2005 Top 20 Prospects: International LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By Chris Kline
Chat Wrap: Chris Kline took your International League questions
Zach Duke went 6-0, 1.81 in his first 10 starts for Pittsburgh before injuring his ankle. Ryan Howard's massive power propelled the Phillies back into the National League wild-card race. Edwin Encarnacion's readiness allowed the Reds to trade third baseman Joe Randa to the Padres for a pair of pitching prospects. Kyle Davies contributed 13 starts and went 6-3 during the Braves' midseason surge to first place in the NL East.
In the American League, Brandon McCarthy turned in some clutch pitching as the White Sox tried to hold onto their playoff berth. Aaron Hill forced his way into the Blue Jays' infield picture sooner than expected. Though he didn't stick in Tampa Bay until mid-June, Jonny Gomes' 20 homers led all big league rookies with less than two weeks to play. It was too little too late for Minnesota, but Scott Baker posted a 2.95 ERA in his first six starts for the Twins.
Overall, it was a very solid year for talent in the IL with a balance between hitters and pitchers. Durham shortstop B.J. Upton, No. 1 on this list in 2004, returned to the league but didn't qualify again because he accrued too many big league at-bats last year. Columbus second baseman Robinson Cano, Richmond lefty Chuck James and Toledo righty Joel Zumaya might have cracked the Top 20, but they didn't spend enough time in the IL.
"It wasn't exactly the year of the hitter, since the first thing you think about the league this year is all the arms that have gone up," Richmond manager Pat Kelly said. "But there were some very good hitters in this league. This might very well be the year of the rookie, and I think you see that when you look at both Triple-A leagues."
Though his numbers dropped off during his adjustment period to Triple-A, his maturity to handle the jump at age 19 was impressive. He hits all types of pitching for power to all fields. He has solid-average speed and above-average strength, and though he drew some mixed reviews as a right fielder he has the potential to be a plus defender.
"Delmon's going to be as good as Delmon wants to be," an AL scout said. "He can do whatever he puts his mind to do."
No pitcher was as dominant in the IL this season than Liriano, who allowed a total of eight earned runs in his final 10 starts. He throws three plus pitches for strikes, and several managers said his mid-90s fastball might be his third-best option.
Liriano throws two different changeups, both with the same arm action as his fastball. He has a circle change that drops straight down and a three-finger version that breaks away from righthanders. At 87-88 mph, his wipeout slider is his best pitch and is the biggest reason he led the minors with 204 strikeouts in 168 innings.
After arriving from the Double-A Eastern League, where he ranked as the No. 1 prospect, Liriano improved the overall balance in his delivery. That adjustment took strain off his arm—an important consideration for someone who missed nearly two years in the Giants system with shoulder trouble—and allowed him to consistently vary his release point. He repeats his delivery well and draws comparisons to Johan Santana.
Duke's season began with a win over a rehabbing Curt Schilling on Opening Day, and only got better after that. He became an immediate sensation following his July promotion to Pittsburgh, winning his first six decisions.
Duke drove IL and big league hitters alike crazy with a low-90s fastball, a sweeping curveball and a changeup that developed into a plus pitch his season. While he has all the stuff to be a legitimate No. 2 starter in the big leagues--as he already has proven--he can't just overpower opponents. Duke's mound presence and ability to exploit batters' weaknesses are uncanny.
"He's a winner," Indianapolis pitching coach Darold Knowles said. "The stuff is there, but his competitiveness is beyond compare. He'll do anything it takes to get out of any situation. And more often than not, he just does."
Howard used to be vulnerable to inside pitches because of his size, but he made an adjustment and can jerk those pitches out of any park now. He also showed a greater willingness to accept walks when teams pitched around him. He doesn't run well and didn't take to left field when Philadelphia tried him there in the past, but IL observers said he really improved his defense at first base.
"I know what a great hitter he is, but his defense is what surprised me," Norfolk manager Ken Oberkfell said. "He gets to the bag very quickly and can pick it when he has to. He's everything you look for out of that position."
Marte seemed on the verge of making a Miguel Cabrera-like jump from Double-A to the majors in 2004, but his timetable has slowed as the Braves try to figure out how to get him into the lineup with Chipper Jones wanting to remain at third base. While Marte has only received a cup of coffee in Atlanta, his potential is still considerable and he's just 21.
Marte has outstanding power to all fields and is one of the best defensive third basemen in the minors. A slight uppercut creeps into his swing at times, but he has improved his body control in the box as well as his strike-zone discipline. There had been concerns about his lower half getting thicker, but he worked hard to strengthen his legs and back throughout the season.
He's mature for his age, but some managers thought Marte lacked focus at times.
The Reds signed Randa with the idea of giving Encarnacion another year to develop, but by midseason the youngster proved he was ready. Hitting always has been his strength, and with improved pitch recognition came more patience and more pop. He not only began to realize his power potential, but he also showed he could shorten his swing and take pitches to the opposite field when needed.
Encarnacion continues to be erratic at third base, but he worked hard on his positioning and footwork and has the ability to become a plus defender. He has a strong arm and quick hands, and he just needs to improve his throwing accuracy.
Described by some scouts as a righthanded version of Duke, Davies has similar composure and stuff. He also made an immediate impact in the majors when filling in for the injured Mike Hampton.
Davies complements an 89-93 mph fastball with a curveball and the best changeup in the Braves system. He has a mean streak in his ultra-competitive nature, and he goes right after hitters. After revamping his mechanics two years ago, he has a clean delivery and repeats it well.
While he commands all his pitches, Davies struggled with control of his breaking ball at times. When his curve is on, he's able to get ahead of hitters and finish them off.
The talk of White Sox spring training, McCarthy nearly won a job in the rotation before Mark Buehrle returned from a broken foot sooner than expected. It turned out McCarthy had more work to do in Triple-A, a level he never had pitched at before 2005, and he got knocked around in his first two big league stints. But after returning to Chicago at the end of August, he was the White Sox' best pitcher down the stretch.
At 6-foot-7, McCarthy pitches on a steep, downward plane with an easily repeatable delivery. He has racked up strikeouts at every level in the minors thanks to three plus pitches: a sinking two-seam fastball that sits at 90 mph, a low-90s four-seamer and a curveball that rated as the best in the IL. He lost command of his four-seamer in his early big league trials, and the White Sox have tried to get him to use his changeup more often.
A two-way star at the University of Arizona, Anderson offers size, speed and power. He hits for average, placing line drives from foul pole to foul pole. He did have trouble recognizing breaking balls at times in 2005, leading to an increase in strikeouts.
Anderson showed good jumps, instincts and routes in center field, especially for a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, but most scouts project him as a corner fielder. If he moves to right field, he has more than enough arm and bat to handle it. He had struggled with minor injuries during his career but finished the season completely healthy.
He lasted just six weeks in the IL before the Blue Jays needed him to sub for the injured Corey Koskie, and Hill hit so well in the majors that he never returned to Syracuse. He batted .359 in his first month and a half with Toronto.
Hill has a compact stroke and uses the entire field. He started using his lower half more in his swing, allowing him to drive balls with more consistency. He projects as a .280-.290 hitter with 15-20 homers annually.
Hill plays better than his tools, but his solid-average range and plus arm may not be enough to keep him at shortstop. Some observers questioned his first-step quickness, footwork and double-play pivot. He does read hitters exceptionally well but probably fits better at second or third base.
The biggest reason for Gomes' surge this year was simple: improved recognition on breaking pitches. The Devil Rays sent Gomes to the Mexican Pacific League last offseason so he could get a better handle on breaking stuff, and he responded by winning BA's Winter Player of the Year award.
Gomes continued to hit back in the United States, tearing up the International League for two months and proving he belonged in the majors when Tampa Bay finally gave him a chance. He always has possessed the bat speed and power to knock the ball out of any park, though his swing can get long at times. He doesn't offer much in the way of speed or arm strength, and he's rough defensively as a corner outfielder.
Baker reached Triple-A at the end of 2004, his first full pro season, and returned to pitch better than his record would indicate. Thirteen of his 22 outings qualified as quality starts, and he allowed two runs or fewer in three other outings.
Baker doesn't overwhelm hitters but he can keep them off balance by throwing four pitches for strikes. His 89-93 mph fastball is more notable because of its sink and his ability to change speeds with it than its velocity. He also uses a knuckle-curve, a slider and a changeup that ranked among the IL's best.
He has smooth mechanics and repeats his delivery well. He's still refining his pitches, however, particularly the command of his slider. He elevates his fastball at times this season and needs to pitch down in the zone more often.
"He has Zach Duke-type intelligence," Rochester pitching coach Bobby Cuellar said. "He's along the same lines, command and control."
Injuries limited Doumit's development behind the plate before 2005, to the point where he was referred to as "Ryan No-Mitt" in a Pittsburgh newspaper. Though he might not ever be anything more than an average defender, he quieted his critics by making the leap to the majors in June after establishing himself as one of the minors' best catching prospects.
Doumit's strength is his bat. He's a switch-hitter with gap power, more from the left side of the plate. He also showed improvement defensively and threw out 44 percent of basestealers in the IL.
"He's a catcher. I don't care what anybody says about him," Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett said. "He can call a game, has a solid-average arm and blocks balls well. The bottom line is we win with him in the lineup."
The latest in the long line of Braves pitching prospects, Lerew saw his stock jump along with his velocity in 2004. When his fastball jumped to a consistent 93-94 mph last year, it threw off his command, but he coped by adjusting his delivery in 2005.
His second-best pitch is a plus changeup that features tight, downward tumble and acts like a splitter. His slider still needs further refinement, but it's no longer a question mark. "He's a power guy," Kelly said, "with a ton of potential he's just begun to tap into."
Johnson makes consistent hard contact by staying short to the ball with a compact, quick stroke. And it's easy to see how valuable he is offensively and defensively. He has good speed and range to go with a plus arm. Scouts and managers alike rave about his makeup, as he approaches the game with an all-out mentality on a daily basis.
"He wasn't here long, but you'd have to say he was our MVP in that time," Kelly said. "He did it all for us."
Bullington might not ever live up to being the No. 1 overall pick in 2002, but there's no reason he can't be a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter. After being held back at the beginning of the season with some minor shoulder fatigue, he established himself as one of the top pitchers in the IL during the second half and made his big league debut in September.
The velocity on his fastball hadn't been up to 95 mph since he was in college, but Bullington hit that mark several times this season. His fastball has great late life, exploding at the plate. He complements his heater with a sharp slider and an improved changeup that gave him a legitimate third option and played a major role in his late-season surge.
Pedroia keeps defying the odds. He has solid-average tools across the board, but like Hill he has a knack for getting the most out of his physical abilities. After a stunning pro debut in 2004, he followed up by .324 in Double-A before coming to Pawtucket. A wrist injury sapped his strength early on in Triple-A, but once healthy he batted .270 with five homers in August.
Primarily a line-drive hitter, Pedroia showed some gap power year with quick hands and good leverage in his swing. Though he was drafted as a shortstop, his arm and range are better suited for second base, where he moved to accommodate Hanley Ramirez in Double-A. His instincts and determination make him better than his tools would indicate.
"He's a pest, a guy you don't want to see," Buffalo manager Marty Brown said. "He's a tough, tough out and takes every AB to heart. You never see him waste one or take anything for granted. It just seems like he's always a step ahead."
Though Jason Varitek blocks his chances of starting in Boston, there isn't much more left for Shoppach to do in the minors. He turned in his second straight 20-plus homer season at Pawtucket, making more contact while raising his average 20 points. He also threw out 44 percent of basestealers to rank second among the IL's regular catchers.
Shoppach will hit for power and draws his share of walks, but he's too pull-conscious and doesn’t make adjustments well, so he may never hit for a high average. An outstanding leader with exceptional game-calling skills, he has a strong arm and quick release.
Granderson was a key part of Double-A Erie's run to the postseason in 2004, and this year he helped lead Toledo to its first IL championship in 36 years. Not only does he have solid tools across the board, but they grade better now than they did when he signed as a third-round pick in 2002.
The first University of Illinois-Chicago product to reach the majors, Granderson offers both power and speed. After working with Erie hitting coach Pete Incaviglia, Granderson made adjustments with his hands, starting them back further to get a bigger load. More consistent hard contact and a jump in power numbers came as a result.
While Granderson has hit 36 homers in the last two seasons compared to 14 in his first two years as a pro, he has sacrificed some selectivity at the plate for that pop. With solid range and arm strength, he can handle any of the three outfield spots.
Garko's value is in his bat. He's short to the ball with an efficient swing, allowing him to adjust to any pitch in any location. He uses the whole field and showed above-average power.
His best big league role might be as a reserve first base/catcher who offers a potent bat off the bench. He threw out just 16 percent of IL basestealers and he looks mechanical as a first baseman.
"There's nothing not to like about that bat," Durham manager Bill Evers said. "I just wonder where you play him. You don't just break into the big leagues and be a DH."