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Double-A Southern League

Top 10 Prospects


Vernon Wells played a mere 29 games in the Southern League on his way north to Toronto this season. But when it came time to compare the blossoming talent of this Blue Jays prospect with the relatively slim pickings in the SL this year, Wells was an easy (and consensus) No. 1 prospect in the minds of the managers who faced him.

In a sweep, every Southern League manager who faced Wells rated him as the top prospect they saw in 1999. Further, it wasn’t close.

"For me, he was a five-tool player," said Chattanooga manager Phillip Wellman. "I didn’t see any glaring weaknesses. He can throw, he can run, he’s got some pop in his bat."

The bigger story in Wells’ selection as No. 1 is the absence of any other top-shelf prospects in the league in 1999. "Worst year ever," said one manager. "Way, way down," said another.

In direct contradiction to the many complaints about a talent void is the number of Southern League callups to the major leagues before 1999 even wound down.

Led by Wells’ late-August callup to Toronto, no less than half of this year’s Top 10 Prospects leapfrogged Triple-A to log big league time. Among those who left Double-A in the rear-view mirror were White Sox righthanders Kip Wells and Aaron Myette (from Birmingham), Tigers closer Francisco Cordero (from Jacksonville) and Padres catcher Wiki Gonzalez (from Mobile).

Other players didn’t rate top 10 status, but still got the more coveted validation of a callup to the majors. They included Cubs reliever Steve Rain and second baseman Chad Meyers, Orioles reliever (by way of Chattanooga and a trade) B.J. Ryan, short-timer shortstop Travis Dawkins (Chattanooga) and two more Birmingham pitchers, Pat Daneker and Joe Davenport.

So who’s a prospect anyway? This year they’ve been hard to describe, but easy to find.

Knoxville Smokies (Blue Jays)

Wells left a .340 average behind in Knoxville after beginning the year with a .343 mark in the Class A Florida State League. He went on to Triple-A Syracuse, hit .310 there, then ran into major league pitching (.167) in the final month.

"I can compare him to Andruw Jones at a comparable stage," said Greenville Braves manager Paul Runge, who can compare Jones, having managed him during a similarly meteoric rise. "He’s a five-tool player and he’s already in the big leagues."

"He’s just a natural talent," Orlando Rays manager Bill Russell said. "He could run, get good jumps on the ball in the outfield. Offensively, he did not have a bad at-bat against us. He wasn’t fooled by anything."

Jacksonville Suns (Tigers)

In a Wells-less world, Cordero would be without peer in the league. As it is, he’s sandwiched right between Vernon and Kip. His midseason promotion to the majors only underscores the quality of his performance.

"He came to camp really healthy, and once he found out he was OK he threw the ball great," said Jacksonville manager Dave Anderson, recalling Cordero’s fractured elbow of a year ago. "He threw three days in a row, he threw three times in four days without a problem. The last six weeks he was in the league, he was really locked in."

"Obviously, he’s a future closer in the big leagues," Runge said.

3. KIP WELLS, rhp
Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

Birmingham’s starting pitching staff was nearly an interchangeable assortment of prospects. Four Barons starters received serious Top 10 consideration. Wells, who stayed unsigned well into last winter after being drafted in 1998, passed everyone and landed on a shuttle to the big leagues.

Counting two major league wins, Wells had 15 for the season with a couple of weeks left in Chicago. He went 8-2 in the Southern League.

4. ROB BELL, rhp
Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)

Bell claimed a place in the Top 10 despite winning just three games. He won his first three starts, offsetting a scary elbow injury that shut him down for 100 days but did not require surgery. But he had no wins in his other nine starts despite a 3.13 overall ERA while exhibiting pinpoint command.

"He’s probably one of the fiercest competitors in the league," said Runge, who managed Bell last year at Class A Danville in the Braves organization. "He will be a blue-chipper as a starter."

After being traded from the Braves last November, Bell earned two of his three wins against Runge’s team.

Jacksonville Suns (Tigers)

While no consensus exists for any remaining player on this year’s list, Cardona’s combination of power and consistency at the plate (.309 with a league-leading 26 home runs) and shutting down opponents’ running games gave him plenty of support.

In fact, his homer total surpassed his entire previous career total. He had 23 in 1,168 at-bats spread over five seasons before this year.

"He’s a good-looking catcher, even before you throw in his power hitting ability," Runge said.

Mobile BayBears (Padres)

For the second straight year, a Padres catcher jumped from the BayBears to the majors, with Gonzalez following Ben Davis to the big leagues and already battling Davis for big league playing time.

Consider Gonzalez’ quality average this season (.338 in 61 games, which is 60 points better than his career average coming into the season) and Cardona’s power, and you have two catchers in the league who are coveted by many other organizations.

"It didn’t happen for him overnight," Mobile manager Mike Basso said. "We got him to start using the whole field at (Class A) Rancho Cucamonga, and he’s honed his receiving as he’s worked his way up."

Of his defensive tools, Chattanooga’s Wellman said, "He has a tremendous arm."

Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds)

While teammate Brady Clark swept up the awards (MVP and batting title), Diaz justified the $1 million-plus bonus awarded him by the Reds earlier this year—despite nursing a sore elbow through April.

Wellman, who managed Diaz, said the 20-year-old is a "five-tool player who has an arm that could make him a big league center fielder yesterday."

Other managers said it will take more time to see how Diaz’ tools develop, but they agreed that he has the potential to be an impact player.

"He’s just an exciting young player, one whose arm can really surprise you at times," Runge said.

Birmingham Barons (White Sox)

Kip Wells’ departure for the major leagues left Myette first among Birmingham’s staff of equals. He performed nearly as proficiently as Wells, and he is five months younger.

"He has a real good fastball. I don’t expect him to stay in the minors very long," said West Tenn’s Dave Trembley, who proved to be a proficient predictor. Myette made his big league debut in September.

"He and Kip Wells were as good as anyone we saw," Runge said.

Mobile BayBears (Padres)

A second full year in a league doesn’t normally speak well for a player’s progress. But this switch-hitting 1997 first-round pick was clearly among the managers’ favorites despite committing too many errors.

Nicholson, who has always been regarded as an offensive shortstop, had 13 home runs and 81 RBIs to make up for his 32 errors. That made up for a 1998 season in which he hit .215-5-52 for the BayBears.

"There are not 10 bona fide position players in the league who you can say are major league prospects," Trembley said. "He’s one of them."

West Tenn Diamond Jaxx (Cubs)

Some are willing to sell this converted backup catcher short. Not Jacksonville’s Anderson, whose team gave up five of Zuleta’s home runs.

Runge, another victim of Zuleta’s power, added, "He’s got a chance to be a valuable guy. He hit the ball as hard as anyone in the league."

"He’s made himself into a legitimate power-type prospect," said his manager, Trembley. "He has also played a whole lot better at first base than we thought he would."

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