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Triple-A International League

Top 20 Prospects

By Matt Michael and Lacy Lusk

Jon Garland
Jon Garland
Photo: Sports On Film

SYRACUSE—This year, Triple-A International League managers had no difficulty selecting White Sox righthander Jon Garland as their No. 1 prospect. Picking the best center fielder was a little tougher.

Ottawa's Milton Bradley, Syracuse's Vernon Wells and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's Reggie Taylor all were put under the microscope for their talent, work ethic and projectability. All wound up in the top eight along with Garland, unquestioned top hitting prospect Pat Burrell, Burrell’s college teammate Aubrey Huff and unquestioned top middle-infield prospect Alfonso Soriano.

Bradley wound up winning the honors as the best center fielder. He put his previous run-ins with umpires behind him. His game was the same, and his attitude was better.

"His ceiling is the top," Ottawa manager Rick Sweet said. "He can be one of the 10 to 15 best players in the big leagues."

1 JON GARLAND, rhp, Charlotte Knights (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                     Drafted       W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-6  205  21  HS--Granada Hills, Calif.  Cubs '97 (1)  9  2  2.26  16   0 104  99  32  63

Composed enough to outduel Barry Zito in a Triple-A World Series game last year, Garland dominated the league before being called up to the White Sox during the pennant race. He hasn't been an immediate success in the major leagues, but he hasn't exactly embarrassed the American League Central Division leaders. A calm Southern Californian, Garland has an outstanding sinker that his manager last year, Tom Spencer, compared to Kevin Brown's.

"More than that, I was real impressed with his poise," Louisville manager Dave Miley said. "He has a great fastball and a great curveball, and he's in control out there."

Garland entered this season with just seven regular-season starts above Class A. Yet just 25 months after the Cubs traded him straight up for reliever Matt Karchner, he was in the big leagues and Karchner wasn't.

"He was really a complete pitcher for us," Charlotte manager Nick Leyva said. "I hope we don't get him back."

2 PAT BURRELL, of/1b, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School  Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  230  23  Miami   Phillies '98 (1)  .294  143  31  42  15  1  4  25   1

A year after refusing to give in to J.D. Drew's contract demands, the Phillies gave Burrell a $3.15 million signing bonus as part of an $8 million guaranteed contract. So far, it appears the Phillies made the right choice about who to spend their money on.

Burrell, 23, emerged as one of the National League's top rookies this season after spending the first six weeks of the season with the Red Barons.

"He's special with the bat," Scranton manager Marc Bombard said. "The ball coming off his bat is just different. With his offensive potential, who knows? The sky could be the limit."

Burrell has a good knowledge of the strike zone, though he tends to be impatient at the plate. He walked 56 times in his first 101 games with the Phillies, in addition to 127 strikeouts in 374 at-bats. Bombard says Burrell has the makeup and work ethic to iron out his flaws and hit for a high average.

Philadelphia still has to decide where it will use Burrell. A third baseman in college, he shifted between the outfield and first base for the Phillies. After they picked up Travis Lee, Burrell played mostly in left.

"It doesn't matter with him," Bombard said. "He'll play wherever you put him. Wherever he's at, it's not going to take away from his hitting."

3 MILTON BRADLEY, of, Ottawa Lynx (Expos)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  6-0  170  22  HS--Long Beach  Expos '96 (2)  .304  342  58 104  20  1  6  29  10

Bradley made enormous strides this season—as a player and a person.

When the Expos returned Bradley to Ottawa in August after a brief callup to Montreal, Sweet wasn't sure what kind of person he'd get. Sweet was the organization’s field coordinator in 1999, so he was well aware of Bradley's history of moodiness and attitude problems.

"He was a model citizen," said Sweet, who took over as Ottawa's manager in late July. "He was great for the club. He is definitely maturing. He's going to be something when he learns to play the game. Not the game of baseball, but the game of communication and life."

In his first 40 games for the Expos this season, Bradley batted .225-2-15. He still has a lot of work to do smoothing out the rough edges in his game, but he has 30-30 potential. The Expos are confident he'll be a more than adequate replacement for outfielder Rondell White, who was traded to the Cubs in July.

4 AUBREY HUFF, 3b, Durham Bulls (Devil Rays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School  Drafted              Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-4  220  23  Miami   Devil Rays '98 (5)  .316  408  73 129  36  3 20  76   2

A teammate of Burrell's at the University of Miami, Huff also made it to the big leagues a little more than two years after he was drafted.

His defense is average and he won't leg out many infield hits, but he has the hitting ability that big league clubs want from their third basemen. He has hit better than .300 in each of his three minor league seasons, driving the ball to all fields.

"He hit for us in every kind of situation—with men on base, two strikes, you name it," Durham manager Bill Evers said. "He has an idea of what he's doing up there."

5 ALFONSO SORIANO, ss-2b, Columbus Clippers (Yankees)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  170  22  Dominican Republic  Yankees FA '98  .290  459  90 133  32  6 12  66  14

Through all of their wheeling and dealing this past season, the Yankees somehow managed to hang on to Soriano, the top prospect in their minor league system. How long he remains with the organization, though, remains to be seen.

Soriano wants to play shortstop, but the Yankees already have all-star Derek Jeter and won’t move him. The Yankees could move second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to left field and put Soriano at second, but that appears to be a last-ditch option only if Knoblauch can't overcome his throwing problems.

If Soriano stays with the Yankees, he could be looking at another year at Columbus, which might not be a bad idea because he's still a work in progress. Soriano needs to be more disciplined at the plate, and at times he loses his concentration in the field. He has a very quick bat and should produce enough power for just about any position on the diamond.

"He still needs to polish his tools," Columbus manager Trey Hillman said. "But the talent is just as spectacular as we thought it was two years ago when we signed him."

Opinions ranged on Soriano. A few managers thought he regressed this year after winning the Futures Game MVP award in 1999, but others like Norfolk's John Gibbons ranked him the best prospect in the league.

6 BEN SHEETS, rhp, Indianapolis Indians (Brewers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  195  22  NE Louisiana  Brewers '99 (1)  3  5  2.87  14   0  82  77  31  59

Only the Olympics prevented Sheets from playing in the major leagues this September, a little more than a year after he was drafted. The 10th overall pick in the 1999 draft out of Northeast Louisiana, Sheets reached Triple-A midway through this season.

Sheets has three major league quality pitches (a low-90s fastball, a curveball and a changeup), and he throws them for strikes. But IL managers said Sheets' most impressive trait, like Garland's, is his composure.

"We saw him in one of his first Triple-A starts, and he had wonderful poise on the mound," Toledo manager Glenn Ezell said. "He's able to throw his breaking ball over for strikes and has plenty of fastball to go along with that."

Said Steve Smith, Sheets' manager at Indianapolis: "For a guy in his first full year, he's handled it well. He was unlucky in a few games where we weren't very good defensively, but he kept it together out there."

7 VERNON WELLS, of, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  210  21  HS--Arlington, Texas  Blue Jays '97 (1)  .243  493  76 120  31  7 16  66  23

If Wells had finished the 1999 season where he started it, with Dunedin in the Class A Florida State League, then his 2000 season with Syracuse would have looked a lot better. But Wells raised his bar last year, when he climbed from Dunedin to Double-A Knoxville to Syracuse and to the Blue Jays. The expectations were high, and Wells—ranked as the game's fourth-best prospect at the start of the season–didn’t meet them.

Still, Wells remains one of baseball’s top young talents. He’s a legitimate five-tool guy, though like Bradley he’s still refining his skills.

Several teams asked for Wells in trade talks, and the Blue Jays repeatedly turned them down. Why?

"His tools. His age," Syracuse manager Mel Queen said. "There's still a lot of room for improvement, and he's got the ability to do that."

What most impressed Queen was Wells' ability to separate his defense from his early-season slump. Wells was batting .220 on July 1, but he always was brilliant in center.

"He has the ability to play shallow but still prevent balls from going over his head," Queen said. "He gets a very good jump on the ball and reads the ball very well."

8 REGGIE TAYLOR, of, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-1  175  23  HS--Newberry, S.C.  Phillies '95 (1)  .275  422  60 116  10  8 15  43  23

Like Wells did a year ago, Taylor stood out this season as the IL's premier five-tool player. "He may be the best player in the league," Rochester manager Marv Foley said.

Not bad for a guy who was supposed to miss the first three or four months after dislocating his left shoulder in winter ball. Instead, Taylor made it back before the end of May. As a Triple-A rookie, he held his own as a hitter and hit for occasional power. Meanwhile, he displayed Jim Edmonds-like range in center field and an accurate, above-average arm.

"He can do a whole lot of good things," Ezell said. "He's very impressive defensively, offensively and on the bases."

Taylor still has a lot of room for improvement, particularly at the plate and on the bases. He needs to show more patience and develop a better plan on how to attack pitchers. He also needs to refine his baserunning. With Pat Burrell, Doug Glanville and Bobby Abreu set in the Phillies' outfield, Taylor should be able to get the extra seasoning he needs in Triple-A next year.

9 TOMOKAZU OHKA, rhp, Pawtucket Red Sox (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  180  24  Japan     Red Sox FA '98  9  6  2.96  19   0 131 111  23  78

Pawtucket manager Gary Jones said all along that all Ohka needed was a chance, and Ohka proved Jones right.

"He needs an opportunity to put four or five starts together at the major league level and when he does, he'll open some eyes," Jones said in late July. "He'll have a lot of success, because he can pitch."

In previous stints with the parent Red Sox, Ohka never had a chance to make more than a couple of consecutive starts. Injuries in Boston made Ohka a regular member of the rotation in August, and the Japanese righthander took advantage of it. He went 3-5, 3.62 in his first 10 starts, helping keep the Red Sox in the wild-card race.

Though Ohka went 15-0 combined in Double-A and Triple-A in 1999, Jones said Ohka was better this year because he improved at locating his pitches. Ohka doesn’t have an overpowering fastball, so he must spot his offspeed pitches where he wants them. He threw a nine-inning perfect game, the third in league history, against Charlotte on June 1.

10 BRAD WILKERSON, of, Ottawa Lynx (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)  .250  212  40  53  11  1 12  35   5

The Expos nearly took Wilkerson, a two-way star at the University of Florida, in the first round of the 1998 draft. They couldn't come to a predraft financial agreement but are thankful they got him as a supplemental first-rounder and were able to sign him for a $1 million bonus.

After hitting just .235 in 422 Double-A at-bats last year in his pro debut, Wilkerson feasted on pitching at the same level this year to get a callup to Ottawa. He was more aggressive at the plate and showed more power, stroking a combined 47 doubles and 18 homers between the Eastern League and the IL.

Though he projects as a corner outfielder, Wilkerson played center field for the U.S. Olympic team in September.

"He's going to be a very solid player," Sweet said. "He can throw and he can run. He gets good jumps in the outfield. Make no mistake, though, he's mainly an offensive player."

11 RUSSELL BRANYAN, 3b-of, Buffalo Bisons (Indians)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-3  195  24  HS--Warner Robins, Ga.  Indians '94 (7)  .245  229  46  56   9  2 21  60   1

The Indians rolled the dice in July, and Branyan will determine if Cleveland's gamble will pay off. At the trading deadline, the Indians dealt outfielder Richie Sexson to the Brewers as part of a package for three pitchers.

In the short term, Cleveland wanted to make a run at the American League's wild-card playoff berth. In the long run, especially if Manny Ramirez signs with another team this offseason, the Indians are counting on Branyan to replace Sexson's booming bat in the outfield or at DH.

The key is whether or not Branyan can make enough contact to take advantage of his Ken Griffeyesque batting stroke. He fanned 69 times in his first 166 at-bats for Cleveland this season, but he also drilled 16 homers. Branyan also isn’t a one-dimensional slugger, as he draws walks, runs OK and has a strong arm.

"He's a power hitter. He's going to strike out," Buffalo manager Joel Skinner said. "He's getting better with pitch recognition, and when he has a better idea of the strike zone that'll make a big difference."

12 JASON TYNER, of, Norfolk Tides (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School     Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-1  170  23  Texas A&M  Mets '98 (1)  .321  327  54 105   5  2  0  28  33

Tyner got a brief look from the Mets before they traded him to the Devil Rays at the deadline in a deal for reliever Rick White and reserve outfielder Bubba Trammell. Tyner went straight to Tampa Bay, though Evers wouldn't have minded having him in Durham. "He's a guy who can run and play solid defense, a good guy to have at the top of the order," Evers said.

Tyner hasn't hit a home run since high school, including a three-year career at Texas A&M, but his value comes from his leadoff skills (including on-base ability and speed) and the ground he covers in the outfield. He played center field in the minors, but has been used mostly as a left fielder by New York and Tampa Bay.

13 JIMMY ROLLINS, ss, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-8  160  21  HS--Alameda, Calif.  Phillies '96 (2)  .274  470  67 129  28 11 12  69  24

Though he had to play on the same team with Burrell and Taylor, Rollins didn’t go unnoticed by IL managers. In fact, many of them believe Rollins' future is brighter than Taylor's.

"He has the range and arm, he has speed and he'll be a good hitter," Jones said. "He brings the whole package."

Rollins overcame a slow start this season. He displayed gap power, a good eye at the plate and keen instincts on the basepaths.

"He's wiry, but he's durable and strong," Bombard said. "At the next level, if there's a man on second base and the outfielders want to cheat in, he'll hit the ball over their heads."

Rollins could get that chance as soon as 2001. The Phillies traded Desi Relaford to the Padres in August, and his replacement, Tomas Perez, hasn’t even been good enough to warrant being called a stopgap.

14 TIMONIEL PEREZ, of, Norfolk Tides (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country              Signed    Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  5-8  140  23  Dominican Republic  *Mets     .357  291  45 104  17  5  6  37  13
*Purchased/Japan '00

Tyner may be gone, but the Mets still have a potential major league outfielder in Perez. A Dominican, he played four seasons with Japan’s Hiroshima Carp before heading Stateside this year.

"He does a very good job in the outfield, and he's a guy who's going to hit," Ezell said. "He's not intimidated at the plate. I don't think he's going to be a major impact player, but I think he'll be a very good major leaguer. He can go from foul line to foul line, and he has some pop in his bat."

15 RANDY KEISLER, lhp, Columbus Clippers (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)  8  3  3.02  17   0 113 104  42  86

With a five-inning victory over the Red Sox in his major league debut in September, Keisler continued his dazzling 2000 that began in Double-A.

In a year in which so many of the Yankees' top prospects were either hurt, ineffective or traded, Keisler completed a two-season sprint toward New York. He was a second-round pick in 1998 despite having had Tommy John surgery while at Louisiana State.

Keisler throws in the low to mid-90s, quite hard for a lefthander, and has a decent curveball and changeup. Some IL managers and Yankees officials don't think his ceiling is very high. The Indians reportedly had a chance to take Keisler in the David Justice trade and took Class A righthander Zach Day instead.

16 SUN-WOO KIM, rhp, Pawtucket Red Sox (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  180  23  Korea     Red Sox '97 FA  11  7  6.03  26   0 134 170  42 116

Kim got into a fight this season with his teammate Ohka over who was the better prospect. Ohka has a small edge now, though Kim is coming along nicely. And Kim, a veteran of the 1996 Korean Olympic team, probably has a higher ceiling than Ohka.

"He has a real nice breaking pitch," Evers said. "He and Ohka have two of the best in the league."

Kim throws a little harder than Ohka, reaching the mid-90s at times, though his breaking stuff isn’t as good. Kim also needs to improve his sinker and changeup.

17 BRANDON INGE, c, Toledo Mud Hens (Tigers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  185  23  Va. Commonwealth  Tigers '98 (2)  .221  190  24  42   9  3  5  20   2

An outstanding shortstop and reliever at Virginia Commonwealth, Inge immediately converted to catcher upon signing. The move behind the plate has worked out better than expected.

Inge hit just .221 after his promotion from Double-A Jacksonville, but consider that he spent 1999 in low Class A. He’s a rare up-and-coming backstop who may be able to do more than catch and throw. He’s a good athlete, a potential Brad Ausmus with more power.

"Obviously, he's going to struggle a little bit," said Ezell, a former catcher. "Here's a guy just in his second full year of catching. He's on-the-job learning, but he's getting better and better. Personally, I think he's going to hit enough to be a No. 1 catcher in the big leagues."

18 RYAN KOHLMEIER, rhp, Rochester Red Wings (Orioles)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  195  23  Butler Co. (Kan.) CC  Orioles '96 (14)  1  4  2.15  37  10  47  33  16  49

Opportunity knocked and Kohlmeier answered. The Orioles needed a closer after getting rid of Mike Timlin during their trade-deadline fire sale, and Kohlmeier grabbed the job. In his first 20 games with Baltimore, he posted a 2.08 ERA and converted all 11 of his save chances.

And to think Kohlmeier didn’t make Baltimore’s Top 15 prospects in the offseason. He has an above-average fastball to go with a good slider, plus he keeps the ball down in the strike zone. He isn’t afraid to challenge hitters.

"He's got a little different arm angle, so hitters don't get a good look at him," Buffalo manager Joel Skinner said. "He's unflappable out there. And he throws strikes."

19 GRANT ROBERTS, rhp, Norfolk Tides (Mets)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  205  23  HS--La Mesa, Calif.  Mets '95 (11)  7  8  3.38  25   0 157 154  63 115

Roberts had elbow surgery following the 1997 season, but he has made a full recovery. He may have a shot at making New York’s rotation next year.

Roberts threw as hard as almost as anyone in the league this year, hitting the mid-90s even on conservative radar guns, and he has a strong pitcher's frame at 6-foot-3. He was more consistent with his slider than in years past.

20 CESAR IZTURIS, ss, Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-9  155  20  Venezuela  Blue Jays FA '96  .218  435  54  95  16  5  0  27  21

Making a jump from Class A to Triple-A, Izturis looked out of place on some nights this season. But he showed off one of the best arms in the league and was able to survive the test. And while the Blue Jays traded away some of its minor league infield depth, they declined all inquiries about Izturis.

In contrast Wells' second season in Syracuse, less will be expected of Izturis and perhaps he'll show more when he almost certainly returns to the IL in 2001. If he can draw more walks he might make a good leadoff man, because he runs well and makes solid contact.

"From what I've seen, he's the best defensive shortstop in the league," Syracuse manager Mel Queen said. "He's going to hit a little bit. He's 20 and came out of A-ball, so it was a pretty big jump for him."

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