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Triple-A Pacific Coast League

Top 20 Prospects

By Jim Callis

The Triple-A Pacific Coast League has a well-deserved reputation for hitter’s parks, especially as you move from east to west. Surprisingly, though, pitchers dominated the prospect landscape in what wasn’t the PCL’s best year for talent.

Six of the league’s top seven prospects were pitchers. Three of them finished the season pitching solidly in major league rotations, while another traveled to the Olympics with Team USA.

The lone hitter to crack the top seven was Sacramento infielder Jose Ortiz, who went from a so-so PCL season in 1999 to MVP this year. Managers unanimously endorsed Ortiz but had at least some reservations about every other position player in the league.

Memphis won the PCL championship without placing a prospect in the Top 20. Redbirds lefthander Bud Smith, who went 12-1 in Double-A and 5-1 in Triple-A at age 20, drew respect but didn’t overwhelm managers with his stuff. His own skipper, Gaylen Pitts, did say Smith was more advanced than Rick Ankiel was at the same age with Memphis a year ago.

1 RYAN ANDERSON, lhp, Tacoma Rainiers (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-10  215  21  HS--Dearborn, Mich.  Mariners '97 (1)  5  8  3.98  20   0 104  83  55 146

As a 6-foot-10 lefthander in the Mariners system, Anderson can’t help but draw comparisons to Randy Johnson. He did his best to live up to them in April, when he dominated PCL hitters and seemed on the verge of forcing a promotion to Seattle. He tailed off for two months, then began to rebound in July before being shut down with shoulder tendinitis.

There are no concerns about Anderson’s long-term health, but he did lose out on either a berth on the U.S. Olympic team or a September callup. Managers don’t doubt that there will be plenty of glory in Anderson’s future.

"He just needs command," Salt Lake manager Phil Roof said. "He has confidence and maturity, and he’s way ahead of where Randy Johnson was at the same point. And people overlook his changeup."

It’s easy to overlook a guy’s changeup when he has a fastball in the upper 90s and a hard curveball that’s deadly when he throws it for strikes. Though Anderson is a power-pitching lefthander, he has surprising trouble with lefties, who hit nearly twice as well against him (.360) as righthanders (.184). At 21, he may need a few more Triple-A innings at the beginning of 2001.

2 BARRY ZITO, lhp, Sacramento RiverCats (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-4  205  22  Southern California  Athletics '99 (1)  8  5  3.19  18   0 102  88  45  91

Zito went ninth overall in the 1999 draft in part because he was expected to reach the major leagues quickly. He exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, finishing his first pro season in the Triple-A World Series and making it to Oakland in July. After giving up a total of one run in his last five PCL starts, he was one of the American League’s top pitchers down the stretch.

Zito doesn’t have nearly the fastball that Anderson has, averaging about 89 mph. That’s still good velocity for a lefthander, and Zito has everything else he needs to succeed. Managers tabbed his wicked curveball as the best breaking pitch in the league, and he has very good command of his pitches. He needs to cut down on his walks somewhat, but his refusal to give in makes him very difficult to hit, particularly for power.

3 RAMON ORTIZ, rhp, Edmonton Trappers (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  165  24  Dominican Republic  Angels FA '95  6  6  4.55  15   0  89  74  37  76

Though Ortiz was diagnosed with a torn labrum in spring training, doctors decided he could pitch with it rather than require shoulder surgery. He opened the season in Anaheim’s rotation, was sent down in May and spent two months in Triple-A before rejoining the Angels for good. The highlight of his season came Aug. 8, when he beat his idol, Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez, with a two-hitter.

Ortiz gets compared to Martinez because both are small Dominicans with lively arms. At his best, Ortiz can throw a fastball in the mid-90s and a slider in the mid-80s. The only guy with a better pure arm in the PCL was Anderson.

Ortiz does lack Martinez’ legendary command. He has been knocked around in the majors because he has surrendered too many walks. When he has fallen behind in the count, he has been vulnerable to home runs.

4 JOSE ORTIZ, 2b-ss, Sacramento RiverCats (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-9  160  23  Dominican Republic  Athletics FA '94  .351  518 107 182  34  5 24 108  22

The Athletics have been intrigued by Ortiz for a few years, and he really broke through in 2000 thanks to an improvement in plate discipline, an area of emphasis in the Oakland organization. After totaling 15 home runs and 100 RBIs in 1998-99, he easily surpassed those numbers this year while making a run at the PCL batting title with a .351 average.

"He’s the top prospect in the whole league," Tucson manager Tom Spencer said. "He’s a middle infielder who hits cleanup. He can steal a base, he can hit a home run, he can bunt for a base hit. There’s nothing this kid can’t do. Plus he’s a hard worker."

Ortiz’ offense is his ticket, and his defense isn’t bad either. He opened the year at shortstop and most managers thought he could play there in the majors, though he won’t because the A’s have Miguel Tejada. Ortiz has good hands and a strong arm, and managers rated him the PCL’s best defensive second baseman. He could take Randy Velarde’s starting second-base job in 2001.

5 CHRIS GEORGE, lhp, Omaha Golden Spikes (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted         W  L   ERA  G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-1  170  21  HS--Klein, Texas  Royals '98 (1)  3  2  4.84  8   0  45  47  20  27

The Royals have a wealth of pitching prospects in their system, and showcased three of them at Omaha this season. The consensus among the managers was that George has a brighter future than righthanders Jeff Austin and Chad Durbin. George wasn’t fazed by pitching in Triple-A at age 20, turning in six solid starts in eight outings before joining Team USA for the Olympics.

George has a lot going for him. He averages 90-91 mph on his fastball and can touch 94, and the movement he gets may be more impressive than his velocity. He has an advanced changeup and he has made progress with a breaking pitch. For now, his slider is better than his curve. George also knows what he’s doing on the mound, moving the ball around and exhibiting poise.

6 WADE MILLER, rhp, New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  185  24  Alvernia (Pa.) College  Astros '96 (20)  4  5  3.67  16   0 105  95  38  81

The three U.S. players ahead of Miller on this list all were first-round picks. Miller went 19 rounds later in 1996, when astute Astros scout Mike Maggart stayed on him even after the pitcher dropped out of Alvernia (Pa.) College. Miller reached the big leagues three years later, and may have joined the Houston rotation for good this July.

Miller has a varied repertoire that serves him well. He can reach the mid-90s with a four-seam fastball, and he hits the low 90s and achieves a lot of sink with a two-seamer. Miller also throws a hard slider, an occasional curveball and has been working on a changeup to combat lefthanders. Lefties hit him much easier than righthanders, especially for power.

7 CARLOS ZAMBRANO, rhp, Iowa Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed       W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-R  6-4  220  19  Venezuela  Cubs FA '97  2  5  3.97  34   6  57  54  40  46

The Cubs had a woeful bullpen at the major league level and desperately need a closer for the future. They may have one in Zambrano, who was jumped from Double-A before he turned 19 and then converted from a starter to a reliever. Managers loved Zambrano’s loose arm but questioned the wisdom of how Chicago handled him.

"He’s a good prospect, but they’ve rushed him too soon," one manager said. "He throws in the mid-90s and has a great body, but he doesn’t know how to pitch at the Triple-A level."

Iowa manager Dave Trembley admitted the Cubs had to run the equivalent of instructional league for Zambrano in his first month in the PCL. His numbers weren’t as pretty as his stuff. His fastball dives in the strike zone, making it difficult to drive the ball in the air against him, and Zambrano throws it from two different arm slots, making it harder to pick up. His slider is very inconsistent, but it’s very effective when it’s on.

8 RAMON CASTRO, c, Calgary Cannons (Marlins)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country              Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  225  24  HS--Vega Baja, P.R.  Astros '94 (1)  .335  218  44  73  22  0 14  45   0

There were a number of talented catchers in the PCL in 2000, including Las Vegas’ Ben Davis and Albuquerque’s Angel Pena, who weren’t eligible for this list because they lost their major league rookie status last year; Nashville’s Craig Wilson, who can crush a fastball but is defensively challenged; and Colorado Springs’ Ben Petrick. According to the managers, the best of the group was Castro because he offers the best combination of offense and defense.

The first Puerto Rican ever drafted in the first round (1994), Castro always has been regarded as a good catch-and-throw guy. He also blocks balls well, and he beat out Davis for the honor of best defensive catcher in Baseball America’s annual Best Tools survey. Castro gunned down 17 of the first 49 major league basestealers who tested him.

After hitting .258 in the PCL a year ago, Castro raised his average 77 points in his encore without sacrificing power. Calgary manager Lynn Jones attributed that improvement to Castro refining his strike zone, though he hasn’t been as disciplined with Florida, where he has struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line. Not all of the managers thought he would hit much in the majors, and one thought that would limit Castro to a backup role.

9 BEN PETRICK, c, Colorado Springs Sky Sox (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  195  23  HS--Hillsboro, Ore.  Rockies '95 (2)  .315  248  38  78  22  3  9  47   7

Petrick is the opposite of Castro. He’s more athletic than raw-boned and his offense is well ahead of his defense. No one doubts he’ll hit, especially in Coors Field, because he has a disciplined approach at the plate. He’s more of a gap hitter than a guy who’ll drive the ball over the fence, though Coors also will assist him in that regard. Petrick has had little trouble adjusting to major league pitchers.

He has the tools to be a successful catcher. He’s agile enough that he should be a good receiver, and he has the arm strength to combat basestealers. However, he’s still learning how to move behind the plate and has had problems with his throwing mechanics. Petrick is improving, though in his first 59 major league games he gave up 46 stolen bases (catching just seven runners) and 10 passed balls.

One PCL manager who didn’t like Petrick’s defense said he had heard a rumor that Colorado would move Petrick to left field to get his bat into the lineup. Trembley, who compared Petrick to Pirates all-star Jason Kendall, thinks that would be unnecessary.

"(Rockies coach) P.J. Carey has done a tremendous job refining his skills," Trembley said. "He had problems throwing, but he doesn’t have any more problems. He has a chance to be better than average as a catcher."

10 MATT KINNEY, rhp, Salt Lake Buzz (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)  5  2  4.25  9   0  55  42  26  59

In recent years, the Red Sox have stripped their farm system to acquire major league talent. One deal that may haunt them is the July 1998 trade that sent Kinney, outfielder John Barnes (the 2000 PCL batting champ) and lefthander Joe Thomas to the Twins for Orlando Merced and Greg Swindell, who had little impact in Boston.

The transaction didn’t look like much from Minnesota’s perspective in 1999, when Kinney missed much of the season after having bone chips removed from his elbow and struggled when he did pitch. This year, Kinney dominated in Double-A and did the same in his last four Triple-A starts, giving up five runs while striking out 32 in 30 innings before moving up to Minnesota.

Kinney tops out at 95 mph with his fastball, and his slider is tough when he can command it. His changeup is a decent third pitch. Kinney needs to tweak his arm angle so he can pitch lower in the strike zone.

11 DEE BROWN, of, Omaha Golden Spikes (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-0  215  22  HS--Marlboro, N.Y.  Royals '96 (1)  .269  479  76 129  25  6 23  70  20

The Royals already seem set in the outfield and at DH with Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye and Mark Quinn. Soon they’ll try to make room for Brown, another gifted young hitter in the seemingly endless supply developed by Kansas City in recent years.

Brown has a quick bat that allows him to catch up to any fastball, and he can drive the ball out of any part of the ballpark. He’s also a fine athlete who was recruited to play running back at Maryland, just like former Royals all-star outfielder Willie Wilson.

That said, Brown regressed from a stellar 1999 season split between high Class A and Double-A. He wasn’t as patient, chasing offspeed pitches out of the strike zone as his average dropped 62 points. He has improved as a left fielder but still has a ways to go, particularly with his arm strength. Several managers didn’t like his attitude, which cost him a suspension after a run-in with Omaha manager John Mizerock.

"The only question on him is if someone can get him to play hard all the time," one manager said. "He doesn’t play hard and he’s moody."

12 JUSTIN MILLER, rhp, Sacramento RiverCats (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted          W  L   ERA  G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  200  23  Los Angeles Harbor JC  Rockies '97 (5)  4  1  2.47  9   0  55  42  13  34

The Athletics were bit players in a four-team trade at the 1999 Winter Meetings, giving up righthander Jimmy Haynes to the Brewers to help facilitate the trade that sent Vinny Castilla to the Devil Rays and Jeff Cirillo to the Rockies. In return, Oakland got Miller and cash from Colorado. Elbow tendinitis limited Miller to eight starts in 1999, so his inclusion barely registered on the baseball radar.

It has now. Promoted from Double-A in July, Miller gave up five runs in his first Triple-A outing and then never yielded more than three in any of his last eight starts. He does a fine job of locating four quality pitches: a fastball that can reach 94 mph and has lots of sinking action, a splitter, a slider and a changeup. The change probably needs the most work, but Miller throws it with good arm speed and it’s an average pitch.

In the last two years, Oakland has introduced young stars Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito into its major league rotation. Next year, it’ll need to find a place for Miller.

13 J.C. ROMERO, lhp, Salt Lake Buzz (Twins)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
B-L  5-11  193  24  Mobile (Ala.)  Twins '97 (21)  4  2  3.44  17   4  65  60  25  38

Romero wasn’t well known before pitching for the United States at the 1999 Pan American Games, where he beat powerful Cuba during round-robin play. He might have had a chance to win Minnesota’s closer job in spring training this season, but he pulled a back muscle and then developed shoulder tendinitis.

When Romero was healthy enough to pitch, the Twins converted him to a starter. Two months later he was in Minnesota, where he got pounded and lost his rotation spot by September. His long-term role remains uncertain, but there’s no doubt he has a quality arm.

Romero throws in the low 90s with little effort, and his slurve and changeup are potentially above-average pitches. He’ll need to refine his secondary offerings to avoid getting hit by righthanders, a problem that plagued him in the majors.

14 ADAM EVERETT, ss, New Orleans Zephyrs (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  167  23  South Carolina  Red Sox '98 (1)  .245  453  82 111  25  2  5  37  13

Everett was the key player from the Astros’ perspective when they sent Carl Everett to Boston in a cost-cutting trade last offseason. The Red Sox were set at shortstop with Nomar Garciaparra, and though they considered Everett a better defender, they were willing to part with him.

Everett was easily the PCL's top defensive shortstop, and his glove earned him a starting job on the U.S. Olympic team. But while Houston has a huge void at short, he may not be ready to hit enough to fill it in 2001. Everett batted .215 in his first three months in the PCL before improving to .292 in July and August. He lacks strength and power, though he draws walks and handles the bat reasonably well. He’s a potential No. 2 hitter, though several managers think that’s a stretch.

"He’s a definite big leaguer because he can really play defense," Albuquerque manager Tom Gamboa said. "The jury’s out on his bat. He has great makeup, but right now a big leaguer would knock the bat out of his hands. He has an outstanding arm, and he’ll play even without his bat."

15 LUIS RIVAS, 2b, Salt Lake Buzz (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  .318  157  33  50  14  1  3  25   7

Rivas began playing full-season ball at age 17 and made it to Triple-A three years later. A shortstop coming up through the minors, he converted to second base this season after the Twins ran Todd Walker out of town. Jay Canizaro was just a stopgap, and Rivas has a good chance to start for Minnesota sometime in 2001. He probably needs another half-season in the PCL.

Because he always has been among the youngest players in his league, Rivas’ defense has been ahead of his offense. He had little trouble making the switch to second, showing good hands and a keen ability to turn the double play. "He made some Roberto Alomar plays, ESPN-type highlights," Roof said.

Rivas made some offensive strides in 2000. He was much more selective at the plate, drawing more walks and making more contact, though he still could improve further. He’s not particularly strong, but he makes the most of his speed with excellent baserunning instincts.

16 ADAM PIATT, of-3b, Sacramento RiverCats (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  195  24  Mississippi State  Athletics '97 (8)  .283  254  36  72  15  0  8  42   3

A year after winning a Double-A Texas League triple crown, Piatt bounced between Triple-A and Oakland. He more than held his own in the majors, though he found playing time hard to come by. His problem is he fits the same profile as several Athletics hitters: He’s a masher who doesn’t stand out defensively.

Piatt has no problems hitting for average or driving the ball into the gaps. His competitive instincts are unquestioned, though he was more aggressive at the plate in 2000, walking less and striking out more than in the past. He’ll be more effective if he can regain his previous approach.

Piatt isn’t a bad athlete, but he isn’t cut out for third base, the position he played when he signed out of Mississippi State. Eric Chavez’ presence in Oakland makes that point moot anyway. Piatt is more of an outfielder-first baseman, and he could win the right-field job next year if the A’s don’t pick up Matt Stairs’ contract option.

17 JULIO ZULETA, 1b-of, Iowa Cubs (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country  Signed        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-6  230  25  Panama   Cubs FA '92  .311  392  76 122  25  1 26  94   5

Zuleta spent four years as a light-hitting catcher in the Cubs system and was on the verge of getting released. Then he moved to first base in 1997 and has steadily increased his home run output each season. He was on pace for 35 homers and 127 RBIs had he spent the full season in the PCL this year.

Zuleta has plenty of positives and negatives. On the plus side, Gamboa compares him to Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee (without the speed). His power is legitimate and he has some arm strength. But he also has an inconsistent swing, is susceptible to breaking balls from righthanders and has below-average range at first base and left field.

"He has a chance to hit 20-25 homers a year," Trembley said. "The worst thing for this guy is he’ll platoon. He’s a good two-strike hitter, and he’s not just a pull guy."

18 JOEL PINEIRO, rhp, Tacoma Rainiers (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.) JC  Mariners '97 (12)  7  1  2.80  10   0  61  53  22  41

The Mariners have an abundance of candidates for their rotation. Paul Abbott, Freddy Garcia, John Halama, Gil Meche, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele and Brett Tomko jockeyed for position in Seattle this year, and Anderson isn’t far off. Pineiro’s emergence is going to create more problems, though they’re the types of problems teams love to have.

After leading the Double-A Eastern League with 15 losses and seeing his fastball drop from the low 90s to the high 80s in 1999, Pineiro bounced back. He won his first seven PCL decisions after being promoted from Double-A in late May, and turned in a quality start to beat the hard-hitting White Sox in his big league debut. His velocity increased to a consistent 90-91 mph, and he also showed nice command of a curveball, slider and changeup.

Trembley said Pineiro was the best righthander Iowa saw all season.

"He had a very good feel for pitching," Trembley said. "He threw curveballs and changeups in hitter’s counts. He was effortless."

19 CHAD DURBIN, rhp, Omaha Golden Spikes (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  175  22  HS--Baton Rouge  Royals '96 (3)  4  4  4.46  12   0  73  75  22  53

Durbin made Kansas City’s rotation out of spring training and pitched six one-hit innings to beat the Blue Jays in his first major league start. He didn’t win again in his next eight outings, earning a demotion to Omaha. While most managers tabbed George as the Golden Spikes’ top pitching prospect, Roof dissented and chose Durbin.

Roof rated all three of Durbin’s pitches as average to above average, and liked his hard curveball the most. Mizerock and many managers point to Durbin’s changeup as his best pitch. And his fastball arrives in the low 90s, so hitters can’t sit on his offspeed stuff. Durbin throws strikes but must refine his command within the strike zone to become less hittable. He projects as a No. 3 starter.

20 CHAD HERMANSEN, of, Nashville Sounds (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  185  23  HS--Henderson, Nev.  Pirates '95 (1)  .224  294  47  66  12  1 11  38  16

Hermansen spent 1998 and 1999 in Triple-A, hitting a total of 60 home runs to lay claim to the Pirates’ center-field job for 2000. He quickly lost it, though, by batting .185 in Pittsburgh and posting a dismal .163 on-base percentage out of the leadoff spot. He didn’t fare much better after getting sent down, hitting .224 and striking out in nearly one-third of his at-bats.

Managers thought his career could go either way at this point. Hermansen is a very good athlete who has the range and arm to play a fine center field. Roof said he had the quickest bat in the league, and Gamboa noted that he can crush any fastball. He also runs well enough to steal a few bases.

However, Hermansen never has made the necessary adjustments to hit breaking pitches. He looks for fastballs and pulls off offspeed stuff, and pitchers are more than willing to let him chase curves and sliders out of the strike zone. His walk rate has declined precipitously during the last two seasons.

Trembley believes Hermansen still will become a very good major leaguer, while another manager opined that he was better at age 18 than he is four years later.

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