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Background: When Penny was drafted, he was a slinger who fell off badly to the first-base side. Without adjustments, that's usually a recipe for a torn rotator cuff or labrum. But pitching coach Mark Connor, who like the rest of the Diamondbacks big league staff joined the organization before they fielded a team, succeeded in closing Penny's delivery and raising his arm slot. His success since then is easy to document. Pitching all but the last three weeks of 1998 as a teenager, Penny was the California League's MVP. Strengths: You can describe Penny in two ways--a power pitcher with great command or a control pitcher with great stuff. His fastball is in the 92-94 mph range with heavy sink and can go as high as 97 mph. Because of Penny's heavy fastball and his command of it, he allowed no road home runs in 1998 and just seven at hitter-friendly High Desert. His curveball has excellent action and Penny can spot it in the strike zone at will. Penny's changeup is also a solid pitch. As if he needs more superlatives, the Diamondbacks save their greatest praise for Penny's mound makeup. He is ultra-competitive with a nasty attitude towards hitters. Arizona personnel compared Penny's demeanor during games to Don Drysdale's and Bob Gibson's, lofty praise for a 20-year-old. Weaknesses: Arizona has unintentionally stacked its system with parks that are hitting havens. Penny will get tested again this year at Double-A El Paso. Aside from working on his fundamentals and staying healthy, he doesn't need specific work on much of anything. The Future: Penny and No. 2 prospect John Patterson are probably as closely matched as any organization's top two prospects, and those in the organization can't come to a consensus as to whom to call No. 1. At this point, Penny is a shade ahead. He figures to get the first call to Phoenix, but either one could have the better career. The Diamondbacks are stacked in starting pitching at the big league level and they tend to be conservative with young pitchers, so a full minor league season for Penny in 1999 remains likely.
Background: Patterson has done nothing to disappoint the Diamondbacks since signing for a $6.075 million bonus as a "loophole" free agent in 1996. While Penny won the California League's MVP award, Patterson won the ERA title. Strengths: Patterson has extra long arms and legs, which he uses to full advantage. He consistently throws his fastball in the 95-96 mph range and reports have had the pitch as fast as 99 mph. Patterson's curveball is in the low 80s with excellent bite and plane. His changeup has progressed. Weaknesses: Though his walk ratios are low for a young power pitcher, Patterson throws too many pitches to each hitter and needs to trust in his stuff more. He has averaged just 4.7 innings a start in two years as a professional, a large factor in his 9-16 overall record. The Future: While Penny is more of a sure thing than Patterson, Patterson's ceiling approaches Kerry Wood's because of his ability to throw two overwhelming power pitches. The key will be whether Patterson continues to develop his mound presence and confidence.
Background: Bierbrodt was Arizona's first-ever Draft pick. He signed a unique contract that guaranteed him a $525,000 bonus but linked the final figure to the average of other first-round signings. Bierbrodt eventually received a bonus of $1.046 million and that type of contract was later declared illegal by Major League Baseball. Strengths: Bierbrodt has an ideal pitcher's body and is an excellent athlete for his size. He already has a veteran's touch and feel with his pitches. He mixes a sinking 89-91 mph fastball, a good curveball and a plus changeup, according to hitters and situations. Weaknesses: Bierbrodt's velocity has improved since he signed but he probably will never have plus stuff across the board. He still needs to get ahead of more hitters and cut down on his walks. The Future: Even without the raw stuff that Penny and Patterson possess, Bierbrodt is strongly linked to the two righthanders in the Diamondbacks' plan. He will start 1999 at Double-A El Paso.
Background: The first player ever to sign with the Diamondbacks, Nunez started for two years then moved to the bullpen in the middle of last season and remained a reliever in the Arizona Fall League. Strengths: Nunez has an overpowering fastball that is consistently in the 95-96 mph range. When he keeps it low, it has good sinking life. His slider frequently has plus action and is gradually becoming a solid second pitch. He may have the aggressive, resilient mentality that is perfect for the closer's role. Weaknesses: As a starter, Nunez would noticeably lose concentration and command in the fourth or fifth inning. That's not a concern anymore, but he still needs better feel for his changeup so hitters don't sit on his hard stuff. The Future: After a successful stint in the AFL, Nunez appears comfortable with his new role. Gregg Olson is firmly entrenched as the major league closer for the short term, but Nunez will be given an extended chance this spring as a set-up man.
Background: Cust dominated the Pioneer League in his first full season of play. He led the league in runs and walks as he posted a .530 on-base percentage, the best in all of professional baseball. Strengths: Cust is an offensive machine who combines enormous raw power with exacting plate discipline in the Frank Thomas mold. The organization's favorite stories are of his batting practice exploits (10 straight home runs during one show) or how he has already mastered the veteran art of dictating an umpire's strike zone. Weaknesses: Cust played first base in high school but has been moved to left field because of Travis Lee's presence. The conversion has been rough so far. Cust lacks mobility and balance once he's under way and has been slow to learn basic outfield fundamentals. He is not much better defensively at first base, either. The Future: Cust has been told he'll have to learn to play a passable left field, and that first base will not be an option. His offensive potential may overshadow any defensive shortcomings.
Background: Arizona chose Klassen from the Brewers in the second round of the expansion draft with the 37th overall pick. Klassen is the only expansion selection to make either Arizona's or Tampa Bay's Top 10 Prospects list. Strengths: Klassen made 50 errors in Double-A in 1997 but his current bosses rave about his defensive skills. After changing the positioning of his hands and improving his footwork, he cut his errors to 13 in 1998. Offensively, Klassen has above-average power potential for a middle infielder. Weaknesses: The Diamondbacks played Klassen at second base in his big league trial last year and say that his inexperience at that position affected his offense. After a quick start, Klassen also fell prey to pitchers who threw him breaking balls off the outside corner. The Future: Klassen's season ended prematurely in 1998 with an impingement in his right shoulder but he should be healthy for 1999. He is an underdog to supplant Tony Batista at shortstop but could make the team in a utility role because of his offensive potential.
Background: Nunez was the second youngest player in the Midwest League last season behind teammate Carlos Urquiola, yet was still one of the league's elite prospects. He already has grown an inch and added 20 pounds since his signing. Strengths: Nunez draws raves for his tools and exceptionally high ceiling. He has one of the strongest arms in the minors and excellent range. Offensively, the switch-hitting Nunez shows uncommon patience for a young player and is just starting to realize his power potential. Weaknesses: With long arms and legs, Nunez will have to learn the quicker, shorter actions needed at the upper levels of the game. He is a long strider whose slow first step hurts him on the bases. The Future: The Diamondbacks are undecided whether to let Nunez play his more natural right field or give him a chance to learn to play center, where he played some last season. With a number of promising young outfielders behind him, he'll likely be challenge at Class A High Desert this spring.
Background: Conti wasn't drafted until after his senior year in college, and even then he was an afterthought. As proof that talent evaluation isn't an exact science, Conti has a career .324 minor league batting average and led the minors in runs in 1998 while on loan to the Rangers' Double-A club. Strengths: Conti's best asset, according to scouts, is a fierce determination to hit. He has enough strength and bat speed to drive balls to the gaps and is an above-average runner. Conti's ideal position defensively is center field, where he has solid instincts and plenty of range, but he also has the arm strength to play right field. Weaknesses: Because his power is considered short for the corner outfield positions, Conti probably will have to maintain his center-field defensive abilities to become a big league starter. The Future: Because he hits lefthanded, runs well and can play all three outfield positions, Conti has a shot at making the major league team this spring. The long-term obstacle will be the four-year contract that Steve Finley signed this offseason.
Background: Rexrode's position, height and small high school background contradict most prospect's resumes, but he has performed above expectations. Strengths: Rexrode has an excellent offensive aptitude and the potential to become a top-notch leadoff hitter. He has a short swing designed for line drives and high batting averages. Very adept at working counts and drawing walks, he has a free-spirited confidence on the field. His first-step quickness is well-above-average and he was caught stealing just four times last season. Weaknesses: Rexrode's offense is well ahead of his defense. His defensive strong point is turning double plays, where his quick hands are an asset. But he still needs improvement on his footwork and basic fundamentals. The Future: Although his tools and skills are a good fit for a big league second baseman, Rexrode is undoubtedly a sleeper. He will begin 1999 at High Desert, where he hit .341 the second half of last season.