2005 Top 20 Prospects: California LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Kevin Goldstein
Chat Wrap: Kevin Goldstein took your California League
The Rockies' Modesto affiliate garnered the most attention with five players in the Top 20. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the seventh overall pick in the June draft, would have made it six if not for a torn quadriceps that prevented him from qualifying.
“He hit, he hit for power, he made all the plays in the field, and every time I saw him he was limping,” one American League scout said. “So once he’s 100 percent, he should be fantastic.”
The two top-rated prospects in the 2004 draft, righthanders Jered Weaver (Angels) and Jeff Niemann (Devil Rays), also left a strong impression during Cal League stints that were too brief for them to make this list. Weaver showed excellent command of a 90-92 mph fastball, a slider and a changeup. Niemann, who was never at 100 percent, had plenty of life and deception with his 90-93 mph fastball, but he still was well off the high-90s velocity he showed at Rice.
All this from a player who hit .251 with 11 homers last season at low Class A Cedar Rapids. Wood’s power surge was universally seen as legitimate, as he generates incredible bat speed with strong wrists. “He’s a skinny guy, but he’s got some serious whip in his swing,” an AL scout said.
Managers rated Wood the league's best defensive shortstop. He has sound fundamentals, average range and a plus arm, though there's some concern about his ability to stay at shortstop as he starts to fill out his lanky 6-foot-3 frame. At the same time, the fact that he’s still getting stronger left some feeling that the sky's the limit for his offensive ceiling.
“He’s still going to get better,” San Jose manager Lenn Sakata said. “He looks like the next Cal Ripken to me.”
Considered the top position player in the 2004 draft, Drew held out for nearly a year before signing a $5.5 million big league contract in May. Coming off a short stint in the independent Atlantic League, Drew hit the ground running, winning league player-of-the-week honors three times during his six-week stay at Lancaster.
Despite his long layoff, Drew retained his fluid, natural swing and demonstrated an advanced approach at the plate while showing the ability to hit for both average and power. Normally a plus runner, he was slowed throughout his pro debut with a strained hamstring.
Drew’s defense left something to be desired. He showed good range at shortstop, but his arm proved to be somewhat short on plays in the hole, and his effort in the field rarely matched his work at hitting. “It almost looked like a nuisance to him at times,” one manager said.
Kendrick’s swing is short, simple and direct. He gets the bat into the zone quickly, uses all fields and shows no discernable weakness. “He’s the best contact hitter I’ve seen in the minor leagues in a long time,” Stockton manager Todd Steverson said.
Scouts also praised Kendrick’s work ethic and pointed to a number of improvements in the field, including his footwork, throwing accuracy and double-play pivot. He now projects as an average second baseman.
Stewart established himself as an elite prospect last year with a monster season in the low Class A South Atlantic League. He missed the first month of the 2005 season with a hamstring injury and it took him a while to find a groove, but he finished with respectable numbers thanks to a .299-11-52 performance in the season’s final 60 games.
Stewart’s combination of pitch recognition and plus power from the left side elicits comparisons to Larry Walker. Just 20, he already has an uncanny knack for recognizing mistake pitches and crushing them. He got a little pull-happy towards the end of the year, which led to an increase in strikeouts.
Stewart was praised for his work ethic on defense. His ability to stay at third base, once in question, is no longer an issue. While he still looks raw at times in the field, he played more under control than in the past, with improved footwork and throwing accuracy.
One of the youngest players in the league at 19, Butler showed no ill effects from skipping low Class A. He dominated pitchers often 3-4 years his senior, hitting at least .331 in every month while driving in nearly a run per game, and continued to mash after a promotion to Double-A.
Other than below-average speed, which plays no role in his style of play, Butler has no offensive weaknesses. He controls the strike zone well, can hit for average and shows plus power to all fields
“He’s Mike Sweeney Jr.,” a National League scout said. “He could be even better than Sweeney.”
On the negative side, Butler is still a man without a position. Drafted as a third baseman, he had an .842 fielding percentage at the hot corner, and was moved to left field at midseason. His reviews there were still overly poor, though most observers agreed his bat will more than offset his defensive inefficiencies. He could wind up at first base.
One of the top young hitters in the minors, Barton joined the Athletics in the offseason trade that sent Mark Mulder to the Cardinals. Like Butler, Barton dominated high Class A as a teenager and had no problem making the jump to Double-A.
Barton’s offensive maturity is well beyond his years, and he projects as a .300 hitter capable of drawing 100 walks per season. His power ceiling is the subject of much debate, however. He' plenty strong, but his swing is more contact-oriented and he seems much more comfortable ripping liners to the opposite field than turning on pitches.
Barton was drafted as a catcher and played there in 2004, but the A’s moved him to first base this season. He's adequate there, though he's also short (listed at 6 feet) for the position. While he could be valuable at first base, he could put up superstar offensive numbers if he could play catcher, so the A's may give him another look there next year.
Volquez started the year rated behind two Rangers recent first-round picks, righthander Thomas Diamond and lefty John Danks. While Volquez’ raw numbers weren't as impressive as the other two members of what has become known as DVD, his stuff was more impressive. Texas thought so as well, as he became the first of the trio to get a big league callup.
Despite a slight frame, Volquez unleashes a mid-90s fastball with plenty of movement. He also has a two-seamer with a little less velocity and more sink and run. His changeup, already a plus offering, made even more strides during the season and can be devastating at times.
His inconsistent slider is average at best, and Volquez often leaves it high in the zone. A strike-thrower who didn’t issue a single walk in six of 11 starts for the Blaze, he may be around the plate too much. He gives opponents too many pitches to hit instead of toying with them when he's ahead in the count.
Diamond put up the best numbers of any pitcher in the league before advancing to Double-A. He allowed two or fewer earned runs in 11 of 14 starts and pitched one of the best games in the minors this year in his final outing, striking out 14 batters in a complete-game one-hitter at High Desert while facing the minimum of 27 batters.
Diamond has a classic power pitchers’ frame, mechanics and attitude, as well as the stuff to back it up. His fastball sits at 92-95 mph, and he can dial it up when necessary. Though his fastball lacks movement, he locates it well in all four quadrants of the zone.
At times Diamond flashed a plus changeup, and his future success will hinge on the development of his breaking ball. He has experimented with both a curveball and slider. The curve has more promise and when it was on, it was a plus pitch and Diamond was a devastating force.
Jones’ raw tools and athletic ability rank with almost anyone's in the minors. He has an ideal baseball body and a quick fluid swing with developing power. He has fantastic instincts defensively, plays with a flourish and features one of the best infield arms around.
“He brings so much to every game," Bakersfield manager Arnie Beyeler said. “He’ll find a different way to beat you on any given day.”
Like many young players, Jones has trouble at times with breaking balls and shows almost too much faith in his cannon arm. He'll try to make the impossible throw when he’d be better off just holding onto the ball. With a glut of infielders in their system, the Mariners are toying with the idea of moving Jones to center field, where he'll play in the Arizona Fall League.
The Giants top pick (second round) in the 2004 draft, Martinez-Esteve proved why he was considered one of the best pure hitters available that year. He led a potent San Jose offense in both runs and RBIs while finishing second in the league in on-base percentage.
In a San Francisco system short on hitting prospects, he's a rare commodity: an RBI machine with great contact ability. Only Barton had better pitch recognition, and Martinez-Esteve knows how to use the whole field while also taking advantage of his plus power.
Already considered a liability in left field, Martinez-Esteve was limited to DH duties until late June following offseason labrum surgery. When he returned, his arm was well below average, as were his range and instincts. “He’s just a complete circus out there,” an AL scout said. Martinez-Esteve also drew criticism for his perceived arrogance.
After putting up a 5.24 ERA in the California League during the second half of 2004, Danks returned with a vengeance. He showed improved command and a more mature approach to pitching while never allowing more than three earned runs in any start.
Danks added to his fastball and now has plus velocity for a lefthander, sitting in the low 90s with good control. His plus-plus curveball is a true out pitch against both lefthanders and righthanders, and his changeup continues to make strides. He's comfortable delivering any of his pitches at any point in the count.
“He’s always grouped with Diamond and Volquez because they’ve played together all year,” an NL scout said. “But people need to realize that he’s playing with them and he’s two years younger. He could easily end up the best of the three.”
When the Mariners promoted Jones to Double-A, they replaced him with Cabrera and Inland Empire didn’t miss a beat. While Cabrera doesn’t have Jones’ all-around game, he hit for average and played major league-caliber defense. Like Jones, he was just 19 and scouts praised his baseball savvy and instincts.
Cabrera does have some offensive value as a switch-hitter with the ability to hit for average, but his lack of on-base skills and power could relegate him to the bottom of a lineup. There's still plenty of room for growth, however, and he has more than enough bat to be an everyday player. His solid glovework includes plus range and the ability to make difficult plays to either side look easy.
“I can’t think of anything he doesn’t do well with the glove,” an AL scout said. “He’s flashy but steady.”
While Miguel Montero put up bigger numbers, Iannetta’s all-around game and intangibles gave him the edge as the Cal League's best catching prospect. He doesn't have awe-inspiring skills, but he also has no weakness.
A polished hitter who knows the strike zone, Iannetta has gap power and the ability to occasionally pull a fastball, especially against lefthanders. “We knew he could catch, but that bat was a pleasant surprise,” Lancaster manager Bill Plummer said.
Defensively, Iannetta bolsters average arm strength with a lightning-quick release. He blocks the plate well and scouts praised his leadership. After his promotion to Double-A, the Nuts went just 15-27 the rest of the way.
“Every time I saw him, I asked myself the same question,” an AL scout said. “How did a college catcher with this ability last until the fourth round?”
Montero seemingly came out of nowhere. He hit .263 with 11 homers in the Midwest League last year, but unlike Wood he wasn't tabbed as a future star. Then he challenged for the Cal League triple crown until he was promoted to Double-A.
Montero’s sudden offensive prowess was attributed to his new focus on contact, letting his strength work for him naturally as opposed to trying to power every ball out of the park. While he played in extremely hitter-friendly Lancaster Municipal Stadium and hit .404 at home, 11 of his 24 homers came on the road. Because his breakthrough was so unexpected, some scouts remained a bit skeptical if it was for real, and he didn't hit nearly as well in Double-A.
His defense also took a great leap forward. Playing a half-season under Plummer, who had a 10-year major league career as a defensive-minded backup, transformed Montero from a questionable backstop to an average defender with room for more improvement. He has average arm strength but below-average accuracy.
Jimenez showed flashes of brilliance while suffering at times from inconsistency and control troubles. His fastball lost a little from last year but still was a plus pitch, sitting at 92-94 mph and touching 96. His hard-breaking curveball gives him a second out pitch, and his changeup has made progress.
Because his delivery borders on violent, some observers believe Jimenez’ future lies in the bullpen, where his two-pitch combination would be closer-worthy. Others see a Rockies system loaded with relief prospects and a pitcher who has shown the ability to maintain his velocity late into games and think he should stay in the rotation.
Schierholtz returned to the Cal League after spending the second half of 2004 with San Jose. He showed minor improvements in most aspects of his game, hitting at least .300 in every month while showing more power and better defense in right field.
He has good bat speed and power to all fields, though he’ll need to become a more patient hitter to maintain his high batting average as he advances. His swing mechanics are highly awkward, as he begins with the barrel of the bat pointing straight out at the mound, creating a long bat wrap with a small hitch. Drafted as a third baseman, he has plenty of arm for his new position and the athleticism to stay there, but he needs to work on jumps and taking better routes.
Few players elicited more mixed reviews than Schierholtz. Some saw him as the best player on a very good San Jose team. Others viewed him as an all-or-nothing hitter who will be exposed at higher levels.
Kottaras established himself as the Padres’ top catching prospect last year and did little to disappoint with Lake Elsinore. He maintained his profile as an above-average offensive player while improving behind the plate.
Kottaras, a Canadian who caught for the 2004 Greek Olympic team, is capable of lacing line drives all over the field and draws plenty of walks. Expected to take a big step forward this year, his power remained average at best, but he maintained rare on-base ability for a catcher.
He’s extremely athletic behind the plate and has the potential to become an average defender, but he still needs to improve at blocking balls and other nuances of catching. His average arm strength is belied by a long release. His slight physical build left some questioning his ability to withstand the grind of a major league season.
Undrafted following his junior year at Louisiana-Monroe, Miller has gone from a budget-minded eighth-round pick who signed for $12,000 as a senior to one of the better relief prospects in the minors. He has averaged 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings in two years as a pro and racked up nine saves and a 0.60 ERA in 16 games following his promotion to Double-A.
Miller thrives in closing games, working quickly and aggressively with a 93-95 mph fastball that he commands well. He has a tendency to overthrow at times, causing his fastball to get straight or his plus slider to flatten out.
“He lives off the fastball and it’s plenty good,” Beyeler said. “And he has the breaking ball when he needs it. We had big problems getting anything going off of him.”
Though he had yet to play full-season ball, the Rockies protected Morillo on their 40-man roster in the offseason. They hastened his timetable in 2005, sending him to the Cal League after just six weeks in low Class A.
Morillo has one of the more electric arms in the minors, sitting at 95-98 mph and hitting triple digits with his fastball on several occasions. While his velocity is eye-popping, he offers little in the way of secondary pitches or control. “The fastball is tremendous,” an AL scout said, “but what else is there?”
Morillo has problems commanding his fastball and led the league in walks. When he does throw strikes, he's often up in the zone, leaving him vulnerable to homers. He overthrows his upper-80s slider, robbing him of break, and rarely throws his changeup, which lacks deception.
Lubanski’s game has changed dramatically since he went fifth overall in the 2003 draft. He’s no longer the burner he was in high school, yet he's still a plus runner and his power has grown. He’s still overaggressive at the plate and needs to improve on working counts and closing the holes in his swing. His work ethic was universally praised.
While his offense took a major step forward, Lubanski's play in center field has declined. A below-average arm, bad routes and his drop in speed has most projecting an eventual move to left, where some wonder if his bat will be enough to carry him.
Photo Credits: Larry Goren