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Triple-A International League

Top 10 Prospects


To International League managers who didn’t have the fortune (or misfortune, as the case may be) to see Vernon Wells play for Syracuse, this wasn’t exactly the year when any prospects came out and grabbed them.

"As a (Derek) Jeter type, no, there weren’t any out there," Durham manager Bill Evers said. "There is no glaring, outstanding guy. No number one."

Evers may have held that opinion because all of Durham’s games against Syracuse were played by May 18. At that point, Wells was still in the Class A Florida State League on the first stop of his whirlwind tour through the Blue Jays system.

This year’s IL Top 10 may not make as immediate an impact as last year’s Nos. 1 and 2, the Marlins’ Alex Gonzalez and Indians’ Richie Sexson. But the league was deep in players who put up big numbers at young ages.

As Charlotte was beating Durham in the Governors’ Cup final series, 18 of the IL managers’ top 20 prospects already had played in the majors. The exceptions: No. 2 Dernell Stenson and league MVP Steve Cox, Durham’s first baseman who barely missed the Top 10 after a .341-25-127 season. And Cox was promoted to the Devil Rays after the playoffs.

Syracuse SkyChiefs (Blue Jays)

As Wells dominated the FSL early in the year, people talked about him reaching the big leagues by September 2000. Wells made it by September, all right–this September.

He capped his dazzling, one-year climb through the organization in late August, when he was promoted to Toronto and inserted as the Blue Jays’ starting center fielder. Before reaching the majors, he moved from Class A Dunedin (70 games) to Double-A Knoxville (24) to Syracuse (33), batting a combined .329-18-78 with 23 stolen bases.

Wells, still just 20, spent only a month in the IL. But every manager who saw him put him at or near the top of the list.

"I’ve only seen him play a few times, but he makes my top five," Richmond manager Randy Ingle said. "He stands out. He’s got a 20-year-old body, but from what I see he’s got a 35-year experience mentality."

Pawtucket Red Sox (Red Sox)

After losing Mo Vaughn to the Angels and before Brian Daubach emerged as a rookie-of-the-year candidate, the Red Sox were desperate for a first baseman. So in spring training, they moved Stenson from the outfield to first base and crossed their fingers.

The results were mixed. He made a whopping 34 errors in 115 games, which is hard to do for a first baseman. But Stenson, who was rated Boston’s No. 1 prospect before the season, continued his progress as a hitter.

A lefthanded batter with power to all fields, he continued to drive in runs as a Triple-A rookie. The errors didn’t bother Stenson’s manager, Gary Jones, or other IL managers.

"For a 21-year-old, he’s made a tremendous amount of improvement at a new position," Jones said. "And when he stands in the (batter’s) box, there’s a certain presence about him."

Buffalo Bisons (Indians)

When Branyan was at the plate this season, it was hit or miss–usually miss. But the managers believe Branyan, the Indians’ No. 1 prospect before the season, still has major leaguer written all over him.

"He’s got the overall skills, and that’s what you look for," Ingle said. "He’s going to play up there a long time."

In 395 at-bats for Buffalo, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Branyan struck out 190 times and hit 30 hime runs. Only a three-week stint in Cleveland in late July and early August prevented him from breaking the IL record for strikeouts in a season, 199 by Richmond’s Dave Nicholson in 1968.

A classic streak hitter, Branyan followed a 0-for-43 slump (with 27 strikeouts) with a 13-game hitting streak.

Norfolk Tides (Mets)

The only repeater from last year’s IL Top 10, Dotel moves up a spot from No. 5 after what almost certainly was his last Triple-A test.

In his 13 starts before becoming a key ingredient in the Mets rotation, Dotel baffled hitters with his mid-90s fastball and developing curveball and slider.

"He’s very conveniently wild," Louisville manager Gary Allenson said. "He’ll throw two on the black and then one at your head. Not on purpose. He’d just let it go and that’s where it would end up."

5. BRUCE CHEN, lhp
Richmond Braves (Braves)

The No. 2 prospect in a talent-laden Southern League last year, Chen’s star fell ever so slightly in 1999. It wasn’t for anything he did in Richmond, as he anchored a solid, young rotation.

This may not have been Chen’s year to make a successful leap into Atlanta’s rotation, but IL managers say his time will come. He’ll be a strong candidate for the No. 5 starter’s job again next year.

"Chen has an average fastball, but he has command to both sides," Durham’s Evers said. "He has a good breaking ball with a very good changeup."

6. RANDY WOLF, lhp
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons (Phillies)

Wolf spent only the first two months of the season in the league, but that was enough to convince managers of his potential.

Wolf, 23, doesn’t have one pitch that knocks you over the head. But he can spot his 89-91 mph fastball, has an above-average changeup and throws an improving curveball. And he’s lefthanded.

The Phillies promoted Wolf from Scranton in early June, after Carlton Loewer went on the disabled list. Wolf won his first five decisions for Philadelphia.

Norfolk Tides (Mets)

Long was traded to the Athletics in July for lefthander Kenny Rogers. While Rogers was winning nearly every time out for the Mets, Long certainly will help Oakland in the long term.

Before he helped push Vancouver into the Pacific Coast League playoffs, Long impressed IL managers with his arm and much more.

Unlike Evers, Louisville’s Allenson did think of one name instantly when asked if there was a sure-fire No. 1 prospect in 1999.

"Yes, I have one. Terrence Long," said Allenson, who had similar praise for Sexson last season. "He will be a 30-30 player. Some people were downplaying that, but to me he’s the best player in the league."

Columbus Clippers (Yankees)

Futures Game MVP Alfonso Soriano wasn’t in the league long enough to be considered for this list, but Columbus already had a 21-year-old Dominican shortstop playing at an accelerated level.

Nearly every manager found a place for Jimenez on his individual top 10. A few see him more as a second baseman than a shortstop, but in an organization with Jeter and Soriano, that may not be much of a knock. He even spent time at third base for the Yankees in September.

"He definitely can catch the ball. And he’s an outstanding runner, a switch-hitter who puts the ball in play," Pawtucket’s Jones said. "His only below-average tool is power, and he may hit with more power."

"He’s a good contact hitter with gap power." Evers said. "He’s had a solid season and he’s very durable."

Rochester Red Wings (Orioles)

By putting Hairston on this list, IL managers showed that defense still counts for something in this home run-happy era.

Not that Hairston is an automatic out; he has a lifetime minor league average of more than .300. But his calling card is his glove, and even longtime IL observers had a hard time remembering a better defensive second baseman.

"With so much emphasis on offense, everybody’s looking for that Carlos Baerga or Alex Rodriguez middle infielder who’s going to hit 30 home runs," Syracuse manager Pat Kelly said. "But I hope he doesn’t get overlooked, because he’s tremendous defensively."

10. ED YARNALL, lhp
Columbus Clippers (Yankees)

In his first full Triple-A season, Yarnall led the IL in ERA, was second in wins and third in strikeouts to earn league pitcher-of-the-year honors.

The former Louisiana State ace, who previously pitched in the Mets and Marlins organizations, made his major league debut this year with the Yankees, and showed he might be there for quite a while.

"He’s a power pitcher with an explosive fastball," Evers said of Yarnall, who came from the Marlins this spring in a trade for third baseman Mike Lowell. "The last two or three feet through the strike zone, his fastball really has life. He has a good breaking ball and knows how to pitch."

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