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Pioneer League Top 20 Prospects

By Bill Ballew

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To a man, Pioneer League managers believed the overall talent in the Rookie league was up this year, with a solid mixture of prospects taken from the college and high school ranks who could develop into impact players down the road.

Two of the league's more promising players didn’t make the list because injuries prevented them from attaining the necessary number of at-bats. Second baseman Pedro de los Santos hit .348 clip for Idaho Falls before breaking his leg during the third week of the season. Provo first baseman Casey Kotchman, the Angels' first-round draft pick, went 11-for-22 at the plate before being sidelined with tendinitis in his right hand.

While Kotchman has been compared to Don Mattingly and Rafael Palmeiro, the league also had a bounty of less-heralded players who could work their way to the majors. Managers noted the statistically successful seasons put together by outfielders Sean Pierce (Great Falls) and Sam Swenson (Provo), and second baseman Nick Tempesta (Medicine Hat). As a ninth-rounder, Pierce was the highest drafted player of the three.

"There's a fair share of good little players in this league who are going to move up," said Billings manager Rick Burleson, a former big league all-star at 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. "They may be a little short in size and stature, but they're big on heart and know how to play the game. I know scouts like tools, but a lot of times it's the guys with the biggest heart who become impact players and reach the big leagues."

Mike Jones
Photo: Robert Wagner
Ogden Raptors (Brewers)
Jones emerged as the overwhelming choice as the Pioneer League's top prospect. One manager described him as a smaller version of Andy Benes, while nearly everyone thought he has the potential to develop into a No. 1 or 2 starter.

The 12th overall pick in June, Jones displayed tremendous poise for a pitcher taken out of high school. Managers liked his arm action, as well as his tall frame and lean body. His fastball explodes on the way to the plate, residing in the 92-95 mph range and reaching as high as 97.

"He's like many major league pitchers in that the last six or seven feet of his fastball really jumps," Casper manager P.J. Carey said. "He has an easy arm, a great body and a tremendous mound demeanor for a young kid."

The key to Jones' long-term success will be the development of his second and third pitches. His curveball looked good at times but remained flat on other occasions. His changeup is no better than average.

Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
In many Rookie leagues, older non-prospects dominate younger pitchers and pile up impressive numbers. That wasn’t the case with Cota, who won the Pioneer League triple crown and MVP award as a 19-year-old.

He has legitimate power from the left side and is capable of depositing any mistake over the outfield wall. At the plate, his legs are quiet and his hands work well, producing a quick and powerful swing to all fields. Managers also were impressed with his patience, a fact that was most noticeable over the last three weeks of the season when Cota saw few good pitches to hit.

"He's one of those special type of hitters that comes along every now and then," Missoula manager Chip Hale said. "He not only won the triple crown, but his walks and strikeouts were about even. That's incredible for a guy with as much power production as he has."

Cota has improved his performance at first base since signing with the Diamondbacks in May as a draft-and-follow, but considerable work remains. While most managers thought he had the ability to remain in the infield at higher levels, others thought he would be better off manning left field.

Idaho Falls Padres
There isn't one aspect of Barfield's game that overwhelms opponents. Instead, the son of former major leaguer Jesse Barfield has a package in which the total is greater than the individual parts.

"He's a big leaguer, a guy who is going to be a good offensive second baseman," Provo manager Tom Kotchman said. "He's going to hit. He was only a puppy in this league but he more than held his own. He's got the makeup and the bloodlines. He's a breath of fresh air."

Considered raw by most managers, Barfield is a solid second baseman with great hands, above-average range and an arm that is plenty strong for the position. He also has good bat speed, and understands what pitchers are trying to accomplish against him. His greatest strengths, according to the managers, are his unparalleled instincts and overall athleticism.

"He doesn't seem to get fooled by many pitches for such a young player," Ogden manager Eddie Sedar said. "He's a mature kid who has great character and a great attitude toward the game."

Medicine Hat Blue Jays
Medicine Hat had the youngest team in the league this summer, which played a major factor in its 20-56 record. Despite the difficulties faced by his club, League stood out.

His velocity increased during his first taste of pro ball. He reached 98 on several occasions, and was consistently in the 93-95 mph range. League’s fastball is particularly tough due to its hard sinking action, thereby making it difficult for hitters to lift. He also throws a curveball, slider and circle change, all of which possess above-average movement. He lacks consistent command.

"He's going to be an outstanding pitcher, a potential top-of-the-rotation guy," Carey said. "He's got an easy, dynamite arm and good size. His curveball also has a sharp break and is going to really complement his fastball."

Provo Angels
Some players have prototype bodies that scream: "major leaguer." That's how most of the Pioneer League managers felt about the 6-foot-4, 210-pound McPherson, whose pro debut was curtailed by a broken arm.

McPherson impressed observers with his physical approach to the game. A two-way player at The Citadel who was considered a better pitching prospect at the start of the 2001 college season, he showed an above-average arm and good instincts at third base. While it was obvious he was making the adjustment from aluminum to wood bats, McPherson displayed a compact swing from the left side, along with quick hands and strong wrists.

Given his tools, no one questioned that he would hit for power in the near future. Managers also liked McPherson’s makeup and his nonstop work ethic both on and off the field.

"He's a big lefthanded hitter who could develop into the classic power-hitting third baseman," Great Falls manager Dave Silvestri said. "He's a little bit limited right now defensively, but you can tell he's going to improve. He's got a great body. He's going to be a big-time power hitter somewhere down the line."

Great Falls Dodgers
From a catch-and-throw standpoint, Diaz is as good as it gets. Every manager raved about his work behind the plate. Comparisons to Ivan Rodriguez weren’t uncommon, with Diaz displaying outstanding arm strength and a glove-to-glove time of 1.75-1.85 seconds on throws from home to second. He erased 45 percent of basestealers, the top mark in the league.

"He completely shuts down the running game," Hale said. "I think you could make him your backup catcher in the big leagues right now and he would help most any team."

The downside centers on Diaz' bat, or lack thereof, after he didn’t reach the Mendoza Line this summer, his fifth in the Dodgers system. Though some managers believe he might hit for a higher average as he moves up because pitchers will throw more strikes, at least two skippers thought his future might be on the mound, given his arm strength.

"There's no one in the league who can catch and throw like Diaz," Burleson said. "But his bat is just not coming on. That's the big question: How long will the Dodgers go with him before putting him on the mound?"

Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
Missoula featured the league's best one-two punch in Cota and Hairston, who overcame a slow start to top the league in runs, place second in hits and RBIs, and rank third in triples, homers, extra-base hits (36) and slugging percentage (.588).

The brother of Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston, Sam is an offensive second baseman who also spent some time in the outfield in junior college, where he led the nation with a .503 average in the spring. His defensive progress this summer was encouraging, but some managers believe he may have to move to the outfield.

An excellent fastball hitter, Hairston has power to all fields and the ball jumps off his bat. He has a tendency to try to do too much with his body while swinging, which slows down his hands. Nevertheless, with his combination of pop and good speed, he has a promising future.

"I like the way he plays the game more than anything else," Carey said. "He's a hard-nosed player who plays the game aggressively. He's a gamer with outstanding pop in his bat for a second baseman. He has a chance to move quickly."

Great Falls Dodgers
Garcia is a physically mature and gifted athlete who continues to develop into a five-tool prospect. Though raw in several aspects of the game, he made major strides during his second stint in the league, resulting in comparisons to Raul Mondesi.

Garcia has a strong and loose body with outstanding power. His arm rates slightly above average for right field, and he runs well. He led the league in doubles, and the managers think he’ll hit 25 home runs annually as his development continues.

"He has a real quick bat for a big guy," Idaho Falls manager Jake Molina said. "I think he has above-average athleticism for a player his size. He has a chance to develop into a very good player."

Ogden Raptors (Brewers)
Having apprenticed under the Braves’ John Schuerholz for many years, Brewers GM Dean Taylor is taking the same approach and trying to stockpile young arms. In Jones and Steitz, Milwaukee had two of the most promising pitchers in the league.

Drafted out of Yale in the third round this June, Steitz has above-average stuff across the board. He possesses an easy arm and smooth delivery. He features a 90-93 mph fastball with outstanding sinking action and a sharp breaking ball with good rotation. He still lacks consistency in the strike zone, which led to some poundings, but the talent is in place and needs only some minor refining.

"He's a pitcher where batters seem to be getting good cuts off him, but he breaks a lot of bats," Sedar said. "Once he learns to develop a little more rhythm and confidence, he's going to be a dominating pitcher."

10 J.J. HARDY, ss
Ogden Raptors (Brewers)
Drafted between Jones and Steitz by the Brewers, Hardy was the league’s top shortstop prospect. Possessing at least average talent in all phases of the game, Hardy shined on defense with several highlight-reel plays.

He drew comparisons to Robin Yount with his smooth and easy actions on defense, above-average arm, soft hands and steady footwork. Hardy also showed a consistent swing with solid potential.

"I really like what he's shown me in a short period of time," Sedar said. "He's got all the tools that you look for in a shortstop. When he develops as a hitter, he's going to have some power, too."

"I think some day he's going to be a hitter," Silvestri said. "He's just starting to figure out the wooden bat. Once he does that, he's going to take off. He has a great shot at being in the big leagues in a couple of years."

Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
Most managers agreed that Medlin was the top closer prospect in the league. His awkward delivery and his overpowering fastball-slider combination reminded them of Robb Nen and Craig House.

Medlin signed as a draft-and-follow this spring and wound up surprising everyone, including Diamondbacks brass. He touched 97 mph consistently with his fastball, which featured outstanding sinking action. He also showed a nasty slider with great movement.

Medlin lacks consistency, and some managers said that his herky-jerky delivery could lead to control problems. Even so, he showed the ability to make rapid adjustments when his control got out of kilter.

"He's got a great arm and he throws strikes," Silvestri said. "He's going to have to pitch a little more down the line, and he might start at some point in the minor leagues. But arms like his don't come around that often."

Billings Mustangs (Reds)
The Reds hoped Bergolla would hit close to .280 after he batted .182 during a brief stint in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2000. Bergolla instead hit above .300 the entire season while displaying an excellent combination of power and speed at the top of the lineup.

Bergolla got on base consistently and created havoc. A contact hitter, he proved to be an intelligent runner with the speed to take the extra base. He split his time defensively between shortstop and second base, displaying good hands and good range. While most managers believe his future resides at second, he showed the ability to handle short if needed at higher levels.

"He has a complete game at 18," Hale said. "He's going to be a quick riser, I think."

Provo Angels
A surprise supplemental first-round pick in June, Mathis was the best all-around catching prospect in the league. His debut was truncated when Jones hit him with a pitch and broke his hand.

Mathis, who caught Indians' first-round pick Alan Horne in high school, has above-average athleticism behind the plate, with soft hands and the ability to block balls in the dirt. He also has an excellent eye and quick wrists that enable him to be a productive hitter.

"He's 18 years old, but his defensive ability is so polished that he looks like he's caught for 10 years," Kotchman said. "His hands are soft and his arm is plus and he's got a very good approach to hitting. He also can run a little bit. He's got everything you want in a catcher. To me, he's a little bigger version of Craig Biggio with a better arm."

Casper Rockies
Nix missed nary a beat in the minors after the Rockies made him a supplemental first-rounder in June. Displaying a quick, short swing, he produced surprising power for a 5-foot-11, 175-pound middle infielder.

While his offense is advanced for his age, Nix also made a solid impression on defense. He does a fine job with his footwork and moves well to both his left and right. Managers liked the way he was always positioned to make a strong throw after going deep in the hole to his right. His arm rated as above average, though two managers thought he could move to either second or third base with relative ease.

"The thing I liked the most about Jayson is that he's a very balanced player on offense and defense," Molina said. "He's got a quick bat and he can hit the fastball right now. He has good hands and great range."

Great Falls Dodgers
There’s nothing fancy about Keirstead's approach to pitching. He loves to challenge hitters with a mid-90s fastball that a couple of managers rated as the most overpowering heater in the league.

Kierstad went 4-3, 4.81 in the Pioneer League in 2000, then opened this year as a closer. He moved into the rotation for his final five outings in order get him some additional innings to work on his secondary pitches. Regardless of his role, Keirstead impressed managers with his live stuff and powerful body, with most skippers believing he has a big future as a closer.

"I like his aggressiveness," Carey said. "His arm is easy and produces great stuff."

Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Varner was one of the purest hitters in the Pioneer League this season. He topped the league in hits and tied for third in batting average.

Varner doesn’t have the size most scouts like to see in a corner outfielder, and he also is learning to play left field after toiling primarily at third base during his amateur career. Nevertheless, he has above-average running ability and a plus arm for left field. The ball jumps off his bat and he makes consistent contact. Varner also has the natural ability to steal some bases once he becomes more aggressive on the basepaths.

"When you watch him everyday, you see his all-around game really coming together at a rapid rate," Burleson said. "He's a guy who down the line could be an impact player."

Billings Mustangs (Reds)
When the Reds sent Rob Bell to the Rangers for Ruben Mateo in June, they also got Edwin Encarnacion as part of the deal. Encarnacion actually hit better in the Class A South Atlantic League before the trade, but displayed enough athleticism and raw ability to leave managers looking toward the future.

He’s a free swinger who’s still learning the nuances of plate discipline, though he makes decent contact. The ball leaps off his bat when he connects, and he can be a dominating offensive performer when he gets in a groove.

While his power potential is intriguing, Encarnacion's forte is his defense. He showed great natural instincts at the hot corner, including outstanding footwork and quickness, but must improve his consistency. His arm is his best tool, with two managers rating it at the top of the 2-to-8 scouting scale.

Great Falls Dodgers

In his third Pioneer League stint, Hosford finally made some strides. Managers were impressed most with how much more polished Hosford was this year.

While not overpowering, he threw his fastball, curveball and changeup for strikes and moved the ball around in the strike zone. His velocity also improved, with his fastball reaching the low 90s.

"I liked him a lot," Burleson said. "He looks like a guy who is improving every time he takes the mound. You can tell things are starting to click for him. He's an interesting guy with a great arm."

19 JON HART, 1b
Ogden Raptors (Brewers)

Hart attracted favorable comparisons to Brewers first baseman Richie Sexson from three of the league's managers. After hitting .287-2-30 in the Pioneer League last year, he tied for third in RBIs and ranked seventh in batting average.

Hart possesses good bat speed and budding power. At 6-foot-6, he has long arms that can create holes in his swing when his mechanics falter, thereby making him susceptible to breaking balls. Nevertheless, his hands work well in his swing, and everyone agreed that he’ll start driving the ball consistently once he learns to shorten his stroke. He provides a big target at first base and showed above-average athleticism on defense.

"He's made some big strides since last year," Molina said. "He was a sheltered hitter in a good offensive lineup last season. This year he is driving the ball and hitting 50 points higher. He's definitely headed in the right direction."

Provo Angels
O'Sullivan is the biggest sleeper on this list, primarily because his talent was untapped when he was primarily an outfielder at Rollins (Fla.) College. Unheralded as the Angels' 25th-round draft choice in June, he amazed several scouts, who said he was the best pitcher in either the Northwest or Pioneer leagues selected after the eighth round.

O'Sullivan has made a remarkable adjustment to the mound. His fastball resides comfortably in the 93-95 mph range and possesses good movement. He also has an average curveball and changeup, and he mixes his three offerings to keep hitters off balance. He spent most of the summer pitching one or two innings out of the bullpen, but Kotchman believes O'Sullivan has the repertoire to be a starter.

"This kid has a fresh arm and understands what he's doing on the mound," Kotchman said. "He's really going to surprise some people in the near future."

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