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Northwest League Top 20 Prospects

By John Manuel

Top 20
When Boise met Salem-Keizer for the Northwest League championship, managers agreed the two best clubs in the league were on the field.

"There's no question those two teams had the most talent," Everett manager Terry Pollreisz said. "The league as a whole had a little less talent than the last two years, but those two teams had a shade more, especially pitching."

The Volcanoes swept the series behind their pitching, with a rotation featuring first-round picks Brad Hennessey and Noah Lowry and second-rounder Jesse Foppert. The Giants affiliate also featured third-round pick Julian Benavidez, who led a phalanx of talented third basemen at the league's deepest position.

The list may have been deeper in pitching, but three college draft picks who racked up high innings totals in the spring--Lowry, Vancouver lefthander John Rheinecker and Tri-City righthander Gerrit Simpson--were shut down by their clubs just short of having enough innings to qualify.

J.J. Johnson
Photo: Marc McClintock
1 J.J. JOHNSON, of
Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Managers named Johnson their No. 5 prospect in the Rookie-level Arizona League a year ago, when he was a third baseman. Shifted to right field in 2001, he won over Northwest League skippers with his combination of hitting ability, power, arm strength and enthusiasm.

"He needs to adjust to the good fastball," said Steve McFarland, his manager at Boise, "but he has the bat speed and he recognizes offspeed stuff very well for a young hitter. He has real good baseball instincts and loves to play the game."

Despite his new position, managers were impressed with his defense. Johnson's arm and speed may just be average or a tick above, but he shows plus tools with the bat and figures to get stronger with maturity.

"He's aggressive at the plate and he can cover the ground in the outfield," Tri-Cities manager Stu Cole said. "You look at his age, hitting third in this league at 19. I know he had a lot of support but that's impressive. He has the tools and the makeup."

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Foppert went to college as a hitter but emerged as a pitching prospect in the summer of 2000 while in the wood-bat Shenandoah Valley League. He helped lead Harrisonburg to the league title, and did the same thing this summer with the Volcanoes. The league's ERA champion struck out a dozen in a six-inning start to initiate Salem-Keizer's sweep of Boise.

He never was a full-time pitcher before, so Foppert has a fresh arm to go with his physical maturity. Managers loved his smooth, easy delivery and his ability to locate any of his offerings--fastball, splitter, slider and circle change--in or out of the strike zone. His fastball and slider are plus pitches.

"He has a really good fastball that's in the low to mid-90s now, but you can project him up to 95," Salem-Keizer manager Fred Stanley said. "He gets a lot of late action. His delivery is like Jim Palmer's. It's just nice and easy."

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
One of the youngest players in the league, Benavidez didn't hit like it. Had he signed earlier, he might have had a shot at the league triple crown. He ranked fifth in batting and on-base percentage (.395) and third in slugging (.537).

An Arizona State recruit out of junior college before signing with the Giants, Benavidez' approach at the plate and power to all fields reminded Stanley of a young Edgar Martinez. "I know that's a tough label," Stanley said, "but to be that young and be able to drive the ball to the opposite field is very impressive."

Benavidez was adequate defensively at third, but he showed the tools needed for the position. He has decent hands and an accurate arm, though he tends to short-arm some throws. Managers kept coming back to his offense.

"He has one of the highest ceilings in the league because of his really plus tools and his age," Pollreisz said. "His hitting and power are really plus tools. He has great power potential."

Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Only a loss in his last start of the year against last-place Spokane spoiled Guzman's debut season in the U.S. The slight Venezuelan led the league in victories and finished second to Foppert in ERA.

Guzman was especially effective away from Boise's Memorial Stadium, posting a 1.03 ERA in 35 road innings without allowing a home run. He showed a smooth, fluid delivery that helped the ball jump out of his hand and get on top of hitters quickly.

Though his fastball occasionally touched 94-95 mph, he pitched at 90-91 and showed excellent command. Guzman's changeup and curveball also are solid pitches for his age.

"That whole staff had great pitchability," Stanley said. "Guzman isn't blistering, but he's got great command and can throw his offspeed stuff for strikes. He'd throw a 3-1 or 3-2 changeup, and hitters at this level aren't ready for that."

Eugene Emeralds (Padres)
A first-team All-American for Tulane, Gautreau was drafted 14th overall in June based on his above-average power and hitting stroke. He developed his sweet lefthanded swing in part by playing racquetball extensively as a youngster, and that sport also helped him develop the reactions and agility needed at third base.

Gautreau hit safely in his last 15 games at Eugene and had two hits (including a homer) in seven at-bats in a two-game Triple-A callup in September. The Padres have a logjam of corner-infield prospects, but he has the athletic ability to be a left or right fielder.

"His bat is live," Eugene manager Jeff Gardner said. "He will have some power, though he has a ways to go. He comes in on bunts well and has good hands for third, but he has enough athleticism that he could move if need be."

Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Several managers liked Willis better than Guzman, and most agreed their opinions of the teammates were a matter of personal preference. Willis, who pitched almost exclusively out of the bullpen in his pro debut last year, finished second in wins to Guzman. He's a couple of months younger and has a lanky, projectable frame.

Willis has an 89-91 mph fastball and a solid curve. McFarland said his changeup has a ways to come to be an average big league pitch. A quick worker, Willis showed an aggressiveness and willingness to work inside--rare in a young pitcher. However, his delivery isn’t as smooth as Guzman’s.

"He's very athletic," Stanley said, "and that usually leads to good control. He showed us a good breaking ball and solid fastball for a lefty."

Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Slavik held his own with Benavidez and Gautreau, who were drafted well ahead of him. Signed as a college senior, Slavik impressed every manager in the league with his defensive ability and showed the tools to be more than an organizational player.

Slavik's intensity and all-out approach drew raves as well, but also helped contribute to a 2-for-39 slump to end the season.

"He was pretty spent by the end of the year," McFarland said, laughing. "He's a streaky hitter, and he was really fatigued by the end of the year."

Yet Slavik's glovework never flagged, with McFarland calling him the best defensive third baseman in the Cubs organization. He showed excellent hands and foot quickness, as well as plenty of arm.

"He's an outstanding defensive player, very consistent," Pollreisz said. "And for me, he had one of the best strokes in the league."

Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Allegra, a draft-and-follow who debuted last year in the Arizona League, began 2001 in the high Class A California League, which proved to be too much of a leap. After hitting .209-2-17 with 61 strikeouts in 153 at-bats, he was sent to Vancouver's spacious Nat Bailey Stadium. The strikeouts continued to come in droves–he led the league with 104--and he finished the year in a 5-for-68 slump that included 32 whiffs.

His swing may be long, but Allegra still showed plenty of talent. He was drastically more effective on the road (.255-8-24, .463 slugging) than at home (.177-3-15, .290 slugging). His lanky frame and above-average speed helps him play a solid center field, though some questioned whether he has enough arm for the position.

"I think he'll figure it out at the plate," Gardner said. "He's got a big body and the ball jumps off his bat. There's a flaw in his stroke, but it should be correctable."

Eugene Emeralds (Padres)
After an uninspiring performance during Oklahoma's disappointing 25-33 college season, Bartlett had one of the best debuts in the league. He hit just .282-6-31 with aluminum, but few players rivaled his offensive polish and skill in the NWL.

Managers saw enough to rank him as the league's top middle-infield prospect. Most projected him as a second baseman down the line with above-average offensive potential, possibly as a leadoff hitter. His arm is average and his instincts are an asset.

"I like his bat and he's an excellent baserunner," Stanley said. "He makes great turns around the bases and makes the most of his speed. I thought he had good actions for the middle infield."

Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
More of a pure shortstop than Bartlett, Lopez signed out of Venezuela at age 16 in July 2000 and was the NWL's youngest player in his U.S. debut this year. While his performance on the surface was no match for Bartlett's, his shortstop tools were the best in the league and he wasn't embarrassed at the plate.

"He competed very well in this league and really exceeded the impact we thought he'd have because of his maturity," Pollreisz said. "He didn't finish well offensively, but he was really outstanding defensively. He's got great hands and a plus arm at times. He's one of those guys who always gets the good hop."

"He has good range and shortstop actions," Cole said. "He didn't make mistakes in the field. He showed he could hit it and he had some pop."

Boise Hawks (Cubs)
When organizations ask players to repeat a level, it's usually seen as a bad sign. In his second NWL season, Cash impressed managers by dominating. His .576 slugging percentage led the league, his .406 on-base percentage ranked second, and he finished third behind teammates Keto Anderson and Brad Bouras in the race for the batting title.

Like his teammate Johnson, Cash showed two traits managers liked to see in a young power prospect. He can drive pitches to all parts of the park, and he recognizes and reacts well on breaking balls.

"He's become a better hitter," Cole said. "He choked up on the bat from where he was last year and has much better control, and he's more able to handle the inside pitch."

Cash played all three outfield positions. He’s an adequate defender because his arm and speed are just average or a tick below.

12 TIM MERRITT, 2b/ss
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Merritt led the AquaSox with a .480 slugging percentage, and his power for his position made him one of the league's most interesting players. The question seems to be where he’ll play, as he spent time at second base, shortstop and third base.

He projects more as a second baseman, though he also played plenty of outfield in college and for Team USA last summer. Merritt made a name for himself as one of the top hitters on USA Baseball's college national team, and offense is still his strong suit.

"He's got surprising pop and can turn the fastball around," Cole said. "He might end up being a utility guy because he can play all three positions. He runs well enough to sneak in a few stolen bases and has very good instincts."

Eugene Emeralds (Padres)
Germano was one of the younger players in the league despite having been a 2000 draft pick. He gained more experience by starting the season in the Class A Midwest League, going 2-6, 4.98 in 65 innings.

Germano was one of the NWL's most efficient, polished pitchers. With a good pitcher's body, he figures to improve the velocity on his 90-91 mph fastball. His curveball, a sweeping, slurvy rendition, remains his best pitch, and he throws a decent changeup. His above-average command and feel for pitching makes all his pitches more effective.

"If he can add a little more velocity, I could seem him down the line being like a Kevin Millwood, a real workhorse, No. 2 or No. 3 starter," Gardner said. "He can throw his curve and change for strikes and has a great approach for a 19-year-old."

Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Along with Gautreau the only first-round picks on this list, Hennessey pitched just enough to show league managers he was legitimate. He wasn't on the prospect radar coming into the season before convincing his college coach to move him from shortstop to the mound on a full-time basis.

Hennessey, who did pitch with some regularity in high school, came to the Giants with a fresh arm, a slight frame ready to get stronger and a low-90s fastball. His biggest strength is a wicked slider that he just picked up this year and delivers from a low three-quarters angle. He also has a changeup and curveball.

"He's a good athlete and you can tell he used to be a shortstop," Stanley said. "He's got a quick arm. Right now he's putting everything he's got into every pitch. I think if he learns to take something off, he'll take off."

Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Martinez shared the league's strikeout title with Vancouver's James Harden, yet neither short righthander received overwhelming support as a prospect. Part of the reason was because neither pitched well away from home.

Martinez dominated in Everett, going 5-0, 1.54 with 60 strikeouts in 47 innings. On the road, he went 0-3, 4.06 with 40 whiffs in 38 innings. He did impress the Mariners enough to earn an emergency start with Triple-A Tacoma, where he got a win by allowing one run in six innings. He also pitched nine relief innings at Double-A San Antonio.

"He's a high-energy guy, a maximum-effort guy with quality stuff," Pollreisz said. "He's in the low 90s and will touch 93 with his fastball and has a quality slider, but he's not a real big guy."

Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Harden started the year as a reliever, moved into the rotation after four appearances and proceeded to become one of the league's dominant starters.

Like Martinez, he was much more effective at home, going 1-2, 1.80 versus 1-2, 5.83 on the road. His opponent batting average, a miniscule .179 overall, dipped to .132 at Nat Bailey Stadium, where he struck out 68 and walked 22 in 45 innings.

His last start came at home against Everett. Harden, who is from nearby Victoria, British Columbia, threw seven hitless innings with one walk and 12 strikeouts using a 93-94 mph fastball and above-average slider. "Jeez Louise, he was just outstanding," Pollreisz said. "His breaking ball was nasty."

"He throws hard and has a good live arm for a small guy," Stanley said. "He's deceptive. He's just got this slow windup and then it explodes. It's almost like an Asian pitcher's windup with the pause in the middle."

17 JORGE SOSA, rhp
Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
The best pure power arm in the league probably belonged to Sosa, as it did last year. Only last year, Sosa was using it as an outfielder in the Rockies system. Pollreisz saw him gun down an Everett baserunner trying to tag up from second base on a fly ball to deep right.

"It was just unbelievable," Pollreisz said. "We wrote up that he would be a guy who could move to the mound."

The Mariners selected Sosa in the Triple-A Rule 5 draft last December and started converting him into a pitcher. Soon, they had a 95-96 mph fastball that touched 98 on their hands. Pollreisz doesn't hesitate to compare Sosa to righthander Rafael Soriano, a converted outfielder who has become one of Seattle’s top prospects and himself a converted outfielder.

"Both of them have very good arms and were right fielders," Pollreisz says. "Both are very good athletes who made the switch easily."

Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Two years ago, the Mariners brought in lefthander Craig Anderson, a soft-tossing changeup artist from Australia. At age 17, Anderson went 10-2, 3.20, but his low-80s fastball didn't impress league managers enough for him to crack the league's Top 10 Prospects list.

Blackley shares many of Anderson's traits. He's Australian and a shade older than Anderson was at the time, has a good changeup and dominated NWL hitters, finishing third in the league in strikeouts. He also has a mid-80s fastball, though he has more upside than Anderson.

"He should grow a bit more into his fastball," said Pollreisz, in his third year managing Everett. "He's more projectable because he's less mature physically than Craig was. He might eventually be in the high 80s, and he's got an outstanding curveball now."

Boise Hawks (Cubs)
The younger brother of Phillies second baseman Marlon Anderson, Keto won the league's batting championship by 25 points and finished second in stolen bases. Some managers likened him to speedsters Juan Pierre and Jamal Strong, who tore through the NWL the last two years. Unlike them, he doesn’t project as a center fielder.

Anderson began the year by hitting .161 with one extra-base hit in 62 at-bats in the Midwest League before being demoted to Boise. Once there, he stayed consistent with his approach, hitting line drives or keeping the ball on the ground to use his exceptional speed.

"He needs to refine his defense, but he runs very well and can really disrupt a defense when he's at the plate," McFarland said. "He was consistent and showed command of the strike zone, and he's a good bunter."

Tri-City Dust Devils (Rockies)
Bouknight won the 2000 Golden Spikes Award, the highest honor in U.S. amateur baseball, but returned for his senior year at South Carolina after getting drafted in the 21st round. He finished as the Gamecocks’ all-time victory and strikeout leader, but he’s not a power pitcher and got picked in the 13th round in June.

Bouknight has a unique style, throwing his fastball in the low 80s and spotting it to go with a good changeup and a big, slow, 12-6 curveball that he uses as his out pitch. While he doesn't have the power arm or projectability of Tri-City teammate Simpson, who was shut down early with a minor injury, Bouknight has a big league feel for pitching. His ceiling isn't high, but he has the savvy to make it to Colorado.

"I think if he can continue to locate his stuff, he can make it because he's a student of the game," Cole said. "He's a good teammate. He's always learning, even when he's not pitching. That's a big plus."

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