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AFL rosters burst with prospects

By Josh Boyd
October 1, 2002

The Arizona Fall League opens today with its usual array of prospect-filled rosters. While unheralded players will emerge, here are the 10 players we see as the best prospects as the league heads into its 11th season.

1. Rocco Baldelli, of, Grand Canyon Rafters (Devil Rays).
When it came to hyped Devil Rays prospects in the past few years, names like Toe Nash, Josh Hamilton and even Carl Crawford were the first to come up. While Nash continued to run into trouble with the law, Hamilton couldn’t shake the injury bug and Crawford moved up to the majors, Baldelli established himself as Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year.

Baldelli hit .333 for high Class A Bakersfield before earning a promotion to Double-A Orlando. As one of the youngest players in the Southern League, he raked for three weeks to the tune of .371, collecting hits in 14 of 17 games, before getting called up to Triple-A Durham. The Bulls wanted him as their leadoff hitter as they made a push for the International League playoffs, and Baldelli was the spark plug as they won the league title.

2. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Peoria Javelinas (Rangers).
After signing a $9.5 million deal last August as the fifth overall pick out of Georgia Tech, Teixeira injured his forearm fielding a foul popup in a spring training game. Tommy John surgery was a possibility, but Teixeira elected to rehab his arm and he was in playing shape by the beginning of June. Between Class A Charlotte and Double-A Tulsa, the powerful switch-hitter combined to hit 19 home runs in 321 at-bats. While Teixeira is one of the most advanced hitting prospects in the game, his future position remains a question. His arm is playable at third base, but it’s also regarded as his weakest tool. In addition to making up for lost at-bats in the AFL, Teixeira may see time at first.

3. Brandon Phillips, ss/2b, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Indians).
One of the best all-around prospects in baseball, Phillips was traded from the Expos to the Indians this summer as the key player in the Bartolo Colon blockbuster. Drafted by the Expos in the second round out of a Georgia high school in 1999, Phillips has been on a kamikaze mission to the major leagues. He hit .344 for Scottsdale in the AFL last year and spent most of the fall playing third base, but Phillips is a pure shortstop with a cannon arm. The Indians shifted him to second base due to Omar Vizquel’s presence in Cleveland, but they insist his long-term position is still shortstop. Phillips finished the year in Cleveland after hitting a combined .299 with 19 home runs between three minor league stops.

4. Francisco Rosario, rhp, Grand Canyon Rafters (Blue Jays).
Blue Jays scouts sensed something special when Rosario showed up this spring flashing 96-97 mph gas. But even they didn’t expect success to happen so easily and rapidly for the 21-year-old. He set the tone for his breakthrough season by striking out 10 over four innings in his first start of the year for low Class A Charleston. After posting a 6-1, 2.57 record in the South Atlantic League, Rosario got even tougher when he was promoted to high Class A Dunedin–going 3-3, 1.29. He limited opposing hitters to a .151 average with the help of his electric fastball, nasty changeups and developing slider.

5. Justin Morneau, 1b, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Twins).
Morneau was drafted as a catcher but a move to first base came soon after and allowed him to focus on what he does best: mash. Powered by one of the best swings in the minors, Morneau generates tremendous power from the left side with good extension and natural loft to his stroke. The 21-year-old has been on the fast track since starting last year in Class A Quad City with a .356 average and a .597 slugging percentage. He has the potential to hit 35-plus home runs in the big leagues, according to scouts, and the Twins have to be salivating over a future lineup including Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Michael Restovich to go with the young talent already in Minnesota.

6. Hee Seop Choi, 1b, Mesa Solar Sox (Cubs).
Choi is returning for his third tour of the desert. This time, he’ll be tuning up for a shot at becoming Fred McGriff’s successor in Wrigley Field next spring. Choi, 23, avoided the nagging injuries that limited him to a .229 average in just 77 games at Triple-A Iowa in 2001 and returned to Iowa this season with more encouraging results. The AFL’s home run king in 2000, his stint was shortened last fall by a nagging hand injury. He launched a career-high 26 home runs and 24 doubles for Iowa this year before a September promotion to Chicago.

7. Michael Restovich, of, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Twins).
Restovich, 23, returns to the AFL after hitting .289 with six home runs last fall. A hulking slugger at 6-foot-4, 233 pounds, he remains agile and athletic enough to offer more than one tool. A former standout basketball player in high school, the Minnesota native delivered a career-best performance in 2002 at Triple-A Edmonton. His 29 home runs were the third-best total in the Pacific Coast League and his .286 average was his highest since he hitting .312 for Quad City in 1999.

8. Clint Nageotte, rhp, Peoria Javelinas (Mariners).
Nageotte put his name on the map by leading the Class A Midwest League in strikeouts in 2001, then came back in 2002 and led the minors in strikeouts with 214, the only pitcher to top the 200-strikeout plateau. Nageotte, 21, rings up his victims with a devastating fastball/slider combo. His fastball is regularly clocked in the low 90s, while his darting slider registers in the low 80s with tight rotation. He recorded eight performances of 10 or more strikeouts for Class A San Bernardino this summer, including a run of six straight double-digit strikeout outings.

9. Justin Huber, c, Phoenix Desert Dogs (Mets).
Huber took a spring training meeting with Mike Piazza to heart and applied his tremendous work ethic into a breakout 2002 campaign. The Australian native tailed off after midseason, when he earned an invitation to participate in the Futures Game, but he still tallied an impressive .291-11-78 mark at low Class A Capital City before being elevated to high Class A St. Lucie. Huber, 20, is developing into a good receiver with an average arm, and nobody in the minors is working harder to reach the majors.

10. Adrian Gonzalez, 1b, Mesa Solar Sox (Marlins).
Gonzalez owns a picture-perfect lefthanded stroke, and even though he skipped high Class A to move to Double-A Portland, he still cranked 17 home runs and 34 doubles. His average dipped to .266, but he wasn’t overmatched as a 20-year-old against much more experienced pitching.

Fall Guys

• The AFL has created an MVP award this year that has been named in honor of the late Joe Black. The Joe Black trophy, sponsored by Baseball America, will be handed out before the league championship game on Nov. 23. The award will be based on voting by AFL managers and coaches. Black was the first black pitcher to win a World Series game (1952) and was the 1952 National League rookie of the year. After beginning his career in the Negro Leagues, Black pitched for the Dodgers, Reds and Senators in his six-year major league career. A longtime resident of Phoenix, Black died in May.

• Yankees third baseman Drew Henson is back for his second tour of the AFL, after hitting .240 with 18 home runs at Triple-A Columbus. With incumbent third baseman Robin Ventura’s impending free agency, it’s an important fall for Henson.

• Angels power righthander Bobby Jenks is hoping to put a good finish on a tumultuous 2002 campaign. He led the AFL in strikeouts last year.

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