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Double-A Texas League

Top 20 Prospects

By Michael Point

Roy Oswalt
Roy Oswalt
Photo: Taylor Jones

ROUND ROCK, Texas—It was a pitcher's year in the Double-A Texas League. The traditional hitter's haven defied its offensive legacy, helped more than a little by a dynamic duo of young arms.

Round Rock righty Roy Oswalt became just the second TL hurler in the last 29 seasons to post a sub-2.00 ERA. Arkansas lefthander Bud Smith captured headlines by throwing two no-hitters.

Several players who ranked as the top prospects in their organizations entering the season, such as San Antonio outfielder Chin-Feng Chen and Round Rock lefthander Wilfredo Rodriguez, never got off the ground. By contrast, players who didn’t make top prospects lists in the offseason, such as the league’s batting champ (Round Rock second baseman Keith Ginter) and strikeout leader (Shreveport righthander Ryan Vogelsong), put up numbers that demanded close attention.

Oswalt and Smith weren’t among their organizations’ Top 10 Prospects either. At least they weren’t at the beginning of the year.

1 ROY OSWALT, rhp, Round Rock Express (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  170  23  Holmes (Miss.) JC   Astros '96 (23)  11  4  1.94  19   0 130 106  22 141

Oswalt, a highly touted draft-and-follow who signed with the Astros for $500,000 in 1997, spent the first six weeks this year in the high Class A Florida State League before moving to Round Rock for what was supposed to be a lone emergency start. After throwing a 15-strikeout shutout he never left, and his 1.94 ERA was the lowest in the TL since Anthony Young’s 1.65 a decade earlier.

Oswalt did it with a fastball that consistently hit 95 mph and maintained its speed in the later innings. His curveball painted corners and buckled knees. His stuff drew the attention of the U.S. Olympic team, which added Oswalt to its rotation.

Astros assistant GM Tim Purpura, who was on hand for Oswalt's Double-A debut, was cautious with his praise early on but couldn’t deny the obvious by season’s end.

"Oswalt has risen to every challenge he's been faced with so far," Purpura said. "His development has been so rapid and so positive this year that it's hard to really estimate how high his ceiling is."

2 CARLOS PENA, 1b, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-2  210  22  Northeastern  Rangers '98 (1)  .299  529 117 158  36  2 28 105  12

The league's top power prospect, Pena reached base in 45 consecutive games while leading the league in runs scored. After hitting 24 homers in his first season-and-a-half in pro ball, he blasted 24 long balls in 2000. He showed patience when pitchers refused to challenge him, drawing an impressive 101 walks.

"Pena is a smart and dangerous hitter," Wichita manager Keith Bodie said. "He hurt us even when we thought we had him pitched perfectly."

Pena is more than just an offensive force. He’s a good athlete who stole 12 bases, he’s very proficient at playing first base and he constantly exhibits well-honed baseball instincts.

"When it comes to knowing baseball fundamentals and being able to execute them Pena is far ahead of most players his age," one scout said. "He's probably ahead of a few major leaguers, too."

3 BUD SMITH, lhp, Arkansas Travelers (Cardinals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                 Drafted             W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-0  170  20  Los Angeles Harbor JC  Cardinals '98 (4)  12  1  2.32  18   0 109  93  27 102

The Texas League pitcher of the year led the league in complete games (three), shutouts (three) and no-hitters, throwing two in the space of five weeks. "He's beyond his years when it comes to composure," Arkansas pitching coach Dave LaPoint proclaims.

While no one is especially overwhelmed by Smith’s velocity, his ability to make hitters hit his pitch is undeniable. And it’s not like his stuff is second-rate. He throws 89 mph and makes his fastball more effective by spotting it well and working inside. His changeup is his best pitch, and his curveball also gets the job done.

"He just gets hitters out and that's what it's all about," said Burt Hooton, who began the season as Round Rock’s pitching coach before getting promoted to Houston. "He's got quality pitches but it's what he does with them that is impressive."

4 ALEX CINTRON, ss, El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
B-R  6-2  180  21  HS--Caguas, P.R.  D'backs '97 (31)  .301  522  83 157  30  6  4  59   9

The Diamondbacks' shortstop of the not-so-distant future didn't have a breakthrough year but he still managed to embellish his reputation. Cintron's defense, alternately spectacular and erratic, ultimately stabilized and his bat speed shifted gears.

"He's improved steadily all year in every aspect of his game," El Paso manager Bobby Dickerson said. "His swing seemed to come around the latter part of the year and his play in the field was much more consistent."

Cintron makes good contact but needs to get stronger and more patient at the plate. Scouts tout his potential but remain worried about his lapses of concentration.

"When he's into the game he's a plus glove but when he's distracted he can't make the easy plays," an AL scout said. "But the talent is definitely there."

5 CHRIS GEORGE, lhp, Wichita Wranglers (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)   8  5  3.14  18   0  97  92  51  80

George joined Oswalt on the Olympic pitching staff, working out of the bullpen. His future in the major leagues is as a starter, and he should be ready for Kansas City by midseason 2001—at the latest.

He ranked as the No. 5 prospect not only in the TL, but also in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League. His fastball ranges from 90-94 mph with good life, and his changeup is a top-notch pitch. George needs to throw more strikes with his breaking pitches, though part of the problem is that it seems they fool umpires as much as batters.

"George already knows how to pitch and he's got plus stuff," one scout said. Said another: "Every organization dreams of having a young pitcher like George."

6 JASON HART, 1b, Midland Rockhounds (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  240  23  SW Missouri State  Athletics '98 (5)  .326  546  98 178  44  3 30 121   4

Hart nearly gave the TL its second triple crown winner in as many years, as he led the league in RBIs and finished second in batting average and home runs. Christensen Stadium is one of the best hitter’s parks in the minors, but Hart wasn’t a Midland mirage. He hit half of his 30 homers on the road and slugged just three points higher (.584 to .581) at home.

Managers rated Hart the league’s best batting prospect in a midseason survey. Though Hart’s power stroke is potent, Round Rock skipper Jackie Moore was more impressed by his willingness to tailor his swing to the situation.

"He's just a tough out every time," Moore said. "He can definitely take you deep, but he's also capable of dropping in opposite-field singles when he needs to."

7 JESUS COLOME, rhp, Midland Rockhounds (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed            W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  190  21  Dominican Republic  Athletics FA '96  9  4  3.59  20   0 110  99  50  95

Colome may have had the best pure arm in the Athletics organization. That made the decision to use him in a July trade for Devil Rays relievers Todd Belitz and Jim Mecir all the more difficult.

Colome held his own in Double-A despite being a teenager when the season began. His repertoire is anchored by a blazing fastball with plenty of movement. He has reached 100 mph, and his slider has been clocked in the low 90s. He’s unhittable when he's on.

"When Colome gets a rhythm going he just lights up guns with high readings," a scout said. "He'll also throw a breaking pitch at 90 mph or so and it just paralyzes batters."

Colome has been used as a starter in the minors but projects as a closer at the major league level.

8 LUKE PROKOPEC, rhp, San Antonio Missions (Dodgers)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-R  5-11  170  22  Australia   Dodgers FA '94   7  3  2.45  22   0 129 118  23 124

Prokopec had a dismal 1999 season, going 8-12, 5.42 for San Antonio after a successful three-game cameo there the year before. He bounced back this year and would have been the ace of the Australian Olympic team had the Dodgers not promoted him to the majors in September.

Prokopec tops out in the low 90s, and his hard slider was deemed the league’s best breaking pitch. He also has exquisite control, and Los Angeles GM Kevin Malone praises his aggressive attitude.

"He has the tools and the mindset," San Antonio pitching coach Mark Littell said, "and he'll only get better with more experience."

9 KURT AINSWORTH, rhp, Shreveport Captains (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  185  22  Louisiana State  Giants '99 (1)  10  9  3.30  28   0 158 138  63 130

After winning the first-half title in the Eastern Division, Shreveport set a league record for losses in a half-season with 49. One of the few constants was Ainsworth, who teamed up with Oswalt in the U.S. Olympic rotation.

He was inconsistent but didn’t look overmatched when he was sent to Double-A for his first full pro season. Ainsworth threw in the low 90s and showed potential with his slider and curveball. He projects as a frontline starter once he refines his control.

"It's just a matter of time before he gets command of his pitches," one scout said, "and when that happens he'll move up very quickly."

10 JACK CUST, of, El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-1  205  21  HS--Somerville, N.J.  D'Backs '97 (1)   .293  447 100 131  32  6 20  75  12

Both at the plate and in the field, Cust remains very much a work in progress. He led the league in both walks and strikeouts while proving he has significant improvement to make with the glove.

Cust batted .293-20-75, but those numbers aren’t overly impressive because the ball flies out of Cohen Stadium. He was hitting .413 in early May, then dropped to .262-12-50 in his last 102 games. Several observers thought he was too passive at the plate.

Descriptions of his prowess in left field were less kind. One manager said Cust looked either lost or uninterested. Said a scout: "There's no sense in paying any attention to what he does in the outfield because he's either going to be a DH or he's going to be a defensive liability."

11 KEITH GINTER, 2b, Round Rock Express (Astros)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School      Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  190  24  Texas Tech  Astros '98 (12)  .333  462 108 154  30  3 26  92  24

Something about Texas brings out the best in Ginter. He was an All-American at Texas Tech and hit .382 in a nine-game TL stint last year before winning the 2000 batting title.

Through sheer willpower, Ginter transformed himself into a genuine prospect and the league MVP. He added speed and power to his game, hitting 26 home runs and stealing 24 bases, while leading the league with a .457 on-base percentage. Purpura said Ginter was the most improved player in the Houston system.

"He's a complete player, physically and mentally," Moore said. "He knows exactly what to do in any game situation."

12 LYLE OVERBAY, 1b, El Paso Diablos (Diamondbacks)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-2  215  23  Nevada   D'backs '99 (18)  .352  244  43  86  16  2  8  49   3

Overbay first attracted attention last year, when he became the first short-season player to drive in 100 runs when he had 101 in 75 games in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. He continued to show gap power and drive in runs while reaching Double-A in 2000, hitting .352 in El Paso to raise his career average to .342.

When Alex Cabrera was promoted to Arizona after hitting 35 homers in two months in the TL, Overbay took over and the Diablos offense didn’t miss a beat. He didn't launch as many moonshot bombs as Cabrera but Overbay quickly convinced league observers that he was the better hitter.

"Overbay has as close to a perfect lefthanded swing as you can get," one scout said. With his size and stroke, Overbay should develop more home-run power.

13 WILFREDO RODRIGUEZ, lhp, Round Rock Express (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country     Signed          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-3  180  21  Venezuela   Astros FA '95   2  4  5.77  11   0  58  54  52  55

After a breakthrough 1999 in which he led the Florida State League in victories and strikeouts, Rodriguez never got on track this year. He started the season late because of a series of minor injuries, then was undermined by control problems.

But when he threw strikes, such as in a 12-strikeout loss to San Antonio in early August, Rodriguez was impressive. At his best, he throws a 93-95 mph fastball that sinks, plus a nasty curveball and a changeup.

"Rodriguez has everything except consistency," Astros scout Scipio Spinks said. "His release point is all over the place but his arm is a very live one. When he finally gets comfortable, he'll be a legitimate dominator."

14 JASON ROMANO, 2b, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School     Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  185  21  HS--Tampa  Rangers '97 (1)  .271  535  87 145  35  2  8  70  25

A converted third baseman, Romano is settling in as a middle infielder. He’s clearly the Rangers’ second baseman of the future, and he could be their leadoff man as well.

To bat at the top of the lineup, he’ll need to show more patience at the plate. He was too aggressive in Tulsa, not waiting for pitches he could handle. Romano’s power dipped after an impressive 1999 season in the FSL, but he does have the potential to hit 15-20 homers per season in Texas.

15 BILL ORTEGA, of, Arkansas Travelers (Cardinals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  205  25  Cuba      Cardinals FA '97  .325  332  51 108  18  5 12  62   1

A freak collision with an out-of-position umpire in mid-July brought a premature end to an impressive season for Ortega. He blossomed into a .316 hitter in 1999, then started to turn on pitches this year. He drilled eight homers in April, just three short of his career high.

Though St. Louis is well stocked in outfielders with J.D. Drew, Jim Edmonds and Ray Lankford, don’t count Ortega out. He may have had the best all-around package of tools among TL position players.

"Ortega was grading high on everything from outfield arm to power potential," a NL scout said. "There wasn't a lot of doubt he didn't belong at this level any longer."

16 RYAN VOGELSONG, rhp, Shreveport Captains (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  195  23  Kutztown U.   Giants '98 (5)   6 10  4.23  27   0 155 153  69 147

Vogelsong reached Double-A last year in his first full pro season, but got hammered before being shut down with a tender arm. The second time around, he lowered his ERA from 7.31 to 4.23 and led the TL with 147 strikeouts in 155 innings.

"He's just a power pitcher right now but he's a good one," Round Rock coach Mark Bailey said. "He throws hard with movement, and he gave us as much trouble as anyone."

Vogelsong throws in the mid-90s, and his breaking ball and changeup have the potential to be above-average pitches. Scouts are concerned by his maximum-effort delivery, and one suggested he should be moved to the bullpen to reduce the stress on his shoulder.

17 JASON GRABOWSKI, 3b, Tulsa Drillers (Rangers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-3  200  24  Connecticut  Rangers '97 (2)  .274  493  93 135  33  5 19  90   8

Romano isn’t the only Drillers prospect who has changed positions recently. Grabowski moved from catcher to the hot corner in 1999. That means he eventually will have to try to unseat Mike Lamb, not reigning American League MVP Ivan Rodriguez.

Grabowski had a solid but not sensational 2000 season. He showed good plate discipline, gap power and a strong arm. He needs to hit a few more home runs and make more accurate throws.

18 AARON McNEAL, 1b, Round Rock Express (Astros)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  230  22  Chabot (Calif.) JC  Astros '95 (27)  .310  361  40 112  20  2 11  69   0

After leading the Astros organization with 38 homers in 1999, McNeal hit just 11 in 97 games after making the jump from low Class A. The raw power expected from a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder is still there, though he’ll have to show more patience and make more consistent contact to bring it out.

McNeal did bat .310 for the second consecutive season. He also was named the league’s best defensive first baseman in Baseball America’s Best Tools survey.

"He's very quick with his feet and hands and he throws as well, especially to start double plays, as anyone around," one scout said. "If he'd quit swinging at pitches he can't reach he'd be ready for the big leagues right now."

19 LUIS SATURRIA, of, Arkansas Travelers (Cardinals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  165  24  Dominican Republic  Cardinals FA '94  .277  477  78 132  25 10 20  77  18

The Cardinals temporarily lost Saturria to the Blue Jays in the 1997 major league Rule 5 draft, and they’re glad they got him back. He has arguably the best package of tools in their depleted system—though Ortega could stake a claim to that honor—but he’s still somewhat raw in terms of baseball skills.

Saturria has a quick bat, though he lacks any concept of strike-zone discipline, which hampers his ability to hit for average or power. He has the speed to wreak havoc on the bases, yet he lacks the instincts. He’s at his best in the outfield, where he has center-field range and a right-field arm.

20 CHIN-FENG CHEN, of, San Antonio Missions (Dodgers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country   Signed           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-1  190  22  Taiwan    Dodgers FA '99  .277  516  66 143  27  3  6  67  23

Chen took the high Class A California League by storm in his pro debut last year, winning the MVP award and turning in the first 30-30 season in league history. He continued to hit in April, batting .344, then tailed off to .262 with four homers over the final four months.

He struck out far too often as pitchers blew fastballs by him. While he stole 23 bases, he was caught 15 times, making him less than effective. His most conspicuous shortcoming was his arm, which one scout called the worst in the league.

Chen is only 22, so he has time to turn himself around. While he remains a prospect, he was a major disappointment in 2000.

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