The Arizona Fall League is a stomping ground for budding prospects, and the circuit has earned its reputation as a steppingstone for future standouts. Things were no different this year as two of the game’s best prospects squared off: Mark Teixeira and Rocco Baldelli. With the general manager’s meetings held in nearby Tucson, most of the best talent evaluators in baseball had a chance to see them in action.
1. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Peoria (Rangers)
Teixeira’s advanced approach to hitting gave him the edge over Baldelli, though his season ended prematurely with a strained muscle in his side. He batted .333-7-23 in 99 at-bats.
“I’d take Teixeira over Baldelli,” an American League scouting executive said, “because you’re still predicting and hoping for more strength to come into place for Baldelli.”
“Teixeira was definitely the best run producer out there,” a veteran National League scout said. “He may be a guy who can carry a club offensively.”
Much has been made of Teixeira’s defense, but most scouts were pleasantly surprised with his improvement at the hot corner. He showed good reflexes, hands and plenty of arm strength. “He can play third any day of the week for me,” the AL scout said.
2. Rocco Baldelli, of, Grand Canyon (Devil Rays)
Baldelli headed to the AFL as Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. More than one scout was overheard in Arizona comparing Baldelli to a young Joe DiMaggio–and those scouts will quickly say the similarities don’t stop at their Italian heritage.
Baldelli, who hit .316-1-18, makes everything look easy on the field. “I always try to temper my enthusiasm,” the NL scout said. “But he’s got so much upside. He’s a damn good hitter. This guy can be a solid middle-of-the-order hitter at a skill position.”
Still, Baldelli has room for improvement, as a Northeast product who played several other sports in high school. He has good bat speed and a natural feel for the bat head, but his swing is a little inconsistent and can get long and loopy at times. Baldelli is a well-above-average gliding runner, with outstanding instincts and range to be a top ball hawk in center field.
3. Brandon Phillips, 2b, Phoenix (Indians)
Phillips’ assignment in the AFL was to polish his defense at his new position. He made several acrobatic plays at second base during his September callup in Cleveland, but after spending his entire career at shortstop, he needs work on the nuances of the position, including turning and starting double plays.
“He can get complacent at times on defense,” the AL scout said. “He needs to concentrate a little better. Everything’s there. He’s just trying to add a little flash, and needs to learn when to put that away during the play.”
His .238-4-20 performance is of little concern to the Indians, who have Phillips penciled in as Omar Vizquel’s partner up the middle in 2003. Scouts were impressed with his ability to drive the ball for power, and he is expected to be a top Rookie of the Year candidate.
4. Bobby Jenks, rhp, Scottsdale (Angels)
Coming off a rocky regular season that included a suspension and a demotion, Jenks bounced back with an overpowering showing in the AFL. The 21-year-old led the league in strikeouts for the second consecutive season and pushed triple digits on the radar gun.
He made the most progress with the control and command of his arsenal, though. “About seven out of 10 pitches are about where he wants to throw them,” the AL scout said. “Sometimes he humps up on them and it messes up his location.”
During the regular season, when Jenks walked 90 in 113 innings, he was behind in the count so often that he didn’t have the confidence to throw his power curveball or to allow his changeup to develop.
“Obviously, he had the best pure arm strength I saw,” a scouting director said. “It was frightening at times. His changeup is what makes him really intriguing. This kid has a feel for his other pitches.”
Jenks went 1-1, 1.08 with 54 strikeouts in 42 innings before he took the loss in the championship game, when his control wavered.
5. Jerome Williams, rhp, Grand Canyon (Giants)
Williams has been on the fast track since the Giants selected him in the first round out of a Hawaii high school in 1999. He spent the entire 2002 season in Triple-A as a 20-year-old (the youngest starting pitcher in the league) and held his own.
Williams was shut down after five starts and 22 innings in Arizona. He allowed just 10 hits and seven walks with 25 strikeouts. He works with a fastball in the 86-92 mph range, instead of the mid-90s he touched earlier in his career. But most scouts say it works in Williams’ favor now, and his deceptiveness and late movement make it tough to hit. He shows a veteran’s ability to change speeds in any count.
“The great pitchers do that,” the NL scout said. “His stuff doesn’t knock you out, but he’s pretty effective. He’ll run two- and four-seamers up there and break speeds off his breaking ball.”
As he wore down in the AFL, he also proved he could win without his best stuff, “which says an awful lot because you’re never going to have your best stuff 30 to 35 times a year,” the scout added.
6. Justin Morneau, 1b, Peoria (Twins)
Scouts who saw Morneau saw a tired version of the prospect they scouted during the regular season, when he hit .298-16-80 at Double-A New Britain. His natural lefthanded stroke is so smooth, though, he still managed to produce in the AFL.
“He’s got a pretty swing with serious bat speed,” one NL executive said. “He gets the bat head out. He really does have a John Olerud-looking swing. The fastball middle-in, he rakes. The fastball away, he struggled with in the fall league and swung through a lot of offspeed stuff. He looked tired.”
Morneau hit .282-5-20 in 142 AFL at-bats.
7. Hee Seop Choi, 1b, Mesa (Cubs)
With Fred McGriff on the way out of Chicago, the door is open for Choi at first base. The acquisition of Eric Karros shouldn’t present much of an obstacle.
Choi, 23, hit .345-8-17 in 84 at-bats for Mesa, showing some of the top raw power in the league. He also showed the ability to make adjustments at the plate. He employs a wide-open stance to help him cheat on hard stuff in on his hands.
“He’s a zone hitter. He’s geared to the fastball middle-down,” the NL scouting director said. “He needs to improve his plate coverage and not give too much of the plate away to the pitcher. He can muscle balls out the other way if he gives himself a chance. He has explosive power.”
Defensively, Choi will be a drop-off from McGriff. His range, arm and hands are decent, but he still needs to make subtle adjustments receiving the ball. Scouts project him as an adequate first baseman.
8. Bobby Basham, rhp, Scottsdale (Reds)
Basham emerged at low Class A Dayton as one of the Reds’ premier pitching prospects. He was restricted to just 88 innings by a muscle pull, but finished the campaign with a lights-out performance for Stockton in the high Class A California League championship game.
Basham has extraordinary command of four quality pitches. He issued nine walks against 97 strikeouts at Dayton and then walked just four with 35 strikeouts for Scottsdale. He went 3-2, 1.98 in 36 innings.
He has an unusual delivery with some effort but repeats it consistently. “He’s kind of funky, but in a good way,” the NL executive said. “It looks like he’s throwing uphill. He uses it to get leverage. But he hurts the strike zone. He just threw strikes.”
His nasty 83-87 mph slider features good downhill tilt. Some hitters mistake it for a splitter because of its late downward biting action.
9. Ken Harvey, 1b, Scottsdale (Royals)
Harvey established AFL records for average (.479), on-base percentage (.537) and slugging percentage (.752), and Royals manager Tony Pena(^) was on hand to see it. When Pena asked what Harvey could do for him, the 24-year-old confidently replied, “I will hit for you.”
He should have that opportunity in 2003, possibly as a DH. Harvey has hit at every level during his career, though his .277 clip while employing a new stance at Triple-A Omaha was a career low.
Harvey uses the whole field and stays on the ball well. He ripped 11 doubles in the AFL and was driving the ball to right-center with authority more consistently.
“He has medium bat speed but doesn’t strike out for a big man,” the AL scout said. “He’ll pick his pitches he can turn on. But he can muscle mistakes for base hits, and he picks his situation to drive the ball. I think he’s going to have some power when he recognizes pitches he can handle.”
10. Todd Wellemeyer (Cubs), rhp, Mesa
One veteran scout said Wellemeyer, Jenks and Royals righthander Kyle Snyder were the three most impressive power arms he saw in the league. A bit of a sleeper, Wellemeyer is blossoming into one Cubs’ best arms.
“I like his moxie on the mound,” an NL scout said. “He will challenge you.”
Wellemeyer went 1-2, 3.12 with 40 strikeouts in 35 innings, using a four-seamer that touches 95 mph. He uses two types of breaking balls and locates his stuff well in the zone.
He has a good, projectable pitcher’s frame with “coat-hanger” shoulders, as one scout described them. His repeats his delivery and has a loose and tension-free arm action, helping him maintain his plus velocity deep into pitch counts.
11. Scott Hairston (Diamondbacks), 2b, Scottsdale
After finishing third in the minors in hitting (.345), second in doubles (46) and slugging percentage (.603) and tied for first in extra-base hits (73) between low Class A South Bend and high Class A Lancaster, Hairston’s task in the AFL was to improve his defensive play.
While he still showed lapses in the field at times–he committed seven errors in 22 games after making 30 during the regular season–Hairston made strides and put in the work. He has more offseason work with his older brother Jerry Jr. scheduled, but scouts think it’s a matter of time before the Diamondbacks brightest young hitting prospect moves to left field.
At the plate, “He’s got lightning in his hands,” according to the AL scout. “He can hit a ball equally far to the opposite field as he can to the pull side. He’s probably as comfortable of a two-strike hitter I’ve seen in a while.”
Hart batted .275-3-20 after cranking 25 home runs during the regular season between Class A High Desert and Double-A Huntsville. He started the 2002 campaign as a first baseman, a well-stocked position in the Brewers organization and worked on his defense at the hot corner–one of the organization’s weaknesses–in Arizona.
Most scouts feel Hart’s gangly 6-foot-6 frame is better suited for an outfield corner or first base. He has a strong arm, but accuracy will be an issue from third base until he straightens out his footwork, though he did show progress.
However, there is no doubt his calling card is his bat. He generates outstanding leverage and bat speed, and is only in his first year of full-season experience.
“He makes it look a lot easier and he’s a lot more coordinated than (Richie) Sexson,” the scout said. “And he’s going to make better contact.”
13. Chase Utley (Phillies), 3b, Grand Canyon
The Phillies may have sent Utley to Arizona to speed up his timetable as a third baseman, but just days after the fall league wrapped up, third baseman David Bell signed a four-year contract with the Phillies.
Utley spent the entire season between Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes/Barre and Grand Canyon at third base. Now he might face a move back to second base (which is occupied in Philly by Placido Polanco and Marlon Anderson), where he played his first two professional seasons, or be dangled as trade bait.
Utley is a pure hitter with a good lefthanded swing and plus bat speed. He hit .308-4-23 in the AFL and showed off plenty of gap power.
14. Josh Karp (Expos), rhp, Maryvale
Scouts offered varying opinions on the Expos’ 2001 first-rounder (sixth overall), who finished up his first professional season with uninspiring numbers for Maryvale. Karp was 0-5, 5.79, but one scout called him one of the top three starting pitching prospects in the AFL.
Karp allowed 31 hits and 16 walks in 28 innings, but flashed four quality big league pitches. “He pitched the best game I saw as far as combining stuff with command,” the NL scout said.
Another scout said Karp wasn’t as smooth as he had seen in the past, but still saw 90-93 mph velocity, a fading changeup, power curve and late-breaking slider.
15. Kyle Snyder (Royals), rhp, Scottsdale
Snyder amassed just 74 innings during the 2002 season, and has just 100 in four minor league seasons because of injuries, but the Royals were extremely encouraged by his progress this fall.
At 6-foot-8, Snyder throws 90-94 with good life on a tough downward plane. He complements his heat with a plus curveball and decent changeup.
The 25-year-old was the seventh overall pick in the 1999 draft. Despite his track record, he could figure into the Royals’ 2003 plans after going 1-0, 2.89 with 25 strikeouts in 28 innings for Scottsdale.
16. Horacio Ramirez (Braves), lhp, Grand Canyon
Tommy John surgery cost Ramirez all but three starts in 2001, but once he returned to the mound at the end of May he didn’t waste any time re-establishing his top prospect status.
Ramirez, who went 15-8, 3.22 for Class A Myrtle Beach in 2000, operates with good command of an 89-93 mph fastball, above-average breaking ball and changeup. The 23-year-old was drafted in the fifth round out of Inglewood (Calif.) HS in 1997. His strong comeback effort and polished repertoire might thrust Ramirez into the Braves’ 2003 plans, especially with veteran lefty Tom Glavine fleeing to divisional rival New York.
17. Todd Linden (Giants), of, Grand Canyon
Linden signed too late to play in 2001 after the Giants selected him out of Louisiana State in the supplemental first round. He made his debut at Double-A Shreveport and finished the year in Triple-A Fresno.
He hit .269-3-13 in 119 at-bats for Grand Canyon. “He’s got holes, no question,” one scout said. “He’s aggressive. His holes are down in the zone and in, but he can really put a charge into the ball. It’s a matter of time.”
18. Mike Gonzalez (Pirates), lhp, Phoenix
A 30th-round round pick in 1997, Gonzalez was added to the Pirates 40-man roster a year ago on the heels of an impressive AFL campaign. Again, he showcased his best stuff in Arizona, posting 1.06 ERA in 17 relief innings. He gave up just 10 hits and struck out 23.
Gonzalez, 24, uses a 90-93 mph fastball and an effective breaking ball. He missed a couple months this summer for Double-A Altoona due to knee surgery, but Gonzalez is on the brink of a big league job in the Pirates bullpen.
He went 8-4, 3.80 in 85 innings for the Curve in 2002.
19. Rett Johnson (Mariners), rhp, Peoria
Johnson was just 4-2, 5.19 for Peoria, but he impressed by commanding two above-average pitches in a relief role. A starter at Double-A San Antonio this season, Johnson showed improved velocity (90-93 mph) with heavy sinking action and a knockout 87 mph slider.
“The slider featured hard, late break with depth,” one scout said. More than one scout projected Johnson as a major league setup man in the near future.
20. Taggert Bozied (Padres), 1b, Peoria
Bozied established a league record with 12 home runs after smashing 24 during the 2002 season between Class A Lake Elsinore and Double-A Mobile.
Even still, scouts didn’t come away raving about the 23-year-old. “He’s got some holes,” the AL scout said. “The ball out and away, he doesn’t recognize at this point. Maybe it’s a pitch he’ll quit swinging at, consequently closing up a hole.”
His swing is long, but he has tremendous strength and raw power to hit a ball a long way. Double-A pitchers were able to expose some of his holes, holding him to a .203 average after a midseason promotion.
“His strike zone needs to be fine-tuned,” the NL scouting director said. “He can hit the fastball, but you can really mix speeds on him. He’s a good mistake hitter, but he’s not going to hit the real good fastball.”