VERO BEACH, Fla. -- In Baseball America's current list of the top 100 prospects, here's why Dodgers phenom Joel Guzman was listed as No. 5 overall.
"He's Juan Gonzalez waiting to happen."
The fact that Gonzalez was one of the most productive outfielders of the 1990s and that Guzman is a shortstop just scratches the surface of the fascination surrounding the 20-year-old prospect.
Being the top prospect in the Dodgers' minor league system hasn't always translated into Major League success. There are plenty of Angel Penas littering the landscape.
But, by all accounts, Guzman is the real deal.
"His ceiling, offensively, is off the chart," said farm director Terry Collins. "The only shortstop I can really compare him to is Cal Ripken. And that's pretty unfair, to compare him to Ripken when he's 20."
It is Guzman's size that is part of the fascination. He is listed at 6-foot-6 and 225 pounds. That's at shortstop, not small forward. Of course, most scouts say they aren't sure where he'll play in the field eventually; they just know it won't be shortstop.
Some say third base is his natural destination, especially since the departure of Adrian Beltre. Some say first base, especially with the uncertainty there. Skills-wise, some say right field, which is where the Gonzalez comparison fits. Collins said Guzman is staying at shortstop, at least for a while, because there's no compelling reason to move him.
Guzman was no secret in the Dominican Republic when, at age 16, he signed with the Dodgers for a whopping $2.25 million bonus. Fluent enough in English to serve as a team interpreter, he did nothing particularly outstanding his first two professional seasons and wasn't even listed in Baseball America's Top 10 Dodgers prospects a year ago. But then came the breakthrough.
"It was the first week of May and I was away from the team. Coach Juan Bustabad put Joel in the three-hole, and he caught fire that night; [he] had three hits, and that was it," said Scott Little, Guzman's manager last year at Class A Vero Beach. "It was like he said, 'This is mine.' He became The Man."
Guzman hit .307 with 14 homers and 51 RBIs in 87 games at Vero Beach, was promoted to Double-A Jacksonville and hit .280 with nine homers and 35 RBIs in 46 games. Then he went home and played in the Dominican Winter League, a serious circuit peppered with Major League veterans, where he hit .298.
Management, however, did not invite Guzman to Major League camp this spring, and is considering sending him back to open the 2005 season at Jacksonville. But no one who has seen him play will be surprised if he finishes the year in Los Angeles.
"Two years ago, he struggled at Columbus, but we promoted him to Vero Beach, anyway, and he responded and started looking like a top prospect," said Jerry Royster, then the infield coordinator and now the manager at Triple-A Las Vegas. "He likes to be challenged. I know he wanted to come to camp, that I do know. I can't wait for everybody to see him."
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Royster said he's part of a small minority that believes Guzman should remain at shortstop.
"There will always be someone smaller and quicker, but nobody's told me why he can't play there," said Royster. "He has everything it takes to be a big league shortstop."
Mariano Duncan, once a touted shortstop in the Dodgers system who will be Royster's coach, said Guzman will be a superstar.
"At his age, I didn't think like he thinks," said Duncan. "He sees a nasty pitch, he lets it go. I ask him what he's thinking, and he says, 'That plate belongs to me.' He recognizes the strike zone. Latin players come to swing the bat. You don't find too many guys like that."
Pitcher Derek Thompson, a teammate at Jacksonville, marvels at Guzman's ability.
"He stands way off the plate and reached all the way across to get outside pitches," said Thompson. "He's amazing. He's smart. He's basically a big leaguer already. If I was coming up behind him, I'd ask for my release."
Collins said Guzman needs to be told only once, like the time he failed to run out a pop fly.
"We had a little conversation," said Collins. "I never saw it again. He's a young guy, and you forget it by watching him play. He's an 18-year-old leader. That's a load to carry. Since he signed, he's been in the spotlight. Everything he does is being watched. If he goes through the motions, everybody sees it. But he's doing better than fine. He's great. It's fun to watch him grow as a person and a player."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.