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2003 League Top 20s: Midwest League
Baseball America's League Top 20 lists are generated from consultations with scouts and league managers. To qualify for consideration, a player must have spent at least one-third of the season in a league. Position players must have one plate appearance for every league game. Pitchers must pitch 1/3 inning for every league game, and relievers have to have made at least 20 appearances in full-season leagues and 10 in short-season ones.
by Jim Callis
That Beloit and Lansing met in the finals of the low Class A Midwest League playoffs was no surprise. The Snappers and Lugnuts dominated the postseason and monopolized the league's prospect list by occupying eight of the top 13 spots. The group didn't include second baseman Rickie Weeks, the No. 2 overall pick in the June draft who arrived in Beloit too late to qualify.
After blowing a seven-run, ninth-inning lead in the last game of the 2002 playoffs, Lansing atoned by sweeping all seven of its postseason games this year. Leading the way were lefthander Andy Sisco, who didn't allow an earned run in either of his starts, and 18-year-old outfielder Felix Pie, who batted .429 in the playoffs.
The Snappers might have put up more of a fight if two of their best pitching prospects weren't sidelined for the playoffs, though Dennis Sarfate lived up to his reputation by winning both of his starts. First baseman Prince Fielder continued his slugging ways, batting .394 with two homers in eight games.
The MWL wasn't as balanced as it was in 2002, when Joe Mauer headlined the position players and Dontrelle Willis was the cream of the pitching crop. Outside of Fielder, most of the top talent in the league was found on the mound.
1. Prince Fielder, 1b, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
It isn't often that managers tab a 5-foot-11, 245-pounder as a league's most exciting player, but then again Fielder is an uncommon 19-year-old slugger with gifts beyond his considerable power. He also hits for average and controls the strike zone, which is how he led the MWL in RBIs and placed second in on-base percentage (.409) and slugging (.526) behind players four years older.
Managers and scouts consider him a better prospect than former Beloit star Brad Nelson, who led the minors in RBIs in 2002, because Fielder's power potential grades out at the top of the 20-80 scouting scale. He could emulate his father Cecil and win a big league home run crown, and he's a more advanced hitter than his dad was. Fielder won't be more than adequate at first base because of his limited range and lateral movement, but he needs to work harder during pregame infield.
"I haven't seen that kind of power since I've been here," said Don Money, Beloit's manager since 1998. "Last year he came here as a raw kid out of high school. This year he came back with a plan. He can hit the ball out of any ballpark to any field. The ball comes off his bat like a big leaguer."
2. Blake Hawksworth, rhp, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
The parent Cardinals always seem to be desperate for pitching, and Hawksworth may be able to help them soon. Signed for $1.475 million as a draft-and-follow in 2002, he needed just 10 starts to earn a promotion to high Class A. The only glitch in his first full season came when he injured his right ankle in late July.
He has the highest ceiling of any St. Louis pitching prospect since Rick Ankiel. Hawksworth has a 92-93 mph fastball that was clocked at 96 in the seventh inning of one start, and he backs it with a sharp curveball and good changeup. He can locate his pitches in all four quadrants of the strike zone, and his arm action and delivery are flawless.
"He's the best pitcher in the league for me," Cedar Rapids manager Todd Claus said. "He has three plus pitches. Two years max, and he's in St. Louis—and I said the same thing with Dontrelle Willis last year."
3. Justin Jones, lhp, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
The best is yet to come for Jones. There's plenty of projectability remaining in his 6-foot-4, 180-pound frame. As he gets stronger, he'll be able to work more than the 71 innings he totaled this year before being shut down with a tired arm.
His present looks pretty good, though. Originally ticketed for short-season Boise at age 18, he was called to fill a void in Lansing in mid-April. He gave up more than three earned runs in only one of his 16 starts.
Jones has precocious command of a nifty four-pitch repertoire. His two main pitches are his 89-94 mph fastball and his curveball. He also has a good changeup for his age and a splitter.
4. Manny Parra, lhp, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
Parra edged Hawksworth as the most coveted draft-and-follow in 2002, signing for $1.55 million. They have similar stuff, control and builds, with Hawksworth rating a slight edge across the board. Parra's season also ended prematurely, as he didn't pitch after mid-August because of tightness in a pectoral muscle.
Parra gets good run on an 88-92 mph fastball. His curveball projects as a plus pitch, while his changeup is average. As the season went on, he improved his feel for pitching and did a better job of sharpening his curve and throwing it for strikes.
He repeats his delivery well but it's a little stiff, so Parra tends to pitch up in the strike zone. He'll have to address that flaw at higher levels as well as work inside more often against lefthanders, who batted .355 against him.
5. Joe Blanton, rhp, Kane County Cougars (Athletics)
The only four-year college player to crack the first 15 spots on this list, Blanton proved he was too advanced for low Class A. The best prospect out of Oakland's "Moneyball" draft in 2002, he wasn't promoted until late July, giving him enough time to lead the MWL in strikeouts.
Just as impressive as his 144 strikeouts in 133 innings were his 19 walks. Managers rated his slider as the league's top breaking ball, and Blanton also has a plus fastball and, at times, a plus curve. Scouts project him as a No. 3 starter, and he could be more dynamic out of the bullpen, especially if he doesn't refine his changeup.
There's a lot of effort and some head jerk in Blanton's delivery, yet it doesn't rob him of feel or command. He occasionally makes mistakes over the plate, yet Double-A hitters couldn't solve him either. He had a 3-1, 1.26 record in seven Texas League outings.
6. Joel Zumaya, rhp, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
He's the fifth pitcher on this list, but when it comes to a sheer live arm, no one could top Zumaya. He had the league's best fastball, which not only reached 98 mph but also moved so much it seemed to jump at hitters. At times, he showed a hammer curveball that reached 81-82 mph.
But Zumaya throws with so much effort that he missed six weeks with back problems. His delivery has limited his consistency with his curveball, and his changeup lags far behind his other two pitches. His best long-term role could be as a closer.
7. Andy Sisco, lhp, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
Sisco has a stronger arm but not as much feel for pitching as his teammate Jones. His assignments are to learn his craft and hone his secondary pitches, and he was set back when he broke his left hand and missed two months. After his return, he wasn't nearly as sharp as he had been until the playoffs.
As a 6-foot-9 lefthander who generates easy velocity, Sisco draws obvious comparisons to Randy Johnson. He's well ahead of where Johnson was at age 20, and his 92-94 mph fastball has room to grow. All four of his pitches are lively, and his fastball, curveball, changeup and splitter all move in different fashion.
8. Felix Pie, of, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
The league's best defensive outfielder, Pie played shallow in center and was the bane of hitters across the MWL. His glove was easily the most polished of his five tools, but at age 18 he has plenty of time to develop.
Pie has a quick bat, the potential for average power, plus speed and solid arm strength. His plate discipline must improve, and he's a poor basestealer because he hasn't learned how to get good reads and jumps. While his upside is huge, a National League scout who saw him at the Futures Game thought Pie needed to overhaul his stance.
"I was disappointed," the scout said. "I had heard so much about him, but he wasn't what I expected. He was crouched at the plate and was just a slap hitter who hit the ball with no authority. He's a good outfielder and he can run, but he's not going to hit homers with his current swing. He needs to stand more upright and get his hands in a better load position."
9. Tom Wilhelmsen, rhp, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
Opinions were divided on Wilhelmsen. The NL scout called him the best righthander he had ever seen in the league after clocking his fastball at 98 mph and grading his curveball and changeup as 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale. Others thought his heater lacked movement and weren't as impressed by his other pitches.
Wilhelmsen's fastball usually sits at 92-94 mph, and it would have more life if he didn't throw straight over the top. Because he didn't trust his other pitches, he didn't miss as many bats as his stuff would suggest he should.
Wilhelmsen had a 1.73 ERA through May, then got hammered in June before complaining of elbow discomfort. Afterward he made just two brief mid-August appearances in Rookie ball. His goofy makeup is another concern.
10. Brent Clevlen, of, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
The Tigers sent their first two picks from the 2002 draft to West Michigan, and second-rounder Clevlen impressed MWL observers more than first-rounder Scott Moore, a third baseman. Like most hitters, Clevlen was punished by West Michigan's Fifth Third Ballpark (.227-2-26 in 68 games), but he showed his true colors on the road (.290-10-37 in 70 contests).
"The two best position players in the league were Fielder and Clevlen," the NL scout said. "He's a hell of a player with serious pop. He's an all-star right fielder with a plus arm, plus speed and a great swing."
Clevlen also showed refined instincts for an outfielder. He already has an aptitude for drawing walks, and he ranked fifth in the league with 16 outfield assists.
11. Alberto Callaspo, 2b, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
Managers and scouts had difficulty separating Callaspo from his double-play partner, Erick Aybar, who's four spots down the list. They're similar players and Callaspo, the MWL's best defensive second baseman, could have played shortstop for most clubs in the league. He has exceptional range for second base, and his ability to turn the double play is even better.
Callaspo also handles the bat well. He won't hit for power with his slap approach—one scout compared his short flick to Hall of Famer Rod Carew's—but he could be an on-base machine if he learns to draw more walks. He was the second-toughest player in the minors to strike out, and he led the MWL in batting, runs, hits and doubles.
Though not a burner, he's a good baserunner because he's quick and instinctive.
12. Jae-Kuk Ryu, rhp, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
Ryu wouldn't have returned to the MWL in 2003 if not for the well-publicized incident in which he killed an osprey with a baseball while in the high Class A Florida State League. Demoted as a punishment, he also had some makeup issues with Lansing. But he was effective when he took the mound and earned a promotion to Double-A.
Much more confident than in last year's stay with Lansing, Ryu kept hitters off balance by mixing his pitches and speed. He commands his 92-93 mph fastball and curveball well, and also throws a splitter and a changeup with nice run. Though he wasn't consistent enough to fool Double-A hitters, Ryu's immaturity is his greatest weakness.
13. Dennis Sarfate, rhp, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
After pitching just 38 innings in his first two pro seasons, Sarfate was able to do what teammates Parra and Wilhelmsen could not: hold up physically for the entire season. He also showcased a 91-96 mph fastball that had heavy life when he stayed on top of it.
As with many young pitchers blessed with good velocity, Sarfate tends to overthrow. He needs to learn that location matters more than radar-gun readings. How well he refines his inconsistent curveball and learns to count on his changeup will determine if his future is as a starter or closer. His aggressive nature would help him in the latter role.
14. Rafael Rodriguez, rhp, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
A number of teenage power pitchers pushed for inclusion on this list. Zumaya and Wilhelmsen cracked the top 10, and Rodriguez wasn't far behind. Teammate Kevin Jepsen might have made it if not for elbow problems, and South Bend's Adriano Rosario might have if he had more than velocity and observers had believed his listed age.
Clinton manager Carlos Subero compared Rodriguez to Angels World Series hero Francisco Rodriguez (no relation). Rafael has a quick arm that produces lively 89-95 mph fastballs and 83-89 mph sliders. He has some effort to his delivery and a lot to learn about pitching, such as busting hitters inside.
15. Erick Aybar, ss, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
Aybar led all minor league shortstops in hitting, and he was the best defender at his position in the MWL. He has a stronger arm than Callaspo, which is why he played short, and more thump in his bat. The consensus was that Callaspo's more advanced plate discipline gave him a better chance to contribute with the bat. At worst, though, Aybar should become a utility player in the Desi Relaford mold.
He's a little quicker than Callaspo and shares his instincts when he reaches base. Managers ranked Aybar right behind Fielder as the league's most exciting player, though their styles couldn't be more different.
"You go to the ballpark and you say, 'What is Aybar going to do today?' " Subero said. "He hits and he makes plays at shortstop, and you say, 'There he is again.' "
16. Donald Murphy, 2b, Burlington Bees (Royals)
Managers loved few players more than Murphy. He doesn't have overwhelming tools, but he also has few weaknesses and gives 100 percent every day. His 98 RBIs trailed only Josh Barfield's 128 among minor league second baseman.
"He's just a baseball player," Claus said. "He reminds me of Craig Biggio. His bat is his best tool. He has so much hitting ability, so much snap at contact, that the ball really comes off his bat. It's good, hard contact. His bat can carry him."
The Biggio comparison was repeated around the MWL. Murphy doesn't have the speed Biggio had in his prime, but he's an average runner who can steal an occasional base. He also has a knack for making more plays at second base than his average range and arm would suggest.
17. John Baker, c, Kane County Cougars (Athletics)
He barely got mentioned in "Moneyball," but Baker may have a more realistic chance of one day becoming Oakland's everyday catcher than Jeremy Brown, a first-round pick and a central figure in the book. Even with a below-average arm, average receiving skills and adequate blocking ability, Baker is more likely to stay behind the plate.
Like Brown, Baker will let his bat carry him. Though he doesn't control the strike zone as well as Brown, Baker is a disciplined hitter who uses the whole field and makes consistent sweet-spot contact. He did tail off markedly in Double-A, however, as did all of the A's 2002 draftees except Blanton.
"He doesn’t throw guys out because he has a fringe arm," the NL scout said. "But he's got a very good lefthanded swing and approach. He'll be an everyday catcher because of his bat."
18. Rudy Guillen, of, Battle Creek Yankees
Battle Creek's top two prospects were outfielders. Bronson Sardinha is a more accomplished hitter at this point, but he has had to be demoted to jump-start his bat in each of the last two seasons. Though Guillen isn't as polished, he's younger and has a broader base of physical skills.
"I like him more than Sardinha," Claus said. "He has a chance to be Raul Mondesi. He has a plus-plus arm and all kinds of tools."
Guillen's youth shows at the plate, where he's still learning how to work pitchers and deal with breaking balls. He should have above-average power once he fills out his lanky 6-foot-3 frame. He covered center field well for the Yankees but projects more as a right fielder.
19. Jon Connolly, lhp, West Michigan Whitecaps (Tigers)
Connolly led the minors in ERA, and not just because he pitched at Fifth Third Ballpark. His ERA was 1.35 at home versus 1.51 on the road. While he didn't scare any hitters with his stuff, he has a good enough feel for pitching that scouts and managers give him a chance as a back-of-the-rotation starter.
Connolly's changeup, a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, isn't just his only above-average pitch--it's his only average pitch. He throws 83-88 mph, and his 6-foot build doesn't figure to generate more velocity. His curveball is just a tick better than his fastball. But his ability to locate his pitches precisely where he wants and to change speeds is outstanding.
20. Colt Griffin, rhp, Burlington Bees (Royals)
If Griffin could combine his stuff with Connolly's approach, he'd be at the top of this list. He led the minors in walks while repeating the MWL, but he's making progress. One scout said he never saw a power pitcher improve as much in one year as Griffin had.
He's beginning to realize that sheer velocity isn't his ticket to the majors. After throwing 100 mph as a high school senior, he's more content to stay around the strike zone with a low-90s fastball. His slider has become much more consistent and his changeup is more dependable.