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2007 Top prospects: Nos. 45-31

Posted: Friday January 19, 2007 1:39PM; Updated: Monday January 22, 2007 12:32PM
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Jeff Niemann bounced back from injury woes to post impressive numbers in Class AA last season.
Jeff Niemann bounced back from injury woes to post impressive numbers in Class AA last season.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Top Prospects Countdown Schedule
Wednesday, Jan. 17: Honorable Mentions
Wednesday, Jan. 17: Nos. 75-61
Thursday, Jan. 18: Nos. 60-46
Friday, Jan. 19: Nos. 45-31
Monday, Jan. 22: Nos. 30-16
Tuesday, Jan. 23: Nos. 15-1
  • Click here for Bryan Smith's 2006 list of Top Prospects and here for 2005.
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    By Bryan Smith, Special to SI.com

    This is part three of a five-part series on the top 75 prospects in professional baseball.

    For the purposes of this list, a prospect is a player who played predominantly in the minor leagues last season or was drafted in the 2006 June draft. A player loses eligibility for this list once he surpasses 50 innings pitched or 130 at-bats in the major leagues. Players are judged based on what scouting and statistical reports claim on their potential. Each prospect is presented below with his 2007 baseball age and 2006 statistics.

    45. Jeff Niemann, 24, RH SP, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
    2006 Stats (Class AA): 2.68 ERA, 56H/77.1IP, 84K/29BB

    It's not a good sign for a first-round prospect to take two years to notch his first professional win, but for Niemann, it finally indicates a full bill of health. Niemann had not pitched with such a healthy right arm since his sophomore year at Rice, when he posted a legendary college season: 17-0, 1.70 ERA, 156 strikeouts and a million innings. Niemann no longer touches 99 and his curveball doesn't have quite the tilt, but his stuff is still above-average and he's pitching smarter than ever. In his last 10 appearances, a short stint in the Arizona Fall League included, Niemann has a 1.87 ERA, 32 hits allowed and 56 strikeouts in 53 innings, and his first five pro wins.

    44. Franklin Morales, 21, LH SP, Colorado Rockies
    2006 Stats (A+): 3.68 ERA, 126H/154IP, 179K/89BB

    Thanks to the California heat, Morales flew through his 2006 season with less publicity than many names on this list. Despite consistently racking up huge strikeout numbers, Morales struggled in the summer when the California League is most hitter-friendly. Between June 11 and Aug. 12, Morales posted a 5.16 ERA, allowing hits and home runs at rates unlike the rest of his season. Out of California in 2007, Morales' only concern remains his awful control, which the Rockies will attempt to alleviate by forcing him to set up his big fastball early in the count more often.

    43. Jacoby Ellsbury, 23, CF, Boston Red Sox
    2006 Stats (A+/AA): .303/.382/.425, 41 SB in 442 AB

    In Beantown, the shadow of Johnny Damon loomed over Coco Crisp in 2006, and Crisp failed to meet the expectations left by the former Boston fan favorite. If Crisp is not the answer in the post-Damon era, then perhaps it is Ellsbury. Compared to Damon since his days at Oregon State, Ellsbury is the best leadoff prospect in the minor leagues. His best trait is one of the game's best offensive approaches, a combination of very good patience and excellent contact ability. Ellsbury constantly puts pressure on the defense, both by getting the ball into play and then running like heck after he's made contact. A different shadow will be looming over Crisp in 2007 as Ellsbury races his way to the majors.

    42. Clay Buchholz, 22, SP, Boston Red Sox
    2006 Stats (A-/A+): 2.42 ERA, 88H/119IP, 140K/33BB

    Boston had high hopes for Buchholz and teammate Mike Bowden this season, hoping to add another great 1-2 minor league combo after graduating Jon Papelbon and Jon Lester to the majors. While Bowden stuck out with an excellent start to full season ball, Buchholz separated himself with a fantastic end to his season. In his last 15 starts, three in the Carolina League, Buchholz posted a 1.64 ERA with a WHIP under 1.00. The right-hander didn't wear down, either, touching 97 mph with his fastball at High-A in August. With secondary pitches almost there, Buchholz seems nearly ready to turn a big corner.

    41. Hunter Pence, 24, OF, Houston Astros
    2006 Stats (AA): .283/.357/.533, 17 SB in 523 AB

    Due to his small-college background and abnormal swing, Pence will have to prove himself at every level. He did so in 2006, dominating the Texas League despite no longer having a noticeable age advantage over the competition. Pence's month-by-month statistics are all over the board, though he did remain consistent in two areas: power and strikeouts. While months with different BABIPs (Batting Average on Balls In Play) fluctuated his batting average substantially, Pence showed he can be a 25-home run threat (albeit with 125 strikeouts) in the majors. His 2006 batting line represents his big league ceiling, I think, but Pence will still have to prove it all over again in 2007.

    40. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 22, C, Atlanta Braves
    2006 Stats (AA): .230/.353/.380, 0 SB in 313 AB

    With the exception of the player one spot above him on this list, Salty is about as hard to place as a prospect gets. After Salty's monster season in pitcher-friendly Myrtle Beach in 2005, the general thinking was that he and Brian McCann would both have big seasons in '06, leaving Atlanta with a tough decision to make in 2007. So much for that. While McCann had a season that rivaled that of any other catcher in the majors, Salty entered July with a batting average below the Mendoza Line. Salty did improve defensively last year, and for most of the season did show scouts a good offensive approach. In his last 29 games (including the AFL), he hit .400, slugged .747, and had a 26-15 walk-to-strikeout ratio.

    39. Elijah Dukes, 23, OF, Tampa Bay Devil Rays
    2006 Stats (AAA): .293/.401/.488, 9 SB in 283 AB

    Let's make our way through a prospect checklist. Body? The former linebacker is a toned 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. Power? Tons of it, I saw Dukes hit a home run 500 feet off Chuck James in 2006. Contact ability? Dukes has struck out in just 17.9 percent of his at-bats the past two seasons. Speed? Despite his size Dukes is a threat on the bases and gifted in the field. Arm? Dukes had seven outfield assists in 76 games with Durham. Patience? Dukes walks in more than 10 percent of his plate appearances. Makeup? Not exactly. League and team suspensions, arrests and fights have unfortunately defined Dukes' career up to this point.

    38. Bill Rowell, 18, 3b, Baltimore Orioles
    2006 Stats (R/SS): .328/.415/.503, 3 SB in 195 AB

    If the 2006 June Draft were reheld today, Rowell would be the first high school position player drafted. This is validation for the Orioles, who did make him the first prep position player in the '06 draft, but have been among the worst organizations in the draft for more than 10 seasons. Rowell is a man-child of a teenager -- 6-foot-5, 205 pounds -- with room to fill out and power on the horizon. Once he adds enough muscle, scouts predict a slugger with amazing power potential. Rowell still has to shorten his swing some to be successful, and third base might not be his ultimate home, but projection outweighs reality here. And still, Rowell has proven it on the diamond -- after a rough 11-game start, the pride of New Jersey slugged .563 in his last 42 games.

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