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Appalachian League Top 20 Prospects

By Bill Ballew

Top 20
The Appalachian League experienced a season in 2001 that usually is reserved for Rookie league dreams. Two of the highest-profile players in the minors wound up residing within 10 miles of one another in the northeast corner of Tennessee. The result was a significant increase in attendance compared to last year along with more national media coverage than at any point in recent memory.

"There's been a lot of excitement with people coming from all over to watch baseball," Johnson City GM Vance Spinks said. "It's been fun, and hopefully it's something we can build on."

Spinks saw attendance nearly double to a league-best 42,816 at Howard Johnson Field thanks to the season-long presence of lefthander Rick Ankiel. Sent to Johnson City in hopes of regaining his control while rediscovering the joy of playing baseball, Ankiel dominated hitters by averaging 16.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He also had his share of success as a part-time DH, finishing fourth in the league with 10 homers. He wasn’t included in this list because he is not a prospect in the true sense of the word.

The league's other big gate attraction was Joe Mauer, the first overall pick in this year's draft. He lived up to his lofty billing after arriving in Elizabethton (where attendance rose 33 percent over last season) in late July.

Mauer added depth to a strong class of catchers in an otherwise modest year for position players. Some managers felt that as many as seven receivers could reach the big leagues, with Princeton's Shawn Riggans (who underwent Tommy John surgery and didn’t have enough at-bats to qualify for the list), and Bristol's Gustavo Molina joining the five catchers included in the Top 20.

Pitching was the story in the Appy League. Most teams fielded at least one strong starter, paced by Burlington and its impressive rotation. In addition to the trio of Indians found in the Top 20, Mariano Gomez and Jim Ed Warden impressed several skippers.

"All of the pitching Burlington had, along with some of the young position players, shows what a great job the Cleveland scouting staff did this year," Danville manager Ralph Henriquez said.

Joe Mauer
Photo: Tony Farlow
Elizabethton Twins

Mauer was the first prospect mentioned by every manager, and it had little to do with his reputation preceding him. Skippers raved about his fluid, effortless swing that sprays line drives up the middle and to the opposite field. He also impressed with his ability to stay inside of the ball, as well as his excellent eye at such a young age.

While Mauer still is learning to pull the ball, no one had any doubt that ability would come with time. As a hitter, he was compared to Don Mattingly and John Olerud.

Managers also liked Mauer's abilities behind the plate. He received high marks for his mobility and footwork, his handling of pitchers, his above-average arm and his overall intelligence.

"Defensively, everything is there," Princeton manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "He has good mobility and good agility behind the plate. His arm is loose and strong, and his throws are effortless. I think he is going to be a complete ballplayer."

"I like his general demeanor," Pulaski manager Bruce Crabbe said. "He's an aggressive kid who runs well for a catcher. He's a take-charge guy. Hustles all the time. He's an all-around advanced kid for an 18-year-old. He could have played higher than this league."

Burlington Indians

His teammate J.D. Martin received most of the media attention this season, yet managers were most impressed with Denham. Though he’s not as polished as Martin, Denham was drafted ahead of him in the first round and displayed the league's best combination of raw power and pitching prowess.

He owns a live, explosive arm with an easy delivery that doesn’t require maximum effort to produce dominating results. Every manager liked how smoothly the ball came out of his hand before exploding on its way to the plate. After clocking as high as 98 mph prior to the draft, Denham's fastball displayed a comfort zone in the 92-95 mph range. He also showed the ability to reach back for a little extra heat in tough situations.

"He is a pure power pitcher who is working on his command," Burlington manager Rouglas Odor said. "He is a little wild right now, but he also can throw his curveball and changeup. He has all the tools to be a great one."

Pulaski Rangers

Bourgeois was the overwhelming choice as the league's most exciting player. Managers compared Bourgeois to numerous major leaguers, among them Rickey Henderson and Pete Rose.

"This kid has some tools," Henriquez said. "He has above-average big league speed, good bat speed, good range at second base. His arm strength is his weakest tool, but he's a joy to watch play. He runs every ball out and you can tell he loves to take the field every day."

Bourgeois possesses excellent athleticism and instincts. He's also quick and gets to full speed in four steps. While Bourgeois' defense at second base didn’t attract raves, more than one manager thought a move to center field could make him even more effective.

"He has some pop and excellent bat speed," Elizabethton manager Rudy Hernandez said. "He also can run pretty good and steal some bases. He has to work a little bit on his defense, but he has all the makings of an outstanding all-around player."

4 J.D. MARTIN, rhp
Burlington Indians

No pitcher, including Ankiel, experienced as much success in the Appy League as Martin. The 35th overall pick in this year's draft didn’t allow a hit in three of his first six starts, including a five-inning, 14-strikeout effort in his fourth outing.

Martin was the most polished pitcher in the league, thanks in large part to the coaching efforts of his father John, who pitched in the Yankees and Angels farm systems in the 1960s and 1970s. Martin has a great changeup and outstanding command of five pitches. He throws his changeup and breaking pitches at any time in the count, a trait that kept opposing hitters off balance all summer.

"He's a kid who can pitch right now, in terms of his knowledge of the game and his ability to pitch," Johnson City manager Chris Maloney said. "He's just going to get bigger and stronger and quicker. He really has a feel for pitching."

The lone knock against Martin is that his fastball has below-average velocity. Most managers agreed, however, that he would top 90 mph once his body fills out.

Danville Braves

Digby falls into the same class as Denham, except that he doesn’t throw quite as hard. Digby showed signs of being overpowering at times this season despite remaining a raw thrower, as evidenced by his 32 walks, the second-highest total in the league.

He has a power arm that produced one of the top fastballs in the league. He consistently threw 94 mph with considerable sinking action. Digby’s mechanics also are a positive, as he has an effortless delivery and consistent arm slot. Appy League managers also liked Digby's 6-foot-3 frame, and believe he’ll learn to become a more dominant pitcher with experience and maturity.

Bristol Sox (White Sox)

The White Sox made Honel the 16th overall pick in June, taking the local product from Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Ill. The righthander wasted little time living up to expectations, and showed no lingering effects from a wrist injury that limited his velocity during the spring.

Managers were most impressed with the 6-foot-5 Honel's smooth mechanics and the easy manner in which he released the ball. His fastball was consistently in the low 90s, touching 94 mph on several occasions. He also sported a heavy knuckle-curve that proved difficult for hitters to hit with authority, and he also showed an average changeup.

"He's going to pitch in the big leagues," Maloney said. "He knows how to pitch. He changes speeds and moves the ball around. He's got a live arm."

Elizabethton Twins

Tejada blossomed in his third season in the Minnesota organization. Known primarily as "Manny" prior to this year, he made a name for himself with some of the most electric stuff in the Appy League. Hitters knew his mid-90s fastball was coming yet could do little about it.

Managers liked Tejada's take-charge attitude on the mound, his composure and his ability to work off his fastball with his decent changeup and curveball. His heavy heater also produced a fair share of double plays, which could lead to a bullpen role down the road as he gains some strength.

"I can see him making it to the big leagues as a closer," Bluefield manager Joe Almaraz said. "He throws hard now and he's going to throw even harder in the future. He has command of all his pitches, and has an excellent demeanor and outstanding mound presence."

Burlington Indians

Eldridge struggled to hit .173 in 173 at-bats with Burlington last year after being drafted in the fifth round out of high school. Another year older combined with some tutelage in extended spring training produced some astounding differences, leading one manager to compare Eldridge to a young Chili Davis.

Eldridge was the Appy League's best defensive outfielder and covered center field from gap to gap. He also showed the ability to use his above-average speed both offensively and defensively, enabling him to lead the circuit with six triples. Managers also liked his outstanding bat speed, adding that he’ll hit for more power as he continues to make adjustments.

"He's going to hit for some power down the road," Maloney said. "He's got a good body and he has a lot of natural strength. He's a kid who could have some solid tools once he fully develops."

Kingsport Mets

Wright signed late in the season but had little difficulty making a good first impression. The 38th overall selection in June made his mark with his hard-nosed style at third base and his potential at the plate.

Managers liked the mobility Wright showed at the hot corner. Considered one of the best high school hitters in the 2001 draft class, he also displayed above-average power that could produce 25-30 homers annually down the road. Given his outstanding work ethic, more than one manager said he has the potential to develop into one of the most complete players from this year's Appy League graduates.

"I was really impressed with that young man," Almaraz said. "He has tremendous instincts at third base. He has a very good approach at the plate, especially with pitch recognition. He's an early pick who looks like a future major leaguer to me."

Princeton Devil Rays

Gomes was named the Appy League's player of the year after putting on the best power display in the circuit. The unheralded 18th-round pick out of Santa Rosa (Calif.) CC this June led the league in homers, on-base percentage (.442) and slugging percentage (.597) while placing second in runs and RBIs.

Gomes produces above-average power with his impressive bat speed. He has outstanding natural strength, possesses plus speed and leaves nothing on the field. The biggest concern about Gomes was his big swing, which prevented him from catching up to some good fastballs up in the strike zone.

"He's a big swinger with the best bat speed in the league," Crabbe said. "He runs pretty well for a big kid and he has a great attitude. There's a lot of holes in his swing for a college kid, but he's a prospect who has a chance to develop based on his approach and his tools."

11 TOE NASH, of
Princeton Devil Rays

No player attracted more contrasting evaluations from Appy League managers than Nash. Some skippers saw Nash as a budding multitool standout, while others saw a nonchalant outfielder with marginal talent.

"The only tool he showed me was an average arm from the outfield," an Eastern Division manager said. "He didn't show me that he liked being out on the field."

Rodriguez defended Nash by saying the hyped youngster signed by the Devil Rays last year out of the Louisiana bayou is raw and unpolished, yet made more progress than any player in the league.

"I saw him during his tryout in Princeton last year and he had no idea what he was doing in the outfield," Rodriguez said. "Now he takes a lot of pride in his defense. He has big-time power from both sides of the plate. He is willing to learn. He has a lot of holes in his swing, but he has come a long way in a short period of time."

Those who like his potential rave about his raw tools, beginning with his power.

"He took us deep to center field from both sides of the plate this year," Odor said. "And those balls were hit way over the fence. He is really raw, but I really like his potential."

Johnson City Cardinals

Woodrow joins Eldridge as another Appy League veteran who showed strong improvement since last season. Woodrow had just three extra-base hits in 135 at-bats a year ago. The Cardinals' off-season training program increased his strength, while added maturity helped produce a prospect.

"He has a chance to be a power hitter when he learns to turn on the ball," Maloney said. "He's got a very quick bat. He has the body and the ability that you look for in order to be a force at the plate."

Woodrow is a decent outfielder with above-average speed and good athleticism. His arm may limit him to left field at higher levels, but he’ll make the climb thanks to his bat.

"He impresses me with his approach at the plate," Almaraz said. "He always makes contact and it's usually solid contact. He sprays the ball from the third-base line to the first-base line. He also has some power. His ability to put the ball into play will help him continue to progress."

Kingsport Mets

The Mets have become a bigger player on the international front in recent seasons. One of their better finds is Huber, a tough and gritty receiver from Australia.

Huber showed more polish than expected during his first taste of pro ball. He displayed impressive strength with good size and an above-average arm behind the plate. He also hit better as the season progressed, including a 4-for-4 performance during the final week.

"He's a tough kid who is going to get better and better," Maloney said. "I like the way he calls a game and he moves around behind the plate real well. I think he has a chance to be a complete player."

"Justin did as good a job of blocking balls and handling pitchers as any catcher in the league," Almaraz said. "When you project where he could be in a couple of years, he's a kid who should have a good future."

Pulaski Rangers

Heard regained some lost confidence during a midseason demotion to Pulaski. After struggling early in the season at Class A Savannah, the 2000 first-round pick regained his batting stroke in the Appy League, resulting in a .298 average, five homers and a return to the South Atlantic League.

"We really concentrated with his hitting here as opposed to his defense, and he did a great job," Crabbe said. "I think he made great strides offensively. He's also a pretty good defensive player with a strong arm, and I think he will be a solid all-around player in the future."

Heard impressed opposing managers with his arm and ability to receive pitches. The concern among some centered on whether Heard is physically strong enough to catch 100 games a year. Others noted that his bat speed was below average and that he had trouble getting the head of the bat on above-average fastballs.

Burlington Indians

Foley featured a fastball that consistently registered in the low 90s while touching 94 mph. Along with Denham and Martin, he helped give Burlington three frontline starters.

Though most managers consider him to be less refined than other pitchers higher on this list, Foley did impress with his willingness to mix in a curveball, slider and circle change with his heater. While his secondary offerings aren’t close to his fastball yet, he did show an above-average feel for what he is trying to do on the mound.

"He's another power guy who has a high ceiling once he gains some experience and improves his command and his control," Odor said.

Johnson City Cardinals

Molina had a solid pro debut and impressed most of the league's managers with his work behind the plate. An excellent defensive catcher, Molina is a hard worker who does a good job of blocking balls. He used a plus arm and quick release to throw out 43 percent of basestealers, the top rate in the Appy League. He also takes charge of the game, and drew praise from Johnson City pitching coach Sid Monge for his work with the Cardinals' staff.

Not unlike most minor league catchers, Molina's bat remains his biggest question. He concluded the campaign with a .259 average, yet showed the ability to hit the ball hard and the potential to swat 15-20 homers annually.

"He is a kid who has made great strides in the past year," said Rodriguez, who scouted Molina in Puerto Rico. "His defense has always been there and that's what is going to carry him to the big leagues. But I think he's going to show some power along the way as well."

Bluefield Orioles

Love his bat, hate his glove. That sums up the way managers felt about this third-year pro from the Dominican Republic.

The younger brother of fellow Baltimore middle-infield prospect Ed Rogers, Omar was among the league leaders in several offensive categories, topping the circuit in stolen bases while ranking third in batting average and on-base percentage (.419). He plays hard and managers liked his makeup. Aggressive on the basepaths, Rogers puts constant pressure on opposing defenses. He’s not overly fast but does have above-average quickness.

His defensive game is another story. Some managers believe that Rogers' best shot at higher levels will come in a utility role. His arm is a little short, he doesn’t have soft hands and he needs considerable improvement in turning the double play.

"His first couple of steps are real quick, and he uses that to his advantage," Almaraz said. "He's an offensive player who still needs some work, but he did a good job the entire season."

18 C.J. WILSON, lhp
Pulaski Rangers

Managers were mixed on their assessment of Wilson. A couple of skippers considered the lefthander one of the top prospects in the circuit, while others were unimpressed because he arrived in Rookie ball from the college ranks.

A converted outfielder with little mileage on his left arm, Wilson displayed impressive pitching knowledge despite his lack of experience. He mixes his 90-mph fastball well with his changeup and curveball. Wilson also has solid control and command of all his pitches.

"I think he and Ankiel were the best pitchers in the league before C.J. was promoted," Crabbe said. "He spots his fastball well, mixes his changeup in well and has a pretty good curveball that needs a little work. Command-wise, he's one of the best first-year lefthanders I've seen."

19 D.J. HOULTON, rhp
Martinsville Astros

Both the Houston front office and opposing Appy League coaching staffs raved about the job Martinsville pitching coach Jack Billingham did with his staff. His prized pupil turned out to be Houlton, who was named the league's all-star righthander at season's end.

"Jack really brought D.J. along, particularly with his mechanics," Almaraz said. "He was balanced with all of his pitches, which led to the consistency that he showed over the course of the season."

Houlton did a great job of keeping hitters off balance. He also has uncanny control for a Rookie-level, surrendering just seven walks in 72 innings. He’s not afraid to challenge hitters but tends to be too perfect in some situations, resulting in seven homers allowed, tying him for second-most in the Appy League

Danville Braves

The league's leading hitter from start to finish, Pena featured a solid swing from the right side of the plate. He was more than adequate lefthanded, but several managers wonder if his below-average bat speed as a lefty will allow him to succeed from that side at higher levels.

Despite his offensive prowess, every manager had concerns about Pena. He did a decent job of handling pitchers and a calling a game, but some skippers thought he didn’t move well enough behind the plate because of excess weight. One manager even went so far as to compare Pena to a present-day Tony Gwynn. Several also disliked Pena's attitude.

"There's no doubt he can hit, but the way you act on the field is very important, too," an Eastern Division manager said. "I don't think he acts professionally on the field. You have to respect the game and the umpires, and I'm not sure that he does."

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