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2005 Top 20 Prospects: Eastern LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Alan Matthews
Chat Wrap: Alan Matthews took your Eastern League questions
Led by New Britain's Francisco Liriano, pitchers occupied eight of the first 13 slots on our EL Top 20 Prospects list, up from five a year ago. Portland featured one of the best trios of starters in the minors in Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and Anibal Sanchez. Erie had a power-pitching duo in Justin Verlander (who would have challenged Liriano for top honors had he qualified for this list) and Joel Zumaya, and Binghamton also had a good 1-2 punch in Yusmeiro Petit and Brian Bannister.
Akron cruised to the league's best regular-season record and the playoff championship behind a staff that featured seven arms who drew consideration for the Top 20: Fausto Carmona, Dan Denham, Jake Dittler, J.D. Martin, Rafael Perez, Brian Slocum and Jeremy Sowers. Sowers ranked right behind Lester as the best lefty in the EL.
"Pitching overall in this league is way above average, much better than last year," Altoona manager Tony Beasley said. "Every team has a couple guys at the front of their rotation that can stick it up your butt, and then late in games have enough bullpen to close it out. There are a lot of guys in this league that are going to pitch in the big leagues."
The pool of hitters was more meager. Until Binghamton outfielder Lastings Milledge, Harrisburg third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and Bowie outfielder Nick Markakis arrived for the second half, Portland shortstop Hanley Ramirez was the lone high-ceiling position player in the EL.
Liriano unleashes mid-90s fastballs from an effortless delivery and loose arm action. With the help of Rock Cats pitching coach Stu Cliburn, he eliminated a slight recoil that truncated his follow-through, allowing him to fully extend and add velocity. His mid-80s slider is a put-away pitch, with tight rotation that makes it difficult to pick up before it breaks sharply.
EL observers thought Liriano's changeup was primarly a show-me pitch, but those in the IL thought it was a true weapon. He'll also come at righthanders with a hard cutter, and his repertoire includes a curveball as well.
Milledge is a five-tool prospect with above-average speed, hitting ability and center-field skills to go along with a strong arm and developing power. What impressed observers most, however, was his maturity and penchant for making adjustments despite reaching Double-A at age 20. He improved his pitch recognition and plate discipline and was remarkably consistent, hitting safely in 20 of his final 22 games.
"I feel he's going to be an all-star caliber player," an American League scout said. "You hit home runs with a quick bat, which he's got, and down the road he could steal 35 to 40 bases. He was the most outstanding position player that I saw this year."
Milledge needs to improve his basestealing and baserunning to get the most out of his speed. Though he's very aggressive at the plate, pitchers haven't been able to take advantage of him.
Ramirez' tools are similar to Milledge's, and he also matured this season. His bat isn’t quite as advanced, however, because he struggles with the rhythm of his swing, restricting his ability to center balls on the bat. At times his front foot doesn’t get back to the ground quickly enough, disrupting his timing.
Once he corrects that flaw, he should become an all-star shortstop in the majors—though his immediate path in Boston is blocked by Edgar Renteria. Ramirez possesses excellent bat speed and strong wrists, and when he's right, balls jump off his bat and have carry to all fields.
His defense is spectacular, as Ramirez has above-average range, plus-plus arm strength and soft hands. He also has plus speed. He has cleaned up a reputation for immaturity that dogged him in the lower minors, though some scouts think he still plays with excessive flash.
When Ramirez and double-play partner Dustin Pedroia weren't captivating Sea Dogs fans, the Portland pitching staff dazzled them. Lester led the EL in both ERA and strikeouts, and Papelbon would have challenged him in the former category and Sanchez in the latter had they spent the entire year in the league.
Lester ranked ahead of them on this list because he delivers his quality stuff from the left side. His low-90s fastball has late life and tailing action, and he throws it from a high arm angle that allows him to pitch downhill.
Lester made strides in improving his secondary stuff. His cut fastball, which he picked up in 2004, at times graded as a 65 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale. He uses good arm speed on his changeup, which, like his curveball, has the potential to be an above-average offering but remains inconsistent.
Zimmerman comparisons run the gamut from a poor man's Scott Rolen and Wright to Joe Randa and Scott Brosius, but everyone agrees he's a future Gold Glove winner. His hands are soft, he moves well to both sides and plays slow rollers extremely well. His throws are accurate and crisp, both on the run and from deep behind the bag.
He deploys a line-drive approach to all fields and peppers the middle of the diamond. He has some pop and should produce 15-20 homers on an annual basis. He's aggressive early in the count but seldom chases balls out of the zone. His makeup rates as high as his defense.
Managers rated Markakis the best batting prospect in the high Class A Carolina League, and he was even more productive after he climbed to Double-A for the season's final month. He collected three hits in his first game and sparked the Baysox to a 21-14 finish.
"I love him," one scout said. "I felt like he was one of the top hitters in the league. He's got a great swing, a great approach and he can really throw."
Markakis' exceptional hands trigger his smooth, quick swing. This season he learned to turn on his backside instead of sliding his lower half as he swung, improving his balance. He has a line-drive approach to all fields with present gap power. Scouts believe he'll begin pulling the ball with authority as he develops and project him to hit for at least average power in the majors.
Though Bowie manager Don Werner praised Markakis' play in center field and believes he can stay there, most scouts project Markakis as a right fielder in the big leagues. His well above-average arm strength is suited for right.
With the Red Sox' pitching staff riddled by injuries, Papelbon helped keep them in contention by serving a variety of roles. His first three big league appearances were starts, and though he didn't earn a victory Boston won all of them. Then he moved to the bullpen, where he emerged as the top setup man in front of closer Mike Timlin.
Papelbon pitches from a three-quarters arm slot that enables him to get good life on all his pitches. He works predominantly off an explosive mid-90s fastball that he spots to both sides of the plate and an 84-87 mph splitter that hitters have trouble distinguishing from his fastball. He also has crafted a slider that has cutting action and a curveball that's his fourth pitch and rates as average at best.
His ability to locate his stuff and dogged demeanor are his ticket to remaining a starter. If he maximizes those qualities, he could pitch in the middle of a rotation for a contender. At worst, he figures to enjoy a successful big league career as a reliever.
"This guy's mound presence, poise, makeup, demeanor is light years beyond his age," Portland manager Todd Claus said. "To go into a market like Boston and perform the way he has is indicative of his future."
Sowers pitched at three levels in his debut season as a pro, opening at high Class A before cruising through two months in the EL and making his final start of the regular season in Triple-A. He went a combined 14-4, 2.37, lowering his ERA at each stop
His polished repertoire is far from powerful but nonetheless effective because of pinpoint control and his advanced feel for pitching. He attacks the strike zone and adds and subtracts off his entire repertoire, which includes 86-90 mph two- and four-seam fastballs, a curveball, a slider and a changeup.
"He had the best command in the league," an AL scout said. "His changeup just fell off the table. It looked like he was throwing to his children. He's Tom Glavine."
With a fastball that sits at 93 mph and a plus changeup, Sanchez edged Sowers as the top pitching prospect in the high Class A Carolina League before joining Portland. He allowed a total of three earned runs in his first five Double-A outings before tiring in the final month. He was limited to 60 pitches per outing late in the season.
He maintains good arm speed to sell a nasty changeup with cutting action. He also features a curveball and a hard cutter that looks like a slider. He has an efficient delivery with a high three-quarters release point, though at times his front shoulder flies open, causing his stuff to flatten out.
Sanchez possesses nice upside, and competed well as a 21-year-old in Double-A. He needs to sharpen his command, as he misses up in the zone at times, but he could develop into a front-of-the-rotation starter.
One scout recalled a three-day span when his radar gun popped triple digits while scouting three different pitchers: Binghamton's Matt Lindstrom and Erie's Verlander and Zumaya. That arm strength enabled Zumaya to lead all minor league righthanders in strikeouts (199 in 151 innings), strikeouts per nine innings (11.8) and opponent average (.189).
Zumaya pitches at 96 mph and ran his fastball into the high 90s with regularity this season. Though his three-quarters delivery is described as maximum-effort and he missed some time with back trouble this year, his mechanics are relatively clean and his arm works well. He has a tendency to drop his elbow on his curveball but when it's on, it's a legitimate out pitch.
His command and mound presence still need to improve, but he made strides in both areas this year. His ability to refine a changeup probably will determine whether he remains a starter or moves to bullpen.
"I've always had him in as a closer," a National League scout said. "The effort to his delivery has improved, but to me you bring him in for one inning, he throws 100 and you shake hands."
Petit is an overachiever. His stuff is solid—low-90s fastball, solid-average slider, rudimentary changeup—but it plays up because of his deceptive delivery and ability to locate all three offerings. His fastball has late, rising life in the strike zone, eliciting poor swings that often catch the bottom half of the ball. He needs to improve his changeup or find something that runs away from lefthanders.
"If you're a gun scout, don't come watch him," Claus said. "If you understand pitching and what a big leaguer looks like, you need to come see him. When you throw 3-and-2 changeups down in the zone with late bite, it's cheating. And he's doing all that off a plus fastball."
Pedroia has a throwback style that endears him to managers and scouts alike, though his only above-average tool is his bat. His tools don't compare to those of Ramirez, on whose account he moved from shortstop to second base this year, but he easily outperformed him while they were together in Portland.
He's deceptive at the plate. He has an open stance and cheats at times on fastballs in, but Pedroia manages to keep the bat head in the zone a long time and makes consistent hard contact. He has some gap power and excellent bat-handling skills and plate discipline that make him a prototype No. 2 hitter.
"He can flat-out hit," Claus said. "I don't care if the guy's throwing 98 or 78, he can center it. He's just got an innate ability to put the barrel on the ball."
Pedroia has average arm strength and range, but he's a plus defender because he positions himself well and reads balls well off the bat. Similarly, he enhances speed that's a tick below average on the stopwatch with uncanny baserunning instincts.
Despite having only one full pro season under his belt, Penn was promoted to the big leagues in late May. He wasn't ready for the jump and got knocked around before returning to Bowie with a lack of confidence. After rumors he'd be traded proved false, he settled in and finished strongly.
Under the tutelage of Bowie pitching coach Larry McCall, Penn sped up his delivery, which quickened his arm and improved the snap on his curveball. His low-90s fastball, curve and changeup all have the potential to be plus offerings once he learns to command them better. He corrected a problem where he was tipping off his curve by how he held his glove, which undoubtedly contributed to his midseason slump.
Span showed a little pop at the plate this year, but he knows his game revolves around his speed. He makes consistent contact with the top half of the ball and profiles as a reliable leadoff hitter in the mold of Kenny Lofton, though he has yet to develop that kind of plate discipline. He also needs to refine his basestealing technique to maximize his value.
Span improved defensively this season, though he too often relies on his speed to make up for late jumps. His arm is about average for a center fielder.
The Giants assigned three of their most promising pitchers—Valdez, David Aardsma and Alfredo Simon—to Norwich out of spring training, but none finished the year in position to help the big league club. Aardsma was traded to the Cubs, Simon struggled and Valdez was inconsistent. He was shuffled from the starting rotation to the bullpen in an effort to conserve his arm, but ultimately broke down and was unable to complete the season.
When healthy, Valdez featured a heavy 91-96 mph fastball with boring action. He improved his changeup and continued to hone his slider, though he struggled with command of all of his pitches and too often left them high in the strike zone. He pitches from a three-quarters arm slot but has a tendency to drop his arm and get around his slider.
Moses and Trenton third baseman Eric Duncan had a lot of similarities. They were two of the youngest players in the EL at age 20, had some of the league's best lefthanded power potential and struggled on defense at third base.
Moses has a more conventional swing that Duncan, though a drift in his upper body costs him some bat speed and makes it hard for him to catch up to good fastballs. He's patient, uses all fields and could develop into a potent power threat. He had just 181 pro at-bats entering the season, so it wasn't a surprise he was overmatched in Double-A, where he'll likely return in 2006.
He may never play third base in the big leagues, however. He lacks first-step quickness, allows ground balls to get deep and often gets underneath his throws.
Duncan is easily the Yankees' best prospect in the upper minors, and they've pushed him aggressively the last two years in an attempt to enhance his value should they need him as trade bait. As with Moses, his lack of experience was evident as he struggled offensively and defensively. He was hit in the head by a pitch and missed time late in the season before going 0-for-10 in Trenton's first-round playoff loss.
He remains an intriguing prospect because of his outstanding makeup and power potential. His approach is advanced, as Duncan draws walks and uses all fields. He swung and missed frequently in 2005, and good changeups ate him up.
Duncan has a strong arm, but that's his only asset at third base. His hands are unsure, his throws lack accuracy and he doesn't cover much ground. It's all a moot point, however, because even if he were a Gold Glover he wouldn't push Alex Rodriguez off the hot corner with the Yankees. Duncan probably will wind up at first base.
Bourn made a two-level jump when he skipped high Class A and opened the season as Reading's starting center fielder. His toolset is similar to Span's, though he's a tick faster and a year older.
Bourn makes things happen with his top-of-the-line speed and has gap power. He suffered through a second-half slump when he became impatient at the plate, which hadn't been a problem in the past. He's a very good defensive center fielder with excellent range, good instincts and an average arm.
The Pirates received a significant boost from a pair of lefthanded pitching prospects in 2005. When Zach Duke sprained his left ankle, Pittsburgh promoted Maholm to the majors. He matched Duke's start by allowing just four runs in his first 21 big league innings.
Maholm and Duke have similar pitching styles as well, though Duke has more zip on his fastball. Maholm's heater sits in the high 80s, but it has good sink and he keeps it down in the zone. He has a plus curveball, a tight slider and a good changeup he'll throw in any count.
Maholm missed much of 2004 when he was struck in the face by a line drive. After his bounce-back season, he could open next season in the back of Pittsburgh's rotation.
He showed better selectivity and balance at the plate this season and concentrated on hitting balls back up the middle, peppering both gaps with line drives. He has the juice to hit 20-25 homers annually and the tools to play center field. Gutierrez runs well and has good instincts to go with a plus arm.