Pitchers the highlight of Dodgers' system

Five years ago, the Dodgers farm system was in poor condition. A series of mediocre or downright bad drafts, plus a decline in Latin American scouting, left Los Angeles with an empty farm system. But the last few years have seen dramatic improvement. The last three drafts have been more impressive, and the foreign scouting operation was revamped.

The Dodgers now have a solid farm system, particularly when it comes to pitching. GM Dan Evans, scouting director Logan White, former scouting director Ed Creech, and former farm director Bill Bavasi deserve kudos for pulling the system out of the doldrums.

Philosophically, the Dodgers prefer high school talent in the draft, and haven't been afraid to take chances with prep pitchers of promise. All of their top pitching prospects hail from the high school ranks. This can be risky, but so far at least the Dodgers have had decent results, though we need to see how many of the top group can stay healthy. With hitters, they focus on athletic tools rather than pure baseball skills. Not surprisingly, they have fewer hitting prospects right now than pitching prospects. As an organization, they would benefit from more emphasis on plate discipline.

Here is a look at the best prospects in the Dodgers farm system.

Top pitching prospects
Edwin Jackson, RHP
Drafted in the sixth round in 2001, out of high school in Columbus, Ga. Jackson is athletic, with a perfect pitcher's body at 6-3, 190. He has a plus fastball, good command of his slider and changeup, and has a good chance to make the rotation this spring. One of the best prospects in baseball without a doubt, second only to Cincinnati's Ryan Wagner among National League RHP prospects.

Greg Miller, LHP
Selected in the supplemental first round in 2002, out of high school in Lakewood, Calif. A tall southpaw at 6-5, 190, Miller tore through two levels last year, dominating Double-A in 27 innings. His progress has been very rapid, thanks to his improving fastball (95 mph at times) and nasty curveball. His command is also sharp. Main worry is health, as a sore shoulder ended his season prematurely.

Joel Hanrahan, RHP
Hanrahan was a second-round pick in 2000, out of high school in Norwalk, Iowa. He doesn't have the pure ceiling of Miller or Jackson, but he's a solid overall prospect on the strength of his 90-92 mph sinker, good slider, and decent changeup. Ticketed for Triple-A in '04, he projects as an innings-eater down the road.

Chad Billingsley, RHP
Latest edition to the Dodgers stable of high school pitching prospects, Billingsley was drafted in the first round last year, out of high school in Defiance, Ohio. Billingsley works in the low-to-mid-90s with his fastball, and complements it well with an advanced curveball and changeup. He is very polished considering his experience level, and should advance quickly.

Top hitting prospects
James Loney, 1B
First-round pick in 2002 out of high school in Missouri City, Texas. A wrist injury reduced Loney's effectiveness in '03, though he managed to hold his own against older competition in the Florida State League. Should hit for power and average, and also has a good glove at first base. Just 20, and could be fast-tracked if he gets off to a hot start in '04.

Franklin Gutierrez, OF
This power/speed player was signed as a free agent out of Venezuela in 2000. He hit 24 homers and stole 20 bases combined at two levels of 2003. He will need to prove he can control the strike zone against advanced pitching. For a full report on Gutierrez, click here to see his recent Down on the Farm profile.

Delwyn Young, 2B
Santa Barbara Community College product Delwyn Young was drafted in the fourth round in 2002. He hit .323 with 15 homers and 38 doubles for Class A South Georgia in '03, emerging as a top offensive prospect. His bat looks real, but he needs to improve his defense: He made 32 errors, and could end up at another position.

Xavier Paul, OF
A fourth-round pick in '03 out of high school in Slidell, La. Paul hit .307 in his pro debut in the Pioneer League, showing a sharp stroke from the left side, decent plate discipline, and some power potential. He also has a strong outfield arm.

Koyie Hill, C
A fourth-round pick in '00, from Wichita State. Hill hit .314 in Triple-A in '03, and should be able to hit for average at the major league level. His power is marginal, however, and his defense still needs some work.

Reggie Abercrombie, OF
A tremendous natural athlete, Abercrombie was drafted in the 23rd round in 1999, out of Lake City Community College in Florida. He draws comparisons to Eric Davis and a young Ellis Burks. Abercrombie hit .261 with 15 homers and 26 steals in Double-A last year, but like many Dodgers prospects, he has problems controlling the strike zone. He has immense potential if he can refine his approach at the plate.

Jon Broxton, RHP
Broxton was drafted in the second round in '02, out of high school in Waynesboro, Ga. Owner of a 95-mph fastball, Broxton posted a 3.13 ERA in eight starts at South Georgia in '03 before going down with sore biceps. He should be healthy by spring training. He isn't far behind the top pitching group in terms of raw talent, and if health issues don't crop up again, he should be an impressive prospect.

Andy LaRoche, 2B
Drafted in the 39th round in '03 from Grayson County Community College, LaRoche had first- or second-round talent but a lot of people didn't think he was signable. He hit just .221 in a brief outing in the Pioneer League, but most scouts think he will hit for power and average at higher levels.

Mike Megrew, LHP
A Rhode Islander, Megrew was drafted out of high school in the fifth round in 2002 from Hope Valley. He posted a 3.40 ERA and a sharp 99/24 K/BB ratio in 77 innings in the Pioneer League in '03. His best pitch is his changeup, but his fastball and curve are respectable, and he could make a splash in '04.

Brian Pilkington, RHP
This California high schooler was drafted in the second round in 2001. In 305 career innings, most at the A-ball level, he has a 203/36 K/BB ratio. His walk rate is extremely low. Pilkington doesn't have as much pure stuff as Jackson or
Miller, but his command is exquisite.

Willy Aybar, 3B
A Dominican signed in 2000, Aybar was supposed to be a massive power source in the infield. Instead, he's put up fairly mediocre numbers. He hit .274/.336/.427 at Vero Beach in '03, but he was repeating the league. His plate discipline is erratic, and he hasn't tapped his natural power yet. On the other hand, he's still just 21, so it is too early to give up on him. But he's certainly not hit as well as expected.

Joel Guzman, SS
Like Aybar, Guzman is a toolsy Dominican signed to great fanfare, earning a $2.25 million bonus in 2001. He's hit .242/.289/.382 so far in A-ball, and hasn't shown the Miguel Cabrera/Alex Rodriguez class of talent that some scouts anticipated. His plate discipline is shaky, and his hitting skills are still raw. At age 19, he still has plenty of time to develop, but he's fallen behind other prospects on the Dodgers depth charts.

Joe Thurston, 2B
A major disappointment in 2003, Thurston was supposed to hold down the second base job all season and compete for the NL Rookie of the Year award. But the strike zone got away from him in spring training, and he stagnated in his second go-around in the PCL at Las Vegas. He has one last window to rebound this spring, but he needs to get more disciplined at the plate in order to help the Dodgers.

John Sickels is the author of The Baseball Prospect Book 2004, which can be ordered through his Web site, Johnsickels.com. His other book, Bob Feller: Ace of the Greatest Generation, is also out, and can be ordered through on-line book outlets or your local bookstore. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife Jeri, son Nicholas, and feline friends Toonces and Spot.