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Midwest League Top 20 Prospects

By Jim Callis
September 24, 2002

The low Class A Midwest League's talent level this summer didn't quite swell to its historic levels of two years ago, but it came awfully close. These players won't move as fast, yet their ceilings are nearly as high.

After thrilling MWL fans in 2000, Albert Pujols was BA's Rookie of the Year while Josh Beckett and Adam Dunn finished 1-2 in our Minor League Player of the Year race the following season. Eleven of the thirteen best prospects in the league in 2000 reached the majors by 2002, a group that also includes Juan Cruz, Austin Kearns, Jake Peavy and Chris Snelling.

Those kinds of crops aren't harvested every summer, as the MWL learned in 2001. But the league abounded in prospects again in 2002, with a notable upgrade in pitching. Any of the first 16 players on this year's Top 20 list would have ranked in the top six a year earlier.

This year's players were young and talented. Seven members of the Top 10 were teenagers, and only Scott Hairston was older than 20. Joe Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick in 2001, was as good as advertised. So were several fellow members of his draft class, including Brad Nelson, Casey Kotchman, Hairston, Jeff Mathis and Mike Jones.

1. Joe Mauer, c, Quad City River Bandits (Twins)
Mark Prior was the consensus top prospect in the 2001 draft, and he needed just seven weeks in the minors before he was ready for the majors. Unable to determine what it would take to sign Prior, who ultimately received a record guarantee of $10.5 million, the Twins chose Mauer. There's absolutely no feeling they wound up with a consolation prize.

Interestingly, managers raved about his skills behind the plate while scouts believed his offense was ahead of his defense. Both camps agreed he only needs time to become an all-around catching star.

Mauer should be a .300 hitter capable of 20-30 homers per year. He went deep just four times in 2002, but he's strong and his power will develop as he learns to pull more pitches. His stroke and approach are solid, and he walked more than he struck out.

"He hits like Adam Dunn did when Adam Dunn was in Rockford in 1999," Beloit manager Don Money said. "Adam Dunn didn't pull the ball. He hit the other way, hit the other way, hit the other way like Joe Mauer did. Now look at him."

A Florida State quarterback recruit and high school basketball star, Mauer is extremely athletic for a catcher. He has a strong, accurate arm and quick, effortless release, which allowed him to rank third in the MWL by throwing out 42 percent of basestealers. His biggest needs are learning to call a game and handle a pitching staff.

2. Jason Stokes, 1b, Kane County Cougars (Marlins)
In most years, Stokes would have been an easy choice for the MWL's No. 1 prospect. He was the league's MVP, and managers rated him the best batting prospect and most exciting player. The skippers tabbed Nelson as the circuit's top power hitter, but scouts said Stokes, who led the MWL in batting, homers and slugging (a minor league-best .645), should have won that honor as well.

Plagued by back and hamstring injuries in his 2001 pro debut, Stokes played through a painful cyst in his left wrist until shutting down in August to have surgery. He's merely a decent first baseman, is pull-conscious and sometimes strikes out in bunches, but the offensive payoff is worth it.

"He was the best player in the league by far, a man among boys," said Fort Wayne manager Tracy Woodson, who vividly recalled a matchup between Stokes and Wizards closer Rusty Tucker, whose fastball sits in the mid-90s. "We wondered if he could hit a good fastball, and we sent Tucker in and said we'd find out. He took Tucker out to right-center, way out of the park. It was a line drive that got out in a hurry."

3. Dontrelle Willis, lhp, Kane County Cougars (Marlins)
Since the start of spring training, the Marlins have traded Antonio Alfonseca, Matt Clement, Ryan Dempster and Cliff Floyd. The best prospect they received in that purge was Willis, who had kept a low profile in the Cubs system.

That wasn't possible in the MWL, where he dominated for four months before moving on and doing the same to the high Class A Florida State League. Willis' command and location are more impressive than his stuff. Quad City manager Jeff Carter's club faced him twice and saw a total of three pitches above the waist.

"If you just grade his pitches, you'd say I don't know," a National League scout said. "If you watch his command and how hitters react, it's something entirely different."

Batters don't get good swings against Willis' lively 88-93 mph fastball, plus curveball and changeup. He pitches to both sides of the plate and generates deception with a slightly herky-jerky delivery.

4. Donald Levinski, rhp, Clinton LumberKings (Expos)
Another trade acquisition by the Marlins, Levinski never pitched for his new organization after becoming the player to be named later for Floyd in August. He hurt his shoulder in his final start for Clinton, but an MRI revealed only tendinitis. He should be good to go for spring training.

Levinski was easily the best righthander in the MWL, repeatedly showing three plus pitches. His 88-90 mph two-seamer is his best offering, as batters can't do anything but pound it into the ground. They don't get much of a break when he throws a four-seamer that can reach the mid-90s or a power curveball.

Like most young pitchers, Levinski can improve his control and his changeup.

5. Brad Nelson, 1b, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
Considered one of the top power hitters available in the 2001 draft, Nelson didn't homer in 30 games in his first pro summer. His pop returned this year, and while he may not possess more than Stokes, he can drive the ball farther to the opposite field. Nelson led the minors with 49 doubles and 116 RBIs.

He has good hitting actions, and Cedar Rapids manager Todd Claus likened Nelson to Sean Casey with considerably more power. He got pitched around at Beloit and needs to develop the patience to take walks. An ordinary defender, he's part of a Brewers first-base glut that includes all-star Richie Sexson in the majors and 2002 first-round pick Prince Fielder, who replaced Nelson at Beloit when he was promoted to high Class A.

6. Casey Kotchman, 1b, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
The 2001 first-round pick's only difficulty since turning pro has been staying healthy. He sprained his right wrist last summer, then jammed his left wrist in an awkward slide in 2002.

Because his father Tom is a longtime manager and coach in the Angels system, Kotchman has been around pro ball for years. Little wonder, then, that he's extremely advanced in all phases of the game. He was considered both the smartest hitter and the best defensive first baseman in the MWL.

Kotchman walked more than he struck out and drilled 30 doubles in 81 games, a preview of the above-average power he'll develop. He drew comparisons to Todd Helton, another slick fielder who was known more for line drives than home runs until he turned 25. Kotchman won't reach that age until 2008.

7. Scott Hairston, 2b, South Bend Silver Hawks (Diamondbacks)
Hairston was the best of a talented group of MWL second basemen that also featured Peoria's Shaun Boyd, Fort Wayne's Josh Barfield and Burlington's Ruben Gotay. He was even better following a promotion to the high Class A California League, where he hit .405-6-26 in 18 games.

There are no questions about Hairston's offense. The ball jumps off his bat to both gaps, and he controls the strike zone, leading the league with a .426 on-base percentage. He tied for the minor league high with 73 extra-base hits and reminded West Michigan manager Phil Regan of Gary Sheffield.

Hairston's makeup and glove also were reminiscent of Sheffield, and that's not a compliment. One scout said he never saw him run out a grounder or put any effort into defense. Most observers didn't think he could handle the middle infield, and his arm may not be strong enough for third base, so he could wind up in left field.

8. Shin-Soo Choo, of, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Mariners)
There's a lot of Mark Kotsay in Choo. Both were two-way stars who led their teams to significant championships as amateurs, and they have similar packages of tools.

Choo is a line-drive hitter with a solid stroke and command of the strike zone. He's not a burner, but his instincts allow him to steal bases and play center field. Whether he'll stay in center as he moves up the ladder remains to be seen, but managers rated him the MWL's best defensive outfielder. He also has a strong arm.

The bigger question on Choo is how much power he'll develop. The Mariners believe he has more raw pop than anyone in their system, but he has just 11 homers to show for 1 1/2 pro seasons. One scout said he doesn't think Choo's 5-foot-11 build will accommodate much more bulk, so he might have to settle into the 15-20 homer range--just like Kotsay.

9. Jeff Mathis, c, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
A surprise supplemental first-round pick at the time of the 2001 draft, Mathis has made the Angels look good. He's an all-around catcher whose skills don't lag too far behind Mauer's.

Mathis' work ethic and leadership abilities drew as much praise as his physical tools. Scouts said he's better defensively than Mauer right now. Mathis, also a former high school quarterback, is a plus-plus receiver with an above-average arm. He threw out 37 percent of basestealers to rank fifth in the MWL.

Mathis has some offensive potential as well. Using a squatty stance like Jeff Bagwell's, he has a nice stroke and should have at least average power.

10. Mike Jones, rhp, Beloit Snappers (Brewers)
Jones had one of the liveliest arms in the MWL. Using a smooth delivery, he delivered 91-96 mph fastballs that seemed to explode out of his hand. He gets life on his fastball toward both sides of the plate, throws it on a good downward plane and learned to spot it better in the second half of the season.

He made a number of improvements after the league all-star break, allowing more than three earned runs just once in 15 starts. Jones also starting snapping his curveball better and continued to make progress with his changeup. His fastball remained his strength, and one scout said that pitch alone would make him a solid No. 3 starter.

11. Angel Guzman, rhp, Lansing Lugnuts (Cubs)
Despite trading Willis, the Cubs still had plenty of intriguing arms for Lansing. Guzman rated a cut above lefthander Felix Sanchez and righties Jae-Kuk Ryu and Sergio Mitre. Guzman lasted just nine starts before Chicago deemed him ready for high Class A, a jump he handled with ease.

Guzman's maturity and mechanics are outstanding for a 20-year-old. He throws a 93-94 mph fastball with little effort, and his changeup was his second-best pitch in the MWL. His curveball improved after he moved up to the FSL.

"He has outstanding makeup," said Regan, who managed Guzman in Venezuela last winter. "He has a pretty good fastball, but the thing I like is he'll get to 3-2 and drop a curveball over and get you out. He changes speeds well and competes."

12. J.D. Durbin, rhp, Quad City River Bandits (Twins)
Durbin has two power pitches, so it was no surprise that he led the MWL in strikeouts. His fastball sits at 92-94 mph with good life, and he's learning to impart more sink to it. His out pitch is a plus-plus curveball that ranked with Levinski's as the top righthanded breaking ball in the league.

Durbin still has a lot of work remaining. His changeup lacks consistency, though he does show some feel for it. His arm action is long in the back of his delivery. That makes it tough for him to throw on a downward plane and to repeat his motion, which costs him control.

One scout compared him to Jason Marquis and thought Durbin might be better off coming out of the bullpen and going full bore for shorter stints. His intensity would translate well to a late-inning role.

13. Johan Santana, rhp, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
Many of the pitchers with the best sheer velocity in the league, such as Burlington's Colt Griffin and Michigan's Anthony Pluta, lacked command and got hit hard. That wasn't the case with Santana, at 18 the youngest player on this list. His ceiling is as high as any pitcher in the MWL this year.

Because he's so youthful, the quality of Santana's stuff varies from outing to outing. When at his best, he has a 91-94 mph fastball that tops out at 98, a plus slider and an average changeup that promises to get better. His mechanics are impressive, as he pitches without effort and gets the ball on hitters quick.

14. Dallas McPherson, 3b, Cedar Rapids Kernels (Angels)
Teams originally liked McPherson as a pitcher because he threw in the mid-90s in the Cape Cod League two summers ago, but the Angels drafted him as a third baseman last year. Two managers though he was the best prospect on a Kernels club that also included Kotchman, Mathis and Santana.

McPherson fits the prototype at third base. He has a big, strong body and has very projectable lefthanded power. He still shows a strong arm, and managers rated him the MWL's best defender at the hot corner. As a bonus, he has average speed and some basestealing aptitude.

He still has room for improvement. McPherson strikes out too much and needs to adjust to inside breaking pitches. Defensively, he must better his footwork and shorten his arm action, which detracts from the accuracy of his throws.

15. Edwin Encarnacion, 3b/ss, Dayton Dragons (Reds)
Encarnacion is 2 1/2 years younger than McPherson and had his share of supporters who touted him as the top third-base prospect in the MWL. He's so athletic that he played 17 games at shortstop for the Dragons.

His plus-plus laser arm and quick hands play well at either position, though managers weren't sold that his instincts and range were enough for shortstop. That won't be a problem, because he'll hit enough for the hot corner. Encarnacion has a quick bat and drives the ball to all fields.

Encarnacion will have to tone down his aggressiveness at the plate. Pitchers began to exploit that weakness, holding him to a .243 average with 45 strikeouts over his final 58 games. He also needs to cut down on his 40 errors.

16. Dan Haren, rhp, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
The Cardinals have traded several prospects to bolster their big league club in recent years, fueling postseason runs and leaving their system bare. The lone exception in 2002 was their Peoria affiliate, which posted the MWL's best regular-season record and won the league championship.

Four of the last five spots on the Top 20 are occupied by Chiefs, and catcher Yadier Molina and shortstop John Nelson also received consideration. Peoria's best prospect may have been lefthander Chris Narveson, who ranked No. 5 on this list a year ago but missed much of this season recuperating from Tommy John surgery. He didn't pitch enough innings to qualify for the Top 20.

The Cardinals aren't shy about working their pitchers hard, and Haren proved his durability by leading the minors with 194 innings between the MWL and the high Class A Carolina League. More than just a workhorse, Haren owns three potential plus pitches in his 92-93 mph fastball, his curveball and his changeup.

He'll also mix in a slider and splitter. He has good command and has quickly adapted to pitching inside against wood bats. Haren projects as a solid No. 3 or 4 starter.

17. Shaun Boyd, 2b, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
Boyd was so lackluster in the league a year ago that several managers couldn't believe he had been drafted 13th overall in 2000. He started hitting toward the end of the season, then got hit in the head by a pitch.

He made a triumphant return to Peoria, re-establishing himself as a prospect the second time around. He shortened his swing and did a better job of using the entire field. Boyd can hit any fastball and is a high-percentage basestealer. With a little more discipline, he'll fit nicely at the top of a batting order.

Boyd's bat will have to carry him. He's more athletic than Hairston, but Boyd is slow on the double play and lacks quick feet. He also made 40 errors, three more than any other MWL second baseman. Boyd started his pro career as an outfielder but probably won't have the power to be a major league regular at that position.

18. Justin Pope, rhp, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
Claus described Pope as a poor man's Greg Maddux because he was consistently outstanding if not overpowering. Peoria manager Danny Sheaffer called him a perfectionist in the mold of Todd Stottlemyre.

Pope couldn't find much fault in himself other than missing nearly three months after having bone chips removed from his elbow. He never allowed more than three earned runs in any of his 12 starts, and he reached double-digit strikeouts in three of his last five regular-season outings.

He touched 91-92 mph with his sinking fastball and could sit there regularly once he regains full strength. His tight slider is his best pitch, and his changeup can be a plus pitch as well. Pope is all about command and movement, and like Haren he made a quick transition to pitching inside.

19. Josh Barfield, 2b, Fort Wayne Wizards (Padres)
The raw ingredients are there for Barfield to develop into a quality big leaguer. He's athletic and offers more offense than the typical second baseman. He led the league in hits as a teenager. And he even has good bloodlines as the son of former American League home run champ Jesse Barfield.

He was the best defender among the MWL's second-base prospects but still has work to do with the glove. He needs to focus better and improve his footwork and double-play skills. Offensively, he started to avoid chasing low breaking balls out of the strike zone, yet he also must recognize the benefits of drawing a walk.

20. Tyler Johnson, lhp, Peoria Chiefs (Cardinals)
Johnson tied West Michigan's Chad Petty for the MWL lead in victories with 15, thanks to a curveball that most observers respected as the best in the league. It's a 70 pitch on the 20-80 scouting scale because it has a true 12-to-6 break and he can put it where he wants. His curve moves so much that it's difficult to catch.

"He may need to come up with another name for this thing," Sheaffer said. "It's that wicked."

Johnson pitches off his curveball with a high-80s fastball that has late tail. He'll need to make some adjustments to remain a starter. One scout predicted his upright delivery could lead to shoulder problems. He tips off his changeup by slowing down his delivery.

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. *Francisco Cordero, rhp, West Michigan (Tigers)
2. *Brent Butler, ss, Peoria (Cardinals)
3. *Ramon Ortiz, rhp, Cedar Rapids (Angels)
4. *Luis Rivas, ss, Fort Wayne (Twins)
5. *John Patterson, rhp, South Bend (Diamondbacks)
6. *Julio Ramirez, of, Kane County (Marlins)
7. *Denny Stark, rhp, Wisconsin (Mariners)
8. *Nick Bierbrodt, lhp, South Bend (Diamondbacks)
9. *David Borkowski, rhp, West Michigan (Tigers)
10. Dernell Stenson, of, Michigan (Red Sox)

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