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Pioneer League Top 20 Prospects

By Will Kimmey
September 20, 2002

The Rookie-level Pioneer League enjoyed its share of premium talent this year, with five first-round draft picks, three top foreign signees and a highly regarded draft-and-follow all making their pro debuts. The overall strength of the league came in power-hitting first basemen and hard-throwing lefthanders, while the outfield crop left a little to be desired.

Four of those first-rounders made their way into the Top 10, while No. 3 overall draft pick Chris Gruler earned a quick promotion to low Class A and didn't hang around long enough to qualify for this list. The Reds righthander used his 95-mph heat and above-average curveball to hold opponents to two earned runs over 17 innings.

The Dodgers stocked Great Falls full of talent, and that team went 27-11 to run away with the Northern Division’s first-half title before first-round pick James Loney and Venezuelan lefthander Jonathan Figueroa were promoted. They ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, with two teammates, shortstop Joel Guzman and lefthander Greg Miller also cracking the Top 10. Fellow Dodgers Jonathan Broxton and Mike Nixon made the Top 20.

"That team was loaded when they got here," Provo manager Tom Kotchman said. "Their record said that in the first half, and I'm glad they took away some of their players. They had so many good ones, they couldn't all play at once."

Top 20
James Loney
1. James Loney, 1b, Great Falls Dodgers
Loney was a two-way player in high school, and more teams projected him as a pitcher than as a first baseman. The Dodgers were in the minority but he made them look good. His steady, line-drive swing, stellar defense and even his mound background bring to mind John Olerud.

Loney's best tool is his ability to hit for a very high average, and he also has some power potential. He's more of a doubles hitter now, but he should add power as he matures physically. Loney has a strong knowledge of the strike zone and can go the other way as easily as he can pull the ball.

"He can flat-out hit for average and he's very polished," Billings manager Rick Burleson said. "He looks like he's been playing all his life."

Loney is an above-average defensive first baseman and is very smooth around the bag. He has great hands and is agile, but could improve his footwork.

2. Jonathan Figueroa, lhp, Great Falls Dodgers
Figueroa signed for $500,000 as a free agent out of Venezuela this spring after making his rounds at Perfect Game showcases. His fastball reaches the plate at 90-94 mph and he can throw his above-average curveball for strikes.

Figueroa stands 6-foot-5 and generally throws from a low three-quarters arm slot, but varies his release point on his curve to make it break more vertically or horizontally. His arm angle and movement remind people of John Candelaria. He still needs work on his changeup and overall command.

"He might end up being the best pitcher out of this league," Great Falls manager Dann Bilardello said, "when you combine his size and his abilities at such a young age."

3. Manny Parra, lhp, Ogden Raptors (Brewers)
A 26th-round pick in 2001, Parra signed with the Brewers as a draft-and-follow for $1.55 million just before this year's draft. Some managers rated him as the best pitcher in the league, owing to his tremendous poise and command.

"He's cool, calm and collected on the mound, but he still brings intensity," Ogden manager Tim Blackwell said. "At this point, he doesn't realize how good he can be. He's got a lot going for him. No. 1, he's a competitor. No. 2, he's lefthanded. And No. 3, he's got great stuff."

Parra works with an easy, fluid motion and throws three fastballs: an 89-93 mph four-seamer, a lively two-seamer and a cutter. He also features promising secondary pitches in a curveball and changeup that he can throw for strikes. He's still learning to pitch against hitters using wood bats, so he's a bit leery of working inside as much as he should.

4. Prince Fielder, 1b, Ogden Raptors (Brewers)
Fielder's biggest strength was, well, his strength. Easily the top power prospect in the league, Cecil Fielder's son hit an opposite-field homer in his first professional game. The ball traveled over a scoreboard that sits behind Ogden’s left-field wall, 335 feet from home plate.

After all the power displays, teams stayed away from him and Fielder, the Brewers’ first-round pick this year, got a chance to demonstrate his advanced knowledge of the strike zone. He walked 37 times in 41 games and posted a .531 on-base percentage.

"You're banking on his bat," Kotchman said. "He has power to all fields, but he'll have the same questions he's always had."

Those questions are Fielder’s size—though he’s well under the 300 pounds he once carried in high school—and how it will affect his speed and defense. That's really the biggest difference in Loney and Fielder, who won’t have the option of becoming a DH.

5. Sergio Santos, ss, Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
Santos, the Diamondbacks’ first round pick this year, really likes to play and his love for the game was evident. He has five-tool potential, and his bat and power potential stood out the most—especially late in the season. Santos finished with a flourish, hitting .302-6-22 in August.

"Most of his outs are liners and deep fly balls," Missoula manager Jack Howell said. "He has the ability to cut his swing down, put the ball in play and get on with his speed."

Santos' size makes an eventual move to third base likely, though one manager said he'd make a nice big, offensive second baseman. He struggled getting used to fielding the ball off wood bats and committed 28 errors, the third-highest total in the league. Santos has a strong arm but needs to charge more balls and get more consistent.

6. Alberto Callaspo, 2b, Provo Angels
Callaspo and partner Eric Aybar formed the Pioneer League’s most stylish double-play combo. Callaspo is very athletic and plays hard, drawing comparisons to Tony Fernandez and Mark McLemore. One manager even invoked the name of Roberto Alomar.

Callaspo turns two well and shows great footwork, hands and range. He has flair, but can calm himself down and make the routine plays. He also turns up-the-middle base hits into outs.

"If there was a minor league ESPN, he'd be on it one out of three nights," Kotchman said.

Callaspo lacks the arm strength to move to shortstop but could fill in there if needed. He also can hit despite his slight 5-foot-10, 155-pound frame, leading the league in runs, hits and triples while ranking second in RBIs and fourth in batting. On the basepaths, he displays plus speed.

7. Joel Guzman, ss, Great Falls Dodgers
As a 6-foot-4 shortstop with power potential, Guzman draws inevitable and unfair comparisons to Alex Rodriguez. At just 17, Guzman is still adjusting to being away from his native Dominican Republic for the first time—though he speaks fluent English.

Guzman has good hands and the arm strength to make plays up the middle and deep in the hole, but lacked the range of some of the league’s other middle infielders. Some managers said he looks as if he’s coasting at times and not giving his all in the field. Another sees Guzman more as a third baseman.

Guzman has tremendous power potential at the plate, launching 430-foot moonshots in batting practice, but has yet to show it in a game. His bat is quick though his swing can get a little long.

"Because of his age, he has had the type of year we expected," Bilardello said. "At times you see the ability, times where you just go, 'Wow!' But being so young, the consistency isn't there yet. Once he gets that, you'll see a much better player."

8. Joe Saunders, lhp, Provo Angels
Saunders joined Loney, Fielder and Santos as 2002 first-rounders who made the Top 10. He shows good command and makeup, and aggressively goes after hitters.

His fastball ranges from 88-94 mph, mostly sitting at 91-92. His changeup might be his best pitch right now, and he can throw it in any count. He also throws a slurvy breaking ball, and the Angels want to see him develop a true slider.

"That's what's going to make him," Kotchman said. "When that comes around, he'll move up quick."

9. Greg Miller, lhp, Great Falls Dodgers
Despite his 6-foot-5 frame, Miller isn't a flamethrower. Rather, he’s a heady pitcher with advanced command and makeup for a 17-year-old.

Miller's 87-89 mph fastball began touching the low 90s with more regularity, and he can locate it to both sides of the plate as well as up the ladder. He also features a plus curveball that he can spin for strikes. It's really a knuckle-curve, and he likes to use it as a change of pace after a few fastballs. He's working to improve his changeup.

Miller works with a loose motion and batters don't pick up the ball well against him. Because he likes to work hitters up in the zone, he sometimes runs into difficulty if he leaves the ball over the plate.

10. Dustin Nippert, rhp, Missoula Osprey (Diamondbacks)
Nippert made his first five professional appearances out of the bullpen and allowed just five hits. The lanky 6-foot-7, 210-pounder throws on a steep downhill plane and tops out at 95 mph, though he pitches consistently between 90 and 92.

"We were like, ‘Wow, very impressive,’ " Howell said. "We got him out of the bullpen and into the rotation."

One of the league's most aggressive pitchers, Nippert goes right after hitters with his overpowering fastball and sharp curveball. He also shows great command and the ability to work hitters up the ladder or side-to-side. The Ohio native also has very low mileage on his arm.

The only thing Nippert struggled with this summer was staying healthy. Back spasms forced him to miss a few starts and leave early in others. He also has yet to develop a third pitch.

"Our main focus is to get him healthy and get his innings," Howell said. "He's not the next Randy Johnson or anything, but he's very effective just with a fastball and curveball."

11. Jonathan Broxton, rhp, Great Falls Dodgers
One manager said Broxton looked like a bigger, wider version of Eric Gagne. He also threw like Gagne, sans goggles and goatee.

"The stuff that was coming out of his arm, I couldn’t believe he was 18," Kotchman said. "That's some good stuff."

Broxton pitches consistently at 94-95 mph with his fastball and can reach 97. He's also working to improve his control with his curveball, slider and changeup. He tends to get a little too emotional on the mound, which takes away from his command and focus.

"He's like a bull in a china shop," Bilardello said. "Once he learns to settle down and control his emotions—he just gets so hyper—he'll be a great closer. Or he could be a good starter."

12. Eric Aybar, ss, Provo Angels
Aybar is basically a clone of his double-play partner Callaspo, with less size and ability to make contact. Kotchman calls the duo the best up-the-middle tandem he's seen in 23 years in pro ball.

Aybar uses his plus speed and solid-average arm to turn hits into groundouts. At the plate, he finished eighth in the batting race. He compares favorably to Jimmy Rollins or Neifi Perez at this stage of his career.

Despite his speed, Aybar isn't a great baserunner yet but still piles up stolen bases. He's also learning how to bunt to take better advantage of his fleet feet.

"He wants to run before he bunts," Kotchman said. "I told him he'll beat it out even if he bunts it right to them."

13. Ching-Lung Lo, rhp, Casper Rockies
The youngest player in pro ball didn't turn 17 until Aug. 20, but still was throwing 88-90 mph. With his youth and lanky frame, Lo ranks as one of the most projectable pitchers in the game. His delivery is already pretty sound.

In addition to his sinking fastball, Lo throws an above-average changeup and a slurve. He came to the Rockies with an average splitter as well, but the organization scrapped it to avoid the possibility of injury. Similar concerns forced the team to limit his workload as well. Lo would make one start, then throw two innings out of the bullpen instead of making his next scheduled start.

He showed incredible maturity and intelligence on the mound and adapting from Taiwan to the United States. Lo started the season with an interpreter, but advanced so much with his English that he didn't require one for mound visits in the second half.

14. William Bergolla, 2b, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Bergolla hit .324-4-24 in the league last year at age 17. He started this season in the low Class A Midwest League, hitting .248 in 274 at-bats, but was sent back because he fit the Pioneer League's age restrictions and some of the Reds’ other prospects didn’t. He produced another strong campaign, ranking third with a .352 average.

Bergolla has a solid approach and is a tough out. His speed helps him reach base and makes him a threat once he does. The Venezuelan is a slick fielder with good range who could move to shortstop in a pinch. He made 16 starts there in the Midwest League, but teammate Danny Mateo kept Bergolla at second for Billings.

His own manager said that Bergolla’s biggest drawback is his lack of a killer instinct.

"Sometimes he plays soft," Burleson said. "He needs to be tougher around the bag. He has all the tools. Once he becomes tougher mentally, more of a fighter, he could be an everyday player."

15. Mike Nixon, c, Great Falls Dodgers
Nixon is a raw, but projectable athlete who has more familiarity with the football field than he does catching. He had college scholarship offers as a quarterback and was set to play safety for UCLA.

The Dodgers liked his athletic ability and strength, so they took him in the third round, signed him for $950,000 and put him behind the plate. He's still learning the trade, and there were mixed reviews of his receiving skills. Nixon's arm is average, but his throws tend to sail as he reverts to his quarterback form and doesn't get on top of the ball.

"He'll learn and get better playing everyday," Bilardello said. "It's like a little kid with a new toy. He's not perfect now, but he'll keep playing with it, figure it out and then will work well."

Given his athletic gifts, a move to the outfield wouldn't be out of the question if he never gets a feel for catching. For now, Nixon is a better hitter than catcher. He projects to hit for average and use his size and strength to add pop.

16. Ryan Shealy, 1b, Casper Rockies
While Shealy posted eye-popping numbers in his first pro season, they have to be tempered with the fact that he came to the Pioneer League as a college senior who turned 23 before the end of the season. First basemen Paul McAnulty (Idaho Falls) and Jason Perry (Medicine Hat) were similar cases as college juniors coming into the league, but managers clearly believed Shealy was the best prospect.

Shealy's best tool is his bat. His 19 homers were nine more than the next closest competitor and he just missed winning the league's triple crown, as only McAnulty posted a better average. Shealy has good balance at the plate, keeps his hands inside the ball and has a chance to become an impact hitter with power to all fields. His first pro summer compares favorably to those of previously productive college bats Lyle Overbay and Jay Gibbons.

Defensively, Shealy is below average at first base but does offer a big target. With Todd Helton in Colorado, Shealy is athletic enough that a move to outfield wouldn't be out of the question.

17. Danny Mateo, ss, Billings Mustangs (Reds)
Mateo was one of the league's best defensive shortstops, running neck-and-neck with Aybar. He has all the tools: plus arm strength, great hands, plus range and good foot speed. He makes difficult plays look routine.

Routine plays are where Mateo sometimes struggled, however, as he committed 30 errors, the second-most in the league. There are no major flaws to work out, just some youthful exuberance.

"He could be a big league shortstop," Bilardello said. "He's not the top guy in any statistics, but when you see him play, you look beyond that."

While no one questions Mateo's defensive abilities, everyone wonders if he'll hit. He has the speed to beat out grounders and steal bases, but hasn't mastered getting on base. One manager also questioned his work ethic, saying he looks lackadaisical in the field at times.

18. Ubaldo Jimenez, rhp, Casper Rockies
While Jimenez’ 6.53 ERA might indicate otherwise, the Rockies believe the 19-year-old Dominican’s future is bright. He throws 94-96 mph and projects to add even more velocity if he can bulk up his at 6-foot-2, 165-pound frame.

"This guy’s a big league pitcher," Idaho Falls manager Don Werner said. "He throws bullets knee-high all day. I really liked him."

Despite his heat, Jimenez uses his slurvy curveball that breaks 2-to-7 as his out pitch. He shows solid mechanics but needs to stay behind the ball more, which should add even more velocity to his fastball and improve his command.

19. Sean Thompson, lhp, Idaho Falls Padres
Just wait until Thompson and his major league-ready curveball get out of the Rocky Mountains.

"He’s pitched all his life in high altitudes," Werner said of the Colorado native. "I want to see this kid’s curveball with more humidity. If it breaks like this in light air, in heavy air it’s going to be wicked. It’s already hard, with tilt, bite and tight rotation."

Thompson has an average fastball to go with his plus curve. His heat sits around 89-90 mph and sometimes reaches 92. He also added a circle changeup since joining Idaho Falls. He took to it naturally.

Thompson’s confident, competitive nature boils over at times and he comes off as cocky. He also tries too hard for strikeouts, running up his pitch counts. His control fluctuates from solid to poor, and he showed a tendency to leave his fastball up in the zone.

20. Quan Cosby, of, Provo Angels
Cosby, an all-state football and track star as a Texas high schooler, has plenty of athleticism and is working to refine his impressive raw tools. He plays hard and works harder.

"He’s like a sponge taking it all in," Kotchman said. "We had to back him off on his early work because we were afraid he’d wear down."

With speed that scouts compare to Deion Sanders’, Cosby can go get balls in center field and made his share of over-the-head catches on the dead run. He’s also learning to steal bases, tying for second in the league with 22. He has made great strides at the plate, learning to go the other way, slap the ball on the ground and use his speed.

Cosby’s plate discipline and pitch recognition improved. After a slow start, Cosby batted .374 over his final 37 games to finish at .302.

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. Jhensy Sandoval, of, Lethbirdge (Diamondbacks)
2. * Travis "Gookie" Dawkins, ss, Billings (Reds)
3. * Dewayne Wise, of, Billings (Reds)
4. * Kyle Peterson, rhp, Ogden (Brewers)
5. Mike Frank, of, Billings (Reds)
6. * Luke Allen, 3b, Great Falls (Dodgers)
7. * Scott Williamson, rhp, Billings (Reds)
8. Ramon Moreta, of, Great Falls (Dodgers)
9. Monte Roundtree, lhp, Billings (Reds)
10. John Sneed, rhp, Medicine Hat (Blue Jays)

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