2005 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
Compared to the California League, the FSL looks like 1968. It's a league with a .261 overall batting average and fewer than 100 home runs per team.
But while the FSL is still a pitcher's paradise, some top hitters did have their way in 2005. Vero Beach third baseman Andy LaRoche played his way out of the league before he could rewrite the record books. Instead, his departure allowed teammate Matt Kemp to break the Vero Beach single-season home run mark.
They were just a couple of the prospects on a stacked Vero Beach team that ran away with the first-half title. Lakeland also was bursting with prospects, including third baseman Kody Kirkland and outfielder Vince Blue, who just missed the Top 20.
While the pitching was a notch below last year, when the FSL boasted Chad Billingsley, Scott Kazmir, Scott Olsen, Francisco Liriano and Jon Papelbon among others, it still was impressive. Lakeland righthander Justin Verlander blew away hitters and managers with his electric stuff.
LaRoche went to the plate looking for fastballs that he could drive, but he had enough pitch recognition and plate discipline to avoid getting suckered into chasing breaking balls. When he did get a pitch to hammer, he showed power to all fields.
"I've seen him make adjustments," Jupiter manager Tim Cossins said. "It's not just power. He also has some hitter in him."
LaRoche isn't as polished in the field yet, as he is still adjusting to a move from shortstop last year. But he shows average hands and quickness, a good understanding of positioning and a strong arm. One manager said LaRoche warranted a shot at catcher if his bat weren't putting him on a fast track to the majors.
FSL hitters simply couldn't catch up to Verlander's fastball, which sat at 94-95 mph and touched 98-99. He struck out more than a batter an inning in 10 of his 13 starts and never allowed three earned runs in a game. While many young fireballers are afraid to pitch inside, he had no worries about busting batters off the plate.
Verlander only occasionally mixed in his curveball and changeup because there was very rarely a need to mess with success. His 12-6 curve gives him a second plus pitch, with tight spin and nice bite. His straight change projects as a potential plus pitch and he throws it with good arm speed, but he doesn't always command it as well.
Command is Verlander's one remaining question, as managers described him as wild within the strike zone. While he didn't struggle with walks, he left the ball up in the zone too often, which would cause him problems in the majors.
There were hitters in the FSL with more power (LaRoche, Brett Harper), and guys with more speed (Denard Span and Blue). But when it came to bat speed, no one could compare to the quickest wrists in the league.
"To me he had the fastest bat in the league," Brevard County manager John Tamargo said. "It was lightning fast. And he can run and steal some bases too."
Physically, there were few more impressive players in the league. Milledge has the speed to run down balls in center field and a solid arm. His power is still developing, but is expected to be average to above average as he matures.
There are still some holes in Milledge's game that he has to work on. He needs to improve his plate discipline, because pitchers can get him out with breaking balls or with fastballs out of the zone. His speed doesn't play as well as it should because he doesn't get good jumps on the bases.
Few players go from pitching in the FSL to making an impact in the major league playoff chase in the span of three months. But for those who saw Vargas pitch in Jupiter, it wasn't a complete surprise.
"If you walk into the stadium late, you can't tell if he's losing 7-0 or winning 7-0. He's a real aggressive kid with a good mound presence," Palm Beach manager Pop Warner said. "He's got a really good idea of how to pitch. He reads swings great and knows how to get guys out, which is why he's in the big leagues."
While Vargas' mental approach and stellar command impressed managers, his stuff also stood out. He sat between 91 and 94 mph with his fastball, showing the ability to add and subtract velocity to keep hitters off balance.
His pitches seemed to pick up a little extra gear as they got close to the plate. His slider could get slurvy, but it was unhittable when it was on and he felt confident throwing it at any point in the count. His changeup is an average offering.
Kemp doesn't try to pull everything, showing pop to the opposite field and a good ability to cover the entire plate with his swing. He's a solid average center fielder, though he may grow into a corner outfielder if he continues to add weight to his 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame. He has the arm strength for right field if needed.
Kemp's athleticism allowed him to succeed despite a relatively poor approach at the plate. He struck out too much as he struggled to read pitches and was susceptible to soft-tossers.
After a back injury wrecked his 2004 season, Moses quickly proved he was healthy this year. He showed a nice compact swing and a solid ability to hit for average, earning a promotion to Double-A in early July.
Moses only occasionally flashes power right now, but he should develop more as he matures. Though he had stretches where he got too pull-happy, he showed solid hand-eye coordination and a decent batting eye. His savvy makes him a better baserunner than his average speed would indicate.
The biggest surprise was Moses' work at third base. A high school shortstop who had struggled to adjust to the hot corner in the past, he showed soft hands, solid range and a quick release that bolsters his average arm.
Span's game is built around his exceptional speed. He beats out any groundball that isn't scorched and runs down potential doubles and bloop hits in center field.
Span has a very quiet approach at the plate and usually slaps pitches to the opposite field to give him a chance to run. He has little power but understands that and is content to use a quick swing to make contact. For all his speed, he's not an accomplished basestealer yet because he struggles to get great jumps and isn't particularly aggressive.
Span played the shallowest center field in the league, daring hitters to try to burn him. They rarely could, as he has good instincts and reads balls off the bat. His arm is below average but playable in center.
"He challenges hitters because he feels he can run down the ball hit over his head," Fort Myers manager Riccardo Ingram said. "He can do some special things in center field. He takes pride in it."
Orenduff handled the jump to high Class A to start his first full pro season with aplomb, not allowing an earned run in seven of his 12 FSL starts before a promotion to Double-A.
He did a good job of pitching down in the zone with his fastball, which sat at 91-93 mph and touched 95. His slider is also a plus pitch, as it has good velocity and tilt. His changeup was much more erratic, varying between a fringe offering and a solid third pitch.
Orenduff showed the ability to work both sides of the plate, changing speeds like a veteran. He has the frame and free and easy motion to be an innings-eater at the major league level.
Purcey didn't have as much success at Dunedin as teammates Zach Jackson or Casey Janssen, but he has a higher ceiling because he's a big lefthander with power stuff.
Purcey has a loose arm with excellent arm speed, allowing him to bust hitters with a 91-95 mph fastball and a slightly above-average 12-6 curveball. His changeup isn't up to those standards, but it shows promise of becoming an average offering.
Purcey's 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame gives him the ability to soak up innings while allowing him to get good extension from his three-quarters arm slot. His shortcoming is his command, which wavers at times. He struggled to hit spots and sometimes his mechanics broke down.
There were guys who threw harder, but Tata had the pitch that FSL hitters least wanted to face.
His fastball sat between 90-93 mph, touching 95 at times, but it was the pitch's movement that drew raves. It's a heavy, heavy sinker that he can locate on both sides of the plate, and it enabled him to lead the league in wins and earn the FSL pitcher of the year award.
Tata's secondary pitches, a 12-6 curveball and a straight changeup, are both average. He throws all three offerings with a nice loose arm action.
Abreu and Chin-Lung Hu gave Vero Beach the best middle-infield combination in the league. Abreu stood out defensively with his range, quickness and ability to turn the double play. He has soft hands and the range to handle shortstop, but his arm plays better at second base.
At the plate, the FSL batting champ showed a solid line drive stroke and proved difficult to strike out. He has the bat speed and hand-eye coordination to put the bat on the ball in most situations. A switch-hitter, he produced identical .327 averages from both sides of the plate.
While Abreu isn't a power hitter, his bat speed gives him gap power. He's quite willing to hit the ball to all fields, and has shown solid pitch recognition. The next step is to draw more walks.
"He's one of the most polished players in the league," Cossins said.
Hu has excellent flexibility, fluid actions, soft hands and a quick first step that let him gobble up grounders up the middle. His strong, accurate arm also allowed him to make the play in the hole as well. And he showed the instincts and understanding of positioning that ensured he was usually in the right place.
At the plate, Hu fits the profile of a traditional No. 2 hitter. He's very happy to hit the ball the other way, but he also has enough pop to turn on a pitch and hit it out if a pitcher makes a mistake. Despite his 5-foot-9 frame, he got good plate coverage, but like Abreu he needs to show more patience.
Lind had perhaps the league's prettiest swing, a smooth lefthanded stroke that ripped line drives to all fields. He stayed on top of the ball, and he did a great job of staying back, waiting to rip his pitch while using his excellent pitch recognition to avoid being fooled.
"This kid has a nice-looking swing, and he's very patient at the plate," Dunedin manager Omar Malave said. "His swing is so compact and so nice, there isn't much you can do to fix it when he gets in a slump. He just has a natural ability to hit."
Malave also raved about Lind's approach. He showed a reasonably quick bat and solid gap power, leading the FSL in doubles and extra-base hits. Some of those doubles could turn into homers as he matures.
While Lind's hitting is very advanced, his work in the field has a long ways to go. A former first baseman, he's a liability in the outfield, where he struggles to get good jumps, misplays balls and has a below-average arm and speed. Some observers wondered if he'd ever be more than a DH, though his bat will be enough to get him to the big leagues.
In 2004, Clevlen suffered through a nightmarish season in the FSL, hitting .223 with little power. Returning to Lakeland this year, he bounced back to lead the league in RBIs and on-base percentage and win the MVP award.
Clevlen has good balance, decent bat speed and a discerning eye. He tightened his strike zone in 2005, showing the ability to foul off tough pitches and work for ones he could hit. His power also took a step forward.
He also showed significant improvement defensively. Shaky in 2004, he got better jumps this year and showed off a plus arm. His 16 outfield assists ranked second in the league.
Moore continued to show the plus power that has been his calling card, but he added a more advanced approach at the plate. He stopped trying to pull everything, which helped him cut his strikeouts and raise his average. His swing still is a little long, however.
At third base, Moore showed average range and a plus arm. He did wear down and struggle with his throwing as the season went on, leading FSL third basemen with 30 errors. He has average speed and showed more basestealing aptitude than he had in the Detroit system.
Harben was part of a very impressive Fort Myers rotation that also included Justin Jones, Glen Perkins, Jay Rainville and Anthony Swarzak. All of them are quality prospects who succeeded in the FSL, and Harben has the best pure arm.
Harben has velocity and savvy. His lively fastball usually sat at 91-93 mph and touched 96, but he was effective in a couple of starts when he had to work in the high 80s. He also has a tight slider and a less advanced changeup.
He uses his 6-foot-5 height well, getting good extension that makes his fastball seem even harder than it is. He's still working on his control, as he suffered occasional bouts of wildness.
Early in the season, Tiffany was dominant. His 88-91 mph fastball, his curveball and his changeup all were a tick above average, and the combination baffled FSL hitters.
But as the season progressed, Tiffany's command wavered, and hitters started to catch up to him. While his velocity never really dropped, he wasn't able to hit his spots as well. His last start in the playoffs was symptomatic of his second half--he didn't allow a hit in five innings, but he also walked five.
Tiffany started to wear down, which may have led to his struggles. His body has never been outstanding, and he appeared to gain a little weight as the season went along.
When he was on, Tiffany had plenty of positives. He has a loose arm action and the ball jumps out of his hand, making his fastball seem faster. He feels comfortable using his full repertoire and has a very good feel for pitching.
Based on numbers alone, Dopirak wouldn't rank in the top 40 FSL prospects. He struggled mightily with the jump from low Class A, watching his average and power numbers plummet. While he sometimes looked helpless, he's still a solid major league prospect with what one manager termed "gorilla power."
Dopirak's hands are strong enough that he can flick balls over the fence. When he stays back on the ball, he has the power to hit it out to any part of any park.
But in 2005, he got frustrated and tried to pull everything. He was extremely vulnerable to outside pitches, and he never really showed an ability to make adjustments. He's below average defensively at first base, though he works hard enough to become at least adequate.
Moss was playing his way out of the Phillies' plans with his lack of polish before 2005. Everything started to come together for him in Clearwater, as he displayed his usual speed and surprising power.
Moss shortened his stroke and suddenly found more pop, homering 17 times after totaling just three in his first 121 pro games. His speed continues to be a plus. He also improved defensively, and his hands and range are now considered average.
His two-strike approach still needs work, as he's too aggressive and will chase pitches out of the zone. Moss also struggles with his throwing because he has awkward mechanics.
When healthy, Humber has a 90-94 mph fastball and an above-average 12-6 curveball. It's hard to say how long his elbow was bothering him and how much it contributed to his struggles. He had a knack for making the wrong pitch at the wrong time, prolonging innings rather than getting out of jams.
Photo Credits: Jerry Hale