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Class A South Atlantic League

Top 20 Prospects

By Gene Sapakoff

Josh Hamilton
Josh Hamilton
Photo: Robert Gurganus

CHARLESTON, S.C.—Rarely does a South Atlantic League all-star game mesh so symbiotically with the prospect wing of the circuit. But in June at Joseph P. Riley Jr. Park in Charleston, S.C., it wasn’t a 24-year-old overachiever in the spotlight or a free agent second baseman out of State Tech who made the biggest impact.

Center fielder Josh Hamilton, the top prospect in the league by almost unanimous accord, was named MVP in his home ballpark after robbing Hickory’s Tony Alvarez of an extra-base hit with a sensational over-the-shoulder catch and later tripling and scoring the winning run in the 10th inning. The starting pitchers: No. 2 prospect Chin-Hui Tsao vs. No. 4 Bobby Bradley.

Hamilton and Hickory catcher J.R. House were so consistently good, they were named co-MVPs of the league despite missing one month apiece. Hamilton had arthroscopic knee surgery in early August, while House had a midseason bout with mononucleosis. But dominant pitchers were the primary theme of the Class A league in 2000.

"This was a great year for great arms," Columbus manager Ricky Gutierrez said. "It’s hard to pick out just three or four."

Indeed, the Top 10 doesn’t include Macon’s Matt Butler and Jung Bong or Augusta’s Brad Baker. The Top 20 doesn’t include Greensboro’s Zach Day, Delmarva’s Richard Stahl or Asheville’s Aaron Cook.

1 JOSH HAMILTON, of, Charleston RiverDogs (Devil Rays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted              Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-4  200  19  HS--Raleigh, N.C.  Devil Rays '99 (1)  .301  392  62 118  23  3 13  61  14

Hamilton did nothing to discourage the Devil Rays’ notion that he’ll become a major league star after they selected him with the first pick in the 1999 draft. The great arm and good speed were givens. Hamilton continued to progress with pitch selection and plate discipline, and he would have hit more homers had he played in a ballpark free of stiff winds blowing in off open water.

"Definitely the No. 1 tools guy in the league," Piedmont manager Greg Legg said. "He has everything. When he didn’t hit that well against us, he hurt us with his defense. Then I got a taste of his clutch-hitting ability in the all-star game."

If Hamilton doesn’t project as a center fielder, he did a fine job imitating one. And he also has the intangible. He was a great teammate, was described as "a sponge" of a student by Devil Rays instructor Wade Boggs and unquestionably led the SAL in autographs signed.

2 CHIN-HUI TSAO, rhp, Asheville Tourists (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  180  19  (Taiwan)   Rockies FA '99  11  8  2.73  24   0 145 119  40 187

Tsao spoke very little English and traveled with interpreter Alex Gong, who wore a uniform and went along on visits to the pitching mound. But the universal language of jaw-dropping was spoken whenever Tsao let go with his mid-90s fastball, hard slider and polished changeup. Tsao threw all three pitches for strikes and wasn’t rattled on the mound.

"He knows how to pitch and throws a lot of stuff at you," Capital City manager John Stephenson said. "He has great knowledge out there and he’s poised. He might have to tone himself down a little bit, but he’s a good pitcher."

The Rockies resisted the temptation to bump Tsao up a level or two, preferring to allow him a smooth adjustment to American baseball in his first year removed from Taiwan.

"He should be in Double-A next year," Charleston, S.C., manager Charlie Montoyo said.

3 J.R. HOUSE, c, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                   Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  215  20  HS--Daytona Beach, Fla.  Pirates '99 (5)  .348  420  78 146  29  1 23  90   1

House almost certainly would have won the SAL triple crown if not for missing a month with mono. No less than the Mike Piazza of the league, House combined his offensive onslaught with natural leadership skills.

Behind the plate, he’s raw but improving. As a former blue-chip quarterback prospect who played high school football in West Virginia and high school baseball in Florida, House is adjusting to full-time baseball.

"Great overall skills and you can easily see his potential as a batter," Legg said. "His throwing and release time will get better as he plays more and refines that quarterback throw. But he has soft hands behind the plate and made some nice adjustments as a hitter."

House might wind up at first base, which might not be a bad idea for extending what projects as a long stretch of offensive production.

4 BOBBY BRADLEY, rhp, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  170  19  HS--Wellington, Fla.  Pirates '99 (1)  8  2  2.29  14   0  83  62  21 118

A sprained elbow ligament cost Bradley a chance to play in the Futures Game and the Pirates had him on a carefully monitored throwing program in August. When he was healthy, he mostly overmatched batters.

His sharp, dropping curveball was so dominating and polished that Pittsburgh insisted he work on his fastball, which will be more vital at higher levels. Bradley consistently demonstrated his knack for throwing strikes with his entire four-pitch repertoire, which also includes a slider and changeup.

"He has two kinds of curveballs and throws them from two different angles, one for strikes, one more as a strikeout type of pitch," Hickory manager Jay Loviglio said. "Both have a good, downward plane. They’re nice and tight and the accuracy is better than you’d think for a guy his age."

Bradley’s durability is at least a slight concern. More than one SAL manager wondered if throwing too many curveballs would take a toll on him.

5 JOVANNY CEDENO, rhp, Savannah Sand Gnats (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  160  19  Dominican Republic  Rangers FA '97  11  4  2.42  24   0 130  95  53 153

Forgive the opposing managers who compared Cedeno to Pedro Martinez. They’re both Dominican; Cedeno’s statistics looks similar, albeit a few levels removed from the major leagues; and he’s a rail of a righthander with overpowering stuff, an easy motion and stunning command.

"Usually guys that age don’t have a real idea how to pitch, but he does," Hagerstown manager Rolando Pino said. "He has a plan out there and most of the time he makes it work."

Cedeno’s fastball is a solid plus pitch made better by an effective curveball and changeup. He can and probably will add weight, which may mean more velocity in the future. He stayed strong as the season progressed, notching 13- and 14-strikeout efforts in August.

6 CARL CRAWFORD, of, Charleston RiverDogs (Devil Rays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted               Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-2  195  19  HS--Houston   Devil Rays  '99 (2)  .301  564  99 170  21 11  6  57  55

Crawford could have played football at Nebraska or basketball at UCLA. Instead he’s on a path to play in the Tampa Bay outfield next to Hamilton. Crawford hung tough throughout his first full pro season to lead the SAL in hits, an extraordinary accomplishment for a player unfamiliar with year-round baseball before 2000.

"He has heart and he battles everyday," Montoyo said. "He got better defensively and for such a young guy who hasn’t played that much baseball, he stayed tough at the plate until the end and never complained a bit."

Crawford is smart and inquisitive, virtues that led to his gaudy basestealing percentage. He’s still not a polished outfielder and doesn’t hit the ball hard very often. But he’s strong and will get more comfortable at the plate, which should lead to some decent lefthanded power numbers.

7 BRETT MYERS, rhp, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  215  20  HS--Jacksonville  Phillies '99 (1)  13  7  3.18  27   0 175 165  69 140

There’s no doubt about Myers’ intensity. He went 12-0 with 11 knockouts as a 12- and 13-year-old boxer, encouraged by his father, who promoted fights involving Larry Holmes and Leon Spinks.

These days, Myers punches out hitters with a mid-90s fastball and a sharp curve. His changeup got better as the season got older. He’s a workhorse who should eat up plenty of innings once he arrives in Philadelphia.

Other managers thought Myers needed work on situational pitching, his changeup and holding runners. But few of them questioned the progress and ability of a 6-foot-4 power pitcher who was 19 for most of the season.

8 BRANDON PHILLIPS, ss, Cape Fear Crocs (Expos)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  170  19  HS--Stone Mtn., Ga.  Expos '99 (2)  .242  484  74 117  17  8 11  72  23

Despite some erratic nights, Phillips was named the SAL’s best defensive shortstop in a midseason poll of league managers. Offensively, he struck out too often but gained extra bases with his pop and speed.

A superior athlete who makes dazzling plays, Phillips was the most dynamic infield prospect in the league by a wide margin.

"He made all the plays all year and more than held his own for them in the No. 3 hole," Legg said. "He has a tremendously high ceiling. I could see him playing second base at the highest levels, but his bat will propel him as far as he wants to go."

Phillips is personable and eager to learn. He comes from athletic stock, as his father played wide receiver at Shaw (N.C.) University and his mother was a power forward on the school’s basketball team.

9 MATT BELISLE, rhp, Macon Braves (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  195  20  HS--Austin   Braves '98 (2)  9  5  2.37  15   0 102  79  18  97

Most SAL managers and scouts thought Belisle stood out the most on a Macon pitching staff with three Killer B’s prospects: Belisle, Matt Butler and Jung Bong.

A big guy with a frame able to stand more bulk, Belisle was able to spot his sinking fastball on both sides of the plate while dropping in good breaking balls for strikes. Managers chose him as the SAL’s best control pitcher in a midseason survey, and also praised his composure and consistency.

Belisle moved up to the high Class A Carolina League shortly after midseason and continued to throw strikes. He finished the year with a combined 168-29 strikeout-walk ratio in 181 innings.

10 KEITH REED, of, Delmarva Shorebirds (Orioles)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  215  21  Providence   Orioles '99 (1)  .290  269  43  78  16  1 11  59  20

Reed wasn’t a hot commodity before breaking out in the spring of 1999 at Providence College. The fourth of seven Baltimore first-round picks in that year’s draft, he’s unknown no longer. He was on pace to hit more than 20 home runs and steal more than 40 bases before a midseason promotion to the Carolina League.

"He’s a quiet type of player who doesn’t look like he’s doing that much," Legg said, "but then you look up and he’s made a fine play in the field and has a big hit and has done a little bit of everything to help his team win."

Reed has an above-average arm and projects as a right fielder, though he has center-field speed. His power and much-improved strike zone discipline are almost scary, considering he has a lean build that could add more muscle.

11 WILKEN RUAN, of, Cape Fear Crocs (Expos)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  180  20  Dominican Republic  Expos FA '96  .287  574  95 165  29 10  0  51  64

Ruan batted .224 at Cape Fear in 1999 but emerged as a four-tool star in 2000. He finished second in the league in hits and stolen bases, made highlight-reel catches and showed a good arm.

"He’s awesome," Gutierrez said. "He does everything. I like the way he plays the game and he’s a great outfielder. He made three unbelievable plays against us that were way over his head. We thought they were easy triples."

Ruan is an aggressive player who hits hard line drives. He may be too aggressive, because he rarely draws walks, though he doesn’t strike out too much.

12 ALEX REQUENA, of, Columbus RedStixx (Indians)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  5-11  155  20  Venezuela  Indians FA '98  .259  482  90 125   6  6  1  24  87

A switch-hitting center fielder with excellent speed, Requena makes the most of his one outstanding tool. In his first full pro season, he led the SAL in stolen bases by a wide margin and swiped seven in one game.

"Any time somebody runs that fast, he’s going to get to the bigs somehow," Montoyo said. "He doesn’t have that much power but if he gets on base, it’s going to be tough for anyone to stop him. We tried pitchouts. We tried everything. He’s just too fast."

Requena has lots of upside. If he cuts down on his strikeouts, picks up the art of bunting and learns to read pitchers better—as a batter as well as a baserunner—Requena will steal 100-plus bases in a minor league season. His speed helps make up for an ordinary arm.

13 JOSE CASTILLO, ss, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country    Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  180  19  Venezuela  Pirates FA '97  .299  529  95 158  32  8 16  72  16

Castillo compares tool-wise with Phillips and 1999 SAL shortstop prospect Felipe Lopez in that he has superb range and the potential to hit for power and average. Castillo also was voted the infielder with the best arm in a midseason poll of SAL managers.

"He made a lot of errors," Legg said. "But most of the ones I saw were due to a lack of concentration. With a little more focus, he’ll be much better."

Castillo’s pop is intriguing as he more than tripled his combined total of five homers from his first two pro seasons. If he can tighten his strike zone, he’ll become even more dangerous.

14 MATT BUTLER, rhp, Macon Braves (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                  Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  190  21  HS--Hattiesburg, Miss.  Braves '99 (2)  13  7  2.94  26   0 156 132  66 122

Butler finished among the league’s leaders in wins and ERA, though the Braves were more impressed that he smoothed out his delivery and gained consistency. He can throw in the mid-90s when everything is working properly, though erratic mechanics cost him velocity and first-round draft status a year ago.

Butler is aggressive and must fight the urge to overthrow. His secondary pitches need work but his potential is obvious.

"He’s a warrior out there," Gutierrez said. "He doesn’t let anything bother him. He’s always focused on the game.

15 RUSS JACOBSON, c, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  205  23  Miami    Phillies '99 (3)  .247  348  43  86  17  0 19  71   0

A third-round pick in 1999, Jacobson didn’t make his pro debut until 2000 because he broke his hand in his final season at the University of Miami. In the SAL, he struggled at times with strikeout streaks but had good power numbers in a league full of pitcher’s parks. He’s durable, handles pitching staffs exceptionally well and is a terrific guy in the clubhouse.

"Russ made great strides with the bat," Legg said. "When he hits it, it goes a long way. He definitely can catch and he’ll just keep getting better."

Jacobson’s primary weakness is his throwing. He has a relatively slow release, a focus of Phillies instructors much of the season.

16 TONY ALVAREZ, of, Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  202  21  Venezuela   Pirates FA '95  .285  442  75 126  24  4 15  77  52

Maybe the talent on the Hickory roster was contagious. After four years in short-season leagues, Alvarez finally made it to a full-season circuit and had a stellar year.

"He hits for power and average and he can play so many positions and do so many things," Loviglio said. "He’s an aggressive hitter but he’ll wait for his pitch."

Able to play all three outfield spots, Alvarez also can handle either first or third base. The 1999 New York-Penn League co-MVP also is a keen baserunner who makes the most of above-average speed.

17 BRAD BAKER, rhp, Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  180  19  HS--Northfield, Mass.  Red Sox '99 (1)  12  7  3.07  27   0 138 125  55 126

The Red Sox often focus on New England players in the draft. They found a good one in Baker, a Massachusetts native whom they selected with a supplemental first-round pick (compensation for losing free agent Mo Vaughn) in 1999.

Baker’s fastball, clocked at 95 mph, may be the best in the Boston system. But it’s his curveball that’s his most polished pitch. His slight build might be his only drawback.

"The most impressive thing he does is change speeds well," Stephenson said. "He’s not as polished as Tsao or Belisle or some of the others, but he has good command."

18 MARLON BYRD, of, Piedmont Boll Weevils (Phillies)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-11  225  23  Georgia Perimeter JC  Phillies '99 (10)  .309  515 104 159  29 13 17  93  41

Perhaps the hardest worker in the SAL, Byrd ranked among the league’s top 10 in batting, slugging percentage and extra-base hits, thanks to a mix of talent and work ethic. He was something of a raw, stocky prospect coming out of Georgia Perimeter Junior College in 1999.

"He’s the kind of guy who hits triples to left-center," Legg said. "That tells you how hard he plays the game."

Byrd runs well and hits for power. He strikes out far too often but is working on a more compact swing. He’s a decent outfielder but has a below-average arm.

19 HANK BLALOCK, 3b, Savannah Sand Gnats (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-1  192  19  HS--San Diego   Rangers '99 (3)  .299  512  66 153  32  2 10  77  31

Blalock, the 1999 batting champ in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, was multitool impressive in his first full season.

He hits for average, has power potential, draws walks and makes contact. Though not exceptionally fast, he runs well and intelligently. His arm is average, but his footwork and anticipation might be enough to keep him at third base.

"Good arm, good hands, good power. What’s not to like about him?" Pino said. "Eventually, you can see him having even more power."

20 JUNG BONG, lhp, Macon Braves (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-3  175  20  Korea     Braves FA '97   7  7  4.23  20   0 113 119  45  90

Bong spent almost two full seasons in the SAL, which explains why scouts and managers were quicker to endorse his teammates. Bong didn’t improve statistically and fell short of a hoped-for breakthrough season.

But the trim Korean is still only 20, and he’s a lefthander with command of four pitches. His fastball reaches the low 90s. Interestingly, he was more impressive after a promotion to the Carolina League at the end of July.

"He was good, but not as impressive as Belisle and Butler," Montoyo said. "He’s pretty far along for his age, but you don’t get to see him that much."

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