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2003 League Top 20s: Northwest League
Baseball America's League Top 20 lists are generated from consultations with scouts and league managers. To qualify for consideration, a player must have spent at least one-third of the season in a league. Position players must have one plate appearance for every league game. Pitchers must pitch 1/3 inning for every league game, and relievers have to have made at least 20 appearances in full-season leagues and 10 in short-season ones.
by Will Kimmey
The Spokane Indians already planned a celebration for the franchise's 100th anniversary. At the end of the season, they had to plan another party, a victory celebration. The Indians posted the league's best record at 50-26 and finished the job by winning their second short-season Northwest League championship in five years.
After eight years as a Royals affiliate, Spokane signed on with the Rangers for this year. Nine of Texas' first 12 picks in the June draft were in Spokane at some point. Polished college pitchers like righthanders Wes Littleton (fourth round) and Matt Farnum (seventh) helped the club lead the league with a 3.38 ERA and seven shutouts. No. 9 overall pick John Danks, a high schooler, joined the Indians late and didn't pitch enough to qualify for this list.
Spokane also dominated offensively, scoring 52 more runs than any other team. Outfielder Jeremy Cleveland led the way, leading the league with 64 runs and losing the batting title by one point to teammate Dane Bubela (.323). Despite their domination, the Indians placed only two players on the list of the league's top 20 prospects.
Though the league featured players with three or four years of college experience, nine teenagers still cracked the top 20, including two of the best three prospects in 17-year-old Felix Hernandez and 19-year-old Nate Schierholtz.
1. Felix Hernandez, rhp, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
In a league filled with college players, Hernandez dominated at 17. He led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts for most of the summer, before allowing four earned runs over five innings in his final start before a promotion to low Class A Wisconsin. "He more or less dominated every time he took the mound," Tri-City manager Ron Gideon said.
Hernandez throws his overpowering fastball at 94-95 mph and it tops out at 97, with some managers saying it could reach 100. He commands it well, moving it all over the strike zone, and is adept at working hitters up the ladder. He also has a plus curveball and solid changeup. He has a good presence on the mound and a knack for pitching.
"He's not raw at all," Spokane manager Darryl Kennedy said. "The only rawness is that he is 17 years old. He's one of the better young prospects on the mound in this league in a while."
2. Conor Jackson, of, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
The Diamondbacks shifted Jackson, a corner infielder at California, to the outfield. Shoulder tendinitis kept him from getting too much work in left field, where his adequate arm and speed give him a chance to be average at best.
But his bat was more than enough to shoot him up the prospect list. Jackson belted a league-record 35 doubles, or one in every seven at-bats, and led the league in RBIs.
“He hit a ton of doubles, and a lot of those doubles just missed being home runs and bounced off the wall,” Spokane manager Darryl Kennedy said. “He’ll also hit for average. He’s going to put up some monster numbers down the road.”
Jackson’s quick bat can catch up to any fastball, and he makes adjustments on breaking balls. Jackson is still mainly a pull hitter and needs to work on going the opposite way. While many project more power from Jackson, some managers said he was more likely to hit for a high average without ever developing standout power.
3. Nate Schierholtz, 3b, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Schierholtz emerged as one of the 2003 draft's surprise choices, a second-rounder who was on few teams' boards. One manager called Schierholtz the draft's best sleeper, and his .306 average would have ranked third in the league had he qualified. He debuted in the Rookie-level Arizona League, hitting .400 in 11 games, and then missed a handful of games at the end of the year after a pitch hit him in the hand, causing a bone bruise.
"If I sit back and look at the whole league in a few years, he might top it out," Gideon said. "He hits lefthanders well, goes to all fields, has some power and moves well for a big kid. Everything the kid did was solid."
Schierholtz has good gap power now, as well as the ability to hit all types of pitches because of his bat speed. He should continue to fill out as he matures, realizing his plus power potential. A good athlete, Schierholtz is reliable with the glove but has trouble getting to grounders to his left. His arm plays average at third.
4. Wes Littleton, rhp, Spokane Indians (Rangers)
Littleton brought his 2003 College World Series experience with him, and it showed as he was one of the league's most polished pitchers. He uses a low three-quarters arm angle that adds movement to his low-90s fastball, which runs down and in on righthanders and makes his hard-biting slider more effective. He has a dominating presence on the mound to go with his advanced feel for pitching.
"His stuff is dominant," Rogers said. "If you just isolate his arm, seeing the ball come out of his hand, it's quality."
Littleton got to the league a little late because of the college postseason and fell eight innings short of qualifying for the ERA title, which he would have won. Some managers said Littleton stayed in the league a little long given his dominance, but they had few other questions about him aside from his sometimes violent delivery.
5. Todd Jennings, c, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
A terrific athlete who played some third base at Long Beach State, Jennings is agile behind the plate and was the league's best defensive catcher. He has a plus arm, can catch and throw with anyone, works well with pitchers and is efficient in blocking balls. He's also an intelligent and polished player.
"He's definitely one of the better catchers I've seen in this league the last three years, if not the best," Boise manager Steve McFarland said.
At the plate, Jennings is a tough out. He puts the ball in play with a compact, line-drive swing, and should become a better average hitter than a power producer. Jennings has some quickness in his lower half and gets the "runs well for a catcher" tag because he can steal a base when needed.
6. Jeremy Cleveland, of, Spokane Indians (Rangers)
Cleveland led the Atlantic Coast Conference with a .431 average during the spring yet lasted until the eighth round of the draft. Then he came within one point of winning the NWL batting crown. A polished hitter who uses the whole field, he handles offspeed pitches just as well as fastballs. He doesn't project to have a ton of power and might top out at 20 home runs, but should be able to sustain his average and run production by pounding balls into the gaps.
"He plays with tremendous confidence," Vancouver manager Dennis Rogers said. "The ball sounds different coming off his bat. He might be the sleeper of the league, drafted where he was."
Defensively, Cleveland doesn't have a home. He shuttled between the outfield, first base and DH at North Carolina, and between the outfield corners in his pro debut. His arm is average for right field, but he must take better angles to balls and track them better.
7. Sean Marshall, lhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Marshall's smooth, easy delivery creates deception, causing managers to dub his fastball sneaky fast despite average velocity (86-88 mph, topping out at 91). It’s also full of life and he locates it well, making it look more impressive, especially when Marshall pairs it with his changeup, which he'll throw in any count.
His big, slow-breaking curveball rates as a plus pitch, and Marshall also throws a slider. He should stay in a rotation as long as he can mix his offerings and keep hitters off balance, as he did while ranking third in the league in strikeouts. His twin brother Brian is a reliever in the Red Sox system.
"He throws his curveball two speeds," McFarland said. "There's a hard one and a slower, more loopy one. He'll go to these against different hitters in different situations. But sometimes he relies too much on the breaking ball and needs to learn he can pitch with his fastball."
8. Sean Thompson, lhp, Eugene Emeralds (Padres)
Despite a solid group of college lefthanders, Thompson was a high school southpaw who stood out. He's a bulldog competitor who always wants the ball and works aggressively with three average to above-average pitches and plus command packed into a frame that reminds scouts of Ron Guidry.
"He's a little fire hydrant; he goes right after people," Eugene manager Roy Howell said of the 5-foot-11, 160-pounder.
Thompson's size brings up durability questions, though managers across the board were impressed with his stuff. His 97 strikeouts fell just two shy of the league lead.
Thompson generates good movement with his 88-89 mph fastball. He sets hitters up by working both sides of the plate with his fastball and a developing changeup, then finishes them with a knee-buckling curveball. He also holds runners well with a top-notch pickoff move.
9. Billy Petrick, rhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Petrick has the same build as his teammate Marshall—both are 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds—but he's stronger and has a less refined repertoire. "He's just a big horse," McFarland said.
Set to be a long snapper for Washington State before signing with the Cubs, Petrick delivers his explosive fastball on a steep downward plane. It reaches the low 90s and bumps 95-96 mph with sinking action. He junked his curveball for a slurvy slider that lacks depth but should improve.
A changeup gives Petrick a third offering that should be at least major league average. A good athlete with a loose arm, he uses a simple delivery but sometimes gets out of whack before making mechanical adjustments, derailing his command.
10. Ching-Lung Lo, rhp, Tri-City Dust Devils (Rockies)
The youngest player in the league at 17, Lo held his own against advanced hitters. He showed the potential for three above-average pitches: a lively 88-92 fastball, a solid changeup and a slider that has shown flashes. His breaking ball has improved from a year ago, when he rarely used it.
Lo should continue to grow stronger (and possibly taller), and adding bulk to his legs and hips could help push his fastball into the mid-90s. He struggles with his mechanics because he's growing so fast that at times he's awkward.
"He's got a high ceiling," McFarland said. "He has an overpowering fastball when he wants to, but his offspeed stuff isn't near Hernandez. But with his arm strength, he has the ability to have a dominating fastball."
11. Aaron Marsden, lhp, Tri-City Dust Devils (Rockies)
The Big 12 Conference pitcher of the year in his first full season as a starter, Marsden had little trouble adapting to pro ball. He held NWL hitters to a .217 average and finished eighth in ERA. With his solid frame and clean mechanics, he should be a workhorse.
Marsden changes speeds and mixes his four pitches well, never giving in to hitters. He runs his 88-90 mph fastball in on lefthanders and gets in on righties with his plus-plus slider, which doubles as his strikeout pitch. He also uses a curveball and changeup, will throw any pitch in any count and has strong mound presence.
12. Jaime D'Antona, 3b, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
D'Antona, the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, teamed with Jackson for a potent one-two punch in the Yakima lineup. He tied for the league lead with 15 home runs, showing the power to hit the ball out to all fields. He hit .226 through his first 40 games, leading some managers who saw him then to question his swing. But he made adjustments and batted .353 down the stretch to finish at .277. D'Antona projects to hit for more power but less average than Jackson.
"D'Antona is a very strong kid who hits the ball out of the park easily no matter where he's playing," Kennedy said. "Those two are a shot in the arm for any lineup."
He has the power to play first base if he has to move off third, where he's still raw. D'Antona shows the tools to become average at third base, especially with his arm, but must improve his hands and footwork.
13. Omar Quintanilla, ss, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Quintanilla draws parallels to Pirates infielder Freddy Sanchez as a hard worker who plays above his individual tools. Quintanilla draws praise for his hustle and hard-nosed play, but he's smaller, stockier and less athletic than Sanchez.
Defensively, Quintanilla has good hands and actions at shortstop, and his below-average arm and speed play a little better than that because of his instincts and aggressiveness. He's a better fit as a second baseman or utility infielder.
Though Quintanilla isn't fast, he still steals bases because of his smarts. He shows a short, quick stroke at the plate, makes adjustments and handles the bat well enough to hit second in the order.
"He looks like he will hit," Rogers said. "He's a line-drive hitter who goes to the opposite field well and can pull it when he needs to."
14. Dustin Majewski, of, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Majewski's game resembles that of Quintanilla, his teammate in Vancouver and in college at Texas. Both are diligent workers who grew on managers and should hit for average.
Majewski faces the conundrum of not having the defense for center field or the power for a corner slot. He sprays the ball all over the field, bouncing balls into gaps for extra bases. He has a chance to develop power but isn't likely to hit more than 20 home runs.
"He doesn't have big-time power, but he's a very smart player and depending on the situation could make a fine everyday center fielder," Salem-Keizer manager Joe Strain said. "He'll do OK in center. He plays real shallow and gets good jumps."
15. Brian Dopirak, 1b, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Dopirak fills up the batter's box and complements his impressive physical stature (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) with light-tower power. Though pitchers rarely offered him much to swing at, he was tied for the NWL home run lead when the Cubs moved him up to low Class A in August.
He saw a steady diet of breaking balls off the plate, which confounded him for a while. He was also a victim of hitting in the league's worst lineup.
"You've got to like his power," McFarland said. "This was a young kid with little protection who had limited chances with guys on base. Lots of times with an open base, they pitched around him."
Dopirak works hard defensively, but likely won't ever be more than adequate at first base. He looks unsure of himself at times. His lateral movement doesn't impress and his hands rate no better than average.
16. Oswaldo Navarro, ss, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
The Mariners sent Navarro straight from their Venezuelan academy to make his U.S. debut in a college league. They knew his defense would play, but he surprised them by batting .293 into late July before he wore down.
Waiting to fill out at 6-foot-1, 160 pounds, Navarro played a small man's game at the plate. He hit the ball where it was pitched and bunted for hits. While he survived at the plate, Navarro needs to mature in the field. He made difficult plays look routine. Owing to his inexperience, he sometimes turned easy outs into errors.
"He was probably the best shortstop in the league," Everett manager Pedro Grifol said. "He has great hands, great instincts and an average arm that should get better. He also projects more speed and range."
17. Matt Chico, lhp, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
College never took with Chico, a prized Southern California recruit who left because of poor grades and wasn't eligible to play at a junior college after transferring. The Diamondbacks sent an area scout to watch him in a San Diego semipro league and considered him a value in the third round in June.
Chico's fastball averages 91-92 mph and he topped out at 96 while working both sides of the plate. He sometimes was a one-pitch pitcher as his breaking ball and changeup lacked consistency. Mechanics were the culprit, as a sometimes violent delivery hampered Chico's command of his offspeed pitches.
"He threw the ball well against us," Grifol said. "His good fastball, it just dominated us for four or five innings. He didn't really use anything else."
18. Travis Ishikawa, 1b, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
After hitting .307 and ranking 10th on this list last year, Ishikawa hit .206 at low Class A this season before returning to Salem-Keizer. He was more comfortable in the NWL, showing solid strike-zone judgment and the patience to wait for a pitch he could handle. He shows a natural lefthanded swing and should hit for a decent average and about 20 home runs annually.
"He drove the ball well and is a big threat in the lineup," Kennedy said. "He's an outstanding young hitter."
At first base, Ishikawa makes the routine plays but does little that's outstanding. His nimble hands allow him to pick poor throws out of the dirt, but he doesn't move or field the ball well.
19. Colt Morton, c, Eugene Emeralds (Padres)
Morton is an all-or-nothing prospect. Managers either believed in him as a big leaguer or had little use for him. He receives the ball well and throws average, but his 6-foot-6 frame makes it hard for him to move around from a crouch and could eventually prompt a move to first base.
"As a defensive catcher, he's not close to the big leagues," Howell said. "As an offensive threat, he could be two or three years away. He has offensive thunder, but he's such a big man catching might not be where he ends up."
Morton is all or nothing as a hitter, too. Like Dopirak, he has power but also strikes out in bunches. He never hit better than .272 with an aluminum bat in college, and has more leverage than bat speed.
20. Pat Misch, lhp, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Misch and teammate Jesse Floyd, a righthander signed as a nondrafted free agent out of Lamar, gave opponents the same look from different sides. Both relied on command and changing speeds to make up for the lack of a true plus pitch.
"Neither was overpowering and both were solid pitchers," Strain said, "but because Misch is lefthanded, he gets an extra point."
Misch can cut his 88 mph fastball and run it in on hitters' hands. His breaking ball isn't overpowering but moves straight down to generate groundouts, which helped Misch move through lineups. He also uses his changeup effectively.