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2004 Top 20 Prospects: California LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Kevin Goldstein
Chat Wrap: Kevin Goldstein took your California League questions
It was a tale of two halves in the high Class A California League, as four of the top five prospects were showcasing their talent in Double-A by the end of June.
The first half was dominated by young righthanders Felix Hernandez and Matt Cain, who also pitched well in Double-A as teenagers.
“Those two are both so special,” a scout said. “They are so young and they obviously have amazing arms, but they both really know how to pitch, which is phenomenal.”
A third righty, Visalia’s Ubaldo Jimenez, was just as spectacular in April, but a stress fracture in his shoulder blade shut him down for most of the remainder of the season. He made one more appearance on Aug. 1, lasting just two pitches—neither over 62 mph.
Jimenez, who didn't have enough innings to qualify for this list, threw consistently in the high 90s. He projects as a closer because of his violent delivery and inconsistent offspeed offerings.
Offensively, Lancaster's "Three Amigos"—outfielders Carlos Quentin and Conor Jackson, third baseman Jamie D’Antona—wreaked havoc in the first half. Arizona’s first three picks in the 2003 draft combined to hit .323-39-162 in 70 games before being promoted en masse to Double-A.
Both Hernandez' fastball and curveball were rated the best in the league by the managers. Hernandez throws in the high 90s with little effort and locates his fastball well—and the consensus was that his knee-buckling curveball is even better. One scout called it the best breaking pitch he saw all year.
Observers also praised Hernandez' changeup, which was nonexistent early in the season but showed signs of becoming a plus pitch. And though the Mariners wouldn't let him throw his slider, those who have seen it say it might be the best offering in his repertoire.
"He's the best I've seen in the last three or four years, and he's right up there with the great stuff guys I've ever seen," one scout said. "Plus he has a feel for pitching with command, like all of the great ones have."
“He uses both sides of the plate and commands his pitches well," Visalia manager Stu Cole said. "He's just going to shoot through the minor leagues."
While some managers thought Cain was every bit as good as Hernandez, his changeup relegated him to No. 2 on this list. Though it has improved, it's still a work in progress. His athleticism and bulldog approach also drew praise.
A free swinger who's difficult to strike out, Aybar will hit .300 but he'll never draw many walks. He was caught stealing a whopping 36 times, but he's expected to improve once he learns how to read pitchers and pick his spots better.
Aybar’s plus range and arm strength, along with his good instincts and smooth actions, make him a natural shortstop. “He’s the perfect combination of fundamentals and flashiness,” Rancho Cucamonga manager Bobby Meacham said.
Quentin is a complete hitter, showing the ability to hit for average and power as well as strong plate discipline. While he set a minor league record by getting hit by 43 pitches in 2004, one scout saw a weakness in his ability to get plunked.
“He’s already right on top of the plate,” the scout said. “When he swings, his whole body lunges over the plate. I fear he could struggle once pitchers start busting him inside.”
Quentin has average speed and good instincts in right field. He's regaining the plus arm strength he had before his elbow was reconstructed.
Jackson reached base in all but six games he played for Lancaster, thanks to what was considered the Cal League's best strike-zone recognition. He has a quick bat, a willingness to use the entire field and developing power. He should hit for average and produce 20-30 homers annually.
“He doesn’t swing at bad pitches,” Inland Empire manager Daren Brown said, "and he doesn’t miss good ones."
Seen by many as the offensive mirror image of Quentin, Jackson doesn't offer as much with the glove. His below-average speed and arm strength had some observers predicting an eventual move to first base, where he'd still have enough bat.
Dukes was one of the nation's top linebacker prospects when he came out of Tampa's Hillsborough High, which also has produced Carl Everett, Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield. Based on pure physical talent, Dukes had the highest ceiling of any player in the league and among the highest in the minors. He's a classic five-tool athlete with power, speed, arm strength and instincts.
Dukes’ conduct will continue to be a concern, but the Devil Rays say they saw a marked difference in his attitude with Bakersfield. Managers praised the football mentality he brought to the game. “He showed the desire to be what he can be,” Visalia manager Stu Cole said.
A classic leadoff man, Lewis understands his role, as evidenced by his .424 on-base percentage, good for second in the league. He may be too selective at times. Wiry strong, he improved his slugging percentage from .336 in low Class A to .451 in the Cal League and projects to hit 15-20 homers annually.
A plus-plus runner, Lewis accelerates quickly but still is learning the nuances of baserunning. He has exceptional range and gets very good jumps in center field. His arm is average.
Parra has a 91-94 mph fastball that he can sink or cut, as well as a sharp-breaking curveball and deceptive change. He throws strikes with all three pitches and is able to keep his pitch counts down. While his shoulder problems were troublesome, no structural damage was found and he pitched very well in Double-A after five weeks off.
“He’s very polished, well beyond his years," a scout said. "It’s rare to find a lefty with both his stuff and command."
“You know how everyone is talking about Jackson and Quentin this year?” Meacham asked. “Well, that’s how they’re going to be talking about Zeringue next year.”
Zeringue has classic right-field tools. He generates excellent bat speed and hits for power to all fields, though he needs to be more selective and must make adjustments against breaking pitches. He has a solid arm and surprising speed for his size.
Salazar uses a contact-focused approach to lace line drives all over the park. He has solid gap power and works counts well. He also owns plus speed and fine instincts, which makes him a proficient bunter and baserunner.
Defensively, he has good range and takes good routes on fly balls in center field, though his arm is a tick below average. He tailed off markedly when he was promoted to Double-A, so he'll have to prove himself again in 2005.
Danks features a low-90s fastball and a biting breaking ball that another scout called "as good a curve as you’ll find in a young lefty.” His changeup is still in development but projects as a plus pitch.
Danks’ command can be spotty at times, and he needs to work on adding deception to his offspeed pitches. At times, he seemed to get riled by questionable umpiring calls or poor defensive support.
Shell uses a low-90s fastball that can occasionally touch 94 mph, plus a more refined spike curve that seems to always end up in the strike zone. He shows remarkable command of both pitches. “Everything is a strike," San Jose manager Lenn Sakata said, "and nothing is in the middle of the plate."
Shell needs to gain more confidence in his offspeed pitches, as he relies too heavily on his fastball in pressure situations. He doesn't have enough velocity to just blow the ball by hitters at higher levels.
When healthy, Baker is a prototypical power-hitting third baseman with plus power and on-base ability. He has a tendency to chase breaking pitches, leading to too many strikeouts. While he's a below-average runner, he's a good athlete and doesn't clog the bases.
Defensively, Baker has soft hands and a solid arm along with average range. The fast rise of fellow third baseman Ian Stewart, Colorado’s 2003 first-round pick, may force Baker to change positions in the near future.
Schierholtz has a quick bat that generates big-time power. Like many young players, he needs to work on being more selective and identifying pitches he can turn on. A minor league batboy as a youngster, he's a baseball rat with excellent makeup and a continuous desire to improve.
At third base, Schierholtz is both stiff and mechanical. Moved to right field for the final three weeks he showed surprising instincts and his arm, his only plus defensive tool, played well. Sakata attributed Schierholtz’ offensive rise--he hit .324 following the switch--to him no longer taking his defensive problems to the plate.
Physically reminiscent of Soriano, Arias makes excellent contact and shows projectable power as well as strength to the opposite field. He’s a plus runner with tremendous range and a powerful arm.
Despite his obvious physical ability, Arias is still raw in nearly every facet of the game. Offensively, he’s far too aggressive and he has yet to bring his raw power to in-game situations. Defensively, he's prone to careless errors, often flipping the ball to first base on routine plays.
“You watch him in batting and fielding practice and you drool,” one scout said. “But once the game starts, he disappoints.”
D’Antona has more power than either Quentin or Jackson, generating long-distance shots from gap to gap thanks to above-average bat speed. He lacks their patience, however, and his long swing leaves him susceptible to good fastballs.
D’Antona makes the routine plays well and shows a plus arm at third base, but his poor footwork and below-average range have some predicting an eventual move to first base. He is a below-average runner.
Long, lean, loose and projectable, Hammel pumps 92-94 mph fastballs on a strong downward plane. He also has a tight breaking ball that he throws in the low 80s. His rapidly improving changeup already features good deception.
Hammel's pitches are difficult to pick up, because they all come from the same delivery. He can have trouble maintaining a consistent release point at times, leading to control problems, but that wasn't an issue in the Cal League.
His fastball sits in the high 80s, but Hudgins makes up for a lack of overpowering stuff by throwing strikes and outsmarting hitters. He has two above-average secondary pitches, a tight curveball and a changeup that he can add and subtract velocity from. He has excellent command of all three pitches.
Hudgins' work ethic and intellectual approach drew obvious comparisons to Greg Maddux. The consensus, however, was that he'd settle into the majors as a long reliever or setup man.
Quintanilla will hit for average with gap power, though at times he can get pull-conscious. While he makes good contact, he lacks the plate discipline the Athletics preach, and he's an average-at-best runner.
Short and stocky, Quintanilla is fundamentally sound defensively but lacks the athleticism and arm strength to stay at shortstop. Nearly everyone who saw him in the Cal League projected that he would move to second base, and he drew comparisons to Glenn Hubbard, Randy Velarde and Todd Walker, all serviceable big league second basemen.
Despite lacking the build of a classic power pitcher, the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Gonzalez works consistently at 92-96 mph and maintains his velocity deep into games. His slider has developed into a plus pitch at times, but still can get slurvy at others. Both pitches finish low in the strike zone, generating lots of grounders.
Gonzalez' changeup is still in the developmental stages, but he showed confidence in it as a starter.