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Appalachian League Top 20 Prospects

By Bill Ballew
September 20, 2002

After serving as one of the minors' media magnets last year, thanks to the presence of No. 1 overall draft pick Joe Mauer and reclamation project Rick Ankiel, the Rookie-level Appalachian League returned to its unheralded roots this summer. It was stronger in position players than pitchers, headed by three players taken in the early stages of the 2002 draft: Danville outfielder Jeff Francouer, Princeton outfielder Wes Bankston and Burlington third baseman Matt Whitney.

"I think it was more of an offensive year in the league," Johnson City manager Brian Rupp said. "That's not to say there wasn't some good pitching, because there are a lot of arms in this league that will pitch in the big leagues. But there were several hitters who have a chance to be impact players one day."

A number of outfielders just missed making the Top 20. Elizabethton’s Doug Deeds and Kingsport’s Jamar Hill are power hitters, while Johnson City’s Terry Evans and Kingsport’s Roberto Solano are loaded with tools.

Two first-rounders from 2001 didn’t crack the list as they continue to work on their games. Bluefield lefthander Chris Smith has battled shoulder problems since turning pro and worked just 11 innings. Danville third baseman Josh Burrus continued to show athleticism but has yet to discover any offensive or defensive consistency.

Top 20
Jeff Francoeur
Photo: Bill Setliff
1. Jeff Francoeur, of, Danville Braves
Atlanta scouting director Roy Clark was thrilled when the Braves lured Francoeur away from a Clemson football scholarship (as a defensive back) in July. Not only because they signed a five-tool outfield prospect, but also because the first-rounder is a high-character player who has attracted comparisons to former National League MVP Dale Murphy on a variety of fronts.

"He is the best tools player in this league, bar none," Danville manager Ralph Henriquez said. "I'm big on makeup and this kid is off the charts. He knows he is going to play in the big leagues. Everything he does is centered on that achieving that goal."

Francoeur had no trouble adjusting to wood bats, driving the ball to all fields. He has outstanding instincts and is fearless pursuing fly balls and running the basepaths. He also possesses a plus arm and is capable of playing all three outfield positions.

2. Wes Bankston, of, Princeton Devil Rays
Bankston mirrored Francoeur in that he made a seamless move from the high school ranks to the Appalachian League. No one on the circuit showed more power than the Rays' cleanup hitter, who topped the league in home runs and RBIs.

A former high school quarterback, Bankston has good athleticism and solid all-around tools. He’s not as fluid as Francoeur in the outfield, but Bankston has the mobility and the arm strength to play right field at higher levels. Bankston also impressed managers with his plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone for such a young player.

"He's a big kid who is going to hit a lot of home runs in this game," Rupp said. "He not only crushes fastballs and changeups, he can hit any pitch at any time in the count."

Said Bluefield manager Bien Figueroa: "I've never seen an 18-year-old hit breaking balls the way Bankston can."

3. Matt Whitney, 3b, Burlington Indians
Whitney originally was projected to go in the middle of 2002’s first round, then lasted until 33rd overall. If he was disappointed he didn’t show it, as he attracted rave reviews for his glovework at the hot corner as well as his potential at the plate. Whitney displayed quick wrists, a level swing and power to all fields.

He also impressed opposing managers with his great instincts. Whitney showed more range than any third baseman in the league, and his arm is already average by big league standards.

"He was one of the best, if not the best, players in this league," Pulaski manager Pedro Lopez said. "He started the season pulling everything, but he made great adjustments his first time through the league and got better and better."

4. Dusty Gomon, 1b, Elizabethton Twins
The only thing that slowed Gomon this year was a bruised wrist after being hit by a pitch. That came after he missed most of 2001, his first pro season, with a broken arm. But he otherwise continued his development into a prototype power-hitting first baseman with adequate defensive skills.

Few players have more raw power than Gomon, who carries his impressive batting-practice displays into games. He has outstanding bat speed, yet is capable of altering his swing to hit offspeed pitches. A good runner for his size, he spent as much time this summer working on his defense as he did on his stroke.

"He's a classic corner infielder with power," Elizabethton manager Ray Smith said. "At the same time, he realizes that the days of one-dimensional players are gone, and he's working hard to become a solid player in all phases of the game."

5. Jason Pridie, of, Princeton Devil Rays
The brother of Twins pitching prospect Jon Pridie, Jason had little difficulty making a name for himself in the Devil Rays organization. Pridie put together a 20-game hitting streak and placed third in the batting race. He also became only the sixth player in modern Appy League annals to record more than 100 hits in a single season.

The scrappy Pridie is a solid contact hitter with excellent speed, clocking consistently at 4.0-4.1 seconds to first base from the left side of the plate. He made adjustments between at-bats and showed signs of developing into a true leadoff hitter, though he needs to draw more walks.

Pridie sprays the ball to all fields and covers center field from gap to gap with ease, albeit with a below-average arm. Two managers compared him to Johnny Damon.

"He's got a magic wand," Smith said. "He finds all the holes with his bat. He also enjoys himself and he's a hard worker. He plays like a pro."

6. Anthony Lerew, rhp, Danville Braves
Lerew continued the Braves' tradition of placing impressive young pitchers in the Appy League. The league's co-pitcher of the year, Lerew ranked second in wins and ERA while placing fourth in strikeouts.

A product of a Pennsylvania High School, Lerew responded to the increased instruction he received in extended spring training. He has a plus fastball in the 92-94 mph range with good movement. He also changes speeds well with his solid changeup, and is developing a hard breaking ball that will make him more difficult to hit.

"He dominated this league unlike any other pitcher," Henriquez said. "He's got great makeup, and I feel he's on the verge of really blossoming into an even better pitcher."

7. Blake Hawksworth, rhp, Johnson City Cardinals
Hawksworth earned a lot of headlines shortly before the draft, when he received a $1.4 million bonus from the Cardinals as a draft-and-follow. He backed up that investment in his pro debut, showing uncanny ability for a teenager.

Though he’s still learning to pitch, Hawksworth throws three pitches for strikes. He works off an explosive fastball with good movement that has been clocked as high as 94 mph and sits in the 91-92 range. His out pitch is an above-average changeup. The changeup has good downward movement, and Hawksworth has excellent deception in his delivery.

His 12-to-6 curveball requires the most work of his three offerings, yet it possesses a big break and freezes batters when at its best.

"He's still trying to trick batters instead of trusting his pitches," Johnson City manager Brian Rupp said. "Once he develops consistency and confidence is all of his pitches, he's going to be tough to beat."

8. Dan Meyer, lhp, Danville Braves
The Braves deviated from their usual drafting philosophy to take Meyer 34th overall in June. The James Madison produce became Atlanta's highest-drafted collegian since Mike Kelly went No. 2 overall in 1991.

Meyer didn’t disappoint. He showed excellent overall stuff, topped by an 89-91 mph fastball with outstanding late movement. His second pitch is a plus changeup that many managers believed is better than most in the majors. He also has a hard slider that should develop into a solid third pitch.

Meyer left the greatest impression, however, with his ability to control his pitches on both sides of the plate.

"He has a good idea of what he's trying to do on the mound," Henriquez said. "In my opinion, he will be a No. 2 or 3 starter in the big leagues."

9. Scott Tyler, rhp, Elizabethton Twins
Tyler drew comparisons to Andy Benes in his prime. He’s a power pitcher who led the league in strikeouts, tied for second in victories and ranked sixth in ERA.

Tyler attacks hitters with his 91-93 mph fastball that was clocked as high as 95. He also has a good curveball and a developing changeup. His legs look like tree trunks, which has led to his drop-and-drive delivery. While his game is based around power, Tyler impressed his manager with his desire to learn and improve.

"He has a good game plan every time he takes the mound," Smith said. "Once he develops his secondary pitches, he is going to be very difficult to hit."

10. Anthony Webster, of, Bristol White Sox
Webster has looked like a steal since the White Sox drafted him in the 15th round in 2001. He’s far from a finished product, yet he’s a career .330 hitter who dramatically improved his batting eye this summer.

Webster is a quintessential leadoff hitter/center fielder with plus speed that he incorporates in all phases of his game. He also possesses some serious sting in his bat, though he doesn’t hit for considerable power.

"He can really handle the bat," Leyva said. "He's a heads-up player who walks a lot and is always a threat to run. For a young kid, he is very disciplined. I think you're going to see him really come on fast in the near future."

11. Daniel Cabrera, rhp, Bluefield Orioles
When the subject was high ceilings, no player in the league was mentioned more often this year than the 6-foot-7 Cabrera. The raw righthander blew opponents away with a fastball that was clocked as high as 97 mph and sat consistently at 92-94. What makes that even more impressive is the fact that he threw 87-88 mph last season.

Cabrera challenged hitters up in the strike zone with little difficulty. He made strides with his slider and changeup, throwing both offerings for strikes. While his change remains inconsistent, Cabrera has great command of his first two pitches. His biggest problem is that he tries to strike out every hitter, which left him exhausted after four or five innings.

"He reminds me of Randy Johnson with the way he throws so hard and is right on top of the hitter when he releases the ball," Figueroa said. "You're going to hear a lot about this kid."

12. Luis Jimenez, of/1b, Bluefield Orioles
Released by the Athletics last September, Jimenez came from nowhere to win the league's batting title. He showed outstanding bat control and excellent bat speed with impressive power to all fields. Some managers were concerned about Jimenez's tendency to try to pull too many pitches, but his results speak for themselves.

"He can hit balls over the outfield lights," Figueroa said.

Jimenez split his time between first base and the outfield. He has quick hands on defense, and also shows good speed and instincts. The biggest concern managers had was his weight, which could increase rapidly if left unmonitored.

"He's a great hitter and a good runner," Lopez said. "I see him as a first baseman, but he could be a fourth or fifth outfielder in the major leagues."

13. Osvaldo Fernando, ss, Martinsville Astros
The majority of managers believed Fernandez was the best shortstop in the league. His fluid actions and natural instincts allow him to make defense look easy. He makes both the spectacular and routine plays, and has the above-average arm strength to nail even the fastest runners.

Despite possessing average speed, he possesses excellent range to his right and left. As with most young Latin players, physical strength remains his greatest need, particularly at the plate.

"The guy really knows how to handle himself on the field," Henriquez said. "He's always in control. He looks like he has been playing the game for a long, long time."

14. Tommy Arko, c, Bluefield Orioles
Arko was mentioned frequently with Bankston as the league's top raw power hitters. He has above-average power to all fields and does an excellent job of hitting through the ball with all types of pitches. Some pitchers were able to exploit his vulnerability on the outside of the plate.

Several managers said Arko made significant improvements with his catching during the season. Arko showed a good release and a solid average arm.

"He didn't do well early, but he made steady progress in the catch-and-throw aspects," Figueroa said. "He's learned to block balls very well. He's at the point where he just needs to play and figure things out."

15. Ricky Barrett, lhp, Elizabethton Twins
Barrett combined with Tyler to give Elizabethton the best one-two starting punch in the league. Barrett shared pitcher-of-the-year honors with Lerew after leading the Appy League in ERA and finishing second to Tyler in strikeouts.

A few managers said Barrett succeeded mainly because of his college experience at the University of San Diego, but most agreed the combination of his stuff and knowledge of the game could take him to the majors. Barrett is an aggressive pitcher who isn’t afraid to throw inside with an 87-89 mph fastball.

His curveball improved as the season progressed, displaying a late break that accounted for many of his strikeouts. An improved changeup will allow him to develop rapidly at higher levels.

16. Julin Charles, of, Pulaski Rangers
Like many young Dominican players, Charles is a free swinger at the plate. He improved his on-base percentage as the season progressed, but a couple of managers thought his game bordered on being out of control.

Even so, no manager failed to notice Charles' raw tools. He possesses good speed and natural instincts, and has the arm strength as well as the accuracy to make the long throws from right field. His bat speed is also well above average, and scouts believe he have the power to hit 25-plus home runs annually as his body matures.

"He has a chance to be a five-tool player if he puts everything together," Lopez said. "He's made lots of improvements this season, especially with his discipline at the plate. Charlie just needs to play the game with a little more patience. He has a chance to be a special player."

17. Josh Rupe, rhp, Bristol White Sox
Rupe fell under the radar screen of several managers. The White Sox were cautious with Rupe, limiting him mostly to bullpen duty while trying to refine his mechanics.

Those who saw Rupe noted his outstanding stuff. He works off a solid 91-93 mph fastball, and his best pitch is an old-fashioned overhand curveball that looks likes it’s falling out of the sky as it whistles through the strike zone. Bristol manager Nick Leyva called it the best breaking ball he’d seen from a young kid in a long time.

Rupe also has the makings of a big league changeup. He’ll be a three-pitch pitcher once he gains the consistency needed with his delivery.

"You can sense when a kid is going to make it and I have that sense about Josh," Leyva said. "He's got great makeup and excellent overall stuff. Once he puts everything together, he's going to be a big-time starter."

18. Chris de la Cruz, ss, Burlington Indians
De la Cruz showed excellent hitting mechanics, allowing him to put together a 21-game hitting streak and place fourth in the batting race. His short, quick swing from both sides of the plate allows him to make excellent contact.

He needs to get stronger because his power is almost nonexistent. Defensively, de la Cruz makes the routine plays but hasn’t shown the consistency to make the spectacular ones. While some managers were concerned about his small stature, most agreed that his ability to play small ball will earn him promotions up the ladder.

"He's a good bunter and he has good quickness and speed," Smith said. "He really enjoys himself on the field, and he has a contagious personality. He has that natural leadership you like to see in a shortstop."

19. Pedro Lopez, 2b, Bristol White Sox
One of the youngest players in the league, Lopez starred with his glove. He was among the Appy’s best defensive players, displaying soft hands, good range and an accurate arm at second base. He also showed quick reflexes and a willingness to hang tough around the bag while turning double plays.

Leyva raved about Lopez' natural instincts and knack for being in the right position. Some managers wonder if he’ll hit well enough to stick at the game's highest level, but Leyva is not concerned after watching him the entire season.

"He was the top situational hitter on our club," Leyva said. "He was the best bunter in the league, and he executes the hit-and-run with the best of them. Pedro will produce at the plate as he moves up."

20. Chris O’Riordan, 2b, Pulaski Rangers
A college senior out of Stanford, O’Riordan wasn’t young for the Appy League. But the former Cardinal walk-on showed the talent and knowledge to take his game to higher levels. None of his tools rate higher than slightly above average, but the sum is greater than the individual parts.

He’s a consistent fielder with a good arm for second base. He runs well and makes steady contact, which enabled him to rank second in the league in batting. He also is a student of the game and enjoys taking the field. More than one manager said O'Riordan could be an ideal utilityman in the major leagues.

"He's a hard worker who has a chance to play in the big leagues due to his ability to do a lot of things well," Lopez said. "He learns from his mistakes and wants to get better. He makes up for a lack of tools with his heart and desire."

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Luis Rivera, rhp, Danville Braves
2. Dan DeYoung, rhp, Pulaski Rangers
3. *Tim Drew, rhp, Burlington Indians
4. *Jared Sandberg, 2b, Princeton Devil Rays
5. A.J. Zapp, 1b, Danville Braves
6. Trey Poland, lhp, Pulaski Rangers
7. Brandon Copeland, of, Kingsport Mets
8. Robert Stratton, of, Kingsport Mets
9. *Aaron Myette, rhp, Bristol White Sox
10. *Jerry Hairston, ss, Bluefield Orioles

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