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2004 Top 20 Prospects: Florida State LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By J.J. Cooper
Chat Wrap: J.J. Cooper took your Florida State League questions
Year in and year out, pitchers have the upper hand in the high Class A Florida State League, thanks to spacious ballparks and humidity. In 2004, hitters were at an even bigger disadvantage, thanks to a top-notch crop of young arms.
Almost every one of the 12 teams sported a legitimate ace. A number of pitching staffs featured two or three hard-throwing starters who project as future major leaguers.
"It was definitely a pitching league," St. Lucie manager Tim Teufel said. "We had some good bullpen guys. I think the starters were quality. You had to work for it, plus you're playing in big league ballparks."
There was so much pitching that Clearwater's Elizardo Ramirez and Brevard County's Logan Kensing failed to make the top 20 despite jumping all the way to the majors. Fort Myers' Scott Baker would have made the top 10 had he not missed qualifying by one-third of an inning.
The FSL's hitting talent was thinner, but there were a number of shortstops that made their mark, including top prospect Joel Guzman.
Guzman was overmatched in a 62-game stint with Vero Beach a year ago, batting .246-5-24. This season, he showed great raw power, the ability to recognize and hit breaking balls, and the aptitude to turn on good fastballs.
"He was over his head last year," Lakeland manager Gary Green said. "This year, he caught up and passed this league."
Though he's extremely tall for a shortstop, Guzman is a smooth defender who makes all the routine plays and has a plus arm. His slightly below-average speed and average quickness limit his range, so he likely will end up at third base before long. He might even be a candidate for the big league club next spring if Adrian Beltre leaves via free agency.
Billingsley fills the zone with an exploding 93-94 mph fastball and a hard curveball. Both are strikeout pitches, and his late-breaking slider also can be a plus pitch. He can throw all three pitches to spots, showing the ability to pound batters on the hands and then sit them down by painting the outside corner. He didn't have to use his changeup too much this season, as he was dominant with his other three pitches.
"He's the kind of guy who before he throws a pitch, you say, ‘He's a big league pitcher,' " Tampa manager Billy Masse said. "And when he throws a pitch, you say, ‘This guy is really a big league pitcher.' "
"What a young talent," Fort Myers manager Jose Marzan said. "He makes the game look so easy."
Ramirez also has a relatively advanced approach at the plate. He slugged just .389 in the FSL, but that was partly due to a June wrist injury, and he showed plus power after a promotion to Double-A. He drives the ball to all fields and doesn't have a below-average tool.
The biggest questions with Ramirez revolve around his maturity. A year after a couple of disciplinary problems in the low Class A South Atlantic League, he hasn't fully alleviated concerns about his makeup. The feeling is that while Ramirez can be an all-star, he'll be as good as he wants to be.
By that point, Kazmir was back to the fireballing lefty who blows away batters with a 95-mph fastball and a nasty slider. A month and a half later, he was outdueling Pedro Martinez in Fenway Park. But while in the FSL, Kazmir was bothered by a rib injury that limited his velocity and his command.
Kazmir pitched at 90-95 mph in St. Lucie, compared to 93-97 in the majors. His slider also had more bite once he was fully healthy, and his changeup potentially could become a third plus pitch. Command and durability are the biggest question marks with Kazmir, but no lefty in the minors has better pure stuff.
Olsen's fastball was there all year. In the second half, he improved the consistency of his slider and refined his developing changeup. When he's a finished product, he could have two plus pitches and an average third pitch.
He struggled at times to repeat his delivery, reminding scouts and managers that he's still young and has few innings under his belt. But Olsen could be a future rotation ace if he matures and continues to add polish.
What keeps Pie from ranking higher on this list is power. He can turn on fastballs and drive pitches to the gaps, but he's more of a slash-and-speed guy who likely will hit at the top of the order. To do that, he'll have to greatly improve his plate discipline.
Pie has other holes to polish as well. In the first half, he was vulnerable to high fastballs and breaking balls off the plate. He plays shallow in part because he's not comfortable coming in on fly balls.
He worked on those weaknesses and showed improvement as the season went along. He became a better bunter and learned how to lay off pitches outside of the zone.
"He looks like he's going to be able to throw harder if he needs to," Daytona manager Steve McFarland said. "He can go to his breaking ball or his fastball to get you out."
Hinckley's changeup is less developed, but that's partly because he rarely needed a third pitch. He had no problems adapting to Double-A after a mid-June promotion.
A strained hamstring forced him to miss a month of action early in the season, and it limited his running for a while when he returned. But it couldn't detract from his batting stroke, one of the prettiest in the minors.
Hermida hit .300 for most of the season, and there's little reason to think he won't continue to compete for batting titles as he moves up. There are bigger questions about his power production, as he currently is much more likely to slap singles and doubles to the opposite field than pull a pitch over the fence. His body and his bat speed suggest that he should develop power as he matures.
A right fielder, Hermida has solid average range and enough arm to handle the position.
Giarratano has above-average athleticism, a very good glove and a compact stroke from both sides of the plate. He should fit nicely at the top of a lineup. He has good bat control and on-base ability, plus speed and an idea of how to steal a base.
Duncan's glove lags behind his bat. His feet are a little slow for third base and an unorthodox delivery makes his arm a little short for the position.
He showed a loose, live arm, unleashing fastballs that sat at 92-93 mph and touched 97, though he could use a little more movement to go with that heat. Liriano also throws a potentially above average, if still a little erratic, changeup and a 12-to-6 curveball that has potential.
Liriano has the arm and the arsenal of pitches to be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. His violent delivery and history of arm problems may make him better suited to be a late-inning reliever.
Broxton has an easy delivery and good arm action. There are some concerns about his heavy frame, and his fastball sometimes wavered when he got tired. Sometimes he'd sit at 92-93 mph and touch 95, while at others he'd pitch at 89-90.
Broxton's slider is a plus pitch and his change is also solid, though he doesn't throw it much. If he can polish his command and improve his conditioning, he could be a No. 2 starter.
"He keeps the ball down, and the ball seems to explode onto bats," Teufel said. "He's fun to watch operate. He's a surgeon on the dish."
Of his three minor league stops in 2004, Petit did his best work in St. Lucie. He also features a changeup that is a plus pitch at times but is still inconsistent. His slider has potential, but he doesn't yet fully command it and sometimes it flattens out too much.
Papelbon's calling card is still a 92-94 mph fastball that reaches 96. Because of his free and easy motion, it sometimes looks like he's throwing even harder. He also has solid command and a durable frame.
His biggest improvement this season was the development of his slider, which became an out pitch. Papelbon buries it down and in against lefthanders. His changeup is less advanced, but has potential to be an average pitch.
Lester's fastball has good late life, and he usually pitches at 92 mph and tops out at 96. When he's on, he can blow batters away.
His secondary pitches are less advanced than Papelbon's. Lester throws a slurvy curveball and a below-average changeup. Some managers believe he'll have trouble refining his curve and change because his delivery, while clean, is slow and mechanical.
"I really like his swing," Claus said. "Few swings are as flat as his. The bat is in the zone for a long time. And when he gets it, it's backspun with good carry."
FSL pitchers took advantage of LaRoche's aggressiveness, getting him out with breaking balls and changeups while he looked for fastballs to pull. He'll be better off once he realizes he can hit the ball out to all fields and lets his power come naturally.
A shortstop in junior college, LaRoche showed one of the FSL's strongest arms and good agility, though his hands are a little questionable. Some managers thought he'd be able to play second base as well.
Ramirez' fastball usually sits at 90-91, but he occasionally bumped it up to 94-95 he needed it. His straight-over-the-top delivery gives him a good downward plane, and he has a slight hesitation that makes it hard for hitters to time him. He has an uncanny ability to read swings and get inside batters' heads, allowing him to keep them off balance.
Neither Ramirez' changeup nor his slurvy curveball stands out at this point. There's a lot of effort in his delivery, which is also a concern.
A free-swinging switch-hitter, Young generates plus power with his wiry speed and impressive bat speed. His aggressive approach results in a lot of strikeouts, but he's patient enough to draw his share of walks.
Though Young's speed and agility are below average, he did improve steadily at second base throughout the season. Some observers believe he might be able to stick there, but if he doesn't he should offer enough offense to play on an outfield corner.
While he struggled after his promotion, FSL hitters couldn't handle Banks' five-pitch repertoire. He exhibited plus command of a 90-93 mph. He also showed the confidence to throw his slider (which showed signs of developing into an out pitch), splitter, curveball and changeup at any point in the count.
Sleeth throws in the low 90s with good life on his fastball. When he's on he hits his spots and overmatches hitters with the movement on his heater. But at times he has trouble keeping his fastball down, a recurring problem once he reached Double-A -- where he got hammered for a 6.30 ERA.
Sleeth has a power curveball and a hard slider, though they are similar enough that they're sometimes difficult to differentiate. His changeup is less developed, but shows signs of becoming an average pitch. He needs to improve the consistency of all of his secondary pitches, especially his changeup because everything else he throws is hard.