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Class A Midwest League

Top 20 Prospects

By Jim Callis

In 1998, pitchers dominated the list of prospects in the Class A Midwest League. Peoria shortstop Pablo Ozuna was ranked No. 1, but four of the next five spots were filled by Rick Ankiel, Ryan Anderson, A.J. Burnett and Gil Meche, all of whom have gone on to bigger and better things.

Last year, it was the hitters’ turn. The top five prospects in the league were, in order, Corey Patterson, Travis Dawkins, Sean Burroughs, Michael Restovich and Eric Munson. Patterson, Dawkins and Munson all jumped to the majors at some point this season, while Dawkins and Burroughs were reserves on the U.S. Olympic team.

The MWL achieved a nice balance in 2000, and as a result had more talent than in any year in recent memory. There have been seasons that have featured trios of future stars, such as 1985 (B.J. Surhoff, Greg Maddux, Rafael Palmeiro), 1993 (Charles Johnson, Ugueth Urbina, Johnny Damon) and 1994 (Alex Rodriguez, Billy Wagner, Richard Hidalgo), though none of them could match this year’s depth. Any of the top eight prospects might have ranked No. 1 in a typical MWL season.

Several players missed the cut mainly because of the depth in the league. Among them were West Michigan righthander Calvin Chipperfield, who had the MWL’s best ERA and breaking pitch, and Clinton righthander Scott Dunn, who owns power stuff and a perfect game against Lansing. Beloit righthander Jose Mieses ranked among the leaders in most major pitching categories, but managers felt he’d have difficulty getting more advanced hitters to chase his palmball out of the strike zone.

The most disappointing player was Quad City center fielder B.J. Garbe, the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 draft. While it’s not uncommon for a teenager to struggle in full-season ball, managers thought Garbe’s swing was long, his bat slow and his defensive skills ordinary. "I don’t see the tools," one skipper said. Multiskilled outfielders Chip Ambres (Kane County) and Vince Faison (Fort Wayne) also struggled, but MWL observers believed in their potential.

1 JOSH BECKETT, rhp, Kane County Cougars (Marlins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  200  20  HS--Spring, Texas  Marlins '99 (1)  2  3  2.12  13   0  59  45  15  61

Beckett’s pro debut was eagerly anticipated after he missed all of last summer while negotiating a $7 million major league contract as the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 draft. That excitement had to be put on hold, however. Beckett made three starts, went on the disabled list for six weeks with shoulder tendinitis, then came back for two months before being shut down for the season with more tendinitis.

When he took the mound, it was easy to see why Beckett is considered the next link in the tradition of Texas power pitchers that extends from Nolan Ryan to Roger Clemens to Kerry Wood. He threw a consistent 95-96 mph, generating plenty of movement on the MWL’s best fastball with a very fluid delivery. Beckett’s hard curveball is an out pitch, and he made good progress with his changeup.

"He’s just outstanding," said Fort Wayne manager Craig Colbert, whose club managed two hits in 7 2/3 innings against Beckett in July. "He’s going to be a No. 1 pitcher in the big leagues. He topped out at 97 against us, and he has a really nice curveball and very good poise."

2 JUAN CRUZ, rhp, Lansing Lugnuts (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  5  5  3.28  17   0  96  75  60 106

There was every reason to expect Beckett to top this list when the season began. There was none to expect Cruz to be right behind him. Cruz had been hit hard in two years of short-season ball, and he didn’t get past the fifth inning in his first six MWL starts, posting a 9.99 ERA through mid-May.

Then it came together for him. Suddenly Cruz had command of three above-average pitches, a fastball, slider and changeup. Pedro Martinez comparisons became common, not just because Cruz is a skinny Dominican with a live arm and command, but also because he works inside with a vengeance.

"He’s a lot like Pedro," Dayton manager Fred Benavides said. "He struggled early, but look at his last few starts. He was throwing 96-97 and his ball really moves. Plus he has a nasty, hard slider."

In his final 11 starts for Lansing, Cruz went 5-0, 1.00 with 80 strikeouts in 72 innings and a .187 opponent batting average He continued to thrive after moving to the high Class A Florida State League, where he was named the No. 2 prospect and pitched Daytona to the championship.

3 CHRIS SNELLING, of, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  5-10  170  18  Australia   Mariners FA '99  .305  259  44  79   9  5  9  56   7

As with the league’s top pitching prospect, the MWL’s best position-player prospect had trouble staying in the lineup. Snelling broke a bone in his left hand in early June, missed a month, then strained a ligament in his left wrist in his seventh game back, costing him another month. When healthy, there was nothing Snelling couldn’t do and he was an easy choice as the league’s most exciting player.

"This guy is a threat," West Michigan manager Bruce Fields said. "There’s fear everytime he gets to the plate. We’d say, ‘Geez, we don’t want to pitch to this guy.’ "

Though listed a 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Snelling can hit for power and average. He has average speed, center-field range, a right-field arm and good all-around instincts. He also was one of the youngest players in the league at 18, and played on the Australian Olympic team in September.

4 AUSTIN KEARNS, of, Dayton Dragons (Reds)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  210  20  HS--Lexington, Ky.  Reds '98 (1)   .306  484 110 148  37  2 27 104  18

Kearns threw 93-94 mph as a high school junior before his velocity plummeted the following year. He still went eighth overall in the 1998 draft, and now he brings power to the plate instead of from the mound. Kearns homered in eight consecutive games in July, part of a 15-day span in which he hit 14 longballs—one more than he hit in the MWL in all of 1999.

There was no disgrace in repeating a level, because the Reds lack a high Class A team and Kearns was just 19 when the season opened. He led the league in runs, homers, RBIs and extra-base hits, sharing the MWL’s official prospect of the year award with Peoria third baseman Albert Pujols.

"He improved offensively and defensively," said Michigan manager Al Pedrique, comparing this year’s Kearns to last year’s model. "He attacks the ball, though he doesn’t pull much yet. And he has the best outfield arm in the league."

Like Snelling, Kearns offers all five tools. He runs well and plays a solid right field. He also walked nearly as much as he struck out, a very rare accomplishment for a young slugger.

5 ALBERT PUJOLS, 3b, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted              Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  210  20  Maple Woods (Mo.) JC  Cardinals '99 (13)  .324  395  62 128  32  6 17  84   2

Not many players make their pro debut by winning an MVP award in a full-season league. Pujols did just that after signing late as a 13th-round pick from tiny Maple Woods (Mo.) Community College in 1999, and he’s now the best prospect in the St. Louis system.

Manager ranked Pujols as the best batting prospect, best defensive third baseman and the best infield arm in Baseball America’s annual Best Tools survey at midseason. He also topped the league with a .565 slugging percentage. The only tool he lacks is speed, but he moves well and has good actions at the hot corner.

"He has power, he can hit and he’s a really good third baseman," Fields said. "He has a chance to get to the big leagues quickly, probably as much as anyone in the league with the exception of Kearns."

6 RAMON SANTIAGO, ss, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-11  150  19  Dominican Republic  Tigers FA '98  .272  379  69 103  15  1  1  42  39

Before he was shut down with an impingement in the back of his throwing shoulder in July, Santiago played the best shortstop seen in the MWL in many years. He has soft hands, quick feet and a cannon arm, plus he made just eight errors in 81 games. Pedrique compared Santiago to Omar Vizquel, while Beloit manager Don Money likened him to Rafael Furcal.

"He bunts, he runs well and if he hits .250-.260 with his glove, that’s a plus," Money said. "As he gets older, he should be a much better hitter."

Santiago needs to get stronger and tighten his strike zone, but he does have the foundation of a good offensive game. He’s a switch-hitter who’s adept at the bunt and hit-and-run. He realizes his primary goal is to get on base because he’s a dangerous basestealer.

7 JAKE PEAVY, rhp, Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  180  19  HS--Mobile, Ala.  Padres '99 (15)  13  8  2.90  26   0 134 107  53 164

The Padres had six first-round picks in 1999 and spent four of them on pitchers to restock their system. They also scored in the 15th round with Peavy, who has gone 22-9, 2.23 in his first 1 1/2 years as a pro. He tied for the MWL lead in strikeouts and was the ace of the league’s most overpowering pitching staff.

"He’s outstanding," Cedar Rapids manager Tyrone Boykin said. "He has a fastball in the mid-90s to go with a good breaking ball. He just dominated us."

Peavy’s changeup is a nice third pitch behind his fastball and slider. It’s hard to get a good swing off of him because he varies his arm angle and keeps his pitches down in the strike zone.

8 ADAM DUNN, of, Dayton Dragons (Reds)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-5  240  20  HS--New Caney, Texas  Reds '98 (2)   .281  420 101 118  29  1 16  79  24

A former University of Texas quarterback who got lost in the shuffle behind Major Applewhite and recruit Chris Simms, Dunn’s focus is solely on baseball these days. In many respects he’s similar to Kearns, whom he was drafted one round behind in 1998 and has played with for three straight years.

Dunn, too, is an accomplished young hitter with prodigious power and a discriminating eye, and he led the league with a .428 on-base percentage. Kearns is more advanced defensively at this point. Dunn’s arm is his worst tool and relegates him to left field.

Most managers preferred Kearns, but Wisconsin’s Gary Thurman was an exception.

"I think Dunn has more potential," Thurman said. "He’s a big boy, a strong lefthanded hitter who stole a lot of bases. I’m just surprised that his arm isn’t that good for a quarterback."

9 GERIK BAXTER, rhp, Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  185  20  HS--Edmonds, Wash.  Padres '99 (1)  5  6  3.40  20   0 101  81  44 103

Baxter was the first of the four pitchers San Diego chose in the first round of the 1999 draft. He was just hitting his stride in June when he was hit in the head by a line drive, effectively ending his season.

Before he got hurt, Baxter regularly threw his fastball at 92-93 mph and topped out at 96 mph. He also showed an above-average slider and changeup. As is the case with most young pitchers, his main needs are to fine-tune his command and improve his consistency. He’s not quite as smooth and polished as Peavy.

10 MIKE NANNINI, rhp, Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  5-11  175  20  HS--Henderson, Nev.  Astros '98 (1)  7  4  3.55  15   0 101  85  33  86

The Astros tested Nannini by sending him to the MWL at age 18 last season, and he couldn’t quite make the grade. He had no such difficulty in 2000, earning a promotion to the Florida State League after 15 starts.

Managers remembered his low-90s fastball from the year before. What made the difference the second time around was improved secondary pitches. He mixes his changeup well with his fastball, and he also has a plus slider.

Nannini didn’t allow a homer to a lefthanded batter all season in 270 plate appearances between the two leagues. He’s very aggressive, sometimes to the point where he overthrows and loses command.

11 BEN JOHNSON, of, Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  200  19  HS--Germantown, Tenn.  Cardinals '99 (4)  .230  439  69 101  28  3 16  59  17

The Cardinals have traded away so many prospects in recent years that Johnson, a 1999 fourth-round pick, entered the season as the most promising position player in their system. That ended in July, when they dealt him to the Padres to get catcher Carlos Hernandez. Johnson slumped after moving from Peoria to Fort Wayne, but he still showed more than the other really raw tools outfielders in the league, such as Ambres and Faison.

"He’s big and strong and he can run," Lansing manager Steve McFarland said. "He had a below-average year, but look at him and his athleticism and his age. He will dominate if he repeats this league."

Johnson grasps the strike zone pretty well for a teenager. He hits the ball hard, hustles and has a strong arm to go with his good range.

12 DENNIS TANKERSLEY, rhp, Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  185  21  Meramec (Mo.) JC  Red Sox '98 (38)  5  2  2.85  12   0  66  48  25  87

Johnson wasn’t the only MWL prospect acquired by the Padres during the season. They traded Ed Sprague to the Red Sox for shortstop Cesar Saba and Tankersley in June. Someone in the San Diego scouting department deserves a tip of the cap, because Tankersley went from unknown to untouchable almost overnight.

Tankersley had nearly twice as many double-digit strikeout outings (five) as he did games with more than two earned runs (three) in his 12 Fort Wayne starts. His heavy sinker was one of the nastiest pitches in the league, and he was able to throw strikes to both sides of the plate. Tankersley’s delivery and movement reminded Benavides of Kevin Appier.

"He’s been unbelievable for us," Colbert said. "He tops out at 94-95 mph, and he can throw 91-92 with really good sink. He also has a slider and a changeup, and all three of his pitches are good."

13 CARLOS HERNANDEZ, lhp, Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  5-11  150  20  Venezuela   Astros FA '97   6  6  3.82  22   0 111  92  63 115

The Astros’ scouting efforts in Venezuela have produced 12 big leaguers, but none of them has been a pitcher who has won a game for Houston. Hernandez and Double-A Round Rock’s Wilfredo Rodriguez should change that in the near future. Hernandez missed April with a bad back, then no-hit West Michigan in May.

He can touch 93 mph, but Hernandez usually pitches at 89-90 mph with his fastball. His best pitch is a curveball that can be outstanding when he’s going well or bounce in the dirt when he rushes his delivery. His changeup and command still are developing.

14 ANDY VAN HEKKEN, lhp, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-L  6-3  175  21  HS--Holland, Mich.  Mariners '98 (3)  16  6  2.45  26   1 158 139  37 126

The Tigers not only were able to foist one-tool wonder Brian Hunter on the Mariners in an April 1999 trade, they also got Van Hekken as one of two minor leaguers to be named later in the deal. In his first crack at full-season ball, he topped the MWL in victories and was the best prospect on a loaded West Michigan pitching staff that led the league with a 2.98 ERA.

Van Hekken is the prototypical crafty lefthander. He’s effective with his 87-90 mph fastball because he locates it well and sets it up with his curveball and changeup. He works inside, throws strikes and keeps the ball down.

15 JOHN BUCK, c, Michigan Battle Cats (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  200  20  HS--Salt Lake City  Astros '98 (7)  .282  390  57 110  33  0 10  71   2

Ryan Christianson was the first catcher selected in the 1999 draft, but Buck edged him as the MWL’s best backstop prospect. Managers liked his offense and defense, and they were split as to which aspect of his game was stronger.

Owner of a sound swing, Buck stays inside pitches and drives them to the gaps. He had 33 doubles and 10 homers in 2000, and in time could become a 20-homer hitter. He also draws more than his share of walks.

Buck has a strong arm, though at time his release can become a bit long and cost him accuracy on his throws. He improved his game-calling, receiving and blocking skills over the course of the season.

16 RYAN CHRISTIANSON, c, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  202  19  HS--Riverside, Calif.  Mariners '99 (1)  .249  418  60 104  20  0 13  59   1

Christianson hit just .227 in the first half of the season, which Thurman attributed to him putting too much pressure on himself. Once he learned to relax, he hit 48 points higher in the second half. The timing of when they saw Christianson colored managers’ perceptions of his skills.

Everyone agreed that Christianson has power and arm strength. He needs to work on his throwing mechanics, which are inconsistent and lead at times to inaccuracy. He also must tighten his strike zone.

"I liked his defense," Pedrique said. "He blocks well and he does a fine job receiving. He has an idea of how to call a game. He has a chance. But he’s overaggressive at the plate and swings too hard now. He does have some pop."

Said another manager: "I’m not a big fan. I expected more arm strength and consistency with his swing and better receiving skills. He’ll probably hit a lot of home runs, but he’s not much of an athlete. I wish he moved better behind the plate."

17 CHA BAEK, rhp, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  190  20  Korea      Mariners FA '98   8  5  3.95  24   0 128 137  36  99

Baek was another Timber Rattler for whom timing was everything. Early in the season, the $1.3 million Korean bonus baby had elbow problems that he kept to himself. Thurman couldn’t figure out why Baek was throwing 86-88 mph and eschewing his breaking ball until he confessed.

After Baek took some time off, his fastball returned to the low 90s and he started throwing his late-breaking slider more often. He mixes speeds and pitches inside well. Baek finally agreed to start throwing a two-seam fastball, and he gained movement at the cost of a little velocity from the four-seamer he once preferred.

18 RYAN GRIPP, 3b, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School      Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  205  22  Creighton   Cubs '99 (3)  .333  498  87 166  36  0 20  92   4

The Cubs have been searching for a third baseman since should-be Hall of Famer Ron Santo departed following the 1973 season. Suddenly they have a trio of candidates working their way through the minors in Gripp, Eric Hinske and David Kelton. Gripp, the 2000 MWL batting champion, is the most accomplished hitter of the three. He has a short, compact swing that generates plenty of power. He’s selective at the plate and already uses the entire field.

"There are not too many guys at this level who hit the breaking ball consistently like he does," McFarland said. "And he can also catch up to a good fastball."

Managers aren’t as sure of his glove. Gripp has good hands and an accurate arm, but his range, mobility and arm strength are all below average for a third baseman. He was going to focus on his defense in instructional league.

19 FERNANDO RODNEY, rhp, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country              Signed          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  5-11  170  19  Dominican Republic   Tigers FA '97   6  4  2.94  22   0  83  74  35  56

The Tigers were willing to include Francisco Cordero in the ill-fated Juan Gonzalez trade with the Rangers last offseason partly because they had another flamethrowing Dominican in their system. Rodney has an arm that ranked right with that of Beckett and Cruz, capable of delivering 96-97 mph fastballs.

Detroit used Rodney as a starter to get him more innings, though his future probably is in the bullpen. He’s much less refined than Beckett and Cruz, which is why he wasn’t as overpowering. Rodney’s mechanics, command, slider and changeup all need polish. He’s learning that even the quickest of fastballs can get hit when left up in the strike zone.

20 RAFAEL SORIANO, rhp, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  175  20  Dominican Republic  Mariners FA '96   8  4  2.87  21   0 122  97  50  90

Soriano batted .220 in two seasons of Rookie ball as an outfielder before converting to the mound in 1999. Since then, opponents have had less success than he did, batting just .219 against him.

He has plus velocity (low to mid-90s) and movement on his fastball, though the general consensus is that his other pitches need plenty of work. He has made some strides with his slider, and his changeup is further behind. While Soriano has been exclusively a starter, his fastball and current lack of secondary pitches may suit him better for relief.

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