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Double-A Southern League

Top 20 Prospects

By David Jenkins

CHATTANOOGA—What makes a prospect?

When a league enjoys an embarrassment of riches the way the Double-A Southern League did, the question becomes a tricky one. Some define a prospect by how well he'll be playing five years down the road, while others measure a prospect's potential by how quickly and how far he has climbed.

Choosing the Southern League's Top 20 Prospects, even with input from the league's managers, was no snap. Deciding who would sit atop the list as the best of the best was more difficult.

That honor fell to West Tenn's Corey Patterson, who had the highest ceiling in the league. The Cubs held off on promoting him until after the SL playoffs, but he'll probably open 2001 as their regular center fielder.

In terms of present value, Birmingham's Joe Crede was the best the SL had to offer. Crede finished in the top three in all of the triple crown categories, which earned him the league MVP award. He has a decent chance of starting at third base for the White Sox next year.

Sandwiched by Patterson and Crede at the top of the prospect list were a pair of righthanders who occupied the first two rotation slots for the U.S. Olympic team. Huntsville's Ben Sheets may be the best pitching prospect in baseball, and Birmingham's Jon Rauch won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year Award. Making their accomplishments more impressive, Sheets and Rauch were in their first full pro season in 2000.

And right behind the top four were Mobile's Sean Burroughs, another Olympian who probably would draw the nod as the game's consensus top prospect at third base, and Tennessee's Felipe Lopez, who likely would earn the same accolades at shortstop.

No minor league featured more talent than the SL in 2000. The second group of 10 on this Top 20 list stacks up very well compared to the first group from 1999.

1 COREY PATTERSON, of, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  5-10  175  21  HS--Kennesaw, Ga.  Cubs '98 (1)  .261  444  73 116  26  5 22  82  27

Chicago hasn't been afraid to push Patterson. He made his pro debut in the Class A Midwest League in 1999, bypassing Rookie ball despite being a teenager, then skipped a level and spent this year in Double-A at age 20. He probably would have been in the majors earlier than September had Cubs manager Don Baylor had his way.

Patterson started slow, not surprising considering his age and inexperience, but finished strong. He still needs to iron out some flaws in his game, such as his strike-zone discipline, basestealing skills and ability to hit lefthanders.

There's also no denying that he made strides in those areas. He's a legitimate five-tool prospect with blazing speed, power, hitting ability, quality center-field defense and a solid arm. Though Patterson homered twice in his first six games with Chicago following his callup, a little Triple-A seasoning next year wouldn't hurt.

2 BEN SHEETS, rhp, Huntsville Stars (Brewers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  195  22  Northeast Louisiana  Brewers '99 (1)  5  3  1.88  13   0  72  55  25  60

The Brewers expected Sheets to be long gone by the time they made the 10th overall selection in the 1999 draft. When he wasn't, they snapped him up. He finished 2000 in Triple-A and would have been in Milwaukee if not for his detour to Sydney.

"Ability-wise, no one could touch him," Jacksonville manager Gene Roof said. "In addition to having a 97-mph fastball, he throws a 93-mph power sinker. He simply overmatched hitters while he was here."

Sheets also throws a hard curveball and a decent changeup. His command and composure are impeccable.

3 JON RAUCH, rhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-11  230  22  Morehead State  White Sox '99 (3)  5  1  2.25   8   0  56  36  16  63

When the 6-foot-11 stringbean was promoted from Class A Winston-Salem for the final six weeks of the Southern League season, many assumed the Barons simply were replacing one frontline starter with another. Little did they know Birmingham had saved the best until last.

Rauch went 5-1 in eight SL appearances, seven of which were quality starts. Opponents batted just .179 against him, and his last outing before leaving for the Olympics was a two-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts.

Like many tall pitchers, Rauch has plenty of velocity. His fastball is clocked in the mid-90, and his breaking stuff also is tough. Unlike many tall pitchers, he has very good mechanics and control, which is why he was so untouchable.

4 JOE CREDE, 3b, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  195  22  HS--Westphalia, Mo.  White Sox '96 (5)  .306  533  84 163  35  0 21  94   3

Crede won his second MVP award in three seasons. He captured Class A Carolina League honors in 1998 before having his 1999 season ruined by a bone spur in his right big toe. He required surgery that cut his first Double-A season in half.

"This wasn't a repeat season. That was a lost season," Birmingham manager Nick Capra said. "And at 22, he's still one of the younger players in the league. He started slowly, but he gradually, progressively got better."

Crede projects as a .300 hitter with 20-plus homers in the majors, and that's exactly what he produced this season. He's also a standout defender on the hot corner.

5 SEAN BURROUGHS, 3b, Mobile Bay Bears (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-2  200  20  HS--Long Beach  Padres '98 (1)  .291  392  46 114  29  4  2  42   6

Though Crede won the MVP and is ranked one spot ahead of him, Burroughs might have an even brighter future. He has been pushed as rapidly as Patterson—and Burroughs is a full year younger.

At age 19, Burroughs hit .291 with more walks than strikeouts in Double-A. He clearly is a gifted hitter. The MVP of the midseason Futures Game hit just two homers in 2000 and has just eight in his two pro seasons, but few doubt that he'll hit for power in a few years.

Burroughs, the son of 1974 American League MVP, also gets the job done with his glove. He has a strong arm, soft hands and quick feet.

6 FELIPE LOPEZ, ss, Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                       Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  6-1  175  20  HS--Altamonte Springs, Fla.  Blue Jays '98 (1)  .257  463  52 119  18  4  9  41  12

Toronto entered 2000 with amazing middle-infield depth in the upper levels of its system. The Blue Jays had Brent Abernathy and Cesar Izturis at Triple-A, plus Lopez and Mike Young at Double-A. Lopez has the highest ceiling of that group, and the Jays made sure they didn't relinquish him in stretch-run deals that cost them Abernathy and Young.

Lopez' game is still raw, but that's to be expected of a player who made his Double-A debut before turning 20. He's very flashy at shortstop, though he could stand to add some defensive consistency.

Lopez needs to understand the strike zone better and improve his basestealing technique before he'll truly blossom offensively. He's a switch-hitter with good pop and some speed, and his potential is limitless.

"Lopez had the best all-around tools in the league," Tennessee manager Rocket Wheeler said.

7 MATT GINTER, rhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  220  22  Mississippi State  White Sox '99 (1)  11  8  2.25  27   0 180 153  60 126

In Lorenzo Barcelo, Jon Garland, Aaron Myette and Kip Wells, the White Sox already had some blue-chip pitching prospects before the 1999 draft. Then they went out and signed Mark Buehrle (see below) as a draft-and-follow, and selected Ginter (first round), Dan Wright (second) and Rauch (third).

Ginter would have joined Rauch on the Olympic team had Chicago not decided to promote him in September. He relieved for the Sox after primarily starting in the minors, and the bullpen may be his ultimate destination. With all those arms, Chicago isn't hurting for rotation candidates.

Ginter has true power stuff, with a fastball that can reach 95 mph and a hard slider that's nasty when he keeps it down in the strike zone. He also made nice progress with his changeup, which will serve him well if he continues to start.

8 ADAM EATON, rhp, Mobile Bay Bears (Padres)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  190  23  HS--Snohomish, Wash.  Phillies '96 (1)  4  1  2.68  10   0  57  47  18  58

In a trade they'd probably like to have back, the Phillies sent Eaton and two other young pitchers to the Padres last offseason for Andy Ashby. Eaton was definitely the key to the deal from San Diego's perspective, and he was ready for the majors by the end of May. He pitched well for the Padres until he ran out of gas in September.

He started to put it all together in 1999, when his fastball consistently registered 93-94 mph. At times, his curveball and changeup are above-average pitches. Eaton needs to improve his secondary pitches to better combat lefthanders, who knocked him around at the big league level.

9 MARK BUEHRLE, lhp, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-2  195  21  Jefferson (Mo.) CC  White Sox '98 (38)  8  4  2.28  16   0 119  95  17  68

Buehrle has gone from anonymity to the majors in about a year. A 38th-round pick in 1998, he signed as a draft-and-follow last May. His strong performance in the 1999 Class A Midwest League playoffs convinced the White Sox to skip him a level and start him in Double-A this season.

He gave up five earned runs in his first outing for Birmingham, then never gave up more than three in any of his next 15 starts, earning a promotion to Chicago. Buehrle settled into the Sox bullpen and should make their postseason roster.

"Buehrle is special because he's a four-pitch pitcher who can find the strike zone with all four pitches," Capra said. "Plus, he's lefthanded."

He has no apparent weakness. Buehrle has an average fastball, terrific command of his curveball and slider, and a nifty changeup.

10 JUAN PIERRE, of, Carolina Mudcats (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School         Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-0  170  23  South Alabama  Rockies '98 (13)  .326  439  63 143  16  4  0  32  46

When the Rockies fell out of contention, they dumped Tom Goodwin and Brian Hunter in order to hand center field over to Pierre. After hitting safely in his last 12 Double-A games and all four of his Triple-A appearances, he did the same in his first 16 big league contests. He has shown enough with Colorado to claim a starting job for 2001.

He showed plenty in the SL as well. Pierre terrorized opponents with his basestealing speed and used his jets to take away several hits in center field.

"He's going to be an impact player," Roof said. "One thing that made him special was that you don't find too many true leadoff hitters."

Pierre has very little power and only slightly more patience at the plate. Of course, playing in Coors Field will help mask those flaws. Some managers questioned whether Pierre's arm was of major league caliber, but he gets to balls more quickly than most center fielders.

11 CARLOS ZAMBRANO, rhp, West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (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   3  1  1.34   9   0  60  39  21  43

The Cubs have been even more aggressive with Zambrano than they have been with Patterson, and Zambrano is nearly two years younger. Zambrano jumped from low Class A to Double-A to open 2000, then moved up to Triple-A by the end of May.

"By far the best arm in the league this year," Chattanooga manager Mike Rojas said. "He will be a No. 2 or 3 starter in the majors."

In need of a closer, Chicago actually converted Zambrano to a reliever in Triple-A, not the most easy of transitions for a 19-year-old. He has the stuff to do the job, throwing in the mid-90s with an easy motion, and flashing an unhittable slider at times.

12 ERIC MUNSON, 1b, Jacksonville Suns (Tigers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted          Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-3  220  23  Southern California  Tigers '99 (1)  .252  365  52  92  21  4 15  68   5

With Tony Clark regressing further in Detroit, Munson may not be far from grabbing the first-base job with the Tigers. Munson struggled in Double-A in his first full pro season, though the power that got him drafted third overall in 1999 was evident.

He tried to pull too many pitches and didn't make consistent contact, especially against lefthanders. A catcher in college, he needs more experience at first base to improve his defense.

13 MARCUS GILES, 2b, Greenville Braves (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-8  180  22  Grossmont (Calif.) JC  Braves '96 (53)  .290  458  73 133  28  2 17  62  25

Crede wasn't the only two-time minor league MVP in the SL. Giles won the award in the Class A South Atlantic and Carolina leagues in the previous two years.

Though his streak ended in 2000, the former 53rd-round draft pick got another step closer to joining his older brother Brian, a Pirates all-star, in the majors. Marcus has the same stocky build as his brother and owns a .320 career minor league average. He continued to show unusual pop for a middle infielder, and he stole 25 bases, one shy of his total in three previous seasons.

"People still want to see how steady he can be at second base," Greenville manager Paul Runge said. "He's gotten stronger during the year, plus he's improved turning the pivot. It was a pretty productive year."

14 PASQUAL COCO, rhp, Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  160  23  Dominican Republic  Blue Jays FA '94  12  7  3.76  27   0 168 154  68 142

Wheeler, Coco's manager, called him the best righthander in the league. That's a stretch, considering the presence of Sheets, Rauch, Ginter and Eaton. But it's not much of a stretch, considering his arm.

Coco throws in the low 90s and works his fastball on both sides of the plate. He also has an effective slider and changeup.

15 CRAIG HOUSE, rhp, Carolina Mudcats (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School    Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  210  23  Memphis   Rockies '99 (12)  0  2  3.80  18   9  21  14  15  28

House needed just 65 games in the minors to go from a 12th-round pick in 1999 to a major leaguer in 2000. Along the way, he had more than twice as many strikeouts (118) as hits allowed (55). The most impressive number with House, however, is the velocity he can achieve on his fastball: 100 mph.

House also owns a very hard slider, so he has the power stuff to be a closer. He's still searching for the consistency. He has an unorthodox delivery that makes it difficult for him to throw strikes at times, and scouts think his mechanics eventually may contribute to arm problems.

16 GOOKIE DAWKINS, 2b-ss, Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  180  21  HS--Newberry, S.C.  Reds '97 (2)  .231  368  54  85  20  6  6  31  22

Dawkins was a revelation in 1999, dazzling as the shortstop on the U.S. Pan American Games team and batting .364 in a 32-game stint with Chattanooga. He wasn't as impressive in his return trip to the SL, hitting .231 overall and just .209 during the final three months.

The Reds moved him to second base at the end of June, which apparently means that Pokey Reese is Barry Larkin's heir apparent. Dawkins has some pop and can steal a few bases, but his biggest strength is his middle-infield play. Compared to a year ago, managers thought he lacked focus at the plate and in the field.

Despite his disappointing season, Dawkins made the U.S. Olympic team as a reserve shortstop behind Astros farmhand Adam Everett.

17 BRANDON INGE, c, Jacksonville Suns (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)  .258  298  39  77  25  1  6  53  10

Inge didn't start catching until he signed as a second-round pick in 1998, not that it's apparent from the way he handles himself behind the plate. Roof called Inge the total catching package and said, "The only guy in baseball who can outthrow him is Pudge Rodriguez."

Inge is much quicker and more athletic than most catchers. Though he has batted .242 in the minors, the Tigers aren't especially concerned. The 1999 California Fall League MVP has gap power and should hit better once he tightens his strike zone.

18 JASON MARQUIS, rhp, Greenville Braves (Braves)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                   Drafted         W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-R  6-1  185  22  HS--Staten Island, N.Y.  Braves '96 (1)  4  2  3.57  11   0  68  68  23  49

When they need bullpen help, the Braves aren't afraid to promote pitchers without much Triple-A experience. They did that with Kevin McGlinchy, John Rocker and Mark Wohlers. This year's example was Marquis.

Marquis, who throws in the mid-90s and has a fine curveball, served as a setup man in Atlanta. It's unclear whether his ultimate role will be closer or starter.

19 BRANDON LARSON, 3b, Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  205  24  Louisiana State  Reds '97 (1)  .272  427  61 116  26  0 20  64  15

June 1997 was a terrific month for Larson. He was drafted in the first round by the Reds, led Louisiana State to the national title and was named MVP of the College World Series. But then his fortune took a downturn, as he missed most of the next two seasons with ankle and knee injuries.

Now he's back on track. Larson's best tools are his power to all fields and his strong arm. A college shortstop who has moved to the hot corner, Larson will have a hard time surpassing Drew Henson if Henson opts to play baseball over football.

20 AARON ROWAND, of, Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  200  23  Cal State Fullerton  White Sox '98 (1)  .258  532  80 137  26  5 20  98  22

Some managers ranked Rowand among the league's 10 best prospects, and in many years he would have been listed high. In 2000, the athletic right fielder who had a 20-20 season and led the SL in RBIs had to settle for bringing up the rear.

Like Larson, Rowand is stuck in an organization that's deep in options at his position. But with his quick bat and solid arm, he should make a place for himself if he can make more contact.

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