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Short-Season Northwest League

Top 10 Prospects

BY DAVID RAWNSLEY

Among the six short-season leagues, the Northwest League may be able to lay claim to having the best class of prospects in 1999. The Royals helped by sending their three first-round picks to the league, and nine first-rounders in total were on league rosters at one point.

In a normal year, righthander Jay Gehrke (Spokane), the league leader in saves with 13, and first baseman Ken Harvey (Spokane), the batting average, slugging and on-base leader, might have been able to crack the top 10. Not in 1999. Other prospects that stood out included Boise middle infielder Alfredo Amezaga, Salem-Keizer first baseman Sean McGowan and Salem-Keizer righthander Jerome Williams.

Notable among the Top 10 Prospects in the league were four members of the often beleaguered Mariners organization, including three teenagers making their professional debuts.

1. KYLE SNYDER, rhp
Spokane Indians (Royals)

Snyder was an early candidate for the top pick in the 1999 draft but battled tendinitis all spring and saw his stock drop somewhat due to the health questions. As a result, the Royals put him on a strict 60-pitch limit during his seven starts for Spokane, but that was enough to showcase his tools. He was consistently at 93-94 mph with his fastball, topping out at 96.

Snyder is a good athlete with extra long arms and legs, but he does more than just blow hitters off the plate with heat. He already throws an above-average changeup at times and showed a sharp curveball to Northwest League hitters. Unlike many tall young pitchers, Snyder has not shown a problem throwing strikes and keeping the ball down in the strike zone.

2. RYAN CHRISTIANSON, c
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

Although he didn’t sign until early July, Christianson has already put his stamp on two leagues. He had eight doubles in the Rookie-level Arizona League. He added 15 more extra-base hits during his five-week stay in the Northwest League.

Christianson has above-average power potential generated through a short swing and excellent upper body strength. He has an advanced ability to drive the ball to the opposite field on pitches away and enough strength to reach the fences from foul pole to foul pole.

His catching was limited in August due to a tender arm, but Christianson is cat-quick behind the plate with excellent arm strength. He played in a top-notch environment as a high schooler in Southern California and has mature game management skills behind the plate.

3. KURT AINSWORTH, rhp
Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)

Ainsworth was on a short leash this summer coming off Tommy John surgery in 1998, well over 100 innings this spring and a nagging blister problem after signing. If anything, it just put an extra edge on his stuff. Ainsworth missed qualifying for the ERA title by 16 innings, but had an ERA more than half a run lower than the league leader.

Ainsworth’s fastball sits solidly around 93 mph, and he complements his heat with a plus curveball and developing changeup. Despite having little mound experience coming into 1999 due to his injury history, Ainsworth’s ability to work hitters is excellent. That will help him adjust as the Giants will undoubtedly move him quickly.

4. MIKE MacDOUGAL, rhp
Spokane Indians (Royals)

MacDougal, who has been compared to Jack McDowell physically, dropped to the late first round based on his somewhat violent delivery. According to Royals farm director Bob Hegman, MacDougal’s mechanics are much smoother now, and he has toned down a control-damaging head jerk.

When he’s on, MacDougal’s stuff can be electric, with a mid-90s fastball with plus life and a hard-breaking curveball. He still must work on polishing his changeup and locating his pitches better within the strike zone.

5. CHRIS SNELLING, of
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

Don’t tell Snelling that 17-year-olds are supposed to be overmatched in the Northwest League. The young Australian not only showed solid tools, especially offensively, but impressed everyone with his instincts and desire.

"This kid’s upside is scary," one manager said. "His instincts are just outstanding and he is an intense competitor and a leader. When he grows a bit more and fills out, he’s going to be some kind of hitter."

Despite playing his first year in the United States against primarily college-level pitching, Snelling combined power, average and an excellent approach at the plate (33 walks versus only 24 strikeouts). Snelling’s speed, arm strength and defensive ability all grade out around average. Although he played center field in Everett, Snelling is likely to end up at a corner outfield position in the future.

6. BRIAN SANCHES, rhp
Spokane Indians (Royals)

Sanches didn’t come as highly touted as teammates MacDougal and Snyder, but some observers felt he was just as good a prospect. The Royals limited Sanches’ starts and pitch counts through the summer after Sanches continued to recover from a groin pull that limited his activity in the spring.

Although Sanches’ fastball is solid average in the 90-92 mph range, his best pitch is a hard curveball that gets excellent two-plane breaking action. One league manager called Sanches’ curveball a devastating big league pitch. His changeup also shows the potential to be a solid pitch.

Sanches didn’t start pitching full-time until he was in college at Lamar, so he has a fresh arm. For someone with only a couple of years of experience, Sanches’ mechanics and approach to pitching are fairly polished.

7. GERALD LAIRD, c
Southern Oregon Timberjacks (Athletics)

The catching-rich A’s organization inked Laird to a $1 million contract as a draft-and-follow shortly before he was to reenter the 1999 draft. He quickly established himself as the best catch-and-throw prospect in the league. Laird’s arm strength is above-average and he moves quickly and easily behind home plate. Like Christianson, Laird is a Southern California native whose hundreds of games of youth experience have refined his ability to handle pitchers and call a game.

One area that Laird needs to improve on is his upper body strength. He had just 11 extra-base hits in 224 at-bats for Southern Oregon and lacks the strength to drive the ball consistently to the gaps. Laird’s plate discipline and surprising speed for a catcher help his overall offensive game.

"He’ll figure out the bat eventually," one manager said, "but he does everything so easily behind the plate defensively. He can really catch."

8. WILLIE BLOOMQUIST, 2b
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

Bloomquist played all over the field, including shortstop this spring, during three years at Arizona State, but settled in quickly at his expected pro position, second base. One manager said, "He’s just an outstanding defensive second baseman. His range is well-above-average and he can make all the plays around the bag."

Bloomquist’s season was cut short by a broken hamate bone in his left wrist that required surgery. Before the injury, he showed strong leadoff skills and above-average speed and baserunning instincts. Although Bloomquist hit the ball mostly up the middle and to right field at Everett, most scouts feel that he will develop good power for a middle infielder when he learns to turn on the ball.

9. RUBEN CASTILLO, ss
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

The Mariners’ third teenage prospect on the list, Castillo might be the best overall athlete of the group.

"Castillo just stands out among the young prospects in the league from a scouting perspective," one manager said. "He could become a special infielder."

Castillo has a live, rangy body that should get stronger as he matures. He has well-above-average arm strength from shortstop and showed excellent range, along with 4.0 speed to first base. Although he hit only two home runs for Everett, observers felt that he could develop above-average power in the future.

10. CRAIG HOUSE, rhp
Portland Rockies (Rockies)

House was converted to the bullpen by the Rockies. His fastball, which topped out at 92 mph during the spring, was suddenly 95-98 with excellent sinking life. House also throws a mid-80s slider with good late break. He showed a good ability to throw strikes with both pitches.

House’s delivery could either be his salvation or his downfall. It was called "nasty and ugly with a big head jerk" by one observer and "very deceptive" by another. House throws from a mid-three-quarter release point, which heightens his intimidation.

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