2005 Top 20 Prospects: South Atlantic LeagueComplete Index of League Top 20s
By John Manuel
Chat Wrap: John Manuel took your Sally League questions
The SAL wasn't quite the same this year. Managers said the players seemed older and had fewer standout tools. The hitters who dominated the league were mostly college products rather than high schoolers like Young and Stewart were. And few of the top players spent the entire season in the Sally League.
If the SAL had a player to rival its Class of '95 (Andruw Jones and Vladimir Guerrero) or '04 (Young and Stewart), it wasn't obvious to managers and scouts. It had talent, though, particularly depth among pitchers and especially among lefthanders. It also had excellent finishes to pro debuts by 2005 draftees such as Ryan Braun (Brewers) and Yunel Escobar (Braves), who helped shore up the crop of position-player talent.
As the year progressed, Elbert showed increased ability to harness his 88-93 mph fastball and his power curveball with plenty of depth. His curve doesn't have 12-6 break and sometimes has more sweeping action like a slider, but it's a swing-and-miss pitch that locked up even experienced hitters.
His changeup made great strides and is average at times. One American League scout saw command issues with Elbert's secondary stuff and a mechanical breakdown that left him leaving those pitches up in the zone, but the consensus was that he has the athletic ability to refine and maintain a sound delivery.
“He made quick bats look like palm trees through peanut butter,” Greenville manager Chad Epperson said. “He had velocity, mound presence and composure. Early in the year he started to open his shoulder a little, but he cleaned it up, and if he stays in his delivery he has a very bright future.”
Walker draws few walks because he puts the bat on the ball so easily, but the biggest question surrounding him is his future position. He's somewhat stiff behind the plate and needs to work on his receiving, blocking and throwing. He did improve in all those areas as well as game-calling during the year, and he did throw out 37 percent of basestealers.
“His offensive ceiling is that of a .300 hitter with 25 homers,” a National League scout said, “but he probably will not catch. It’s not that he can’t. He’s not a zero. He needs repetitions, and if he gets them he can be an offensive catcher. But his bat might be so good, he might move faster than that.”
Sanders also earned plaudits from managers and scouts for playing in pain. His right shoulder, troublesome since a high school football injury, faltered again in late June. It forced him to pull out of the Futures Game, short-circuited his power and also affected his fielding in the second half.
The Giants wanted to see if Sanders could handle shortstop, and he has the feet and hands for the position. But he may never have the arm strength for short. While his arm was fringy in the first half, it was well below average after he reinjured his shoulder.
Just as impressive, Patton has a mean streak that helps him. He’s not afraid to pitch inside with his fastball and has competitiveness to spare. His changeup remains his third pitch, but he commands his fastball and curve enough now that he could be a No. 2 or 3 starter with maybe an average change.
The Brewers hope Braun can join Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy in their homegrown infield of the future. While Braun will need repetitions to overcome his inexperience and stiffness at the hot corner, his bat should move him toward Milwaukee quickly.
His quick hands generate excellent bat speed, and he whips the bat through the zone with some uppercut and a high finish. His power is his best tool, and he’s also a plus runner with above-average arm strength. His footwork and work ethic will determine whether he can stay at third base or will have to move to an outfield corner.
While his control is his strong suit, Hughes has good stuff. His fastball sits at 90-94 mph, and while he’s not precise with it, he has enough velocity and life on it to survive if he misses his exact spot. His fastball comes out of his hand easy, as does his true downer curveball, an above-average breaking ball. His changeup has potential, though he rarely threw it in the SAL, as does his slider.
Hughes’ biggest potential problem is injuries. He missed time with shoulder tendinitis in June, and he made just five starts after a promotion to high Class A because of a tired arm. He also had elbow tendinitis in his pro debut last year.
DeWitt lets the ball get deep and trusts his hands, allowing him to sting line drives to all parts of the park, though he still needs to learn to pull the ball more. He showed the ability to make adjustments, such as better recognizing breaking balls, allowing him to bat .312 over his final 47 games before a late promotion to high Class A. His defense at third base, a new position for him as a pro, wasn’t consistent, and one scout mentioned a move to second base could be in his future.
“I liked his approach and I liked his swing,” an AL scout said. “He has hands that work, but the power always will be a little suspect because of his size.”
One AL scout said Harrison had the highest ceiling of any pitcher in the league and compared him to Dodgers prospect Greg Miller circa 2003, when Miller was the best lefty prospect in the game and had yet to undergo a pair of shoulder surgeries. The scout cited Harrison’s command, which he said could be a future 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and said he had seen him throw three pitches that presently graded above-average at times. Harrison's 87-90 mph fastball can touch 93, and he also works with a curveball and changeup.
“I think he will have plus pitches, and 30 walks in 167 innings, that’s unheard of at this level,” Epperson said. “If you had told the Braves before the year you thought he would do that, they would have chuckled. You take a young guy with a very clean delivery like that, you know he can get stronger and his stuff will get better.”
What makes Escobar a prospect, though, is his bat. He has strength and power potential, and his consistent swing and approach helped him hit safely in 37 of his last 42 games before a wrist injury ended his pro debut a week early.
“He does everything right,” Savannah manager Randy Knorr said. “He’s not trying to pull the ball and shows you power the other way. He’s a natural leader and can really play shortstop.”
Scouts say Jones doesn’t lack aggressiveness at the plate. He’s simply patient, content to spray singles the other way while ready to drop the bat head and show pull power when a pitch catches too much of the plate. His arm strength and plus speed allow him to play center field or right, though if his power stagnates, he could get caught as a tweener.
In his third pro season, Barthmaier finally made it to full-season ball and continued the improvement he had shown at the end of 2004. He played both seasons for Lexington manager Tim Bogar, who noted improved feel for pitching from the former quarterback, who attracted Southeastern Conference football offers out of high school. Barthmaier is athletic and competitive, two traits that make him a possible front-of-the-rotation starter, and he had the best breaking ball in the SAL.
"He's figuring out how to locate and mix his stuff," Bogar said. "His curveball is an above-average pitch, a real strikeout pitch, and his fastball sits 91-93, sometimes it will just sit 94. He's getting better about locating his fastball. He needs more feel, but he's learning that he can be a top-shelf kind of guy."
"Elbert has a higher ceiling, but Gonzalez was the best lefty in the league that I saw," Knorr said. "His curve was unreal and he throws it anytime, anywhere."
The knock on Gonzalez is his durability. Including his promotion to high Class A, he made just 23 total starts and missed time on two separate occasions, once with tightness in his lower back and once with tightness in his throwing shoulder.
His record wasn't indicative of how well he pitched, though it wasn't far off. Rogers was the Sally League's Nuke Laloosh, its hardest thrower and wildest one too. Several managers reported him throwing 100 mph and one scout reported him topping out at 97 several times in one start.
His fastball's exceptional velocity doesn't come with corresponding movement, however, because of his mechanics. Rogers throws across his body and lands in a closed position, threatening both his ability to consistently throw strikes and to keep his shoulder healthy.
The Brewers worked hard with Rogers to refine his delivery. They're working against some muscle memory, though, and the adjustment may take him time. He has such a live arm and shows a knee-buckling curveball at times, leaving managers and scouts optimistic about his future.
Golson has plenty of tools, with well above-average speed and a strong throwing arm. He's a fastball hitter at this stage and needs to recognize breaking balls better. He earned comparisons to a young Marquis Grissom for his build and game. He also been has compared to Jeffrey Hammonds for his tightly-wound body, which some fear leaves him injury-prone.
"He improved since he came back and really wants to learn," Lakewood manager P.J. Forbes said. "Then you put that together with what could be four above-average tools, maybe his power is average and he's a five-tool guy. He's just scratching the surface of what kind of player he can be."
But chiefly, it's his raw power. Pence hit 25 homers in just 302 at-bats because he has a simple, effective approach. He knows what pitches he can drive and attacks them aggressively with a knack for getting the fat part of the bat on the ball. His strength and raw power ranked with anyone's in the league, and he drives the ball to all fields. Managers thought he was the best batting prospect and best power prospect in the SAL.
He's not a conventional player, as Bogar put it. "He's not a clean, pure runner, and he's not a clean, pure thrower, but he gets it done," Bogar said. A NL scout was less forgiving, saying Pence's awkward gait and throwing motion almost kept him from turning Pence in as a prospect, though he acknowledged his power.
Balester has a strong, physical frame and smooth mechanics that allow him to throw his fastball consistently in the low 90s while touching 95 mph. Even better, his fastball has power sink, and he gave up just 11 home runs in 125 innings.
Many of those homers came on breaking balls, as Balester lacks a feel for his curve. He throws it with power on occasion, but doesn't know when or how to take something off. His changeup remains a work in progress, but one AL scout said Balester's ceiling will be as high as any SAL righthander's if his secondary pitches become average.
Restko has a two-strike approach and knows how to shorten up his swing, an important skill for such a young hitter. His power should only increase as he gains strength and familiarity with his own hitting zone. He's known for his intense workouts, which led to a slight back injury early in the season.
"He's an offensive kid," an NL scout said. "He's a smart hitter. Guys who make adjustments are the guys who keep on going."
Restko was in his first year moving from first base to the outfield, and it showed at times. He was injured and missed a game in July when he whiffed on a fly ball and it conked him on the head. His arm and range are just adequate in left field, though he has shown good feet at first base and would present a big target if moved back there.
His best attribute his knack for pitching, as he pounds the strike zone with an average fastball, setting up a curveball that's his out pitch. While he has a feel for the breaking ball, Hernandez will need to be more consistent and throw it with more power at higher levels.
"I think of him as a Barry Larkin type, not a Jeter, because he will be a pull hitter with pull power," Knorr said. "He definitely brings excitement to the field because of how hard he plays. Put it this way--I was disappointed when he was promoted."
Desmond made 20 errors in the SAL and 39 overall, but his defense rates as his best tool due to quick, nimble footwork that gives him good range, plus sound hands and a strong arm. He's a fringe-average runner but that doesn't affect him in the field. Managers said he was easily the best defensive shortstop in the league.
Scouts, however, question Desmond's bat, though he did hit better after a promotion to high Class A. He doesn't control the strike zone and will have to shorten his swing and improve his pitch recognition. He pulls off too many pitches while trying to jack them out to left field.
Essentially it was a lost season for Nelson, who got off to a 2-for-20 start after missing part of spring training with a groin pull, then missed another 1 1/2 months when his hamstring flared up, prompting his return to extended spring training. He came back with two hits in his first game back but never got in a groove, needing to play DH or take occasional days off because of the injury.
When he did play, Nelson showed a solid swing but failed to control the strike zone or drive the ball as consistently as he had in his debut. He was also limited defensively, though when healthy he has the arm strength and range to be an asset at shortstop.