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2005 Top 20 Prospects: Appalachian LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Matt Eddy
Chat Wrap: Matt Eddy took your Appy League questoins
Holding with recent trends for American rookie leagues, the Appalachian League featured more second-year players and fewer young Latin prospects than it had in recent years. Managers agreed the overall talent level was down from 2004, when true shortstops and projectable lefthanders were plentiful. This year, the Rookie league's strengths were offense-first catchers and toolsy outfielders with a chance to play in center.
First-round picks Brandon Snyder (13th overall to the Orioles) and Colby Rasmus (28th to the Cardinals), the highest-drafted players to play in the league, proved to be the brightest lights. They impressed managers not only with their tools but also with their professional approaches.
Three of the league’s top righthanded power-hitting prospects—Princeton outfielder Ryan Royster, Danville outfielder Jon Mark Owings and Kingsport first baseman Nick Evans—missed the cut because of limited playing time and a lack of supporting tools. Johnson City shortstop Donovan Solano, at 17 the youngest qualifier for this list, also just missed. His defensive actions and knowledge of the strike zone were advanced for a young player.
“For me, he was one of the most fearsome hitters in the league with Eli Iorg and Eric Campbell,” Johnson City manager Tommy Kidwell said. “Snyder has an advanced approach at the plate with real power to right field. He stays on the ball well.”
Snyder converted from shortstop to catcher during the spring and is still learning his new position. His receiving skills are more advanced than his blocking skills, and managers liked his surprisingly quick footwork for a big guy. He has a slightly below-average arm and threw out 29 percent of basestealers. He's a below-average runner.
Managers may have been most impressed with Snyder’s makeup. “He’s a baseball rat behind the plate,” Kidwell said. “He’s a real take-charge catcher who works well with his pitchers and stays involved in the game.”
"His bat gets to the ball in a hurry and he hung in against lefties,” Elizabethton manager Ray Smith said. “His power is gap-to-gap now, but he’s toolsy and he’ll get stronger."
He came on strong in August, when he hit all seven of his homers. He'll need to develop better pitch recognition, as he struck out too much and had trouble against pitchers who could locate offspeed stuff. He has sound defensive instincts and more than enough arm for center field.
The highest-drafted player from 2004 to play in the Appy League, Campbell has a knack for identifying pitches he can drive. He generated plus power to all fields with his upright, open stance. He does strike out a lot, however, because he'll chase pitches when fed a steady diet of breaking balls. And he's far from a one-dimensional player.
“Campbell has really demonstrated he’s a complete player in this league,” Danville manager Paul Runge said. “His speed and basestealing ability are overlooked. He had an uncanny ability to steal third for us. And his defense is just short of very, very good at third.”
“Erbe could be electric,” Princeton manager Jamie Nelson said. “He’s not done growing and he could still add to his frame. He’s got something of a funky delivery: He stays tall, then jumps at you. It looks like everything’s coming at you at once, and it probably makes him deceptive to the hitters.”
At times Erbe showed a sharp slider but he had difficulty commanding the pitch. Because he didn’t need to use a changeup much as an amateur, he's still learning how to maintain his arm speed with the pitch. He still had no trouble in the Appy League, striking out more than half the batters he faced and limiting them to a .103 average.
“You could make a case for Ramirez as the best hitter in this league,” Runge said. “He had a lot of quality at-bats for us, and his power really developed. He got better ever day.”
Ramirez’ accomplishments are all the more impressive because he spent the summer learning a new position after moving from third base. He improved his footwork and receiving skills, but his defensive game needs work. Though he’s serviceable now, his actions weren’t smooth and he didn't get great carry on his throws. Still, he threw out 38 percent of basestealers and no one questioned his athleticism.
A draft-and-follow from 2004 who signed in May, Litsch pitches with intensity and commands his stuff very well. He aggressively attacks hitters with three pitches he throws for strikes—an 88-92 mph fastball, a slider and a fading changeup he learned during the season. He also worked on a downer curveball to change batters’ eye levels.
His slider, already above-average at 84-86 mph, could develop into a plus offering. He also proved durable, working six or more innings in eight of his 11 starts before a promotion to the short-season New York-Penn League.
“Litsch was easily the pitcher of the year for me,” Nelson said. “He showed plus location and he changed speeds. He knows what he’s doing on the mound. I don’t know who tutored him, but they did a great job.”
Portes was league champion Elizabethton’s top hitter and unquestionably the Appy’s top middle-infield prospect. All his tools rate as at least average, and he has plus power and the ability to hit good pitching. Portes generates great bat speed despite his smallish frame and crushed 26 extra-base hits, including 12 homers.
Drafted as a shortstop, Portes made the transition to second base this season and put in extra time on his defense. He made strides charging grounders and turning the double play. His glove still has room for improvement, and the Twins also tried him for 13 games in left field.
“He takes charge on the infield and he’s a sharp guy." Smith said. "He acts as translator for his Latin teammates and he drives them around town. He’s got a bright future.”
Flores gets down the line exceptionally fast for a righthanded hitter, having been times in 3.9 seconds as an amateur. His most prominent tool is his speed, though his hitting and power may not be far behind. Bigger than the typical speedster, Flores may develop more power as he grows.
He can be pitched to and will have to show improvement against breaking stuff. Flores played some center field for Greeneville, but spent most of his time in left because his arm is below average.
“He’s got plus speed, great hitting ability, and I like the way he carries himself for a 19-year-old,” Greeneville manager Russ Nixon said. “He’s been a force in this league.”
“He just had a knack for getting base hits,” Bristol manager Jerry Hairston said. “He’s not a power hitter now, but he hits line drives to all fields, and the power will come.”
Cunningham handled fastballs but struggled at times against good breaking stuff, often swinging through it. He's a slightly above-average runner who should develop better basestealing instincts with time and experience. He should become a solid defender in right field, and his arm is at least average.
In any other season, Anderson almost certainly would have been the Appy League’s top catching prospect. Like Snyder and Ramirez, he hit for power and showed advanced strike-zone judgment but isn't nearly a finished product defensively.
Anderson needs to make improvements behind the plate with his footwork, blocking and receiving. His arm is average and generally accurate, but his mechanics regressed and he erased just 22 percent of basestealers. Offensively, he made Kidwell think of another Johnson City catcher he managed.
“Anderson reminds me of Daric Barton, who we had two years ago,” Kidwell said. “He’s got a similar plane to his swing with a slight uppercut, but he catches up with the fastball. He stays with the ball and can hit to the opposite field.”
Like most young pitchers, Walker was accustomed to blowing away high school hitters, so his changeup lagged behind his other pitches. The more disciplined hitters in the Appy League were able to lay off his offspeed stuff out of the zone.
“Walker’s biggest problem has been command,” Nelson said. “His curve is hard to control at times, but when he gets the ball down in the zone and when he’s throwing it for strikes, he’s tough to hit.”
After struggling miserably his first two months, Drennen gained momentum and hit .306 with four homers in August. With his excellent bat speed, he should hit for average and power. He's an average runner with good defensive instincts and solid-average range, and the combination may be enough for him to stick in center field. His arm rates as average.
“He’s a toolsy guy,” Smith said. “He made a couple good plays against us coming in on the ball. He got good reads off the bat, and I was impressed by his ability to separate bad at-bats from his defensive play.”
The Appy League pitcher of the year, Cuevas maximized his three pitches and above-average location to generate lots of swings and misses. He mixed his 91-93 mph fastball, developing curveball and changeup with aplomb.
Cuevas was brilliant at times but struggled with his control down the stretch, walking more batters in his final two starts (nine) as he did in June and July combined (eight). Up to that point, he had excelled at spotting his pitches.
“He had great presence, a great frame and a great swing,” Kidwell said. “He looks like he means business at the plate.”
Iorg, whose father Garth played nine years for the Blue Jays, has plus speed, but his power will be his ticket to the big leagues. His tall, muscular frame generates terrific bat speed, and he made consistent, hard contact against Appy League pitching. He fits nicely in right field with good range and a strong arm.
Though a strained hamstring kept him sidelined for five weeks, Matulia left a lasting impression. The leadoff prospect would have ranked second in the league with his .437 on-base percentage had he accumulated enough plate appearances to qualify.
Managers liked the gritty Matulia’s batting eye, speed and center-field play. He’s still learning to use his quickness on the bases, however, as he succeeded on just eight of 18 steal attempts.
“The kid has a bright future,” Nelson said. “He’s a well-above average center fielder, whose defense we really missed when he got hurt. Offensively, he’s a catalyst. He was just always on base.”
“The mechanical components of his swing are sound,” Smith said. “At times, he’s long to the ball, but he gets the bat head through the zone, which is what matters. When he gets his pitch, he knows what do with it.”
Because Clemens has been exposed to professional baseball his entire life, his transition to the pros went smoothly. He has a plus arm at third base, though his speed and agility are just decent. He has the work ethic he'll need in order to remain at the hot corner.
Tall and athletic, Smit pitched exclusively out of the pen for the E-Twins and led the league in strikeouts. His fastball is his out pitch, but not because he can blow it by hitters. Smit understands how to upset hitters’ timing, and he expertly changes speeds on his fastball, which has good life. “His first pitch would be 84, then 86-87, then 91 for the knockout,” Smith said.
Smit had trouble with his secondary pitches all season, and their development ultimately will determine how far he advances. In addition to his curve, he also throws a sinking changeup.
Mullins whiffed 13 Danville Braves in the Appalachian League playoff opener, but he generally relied on location and changing speeds more than overpowering stuff. The lanky lefthander delivers his pitches—an 84-88 mph fastball on a tough downward plane, a good curveball and an effective changeup—with a deceptive motion. Mullins is working on a slider to give him a fourth pitch.
Mitchell opened eyes in the Appalachian League with surprising command for such a young (18) and tall (6-foot-5, 235 pounds) pitcher. He pitches consistently at 90 mph and could add more velocity as he gets stronger. He also throws a curveball and a changeup for strikes, but as with most young pitchers, the latter pitch needs more work.
“He’s been a huge surprise for us,” Nixon said. “We’re excited by his youth, his size and his performance at this level without being intimidated. He’s got a good feel for his pitches.”
Balls fly out of Johnson City's Howard Johnson Field, which Kidwell called the Coors Field of the Appy League. Herron was bitten by the longball in his debut, as his 11 homers allowed ranked second in the league. He also struggled with his command and tired late in the summer, so his numbers weren't pretty.
But his upside is undeniable. Herron has a projectable 6-foot-3, 190-pound frame and already pitches at 87-91 mph with his fastball. He also shows the making of a plus curveball and has an advanced feel for his changeup.
Mullins, Smit: Tony Farlow
Flores, Iorg, Clemens: Mike Janes
Campbell, Ramirez: Tom Priddy
Snyder, Erbe: Rodger Wood
Cunningham, Drennen: Sports on Film
Walker: Mickey Weinstein