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Carolina League Top 20 Prospects

By Dave Utnik and Lacy Lusk
September 25, 2002

POTOMAC, Va.--Dave Littlefield doesn't believe in five-year plans. The Pirates' general manager wants to succeed now.

When he left the Marlins organization last summer to assume the task of reshaping Pittsburgh's fortunes, Littlefield made only one promise: to put a winning team on the field at PNC Park.

Though the Pirates are headed toward their 10th consecutive losing season, there's evidence Littlefield is a man of his word. Verification that Pittsburgh's days as a sub-.500 club are nearing an end can be found throughout its farm system. The real proof was in Lynchburg.

The Hillcats won the high Class A Carolina League championship, fielding a squad that included seven league all-stars and the circuit's top two prospects. Lefthander Sean Burnett earned the top spot and pitcher-of-the-year honors, while flashy shortstop Jose Castillo was the top position prospect. Managers also rated him the CL's best defensive shortstop and most exciting player.

Sean Burnett
Photo: Diamond Images
1. Sean Burnett, lhp, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
As the Pirates' 2001 minor league pitcher of the year, Burnett was anointed as the Hillcats' ace--and he rarely disappointed. A lefthander with a 91 mph fastball and the league's best changeup, the 19-year-old did his part to help create a winning attitude on the field.

"He has a fastball in the 90s, an outstanding curveball and command, which is rare at this level," Winston-Salem manager Razor Shines said. "That's why I think he can pitch in the big leagues at 21 years old."

Of all the pitchers to come out of Wellington (Fla.) Community High in recent years, including fellow first-round picks Bobby Bradley (Pirates) and Justin Pope (Cardinals), Burnett is the most advanced. He gave up more than three earned runs in just two of his 26 regular-season starts, and batters found it difficult to drive the ball in the air against him because he pitches down in the strike zone. He surrendered just four homers in 155 innings.

2. Jose Castillo, ss, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
It doesn't take a scout's eye to see why Castillo was considered the CL's most exciting player. His defensive skills had managers, players and fans raving.

"I think he's tremendous with a good, strong arm and a good glove. He makes plays all over the field and has a cannon," Shines said. "He has a chance to hit and hit with some power. His speed is average or better than average, but he has everything else. Especially the arm strength, that's something you only see on plus players."

Castillo has as many as four plus tools. He's the best defensive player in the Pirates system and has blossomed into a dangerous hitter. He had arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn wrist ligament, but showed no ill effects by posting career highs in home runs and RBIs.

3. Adam Wainwright, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Wainwright hit 96 mph at the Futures Game, but he worked in the upper 80s nearly as much as he sat in the low 90s for Myrtle Beach. He still got lot of mileage out of his fastball, with the tremendous movement on the pitch fooling hitters.

Wainwright, whose arsenal also includes a solid curveball and changeup, led the league in strikeouts despite fading in August. He went 8-3, 2.24 in the season's first four months, then dropped to 1-3, 6.32 over his final seven starts. He'll need to get stronger and pitch more aggressively in the strike zone, though he maintained his mound presence and composure even as he struggled.

"He has a great breaking ball," Kinston manager Ted Kubiak said. "He throws well and goes straight over the top. My guys say they can see the ball well from him. Last year everyone kind of raved about him and I didn't see it, but he was better this year. I'm starting to see it."

4. Bubba Nelson, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
After lowly Frederick pounded Burnett in a mid-August game, Nelson emerged as the league's ERA champion. Like Burnett and Wainwright, he was an early high school pick from the 2000 draft. But those two went in the first round, while Nelson was a second-rounder.

His stuff is just a shade behind Wainwright's. Nelson throws in the low 90s with very heavy action on his fastball. He moves his pitches, which also include a curveball that's currently ahead of his changeup, wherever he wants in the strike zone.

"He pitched some great games against us," Kubiak said. "He's very, very aggressive with that fastball, and it has good sink to it. Plus he has a tough little breaking ball."

Nelson missed most of June with a strained right hip flexor, then posted a 1.18 ERA in the final two months after he returned.

5. Chin-Hui Tsao, rhp, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)
Tsao made just four starts at Salem in 2001 before blowing out his elbow. Following Tommy John surgery, he regained the form he showed in his U.S. debut in 2000, when the Taiwan native established himself as one of the best pitching prospects in the game.

He returned in July and was the CL's best pitcher in August, going 3-1, 0.81. Though Tsao was limited in throwing his slider because it caused tightness above his elbow, he located his 92-97 mph fastball well. His changeup lags behind his main two pitches.

6. Brad Hawpe, 1b, Salem Avalanche (Rockies)
Hawpe settled on a stance and a position this year. That helped him blossom into the CL player of the year as he challenged for the triple crown and led the league in batting, slugging (.587) and on-base percentage (.447).

Salem manager Stu Cole raved about how Hawpe used more of the field than he had in the past. But another manager wasn't as sold on Hawpe's bat.

"I think he can be easily pitched to," the manager said. "He'll have to learn how to turn on the ball down and in. That pitch gives him trouble."

After playing outfield in low Class A, Hawpe settled at first base with the Avalanche, showing good hands and decent mobility. He'll play both corner outfield spots in Venezuela this winter, and has enough speed and arm strength to move back there.

7. Corey Smith, 3b, Kinston Indians
As was the case at Smith's first two stops in the Cleveland system, he wowed managers with more than just tools. He continued to show raw power and a strong throwing arm, while his work ethic continued to earn praise.

"The thing that impressed me was his maturity," Cole said. "Being at third base every game as a coach, I got to talk to him a lot. He has the mentality that he wants to improve."

Smith does have plenty of room for improvement. He batted .350 in the season's first three weeks before pitchers adjusted and held him to a .235 average the rest of the way. He finished third in the CL with 141 strikeouts.

He has better reactions and range at third base than he did a year ago. He also cut his errors from 45 in low Class A to 33 this year, but still has more work to do.

8. Dan Haren, rhp, Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
Scouts love Haren's endurance as much as his velocity and command. He began the year in the low Class A Midwest League finished it in the CL, working 194 innings over 28 starts. That's an imposing workload for someone in his first full pro season, but Haren handled it without a problem.

Haren throws a low-90s fastball with sinking life to both sides of the plate. His slider is relatively new but has become his primary out pitch. His changeup needs some work, and he doesn't beat himself with walks.

"He's got a big league arm," Potomac manager Joe Cunningham said. "He goes right after hitters. He has no fear whatsoever. When he has command of all his pitches he has a chance to dominate."

9. Rhett Parrott, rhp, Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
It's not so much Parrott's pitches, but how he uses them that makes him one of the Cardinals' fastest-rising prospects. "He's a smart pitcher," Lynchburg manager Pete Mackanin said, "and it looks like he knows how to pitch under control."

Parrott was named to the midseason all-star team and earned a promotion to Double-A after quickly dispelling any questions about his control. After working with Cardinals instructors Bill Campbell and Mark Riggins during instructional league, Parrott straightened out a flaw in his delivery and did nothing but throw strikes.

He went after hitters with a two-seam fastball in the low 90s and showcased solid command of three other pitches: a four-seamer, a curveball and a changeup.

10. Grady Sizemore, of, Kinston Indians
The youngest of the prospects Cleveland acquired in the Bartolo Colon deal, Sizemore acquitted himself well after arriving in the CL at age 19. Mackanin called him one of the three most dangerous hitters in the league.

A top football recruit whom the Washington Huskies envisioned as a star quarterback, Sizemore gave up football when the Expos handed him a $2 million bonus as a 2000 third-round pick. He has good all-around athleticism, especially for a left fielder. He has played center field in the past.

"He's a very good player who's probably capable of hitting 20 home runs," Kubiak said. "He's a good hitter, and he runs well. His speed is above average and his arm average. He has great composure, where he's quiet at the plate and seldom swings at a pitch that's bad."

11. Fernando Cabrera, rhp, Kinston Indians
The Indians have acquired several talented arms in the last two years via the draft and trades, and many of those pitchers are moving quickly through the system. Cabrera is progressing at a slower pace and without the hype, yet he has the same upside.

Just as he stepped forward last year in his first full season, Cabrera showed progress in 2002 and finished the summer in Double-A. His heavy 97 mph fastball worked well with an improved curveball and durability.

Cabrera still needs some polish, as indicated by his 1-2, 5.33 numbers following his promotion to Akron. His mechanics and secondary pitches are coming along, and at age 20 he still has plenty of time.

12. Adam LaRoche, 1b, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
The son of soft-tossing former major league reliever Dave LaRoche, Adam is all about power. A two-way star and MVP of the 2000 Junior College World Series at Seminole State (Okla.), LaRoche uses his 6-foot-3 frame to generate good lift and slugged .512 before being promoted to Double-A at midseason.

"I like the way he attacks the ball," Mackanin said. "Too many hitters, in my opinion, sit back and wait on the ball and don't have the weight transfer that's important. He has a real nice walk into the ball and uses his hands to hit."

Managers compared LaRoche to Hawpe, because both players hit lefthanded, are offensive players and use wide-open stances. Unlike Hawpe, LaRoche doesn't run well enough to consider a move to the outfield.

13. Josh Bonifay, 2b/of, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
At the beginning of the season, Bonifay was known as former Pirates GM Cam Bonifay's son. Now Josh is known as a bona fide prospect after winning the CL home run title.

There still are some questions about Bonifay. At 24, he was old for high Class A and was repeating the CL after hitting .297-13-41 in 85 games at Lynchburg in 2001. The Hillcats tried to make him an everyday second baseman this year, but moved him back to the outfield in late July.

His bat will have to carry him, but Bonifay finally showed that it might be able to.

"We always felt he was a good hitter," Mackanin said. "If he learns to play left field adequately, which I think he will, he's a legitimate major league prospect."

14. Chris Duffy, of, Lynchburg Hillcats (Pirates)
Two of the Pirates' most glaring needs at the major league level are in center field and in the leadoff slot in the batting order. Duffy may be the answer to both dilemmas.

He can run and has proven to be a consistent contact hitter. He's a capable basestealer, and his instincts make him a valuable defender. He gets good jumps and can run down fly balls hit to either gap.

"He made the jump to this level from Rookie ball and hit a solid .300 with 500 at-bats," Mackanin said. "To me, he's a candidate to be an everyday center fielder in the major leagues."

Whether he can handle the leadoff role is yet to be determined. Duffy has table-setting speed, but he'll need to get on base more via the walk.

15. Ryan Church, of, Kinston Indians
If Church hadn't been promoted to Double-A in mid-June, he might have challenged for the CL triple crown. Before he left, he established his ability to hit for both power and average.

His plate discipline was solid at Kinston, though he expanded his strike zone too much in Akron. He has average speed and an average to slightly above-average arm. He has played some center field but fits better in right.

"He can hit and he gets RBIs," said Kubiak, who has witnessed much of Church's progression through the Indians system. "He's just learning how to hit. He has to work on staying off the high pitch, but as far as learning how to hit offspeed pitches he was much better this year."

16. Daniel Curtis, rhp, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Wainwright and Nelson weren't the only effective pitchers on a Pelicans staff that ranked second in the league with a 3.20 ERA. Lefthanders Ray Aguilar and Chris Waters also had strong seasons, while Curtis made himself a prospect.

Curtis' 2000 season ended early because of shoulder pain, and he had surgery to repair capsule shrinkage in March 2001, costing him all of last year. He bounced back quite well this season, reaching the low 90s with his fastball and showing a plus slider. His control was also a strength.

17. Kelly Johnson, ss, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
After a .289-23-66 season at low Class A Macon, Johnson couldn't match those numbers in the CL. He also got caught stealing 15 times in 27 attempts and made 24 errors at shortstop.

Despite his struggles, Johnson still has his supporters. He should provide more offense than a typical infielder, even if he has to shift to the hot corner down the line. Myrtle Beach's Coastal Federal Field helped keep his production down--he hit .246 with three homers there, compared to .264 with nine longballs on the road.

"With his bat and power potential, they'll have to find a place for him," Cole said. "He may be a guy that probably has to move to third base. I'm not sure he has the range and arm strength to stay at short."

18. Byron Gettis, of, Wilmington Blue Rocks (Royals)
Gettis is an intriguing athlete, albeit one who has spent five years in pro ball without reaching Double-A. A former quarterback recruit of the University of Minnesota, he's loaded with raw talent.

Managers rated him the CL's best defensive outfielder, as he covers plenty of ground in right field and has a strong arm. He's just starting to reach his potential at the plate. Previously known as a pull hitter, he has developed a keener eye and has learned to wait on outside pitches long enough to drive them to the opposite field.

"He showed a great arm against us," Cole said. "He's one of those guys who plays hard and shows you something every day that you like to see. He has good power and can run for a big guy."

19. Rich Lewis, 2b, Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Braves)
Lewis was part of a two-prospect middle infield at Myrtle Beach with Kelly Johnson. They were supplemental first-round picks in consecutive drafts, Johnson in 2000 and Lewis in 2001.

Lewis outplayed Frederick second baseman Mike Fontenot, the 19th overall pick in last year's draft. Lewis showed a better all-around game, though there's still room for improvement. His biggest need is to get stronger at the plate.

While one manager thought Lewis was stiff defensively, he made just eight errors in 124 games and most skippers liked his glove.

"He's a prototypical second baseman," Cole said. "He knows how to play the game, he can handle the bat and I think he will develop some power. To me, he's solid defensively."

20. Skip Schumaker, of, Potomac Cannons (Cardinals)
Schumaker didn't have a huge year and didn't show an unbelievable tool. But he does a little bit of everything.

Schumaker shows good hitting ability from the left side of the plate and has some speed. He's an aggressive player, and managers rated him the best outfield arm in the league. That's not surprising, considering some organizations wanted to draft him as a pitcher after he was clocked at 95 mph in intrasquad games at UC Santa Barbara.

He spent some time in center field but most of his time in right, and his power doesn't profile for the latter position. Schumaker also needs to draw more walks and increase his basestealing success.

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Russell Branyan, 3b, Kinston (Indians)
2. *Kris Benson, rhp, Lynchburg (Pirates)
3. *Aramis Ramirez, 3b, Lynchburg (Pirates)
4. *Braden Looper, rhp, Prince William (Cardinals)
5. *Abraham Nunez, ss, Lynchburg (Pirates)
6. *Carlos Lee, of, Winston-Salem (White Sox)
7. *Ben Petrick, c, Salem (Rockies)
8. *George Lombard, of, Durham (Braves)
9. *Willy Martinez, rhp, Kinston (Indians)
10. *Bronson Arroyo, rhp, Lynchburg (Pirates)

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