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South Atlantic League Top 20 Prospects

By Gene Sapakoff

Top 20
CHARLESTON, S.C.--Bill Hayes apologizes for his Boof Bonser bias.

"He’s our guy, but I watched him pretty much dominate," the Hagerstown manager said. "Even on nights when he didn’t have his best stuff, he could give you six innings and give up only three or four hits."

A half-dozen other Class A South Atlantic League managers cast similar praise upon their top pitchers. It’s traditionally dubbed a pitcher’s league. Never mind that the cliché owes something to teenagers adjusting to wood bats, thick humidity and inferior lighting.

In 2001, pitchers dominated Baseball America’s annual prospect poll of SAL managers. Six of the top 10 propects and 13 of the top 20 were pitchers.

Anthony Pluta and Mike Nannini came from a Lexington Legends staff that also included Robert Stiel, Rodrigo Rosario and Nick Roberts. The Wilmington Waves featured not only Ben Diggins, but also prospects Jose Rojas, Fernando Rijo and Jesus Cordero.

Most of the managers raved about Adam Wainwright, the most prominent member of a promising Macon pitching mound corps that also included Ben Kozlowski, Bubba Nelson and Brett Evert.

"Wainwright is an outstanding pitching prospect," Augusta manager Mike Boulanger said. "But there were so many this year, it’s hard to separate them."

Hagerstown Suns (Giants)
As a teenager Bonser was dominant, leading the SAL in wins and earning most valuable pitcher honors. His fastball hit the mid-90s and he showed much better command than during his short-season struggles the previous summer. He went 1-4, 6.00 with 29 walks in 33 innings in the Northwest League in 2000 after the Giants drafted him in the first round.

There was little doubt about his curveball when he came out of high school, but both his breaking pitch and changeup improved. Managers loved his work ethic as he pushed himself to stay in superb condition, shedding both pounds and a bad-body rap with a rigorous workout program.

"He has such a good arm," Charleston, W.Va., manager Rolando Pino said. "You can see he has a strong body. Boof’s a great competitor and we saw his breaking ball continue to get better."

"I like Boof a lot," Kannapolis manager Razor Shines said. "He’s a power pitcher but a good offspeed pitcher too. What’s not to like about that?"

Jose Reyes
Photo: David Schofield
Capital City Bombers (Mets)
The comparisons to Rafael Furcal are obvious, even to those who didn’t see Furcal jump from the Sally League’s No. 1 prospect in 1999 to the National League rookie of the year in 2000. Like Furcal, Reyes is a switch-hitting Dominican who offers big league-ready defense, makes good contact at the plate and runs well. He’s also two inches taller.

For Mets fans, how about defense comparable to Rey Ordonez (minus the sauce) with more offensive potential? Reyes hit .180 in May, .288 in June and .430 in July.

"For a guy who’s as young as he is, he’s amazingly steady," said Charleston, S.C., manager Buddy Biancalana, a former major league shortstop. "If I were a big league manager, I’d have no problem making him my shortstop next year."

Reyes has superb range and arm strength. He made just 18 errors to lead SAL shortstops with a .964 fielding percentage. He’s exceptionally smart at the plate and learns from his mistakes, though he occasionally gets overaggressive. Observers were split on his potential to hit more than a handful of home runs.

Macon Braves
Managers named Wainwright, not Bonser, the league’s best pitching prospect in Baseball America’s midseason Best Tools survey, but Wainwright looked a bit tired down the stretch and lost some velocity. No worry. He didn’t turn 20 until late August.

Wainwright, like Bonser a 2000 first-rounder, continues to make impressively rapid progress. His fastball works in the low 90s and his 6-foot-7 frame seems to add extra buckle to batters’ knees. So do his outstanding changeup, an improving curve and obvious polish.

Wainwright likes the gamesmanship and competition, and he looks like a No. 1 starter. He needs to add weight and stamina.

"He has a great body and knows how to pitch," Lakewood manager Greg Legg said. "He needs to learn how to pitch inside a little more but with such a good delivery, that shouldn’t be a problem."

Hayes compared Wainwright to highly regarded Giants prospect Kurt Ainsworth.

"Great extension, great movement on the ball," Hayes said. "He’s simply able to strike people out."

Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox)
Before his promotion to the high Class A Carolina League, Malone stood out among the SAL’s bumper crop of lefty starters, even while growing up on the mound. He throws three pitches for strikes and showed a nice mix of power and finesse in leading the league in ERA.

"The thing I liked most about him was his competitiveness," Shines said. "He competes no matter what. Just playing catch, he’s competing. He always wants the ball with the game on the line."

Malone’s fastball usually clocks in at 93 mph, and his curveball went from a once-in-a-while pitch to a weapon. That translated to a dramatic improve in command. As good as he was in the Sally League, he fared even better in the Carolina League and in Double-A.

Macon Braves
There were many raised eyebrows when the Braves made Johnson the 38th overall pick in the 2000 draft. In his first full season, however, he was named best batting prospect, best power prospect and most exciting player in the midseason Best Tools survey.

Johnson showed the kind of lefthanded power the Braves hoped for. He has a beautiful swing and makes shrewd adjustments at the plate.

"You get the ball up and he’ll hit it out," Hayes said.

"He’ll steal some bags too," Macon manager Randy Ingle said.

The big question with Johnson is his defense. He projects as a second or third baseman, though Ingle said Johnson made daily improvement at shortstop. He has a strong throwing arm and decent hands, but poor footwork led to many of his league-high 45 errors.

Columbus RedStixx (Indians)
Like Johnson, Smith is a 2000 first-rounder who excelled as an offensive player at 19 but had big problems on defense. He tied Johnson with 45 errors, though the Indians like the progress Smith has made since his days as a high school shortstop. He’s a somewhat raw package of size, strength, power and speed with all-star upside.

"He showed me a little bit of everything," Legg said. "He’s a good athlete at third base and potentially a great hitter who has power."

Smith has power to all fields. He didn’t wear down in his first full pro season and has good speed, particularly for his build. He’ll need to cut down on his strikeouts and eliminate something in a swing that’s too stiff at times.

Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
The Red Sox have spent a lot of money on Asian prospects without getting much of a return, but so far their $800,000 investment in Song looks wise. He spent the first half of the season in the SAL before moving on to high Class A Florida State League after a detour to the Futures Game.

Song throws his fastball in the low to mid-90s, and his curveball improved enough to give him a second plus pitch. Even without a quality changeup, he overmatched the league with a rare mix of heat, control and command.

"He has excellent poise for his age," Boulanger said. "He’s still learning but it looks like he’s been pitching for a long time."

Lexington Legends (Astros)
At 18, Pluta was the youngest member of a potentially legendary staff of Legends. He wasn’t overmatched at all despite making his pro debut in a full-season league. After going just 4-3, 4.76 as a high school senior in 2000, he went 12-4, 3.20 in the Sally League.

"We saw a very young pitcher who got better between starts," Legg said. "He made rapid progress, particularly with his fastball."

It’s been that way since Pluta started his pitching career as a high school freshman and reached 90 mph during his first workout. Despite crude mechanics, he hit 99 mph in instructional league last fall and had one of the best fastballs in the SAL. He’ll be even tougher once he gains command of his curveball and changeup.

Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
A four-tool gamer, Blanco stayed focused and dangerous despite a bout with bursitis in his right shoulder which limited him to a DH role for much of the first half. Before having arthroscopic surgery in late August, he showed the most impressive bat speed in the league.

"Tools-wise, he’s got it," Boulanger said, "and he really came on late in the season for us. His ceiling is extremely high."

Blanco hit .378 with six homers in his final 10 games and figures to get stronger. He must eliminate overaggressive mistakes at bat and make more consistent contact. He was below average at third base because of poor footwork and anticipation, but his arm and range are excellent.

Macon Braves
It’s easy to get lost within the Braves’ stable of pitching prospects, but Kozlowski jumped into the crowded spotlight in his second season at Macon after going 3-8, 4.21 there in 2000. There was no recurrence of the shoulder tendinitis that kept him out for the last six weeks of 2000 and surely contributed to the mediocre numbers.

A prototype power lefthander, Kozlowski has a low-90s fastball, a good curveball and an improving changeup. Ingle said Kozlowski made as much progress as any player on a talented Macon team.

"He was able to work in the strike zone with all three of his pitches," Hayes said. "He’s definitely not afraid to throw inside."

Greensboro Bats (Yankees)
Hitters were glad to see Martinez leave for the Florida State League. He had gone 6-0 in 11 starts, surrendering just one homer and posting the league’s best ERA at the time (1.13).

"He was very poised with a good idea of how to pitch in various situations," Biancalana said. "I’m glad we only had to see him once."

Martinez was improved from his eight-start stay in Greensboro last year, when he went 2-5, 2.92. The location on his 92-94 mph fastball went from OK to nasty. He also made great strides with his curveball, among the best in the SAL, and his changeup.

Kannapolis Intimidators (White Sox)
The "other" switch-hitting, super-smooth Dominican shortstop named Reyes, Guillermo was just as steady. He made just 11 errors in 70 games, matching Jose’s .964 fielding percentage.

"He was simply the best shortstop in this league," Shines said. "He has exceptionally soft hands out there. He’s very mature and he made all the plays."

Three inches shorter than Jose, Guillermo isn’t as imposing at the plate and doesn’t have nearly as much pop. It’s unlikely he’ll ever hit for power, but he needs to get stronger. Reyes is quick enough with the bat to turn on pitches and significantly improved his plate awareness during the summer.

Hickory Crawdads (Pirates)

Excuse Pirates brass and Crawdads if they called this show Bobby Bradley II. Not only is Burnett a lefthanded mirror image of Hickory’s star pitcher from 2000, he’s also good pals with his former teammate at Wellington (Fla.) Community High.

Burnett used his three-pitch arsenal to dominate SAL batters at age 18. He isn’t overpowering, with a fastball around 90 mph, but his curveball is outstanding and he’s a bulldog. His learned approach and competitive nature make the fastball more effective, and Burnett’s real strength is location.

"When he got into trouble, which wasn’t very often, he knew what he was doing out there," Pino said. "He didn’t lose his composure under pressure."

Augusta GreenJackets (Red Sox)
Rundles is head-to-toe upside, which is why the Expos made sure he was part of the Ugueth Urbina trade at the July 31 deadline. At 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, he has plenty of room for more strength, stamina and velocity. The Red Sox saw him as a No. 3 or 4 starter, but Montreal might have something better if he fills out physically in the next year or two.

Rundles occasionally reached the low 90s with his fastball, though he pitched more in the mid-80s after switching organizations. He effectively mixed curveballs and changeups and displayed fine control.

"He had a real good feel for pitching," Boulanger said. "Velocity isn’t going to be his ticket. He has good command right now and doesn’t need to throw much harder."

Lakewood BlueClaws (Phillies)
Despite being a teenager, Buchholz has a workhorse body and tied for the minor league lead with five complete games. He also topped the Sally League with three shutouts, a tribute to his resourcefulness.

His 91-mph fastball didn’t scare anyone, but his curveball and changeup made him tough to hit. So did his thinking man’s approach to pitching. Buchholz didn’t panic after starting the year with a 1-10 record, finishing with eight wins in his final 12 decisions.

"He looked much more in control in the second half of the season," Pino said. "He had a good arm, good curve and good control and wasn’t afraid to throw that changeup anytime in the count."

Lexington Legends (Astros)
The horse of Lexington’s stellar staff, Nannini led the SAL in innings as well as homers allowed (17). He finished 2000 in the Florida State League, but took a step back to work on his secondary pitches after the Astros lost their high Class A affiliate.

Because he’s 5-foot-11 and has a live arm, Nannini draws comparisons within the organization to Houston ace Roy Oswalt. Like Oswalt, he’s a gritty battler with a mid-90s fastball. One manager thought Nannini’s slider was the best breaking pitch in the league.

"I saw him in 1999 and his fastball and his command have improved considerably," Legg said. "He’s throwing in and out, up and down, using the other pitches behind in the count and was just very consistent very deep into games."

Wilmington Waves (Dodgers)
Some managers liked Wilmington pitchers Rojas, Rijo and Cordero better than Diggins, a 2000 first-rounder who was a puzzling disappointment for chunks of his pro debut. Then came a dramatic second-half turnaround in which he went 5-0, 1.57 in his final eight starts.

He stood as tall as his 6-foot-7 frame while flirting with no-hitters in back-to-back starts. The zip was back in a fastball once timed at 98 mph while he was in college. It had dipped into the high 80s during a midseason slump.

"He pitched inside much better later in the season and did a better job of locating his fastball," Biancalana said. "And you have to like those long arms."

Diggins continues to work extensively with Dodgers coaches on his mechanics and a slider, both with mixed results. If pitching doesn’t work out, some scouts have considered him a better prospect as a power hitter.

18 SETH McCLUNG, rhp
Charleston, S.C., RiverDogs (Devil Rays)
McClung turned down a basketball scholarship from South Alabama to turn pro in 1999. That decision continues to look prescient, as he finished third in the SAL in strikeouts behind Wainwright and Bonser.

McClung aggressively goes after hitters but sometimes relies too much on either his mid-90s fastball or his plus curveball. With the proper balance, McClung was nearly unhittable and looks and acts a lot like a future closer. His changeup is an ongoing project and was used with mixed results.

The Devil Rays appreciate McClung’s outgoing nature but have worked with him on managing his emotions on the mound, a weakness in his first two pro seasons.

19 KOYIE HILL, c/dh
Wilmington Waves (Dodgers)
Wilmington manager Dino Ebel swears Hill will play in the big leagues and Hill makes it difficult to argue. Though he was a bit old for the SAL at 22, he did lots of things right in his first full season as a pro.

A switch-hitter, Hill led Wilmington with 47 walks and demonstrated enough power and speed to project as a 20-20 big leaguer. The Dodgers are making a catcher out of a college third baseman, and Hill is responding well.

His throwing arm is above average, he works well with pitchers and he moves exceptionally well behind the plate. Some of his mechanics need attention, a project for instructional league.

Charleston, S.C., RiverDogs (Devil Rays)
Baldelli has suffered from comparisons to Josh Hamilton, who preceded him in center field in Charleston. While Baldelli doesn’t have Hamilton’s bat speed, he’s faster (6.38 seconds in the 60-yard dash) and a better athlete (he turned down a UCLA volleyball scholarship).

The sixth pick in the 2000 draft, Baldelli is refining his raw tools en route to a future Tampa Bay outfield of himself, Hamilton and Carl Crawford. Few players are quicker or more exciting on their way around the bases.

Minor back and hand injuries held Baldelli back, and he wore down in his first full season. But he just needs at-bats, as his arm is the only tool he has that isn’t above average.

"Rocco is capable of being a real fine major league player," Biancalana said. "But he has to decide that’s what he wants to do. If he does and stays healthy, nothing will stop him."

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