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Short-season Northwest League

Top 20 Prospects

By John Manuel

College players making their professional debuts normally dominate short-season Northwest League rosters, and the 2000 season was no exception.

The Yakima Bears were this season's best example. The pitching staff finished third in the league in ERA and second in strikeouts while leading the Bears to the league championship. Seniors Casey Kennedy (6-4, 3.24) and Shane Nance (2-4, 2.48) were among the collegians who started all but 11 of Yakima's 76 regular-season games, while collegians such as outfielder Nicholas Alvarez (.300-10-36) and shortstop Ryan Dacey (.323-1-16) set the pace offensively.

But the team's top prospects were its younger players, such as injured shortstop Jason Repko and third baseman Brennan King, both picked in the 1999 draft. The difference between performance and potential made the job of picking a Top 20 Prospects list difficult for league managers.

For the most part, they stuck with collegians, but not your typical college players. Junior college product Freddie Bynum, the league's No. 1 prospect, is still just 20. Lance Niekro wears his famous family name well. Lefthander Aaron Krawiec has the proverbial fresh Northeastern power arm, and catcher Ryan Jorgensen wasn't even an everyday player at Louisiana State.

And while managers said the NWL was a pitcher's league in 2000, position players outnumber pitchers 11-9 on the Top 20.

"There were a lot of quality college-age pitchers in the league this year," Everett manager Terry Pollreiz said. "There were a lot of guys who could come in and throw a breaking ball for strikes and make the adjustments that young hitters had trouble with, but there weren't a lot of big-time fastballs out there this year."

1 FREDDIE BYNUM, ss, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School          Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-R  6-1  175  20  Pitt (N.C.) CC  Athletics '00 (2)  .256  281  52  72  10  1  1  26  22

Five years ago, another Athletics shortstop topped the league's Top 10 list. While Bynum may not have Miguel Tejada's power and offensive potential, managers said Bynum has a higher upside defensively. And though he won't hit like Tejada, that doesn't mean he won't hit.

"He has a high ceiling, because he's good now and he's just learning the position at the pro level," said Salem-Keizer manager Fred Stanley, a former big league shortstop. "He's got the actions and tools for the position. He runs well, and if the average arm for a shortstop is 50, then he's a 55 or 60. They did a nice job finding him."

Vancouver manager Dave Joppie said Bynum has great enthusiasm for the game, which is helpful because he’s raw and has plenty to work on. He relies on his arm too much and needs better technique with his hands and footwork on groundballs.

The scout who recommended Bynum, Billy Owens, was Vancouver's hitting coach, and Joppie said Bynum had benefited from having a familiar face around, especially considering Bynum's trip to the West Coast was his first ever on a plane.

"The speed of the game was too much for him at first, but he has caught up quickly," Joppie said. "They have a special relationship that is helping Freddie develop as a person and as a professional."

2 LANCE NIEKRO, 3b, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  210  21  Florida Southern  Giants '00 (2)   .362  196  27  71  14  4  5  44   2

Niekro, the son of former big leaguer Joe Niekro and nephew of Hall of Famer Phil, brought a big league approach to the league that instantly ingratiated him to all the managers. He also brought sufficient tools and ability to be a big league third baseman.

"He's fine at third base," Eugene manager Danny Shaffer said. "He's got good hands and enough arm, and the power is definitely there. He has good size and should fill out some more, too."

Niekro was the MVP of the Cape Cod League last summer, but struggled to hit for power during the spring at Florida Southern, batting .357-7-63. He impressed Stanley with his bat speed and ability to hit for power to all fields in the summer. He also won over his manager by fighting through a groin injury to lead the league in batting.

"He can really swing the bat," Stanley said. "It was a matter of getting into shape here after a month off. Once he did, he made the rest of the league pitch around him."

3 JOE TORRES, lhp, Boise Hawks (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School               Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-3  180  18  HS--Kissimmee, Fla.  Angels '00 (1)   4  1  2.54  11   0  46  27  23  52

As the year went on, Torres got old enough to vote and good enough to impress every team he faced. The 10th overall pick in 2000was the highest-drafted player in the league, and his high ceiling was plainly evident. In his last start, he beat Everett with 13 strikeouts in six innings while walking four and giving up just two hits.

League managers such as Spokane's Tom Poquette were impressed with how Torres, the league's youngest player, handled himself in a league filled with 20-somethings.

"He showed good composure and plenty of arm strength," Poquette said. "He's got good velocity for a lefthander. I thought the way they handled him, being a young first-round pick and pitching him a little at a time, worked well."

Torres throws an 88-90 mph fastball that touches 93. Boise manager Tom Kotchman compared Torres, who also throws a big curveball, slider and changeup, to former big leaguer John Candelaria.

"He's very cerebral," Kotchman said. "His slider is plus, his curveball is plus and he's above his years in maturity. He can be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter in the big leagues, or he might be a dominant closer."

4 AARON KRAWIEC, lhp, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School      Drafted        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-3  195  21  Villanova   Cubs '00 (4)   6  4  2.54  14   0  78  59  26  99

Kotchman described Krawiec as a poor man's David Wells because of his stuff, competitiveness and size, though Krawiec lacks Wells' girth.

He also lacks Wells' polish, but he had command of an 88-90 mph sinker. Only Torres and Everett lefthander Sam Walton challenged Krawiec for having the hardest fastball among lefthanders in the league. Krawiec also showed a fine curveball and the ability to use his height to get a good angle on his pitches to the plate.

"He's also got a solid changeup and a good idea of how to pitch," Shaffer said. "There's no doubt his fastball and curveball right now are his best pitches, but the change is going to make him complete. He's got a fresh arm for a college pitcher, so he hasn't topped out with his velocity, either."

Said Portland manager Billy White: "I love Krawiec. He throws hard, but his two-seamer exploded on righthanded hitters. He showed a good breaking ball to go with it."

5 JAMAL STRONG, of, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

B-T    Ht   Wt Age  School    Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  5-10  180  22  Nebraska  Mariners '00 (6)  .314  296  63  93   7  3  1  28  60

Two years ago, Rockies outfielder Juan Pierre blazed through the Northwest League, slapping singles and stealing bases in his first pro season. He finished this year in the big leagues while Strong, the league's co-Player of the Year, brought visions of a righthanded-hitting Pierre to mind for current managers.

"They do a lot of the same things," White said. "Strong plays the short game, he plays it well and he plays hard."

While most managers named Strong the player they feared most in the league this year, they acknowledged his limitations. His 3.9-second burst from home to first, plate discipline (.422 on-base percentage, 52 walks), franchise record for stolen bases and plus range in center field hint at his potential as a leadoff hitter. His lack of extra-base power (.368 slugging percentage), his age and his below-average throwing arm indicate his ceiling isn't as high as other position players.

"He knows his strengths," Stanley said. "His speed causes all kinds of havoc when he hits, and you can't double him up."

6 RYAN JORGENSEN, c, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  195  21  Louisiana State  Cubs '00 (7)  .300  130  17  39  10  2  1  23   2

Jorgensen backed up All-America senior Brad Cresse after transferring to Louisiana State from San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, where he built a reputation as a staunch defensive catcher. He didn't get to play much at LSU and had to share time in Eugene with South Korean import Yoon-Min Kweon.

Despite all the sharing, Jorgensen emerged as the league's best defensive player thanks to his catch-and-throw skills and above-average arm. Kotchman, a scout when he’s not managing, and Shaffer, an ex-big league catcher, rated Jorgensen's arm a 65 on the 20-to-80 scouting scale.

"Glove-to-glove (from catcher to second base), he's the best I've seen in a while in the league," said Kotchman, Boise's manager for the last 11 years. "And his hands are so soft."

Said Shaffer: "Kweon can really catch, and he's got a great arm and release, but Jorgensen's arm is a little better. He moves well and has a great release. He can be in the big leagues now on his receiving skills. His defense is so good, his bat will catch up."

7 CHARLIE THAMES, rhp, Boise Hawks (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School    Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-1  185  21  Texas     Angels '00 (4)   1  1  0.35  17  11  26  18   5  30

Thames was a first-team All-American for the University Texas after transferring from San Jacinto, where he pitched to Jorgensen. Thames’ polish was evident from the start, as he dominated hitters by challenging them and throwing strikes from three arm angles, none of them over the top. Thames has good stuff to go with his deception, throwing a 91-92 mph fastball and a hard slider.

"He has a feel for pitching in the bullpen," Kotchman said. "He throws strikes and keeps it down with plus sink. He's a guy who you can definitely see as a big league setup man or closer."

Said Poquette: "His role was very fitting for his makeup. He came right after us with pretty good stuff and didn't mess around."

Other pitchers in the league may have had higher ceilings, but Thames' polish and maturity should enable him to climb to the big leagues quickly.

8 GARRETT ATKINS, 1b-3b, Portland Rockies (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School   Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-2  190  20  UCLA     Rockies '00 (5)   .303  251  34  76  12  0  7  47   2

League managers were divided in their opinions on Atkins and Brad Hawpe, a pair of college hitters who were linked by their similar abilities as Portland teammates. Atkins shared league MVP honors with Strong and got a slight edge as a prospect over Hawpe.

The general consensus had Atkins with more power and, if he can play third base, the higher ceiling. Atkins played 35 games at first base and just 13 at third. White, his manager, said that was more because of Atkins' sore arm than any inability to play the hot corner. Other managers questioned his third-base skills.

"I knew about his reputation and found it unfounded. He was a pleasant surprise at third base," White said. "He has a strong arm when he's healthy and good hands for me.

"I've been in the organization since 1994, and the only young hitter to come through better than these guys was Todd Helton. They both have nice swings and developing power."

9 BRAD HAWPE, of-1b, Portland Rockies (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School           Drafted             Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-2  200  21  Louisiana State  Rockies '00 (11)   .288  205  38  59  19  2  7  29   2

Hawpe's supporters pointed to his pretty lefthanded swing and versatility. Hawpe split his season between first base and left field, where Portland's Civic Stadium features a short porch. Hawpe, who played right field as a sophomore at Louisiana State, made the transition between the two positions smoothly.

He also showed the line-drive, gap power that helped him tie the NCAA Division I record for doubles (36) in the spring. He hit 19 more with Portland to rank second in the Northwest League.

"He's going to be a lot better in the outfield with more experience," White said. "He's got a strong arm, so you can't rule out right field."

Said Stanley: "He showed me an ability to be a good situational hitter. He put the bat on the ball with runners on base. He was an impressive lefthanded bat."

10 WILTON CHAVEZ, rhp, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  Country             Signed        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-2  160  19  Dominican Republic  Cubs FA '98   7  1  1.69  15   0  90  69  25 103

Many managers ranked Chavez higher on this list, while two left him off completely. The Dominican, who was 12-10, 4.00 in two years in Rookie ball prior to this season, is the only foreign player on the list.

Chavez was within hailing distance of winning the pitching triple crown. He finished tied for fifth in wins, just two behind the leader, teammate Mark Freed. He ranked second in the league in ERA and first in strikeouts, thanks to a 91-92 mph fastball and wicked slider that ranked as the best breaking ball in the league. He also flashed a workable changeup.

"He has a live arm and keeps the ball down with all three of his pitches," Pollreisz said. "He's got good command of his slider and fastball. He'd throw anything at any time in the count."

But one manager said Chavez' slider was almost too good: "I don't think there's a big chance for a guy to reach the big leagues if he's 19 and throwing almost two sliders for every fastball. I've got to see more fastballs."

11 BOOF BONSER, rhp, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                   Drafted          W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  225  18  HS--Pinellas Park, Fla.  Giants '00 (1)   1  4  6.00  10   0  33  21  29  41

Like Torres, Bonser was a rare high school draftee thrust into a college league. Unlike Torres, he didn't thrive, lacking some of Torres' offspeed acumen and some of his composure as well. Still, Bonser's 91-95 mph fastball was the quickest in the league, and for the most part he handled himself well against superior competition.

"He has a good curveball and a decent straight change considering he didn't have to use it in high school," Stanley said. "This was a great learning experience for him."

Kotchman, whose son Casey (a top 2001 draft prospect) shared a personal trainer with Bonser in the spring, said Bonser's ceiling is high if he keeps his body under control.

"His role down the line is as a closer," he said. "He'll have to develop some offspeed stuff, but at 6-foot-4, 220, the rap on him was his body. He's made an effort to improve and he needs to keep doing that."

12 BRENNAN KING, 3b, Yakima Bears (Dodgers)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School                   Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  180  19  HS--Murfreesboro, Tenn.  Dodgers '99 (2)   .239  238  27  57  10  1  1  30  14

A high school shortstop, King got his first exposure to third base last summer in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. His athletic ability and arm have few doubting he can play the hot corner, but the question will be whether he hits enough for the position.

"He has the makeup and the tools to do it," Yakima manager Butch Hughes said. "His defense is solid and the bat will be there. He has shown me raw power for his age. Confidence is fragile, and he'll get better the more confidence he gets."

13 TODD WELLEMEYER, rhp, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted        W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-3  190  22  Bellarmine (Ky.)   Cubs '00 (4)   4  4  3.67  15   0  76  62  33  85

The lanky Wellemeyer flashed one of the league's most projectable arms despite his age. His stuff was evident in a late-season combined shutout of Portland, in which he retired the first 14 batters and struck out seven in six innings.

"He has an explosive fastball, but he wasn't consistent with it," Shaffer said. "He's long and lean with wide shoulders, the perfect pitcher's body. His curveball was real good, and he came over the top with it. It's just a matter of consistency and experience. He's from a small school and needs to pitch."

14 MATT RONEY, rhp, Portland Rockies (Rockies)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School             Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-4  225  20  HS--Edmond, Okla.  Rockies '98 (1)   7  5  3.14  15   0  80  75  44  85

The 28th overall selection in the 1998 draft, Roney had his progress slowed by shoulder surgery last season to repair a torn labrum. His comeback started slowly in 2000, as he had a 7.24 ERA in his first six starts, but he finished strong and won his last four decisions

"His fastball averaged 90-91 by the end of the summer and topped out at 94," White said. "At times his curveball was an above-average, 12-to-6 curve. When he's right, he has two legit major league pitches. It's a matter of regaining arm strength."

15 CHAD SANTOS, 1b, Spokane Indians (Royals)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School        Drafted            Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
L-L  6-1  215  19  HS--Honolulu  Royals '99 (22)   .251  267  40  67  18  0 14  47   1

After starting the year in the Class A South Atlantic League and hitting just .201, Santos had more success in the Northwest League. The league's home run leader was almost the easiest call on this list.

To a man, league managers said Santos had as much power, if not more, than any player in the league. But his inability to make consistent contact cast doubt on whether he would be able to put up big numbers at higher levels.

"His swing is a little long, but he's got real power," Poquette said. "He can hit it as far as anybody. He needs to learn to lay off breaking pitches out of the zone. If he improves his approach and pitch selection, he will hit for power, because he can hit it as far as anybody."

16 DAVID WOLENSKY, rhp, Boise Hawks (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted           W  L   ERA   G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
R-R  6-0  190  20  Chipola (Fla.) JC   Angels '99 (42)   8  3  3.07  15   0  76  60  35  88

Wolensky signed as a draft-and-follow as a 42nd-round pick in the 1999 draft. For pure velocity, he matched Bonser and Wellemeyer as the owners of the league's top fastballs. Kotchman, his manager, likened him to Angels starter Jason Dickson with better arm strength.

"His fastball was 90-95 mph and he flashed 96 on the gun," Kotchman said. "He has an average-to-plus slider, probably an average changeup. He needs to pitch, but the stuff and arm strength is there."

17 SAM WALTON, lhp, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School       Drafted            W  L   ERA  G  SV  IP   H  BB  SO
L-L  6-4  215  21  HS--Dallas   Mariners '97 (7)   2  0  1.44  7   0  31  27  10  39

Reaction to Walton was wildly mixed around the league. A seventh-round pick in 1997, the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder was in his second year in the league. He made just six starts, missing the last month with biceps tendinitis.

But he overpowered hitters with a fastball that ranked with Krawiec and Torres as the best among the league's lefties. Many managers didn't recall anything special about Walton, but two saw good velocity and an athletic body.

"I put him down as a guy," one league manager said. "He was low-to-mid 90s against us, which is excellent for a lefty."

18 NIC JACKSON, of, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School     Drafted        Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-3  205  21  Richmond   Cubs '00 (3)  .255  294  39  75  12  7  6  47  25

Jackson was the most polished member of a talented trio of Eugene outfielders that included two early picks from the 1999 draft, Condor Cash and Mike Mallory. Shrugging off a wrist injury that kept him out much of the spring for the University of Richmond, Jackson helped lead Eugene into the playoffs.

"He's got a pretty good swing, and though he's an average runner he showed a feel for stealing bases," Kotchman said. "He's got a solid-average arm for right field, maybe a tick above for left."

19 MIKE MALLORY, of, Eugene Emeralds (Cubs)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School              Drafted         Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-4  205  19  HS--Dinwiddie, Va.  Cubs '99 (2)   .210  262  39  55  12  3  6  30   9

Mallory has one of the league's highest ceilings. Managers brought Mallory's name up as one of the league's best defensive center fielders (along with Spokane’s Marco Cunningham), citing his plus arm and good range.

The most impressive facet of Mallory's game, though, isn't his game, as he hit just .210 with 98 strikeouts in 262 at-bats. It's his 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, which drew comparisons to younger versions of George Foster and Dave Winfield.

20 TOMMY MURPHY, ss, Boise Hawks (Angels)

B-T   Ht   Wt Age  School            Drafted           Avg.  AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BI  SB
R-R  6-0  175  21  Florida Atlantic  Angels '00 (3)   .225  213  38  48  18  1  2  25  14

A preseason first-team All-American for Florida Atlantic, Murphy struggled with the bat in the spring and fell to the third round. The Angels haven't had success with recent college shortstops they've drafted, such as Kip Harkrider, Jay Hood and Brian Oliver, but Murphy's range and arm make him the truest shortstop of the bunch.

"We're talking about an athlete," Kotchman said. "The bat's going to be there because he's shown some flashes—he'll figure it out—and he's a plus runner. Shortstop is a skill position, and he's got a plus arm and plus range. He's not as good as Bynum there, but he's good enough."

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