average defensive outfielder.

"He has a slow bat, and I'm not sure if he'll be able to overcome that," one manager said. "He'll have to sit on pitches better. He has trouble with good fastballs."

18 RANDEY DORAME, lhp, Vero Beach Dodgers (Dodgers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-2  205  21  Mexico    Dodgers '97 FA   7  1  2.21   9   0  57  50  13  49

After winning Cal League pitcher-of-the-year honors in 1999, Dorame was dominant in the FSL this year, earning a promotion to Double-A after just nine starts. Then the Rockies were able to grab him in a deadline deal for Tom Goodwin.

Dorame is another crafty lefthander who relies on a curveball that had been rated the best breaking pitch in the Dodgers organization. He has average velocity with his fastball and must have command in order to be effective.

"The longer the game went, the stronger he got," Barnes said. "He's a control pitcher who can throw his fastball, curveball or changeup at any time."

19 BRIAN REITH, rhp, Tampa Yankees (Yankees)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-5  190  22  HS--Fort Wayne, Ind.  Yankees '96 (6)  9  4  2.18  18   0 120 101  33 100

While the Yankees kept Graman, they did part with Reith as one of the four prospects the sent to the Reds to get Denny Neagle. Reith repeated the FSL this year after a mediocre 9-9, 4.70 effort in 1999. He finished up the season in Double-A with the Reds.

The encore worked out well for Reith, who was impressive the second time around. He throws in the mid-90s and has a good breaking pitch that was described as both a curveball and a slider. He succeeded this year by commanding the strike zone better.

20 ROB STRATTON, of, St. Lucie Mets (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  240  23  HS--Santa Barbara, Ca.  Mets '96 (1)  .228  381  61  87  18  4 29  87   3

Stratton always has been something of an enigma since the Mets drafted him, battling injuries and getting traded to the Marlins and back to the Mets within six weeks in 1998. His 381 at-bats this season were easily a career high.

Like Stratton's swing, managers' assessment of his value was boom or bust. He makes the list only because of his overwhelming power potential, which in the current age of the game could be enough if he can make more contact. Until he does that, he will remain a minor league oddity.

"He has as much power as anyone in baseball," Engle said. "He has made a lot of steady improvement over the past two years, and his defense has improved."

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