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Southern League Top 20 Prospects

By Bill Ballew

Top 20
The Southern League again lived up to its reputation as a final proving ground for budding major leaguers. Pitchers Juan Cruz, Matt Guerrier, Joe Kennedy, Nick Neugebauer and Danny Wright had their way with Double-A hitters during the season's first half before graduating to the top. Outfielder Adam Dunn had little difficulty before achieving bigger and better things at higher levels.

Managers agreed that the pitching was strong across the board this season. In addition to the seven hurlers ranked among the Top 20 Prospects, numerous other pitchers enjoyed significant success and could be headed for the big leagues.

Those receiving several positive citations included lefthander Steve Smyth (West Tenn) and righties Chris Booker (West Tenn and Chattanooga), Scott Cassidy (Tennessee) and Luke Hudson (Carolina). Greenville righthander Tim Spooneybarger might have cracked the Top 10 if he had made enough relief outings to qualify.

The league was also as deep with position players as it has been in the last several seasons. While injuries limited the efforts of such high-profile talents as Josh Hamilton and Austin Kearns, no fewer than six players on the Top 20 will receive serious consideration as the best position prospect in their organizations: Wilson Betemit, Joe Borchard, Josh Phelps, Carl Crawford, Orlando Hudson and Chin-Feng Chen.

"The league was loaded with future big leaguers this season," Tennessee manager Rocket Wheeler said. "It was fun watching these guys develop into some of the game's future stars."

Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)
Dunn was supposed to spend the entire season facing Double-A pitching, but the Reds revised that plan after 39 games. The former University of Texas quarterback overpowered the competition, averaging a home run every 11.7 at-bats and one RBI every 4.5 trips to the plate prior to a May promotion to Triple-A.

"He was a one-man wrecking crew in this league," Greenville manager Paul Runge said. "He demonstrated tremendous raw power. He has a serious presence out on the field. He's a bona fide, up-and-coming major league star."

Managers were most impressed with how hard Dunn hit the ball and how quick his swing was for a 6-foot-6, 250-pounder. He also displayed a good knowledge of the strike zone. His defense at the corner outfield positions needs some work, but he displayed good mobility and improved arm strength.

Nick Neugebauer
Photo: Bob Libby
Huntsville Stars (Brewers)
No Southern League pitcher was more overpowering than Neugebauer. After battling control problems during his first three professional seasons, he found the handle on his devastating fastball and reached the big leagues by mid-August.

Neugebauer is a traditional power pitcher who had a comfort zone of 93-97 mph and was clocked as high as 101 by Mobile. He also reached 90 mph consistently with his hard slider, and showed improvement with his developing changeup. Managers were impressed with how Neugebauer seemed to reach back for a little more when the situation presented itself, usually resulting in a strikeout or double play.

"He's learned how to pitch a little bit," Orlando manager Mike Ramsey said. "The command of his offspeed stuff is getting better and that's only going to make him that much tougher, more than just a hard thrower."

Greenville Braves
When a shoulder injury knocked Atlanta’s Rafael Furcal out for the season in July, it created a chain reaction throughout the Braves system that landed Betemit in Double-A. Two months later, Southern League clubs were wondering why he had been at the Class A level.

Betemit impressed managers with his fluid body, above-average arm strength, budding power and plus speed. There was some concern about his inside-out swing, but the results, both in terms of average and power, were hard to dispute. While some managers wondered if his future would be at shortstop, others liked what they saw at the critical position.

"He gets to the ball easy and he makes tough plays look easy," Jacksonville manager John Shoemaker said. "He has tremendous arm strength. He can throw the ball from the hole without putting any effort into it. I think this guy is going to move quick."

Managers didn’t like Betemit’s tendency to put some mustard on routine plays. One skipper said Betemit would be better off playing third base because he would have less time to think about plays.

Orlando Rays (Devil Rays)
Kennedy shocked the Devil Rays with his development during the 2001 season. Tampa Bay officials knew he was making steady if unspectacular progress, yet no one expected the lefty to be pitching in the majors in June.

Working off his 91-94 mph fastball with excellent movement, Kennedy's success came from moving his heater in and out while changing speeds. He also tied up Southern League hitters with his sharp curveball and a decent changeup that he used only sparingly. Prior to his departure, several managers said he had nothing left to prove at the Double-A level.

"He was definitely one of the top guys in the league," Huntsville manager Ed Romero said. "He throws in the low 90s with excellent movement on the ball. He also throws strikes with a good breaking ball and good command of all his pitches. He's a pitcher who really knows what he's doing."

Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Borchard faced the most scrutiny of any Southern Leaguer after getting a record $5.3 million bonus as a 2000 first-round pick. Suffice it to say the former Stanford quarterback passed all tests by leading the loop in RBIs, placing second in hits and home runs, ranking third in runs and slugging percentage (.509), and finishing fifth in batting average.

"He's had a real consistent season," Shoemaker said. "He came into the season with high expectations and I feel he lived up to that. He's a switch-hitter who moves fluidly in the outfield. He seems to be a hard worker and is able to make adjustments."

Most managers rated Borchard as a solid four-tool player. Though his speed is not exceptional, he knows how to run the bases and gets good jumps on balls hit to center field. While he will be able to hit for average and power, a few skippers had concerns about the holes in his long swing.

Mobile BayBears (Padres)
Not unlike Kennedy, Tankersley surprised many observers, including his employer. Acquired by the Padres midway through the 2000 campaign, he was considered a throw-in as part of a deal with the Red Sox for Ed Sprague.

Tankersley, however, proved to be a late bloomer. This year he drew comparisons to Kevin Brown and Greg Maddux after a midseason promotion to the Southern League. Managers loved his determination on the mound and his willingness to throw inside to righties with his two-seam fastball. He also intimidated hitters with his easy three-quarters arm angle that produces 93-95 mph fastballs and sliders in the 88-90 mph range.

"He's an electric pitcher who has a live fastball and really knows how to pitch," West Tenn manager Dave Bialas said. "He went through us like butter. He stood out as one of the top pitching prospects in the league. I think the Padres hit the jackpot with him."

7 JUAN CRUZ, rhp
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
Unknown at the beginning of 2000, Cruz was a key member of the Cubs rotation during their pennant drive this August. He went 2-1, 2.57 in his first five starts.

Some managers admitted they were surprised Cruz was having success in the majors this early in his career, because they thought he was immature. But every skipper loved his arm and said he had as high a ceiling as anyone in the league.

They raved about his savvy when he was focused. They also liked his deceptive delivery, his hard slider and his moving fastball that averaged 93-96 mph.

"He's a young kid who got better and better as the season progressed," Bialas said. "He's got a live fastball with great movement. He gets a lot of sinking action with his two-seam fastball to go with his four-seamer. He has a good changeup, and he gained better command of all his pitches throughout the season."

Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
Like Neugebauer, Wright blossomed after previously battling control problems. He consistently reached the mid-90s with his heavy, moving fastball.

"He stayed strong through the eighth inning against us," Shoemaker said. "We had him clocked a couple of times at 95. He moved the ball around the strike zone and really showed he has a good idea about what he's doing out there."

Wright also has an above-average curveball with a sharp break and a decent changeup. He got better as the season progressed, topped by a three-start stretch in July that included 23 consecutive shutout innings with 26 strikeouts and five walks. That effort led to a promotion to Chicago.

Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)
Phelps eliminated any questions regarding his bat this year by challenging for the triple crown. Once Dunn left, he packed more power than anyone in the league. He was named Southern League MVP after leading in doubles, homers and extra-base hits, and ranking second in RBIs and slugging percentage (.562) and sixth in batting average.

While Phelps silenced his critics at the plate by using a shorter swing, some managers still had concerns about his defense. They admitted that all aspects of his catching have improved, particularly his footwork and ability to block balls, but questioned if he was of major league caliber. Others said Phelps was adequate.

"He's picked it up behind the plate," Carolina manager Ron Gideon said. "Is he a frontline catcher? No. But he's a guy who can catch four or five times a week and his bat will stay in the lineup at DH or first base. He's come a long way over the past year or two."

Orlando Rays (Devil Rays)
Opposing managers were impressed with the way the teenage Crawford handled himself while being overmatched early in the season. He refused to pout and learned from his mistakes, enabling the fleet-footed outfielder to place third in the league in stolen bases and fifth in hits.

With his athleticism and all-out approach, he drew comparisons to Terrence Long. A renowned football player in high school, Crawford has lightning-quick hands that help him compensate for some of his mistakes at the plate.

Most managers agreed that he needs some refinements with his swing and must stay within himself instead of trying to do too much at the plate. Some skippers thought those adjustments would come with experience, while others were not as sure.

"He's got great tools, great speed and a good idea about how to hit," Jacksonville hitting coach Gene Richards said. "You can't beat a guy with the tools he has. And the scary part is he's only going to get better."

"I don't know if there's enough baseball instinct there," an Eastern Division manager said. "Things don't come real easy on the diamond for him. He could be a solid role player, but I don't know if he's going to hit for enough power to earn a starting job in the big leagues."

Tennessee Smokies
Hudson impressed every manager with his all-out hustle and gritty attitude on the field. More than one skipper rated him as the league's MVP, while one major league scout considered him the top prospect.

"He's a gamer who comes to the ballpark every day to beat you," Runge said. "He'll do everything he can to win. He makes contact at the plate and he drives in runs. He's a good baserunner, a baseball-alert type of player."

Hudson blossomed this season by moving to second base from third. He displayed good hands, a strong arm and the ability to turn the double play. He also served as Tennessee's tablesetter at the top of the lineup.

"He's a guy I'd want on my team," Gideon said. "He reminds me of Chipper Jones with the way he hits for power and average."

West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
Kelton began living up to his reputation as a pure hitter in 2001. Managers raved about his compact swing, ability to make contact and developing power. Had it not been for a hand injury, he probably would have been promoted to Triple-A.

"He has power to all fields and has a good feel for hitting," Bialas said. "He can handle offspeed pitching. He's a power guy who is going to hit some home runs."

Yet for every positive thing said about Kelton's hitting, there was a negative comment about his defense. He hurt his shoulder in high school and it has bothered him ever since. He has modest arm strength and poor accuracy because of an inconsistent release point, and the Cubs plan to move him to left field.

Birmingham Barons (White Sox)
After debuting in the Southern League as a reliever during the second half of 2000, Guerrier returned as a starter and continued his rapid development. He ranked among the league leaders in wins and ERA when he received a promotion to Triple-A at midseason.

A strikeout pitcher in the lower minors, Guerrier proved he could get hitters out without overpowering them. He kept his low-90s fastball and his slider down in the strike zone. His curveball also had a much sharper break than in previous years.

"He's a solid control type of pitcher," Shoemaker said. "You could tell with his ability to change speeds, his ability to throw the curveball and the location of his pitches that he will be very effective at higher levels."

Orlando Rays (Devil Rays)
Cantu experienced a season similar to Crawford’s. Another teenager with the Rays, he fought through the ups and downs and emerged leaving positive impressions with his bat and hope for his defense.

Cantu attracted comparisons to Nomar Garciaparra with his tall, lean body and developing all-around game, though he’s not nearly the same offensive force yet. Cantu has quick hands, bat speed and excellent hand-eye coordination. He also drives the ball well and should become a power threat once he adds strength to his 165-pound frame.

His defense, conversely, produced mixed opinions. Cantu displayed average range at best. He also doesn’t possess an explosive first step, which could prevent a move to third base. His footwork and throwing mechanics also require significant improvement if he’s going to remain an infielder.

"He's young and he swings the bat good for a 19-year-old," Ramsey said. "He's got a lot of work to do defensively, but with his work ethic and tools, I think he's going to be a major league player."

Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)
Most managers considered Broussard to be the best hitter in the Southern League last year. After a wrist injury early this season limited his production for most of the first half, Broussard regained that status and won the batting title.

Managers raved about the minor adjustments Broussard made at the plate. He shortened his stroke, thereby improving his ability to hit for power and average. He drove the ball more consistently.

"I really like his bat," Richards said. "He has the best idea of what he wants to do at the plate of anyone in the league."

Broussard also made some adjustments on defense while moving from the outfield to first base. He won’t win Gold Gloves in the future, but he has enough athleticism and instincts to play either position at higher levels.

Jacksonville Suns (Dodgers)
Deemed the Dodgers' top position prospect for the past two years despite a decline in power, Chen saw his potent swing return to normal after he had surgery to remove scar tissue from his right shoulder last fall. After spending the first half of the season at high Class A Vero Beach, Chen thumped Southern League pitching and finished with combined totals of .290-22-91.

Chen showed he has the power to be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter. He makes quick adjustments at the plate and is equally adept at hitting fastballs and breaking pitches. Though not particularly fast, he also proved to be an effective baserunner with outstanding baseball instincts.

"Chen is a hitter. There's no doubt about that," Shoemaker said. "He's swinging the bat as well as he has in two years now that he got his shoulder fixed."

Chen isn’t as gifted defensively. His arm is no better than average for left field, and he doesn’t do an exceptional job of cutting off balls hit in the gap. Nevertheless, he’s poised to become the first native of Taiwan to reach the major leagues.

West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
A groin injury sidelined Hill for about half the season. When healthy, he showed impressive offensive potential for a second baseman and steady if unspectacular defense.

Hill is a solid leadoff man who can hit for average, draw walks and make consistent contact. In his pro debut, he proved to be a good hitter from both sides of the plate. While his line-drive stroke can produce some occasional power, he impressed managers most with his overall feel for hitting.

"Bobby's not a big guy, but he's steady defensively and can turn the double play," Romero said. "He has above-average speed and can steal some bases, too. He makes contact and hits the ball all over the field from both sides. He's a pretty good player."

Tennessee Smokies (Blue Jays)
Wheeler said it would be a tough call if he had to select the Smokies' MVP. While Phelps and Hudson would receive nods from most observers, Wheeler said he couldn't ignore Johnson, who led the league in runs and finished second in batting and steals.

"He's a guy you win with," Wheeler said. "His tools aren't overwhelming, but when you combine his talent with his heart and desire, you’ve got one heck of a player."

A scrapper, Johnson does an excellent job of working counts. Once on base, he can steal a bag or take an extra base when necessary.

"He's an interesting guy," Runge said. "He's a gamer, a blue-collar type of player who can beat you in a number of different ways. He has a good bat with a little bit of pop. He has the ability to drive in runs. He's also a very good baserunner. Guys like that find their way to the big leagues."

West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)
The Cubs struck gold with Chiasson in the major league Rule 5 draft last December. Primarily a starter in the Athletics organization, he dominated in his first extended stint as a closer, placing third in the league in saves. He relished his role and improved as the season progressed.

Chiasson gained velocity, increasing his fastball to the 93-96 mph range with good life. Though his slider tended to be a little flat at times, he compensated by adding a splitter.

"He's a power guy with good movement on most of his pitches," Romero said. "He's a big guy with a good downhill plane. I like his fastball, but he also has a pretty decent slider as well."

Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)
Kearns entered the 2001 season ranked as the Reds' top prospect ahead of Dunn and Drew Henson. While Dunn put together the best power display in the minors, Kearns battled numerous minor injuries prior to landing on the disabled list for nearly two months with a torn ligament in his thumb.

Upon his return in August, Kearns made some minor adjustments and again displayed the ability to hit for power and average. A former pitching prospect in high school, he also has an above-average arm for right field as well as the athleticism to play the position. The Reds were pleased with the effort he made to return from what might have been a season-ending injury, and they believe he’s on the verge of taking off.

"He's going to be something," Gideon said. "He has a plus arm in the outfield. He's got a quick bat and he's a young kid for this league. He's got a good future ahead of him."

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