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Northwest Top 20 Prospects

By John Manuel
September 23, 2002

In the two years that Boise has been affiliated with the Cubs, the Hawks have become known for their pitching.

Last year, Boise led the short-season Northwest League with a 3.19 ERA and rode its staff to a league-best 52-23 record. Angel Guzman and Dontrelle Willis had breakout years and built on that momentum in 2002, carving their place among the game's best mound prospects.

The 2002 staff was deeper and better, however. The best prospect in the NWL was Hawks lefthander Andy Sisco, and teammates Luke Hagerty and Jae-Kuk Ryu weren't far behind. A fourth starter, Ricky Nolasco, made the Top 20 Prospects list. Boise again had the league's top mark (49-27) and won the ERA title (3.10), and swept its way to the NWL championship.

Vancouver also was loaded with talent. The Canadians' parent organization, the Athletics, placed all seven of its first-rounders and supplemental first-rounders with Vancouver at one point. Righthanders Ben Fritz and Steve Obenchain and shortstop John McCurdy all made the Top 10.

The most impressive A's first-rounders were righthander Joseph Blanton and third baseman Mark Teahen. Along with outfielder Nick Swisher and catcher Jeremy Brown, they didn't stick around long enough to qualify for this list. Neither did Eugene shortstop Khalil Greene, Baseball America's 2002 College Player of the Year and the Golden Spikes Award winner.

1. Andy Sisco, lhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Sisco could have earned this distinction for being the youngest player with the highest upside, understandable given his imposing 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame. League managers universally lauded Sisco's size, stuff and athleticism (his family has an extensive football background), and expect him to get better.

That's a scary thought, because Sisco looked plenty good in his second pro season. Despite his size and the ability to run his fastball up to 95-96 mph–he regularly pitched between 90-94–Sisco dominated more with the poise and advanced feel for pitching that belied his age.

"You look at him and see him throwing four pitches for strikes now, and they will be above-average," Boise manager Steve McFarland said. "Right now, he relies on his split-finger fastball too much, and at one point we had to take it away. We wanted to force him to use his changeup and curveball more, and we want him to learn to pitch off his fastball."

Said Vancouver manager Orv Franchuk: "He looked like Randy Johnson early (in the season) against us. He was getting extension and getting right on top of guys. He showed a lot of poise."

As Sisco tired later in the season, he wasn't as consistent with his mechanics and short-armed his delivery at times. He still dominated a league full of older players.

2. Freddie Lewis, of, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Southern University had produced big league talent before, but Lewis is part of a recent torrent that includes Tigers 2001 first-rounder Michael Woods and Rickie Weeks, the No. 1 college prospect for 2003. Lewis, a junior college transfer who played more football than baseball before this season, flashed enough speed and skills to intrigue the Giants.

Lewis' athleticism, explosiveness and physical ability impressed managers, but so did his skills. Though somewhat raw, he won several games with the small game, showing the ability to drop a bunt or steal a base when needed.

A plus runner, Lewis is just starting to grasp how he can disrupt a game with his speed. He covers plenty of ground in center field, where his arm is adequate and improving as he gets away from his football past. Plenty of projection remains in his bat.

"He's got lots of untapped power," Salem-Keizer manager Fred Stanley said. "He hasn't learned to turn on the inside fastball yet, but he has terrific bat speed and can drive it to the opposite field with power now. He's very raw, but a tremendous talent."

3. Ismael Castro, 2b, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Castro slumped late in the season and fell to fifth in the batting race, but managers agreed he had the most advanced offensive skills in the league. Whether or not he was actually 19 was a hot topic, as many noted his physical maturity and advanced skills at the plate. Mariners assistant farm director Greg Hunter insists Castro's age is legitimate to the best of the organization's knowledge.

The Colombian showed a quick bat, a compact swing that allows him to stay inside the ball, and power to all fields. While he won't be a big home run hitter, Castro lashes line drives from foul line to foul line and has a mature approach at the plate, leading to a league-best 26 doubles and third-best .507 slugging percentage. He was named league MVP.

"What's most important for me, though, is the way he plays second base," Yakima manager Mike Aldrete said. "He's squatty and thick, but he's athletic, has good hands and turns the double play well. He pretty much does everything, and does everything well."

4. Luke Hagerty, lhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Hagerty teamed with No. 1 overall pick Bryan Bullington at Ball State, but got a little closer to the big leagues than Bullington by signing early as a supplemental first-round pick, then helping pitch Boise into the playoffs. He first emerged last summer in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, and spent this spring was his first as a full-time starter in college.

While not as polished as more experienced college pitchers, Hagerty is further ahead than his slightly larger teammate, Sisco. McFarland said Hagerty gets better extension and has more consistent mechanics, making good use of his 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame. That helps give his 90-91 mph fastball late explosive life. His changeup is his second pitch, and he's working on a slider.

"His velocity is so easy and the pitch has such late life that even though he doesn't throw it as hard as Andy, his fastball is a better pitch," McFarland said. "He can spot his fastball on both sides of the plate with that velocity and has a good changeup, which he also spots well."

5. Jae-Kuk Ryu, rhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
The Cubs have been as active as any organization in Korea, bringing first baseman Hee Seop Choi through to the big leagues. They now have another gem in Ryu, who finished the season in the low Class A Midwest League. While he didn't dominate the NWL, he showed a repertoire of plus pitches that helped him overcome his inexperience.

Ryu uses his 6-foot-3 frame well, getting a good downhill plane and leverage on his fastball, which touches 95-96 mph and usually sits at 90-92. As is the case with Sisco, the Cubs are trying to get Ryu to pitch off his fastball more. Like many Asian pitchers, he can throw his splitter for strikes, has an above-average curveball and the makings of a good changeup. He showed solid command of all four offerings.

"I liked him better than the lefties on their staff," Tri-City manager Ron Gideon said. "They were good, but here's a guy with a smooth delivery, a pro body, (he) throws four pitches for strikes and mixes all of them up. He was impressive."

6. Ben Fritz, rhp, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Fritz was one of three first-round picks to pitch for the Canadians this season, along with Blanton and Steve Obenchain. Fritz doesn't have Blanton's mid-90s fastball and power curve, but that doesn't mean his stuff is short.

Also used as a catcher and first baseman at Fresno State, Fritz has room to improve as he turns his full attention to pitching. Renowned in college for his tenacity and competitiveness, he showed those qualities again in the NWL. Additionally, he pitched at 90-94 mph with his fastball and showed flashes of an average changeup and slider.

"He pitches with a lot of poise and a lot of control, both of himself and his pitches," Franchuk said. "Everyone we've talked to liked him as a catcher because of his strength and his arm, and you could see those things out on the mound as well."

7. Steve Obenchain, rhp, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Like Fritz, Obenchain was adjusting to a new role in pro ball. Used primarily as a reliever in college, where he followed in the Evansville power-pitching tradition established by Andy Benes and Tigers farmhand Preston Larrison, Obenchain started in 10 of his 11 appearances with the Canadians. The A's eased him into the role, allowing him to pitch five innings just twice.

Obenchain still is learning how to use his pitches. He gets a good angle to the plate on his 89-92 mph fastball and locates it well. His curveball is an average pitch and he had the best changeup on a Vancouver staff featuring soft-tossing specialists such as Andy Dickinson and Shawn Kohn.

"He didn't have to use it much as a reliever, but his changeup is the reason we think he can be pretty good as a starter," Franchuk said. "It's such a good pitch, he needs to use it more, and it will get better."

8. Jerry Gil, ss, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
Gil is the only prospect in the league who came down from a higher level and still impressed managers enough to merit inclusion in the Top 10. He hit just enough to make them think he has enough upside left, though his 47-6 strikeout-walk ratio was ugly.

Just 19, Gil still is growing into his lanky 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame. Despite his 23 errors in 60 games at shortstop, managers considered him the league's best defender at the position.

"He made all the plays against us and some great plays," Franchuk said. "He showed me he could make the play in the hole. He made everything look so easy, and he got to balls most shortstops in this league wouldn't get."

Gil showed some power at the plate with the second best slugging percentage among regulars in an anemic Yakima lineup. He also stole 14 bases in 15 tries.

9. John McCurdy, ss, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
Another of the first-round picks the A's started at Vancouver, McCurdy was the only hitter who stayed for the whole season. Spacious Nat Bailey Stadium proved a little tougher than the University of Maryland's cozy Shipley Field.

McCurdy had a breakout season in college, hitting .443. He started his pro debut in similar fashion, but wore down as the season went along in the league's biggest park. Pitchers started to find the holes in his swing, but the A's remain optimistic that his strength and swing will make him a big league hitter down the line. He also has decent speed.

Most questions about McCurdy centered on his defense. He made 20 errors in 51 games at shortstop and moved to third base for three games late in the season. While he has solid actions, most managers don't see him staying at shortstop because of his footwork.

10. Travis Ishikawa, 1b, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Projected as the No. 3 prospect in the state of Washington going into the draft, Ishikawa lasted until the end of the first day of the proceedings thanks to hefty bonus demands. The Giants met them, paying him a $950,000 bonus, a record for a 21st-round pick.

He started living up to it in the NWL, where he slashed four singles in his debut against Spokane. After a late-August slump, Ishikawa finished with a flourish, showing a line-drive swing, good plate coverage and an athletic build. He didn't hit for much power in his pro debut, but showed he could handle a good fastball and projects to have more pop as he fills out.

11. Marland Williams, of, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
While Boise's Dwaine Bacon and Chris Walker and Everett's Carlos Arroyo got some prospect support, the speed-burner outfielder who impressed managers the most was Williams. A 36th-round pick in 2001, he signed with Arizona in May as a draft-and-follow.

With speed that rates at the top of the 2-to-8 scouting scale, he led the league with 51 steals–20 more than second-place finisher Bacon. Williams also showed some pop offensively, sharing the league lead with eight triples.

Williams is very raw, as evidenced by 10 outfield errors and 86 strikeouts, third-most in the league. On a Yakima team that lost 22 games in a row, he kept working hard and showed some aptitude to make the adjustments he'll need to improve.

"He was a three-sport athlete, and he's just behind in experience and at-bats," Aldrete said. "His swing has some flaws and he has a long way to go, but he made significant strides this year. He's progressing faster than most raw talents you see."

12. Kevin Collins, 1b, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Collins wasn't the only Hawks first baseman to receive prospect support, as former Lamar slugger Micah Hoffpauir used an aggressive approach to hit 10 home runs. But it was Collins who showed more lefthanded power than any other NWL hitter and earned the spot on the Top 20.

In his third pro season after two years in the Rookie-level Arizona League, Collins put his experience to work, winning the NWL batting and slugging percentage (.668) titles. He hung in against lefthanders and improved his ability to put balls in play. He still has to improve defensively.

"He has shown legit power to all fields, and he's starting to handle breaking balls better," McFarland said. "He may need some time, but his ceiling is pretty high."

13. Dan Ortmeier, of, Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Giants)
Part of an athletic Volcanoes outfield with Lewis and Randy Walter, Ortmeier showed more potential than Walter but not as many tools as Lewis. He missed the last two weeks of the season with a shoulder injury that limited him to left field when he did play, but showed enough tools when healthy.

Ortmeier has a better idea of how to drive the ball than Lewis, and projects to have average power. If the switch-hitter is markedly better from one side than the other, league managers couldn't tell, and they liked his ability to drive the ball to the gaps from either side. He runs well for his size, covers ground in the outfield and showed some prowess on the bases.

"He's athletic, has a plus arm and showed some power," Spokane manager Tom Poquette said. "He played like a right fielder."

14. Jon Nelson, 1b, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Many league managers tend to treat the offensive numbers of AquaSox players with some skepticism. Everett Memorial Stadium has the shortest dimensions in the league and a reputation for being something of a launching pad.

Perhaps Nelson had something to do with that reputation this year. He led the league in homers by a wide margin and showed a precious commodity: raw power.

Nelson spent two years while on a Mormon mission in South Florida, learning to speak Spanish well enough to communicate with his Latin American teammates. The rust showed with a league-high 96 strikeouts, many coming when he chased breaking balls. The Mariners figure to be patient with a player with his kind of power, though.

"He's a monster," Aldrete said. "He's a man. Some of his homers were hit so far, it was incredible."

15. Troy Cate, lhp, Everett AquaSox (Mariners)
Cate's baseball background has included some glamorous spots, and some less so. He played at Fallbrook High in suburban San Diego, facing some of the best prep competition in the country. An all-San Diego County selection, he delayed his baseball career to take a Mormon mission to England.

After his mission, Cate found his way to Brigham Young-Idaho, then a junior college and now a four-year school that has dropped athletics. Cate attracted attention with a school-record 83 strikeouts last spring, then finished second to Sisco in the NWL with 95 more whiffs.

Using a high-80s fastball that touched 92 mph, as well as a splitter, curveball and change that he can throw for strikes, Cate threw the league's only complete-game shutout, needing just 85 pitches – 68 of which were strikes.

16. Ricky Nolasco, rhp, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
A fourth member of Boise's talented rotation, Nolasco started to blossom in his second pro season. Dwarfed by the taller Hawks starters, Nolasco nevertheless had the second-best season on the team after Sisco, tying for second in victories while finishing third in strikeouts and sixth in ERA.

Powerfully built at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds, Nolasco showed a power arm, touching 95-96 mph at times with his fastball and generally pitching closer to 93 mph from an over-the-top delivery. Despite the velocity, his fastball lacks the overpowering life of his bigger Hawks counterparts, so he relies on two different curveballs, both of which he can throw for strikes.

"He's a power arm who throws a heavy ball with good command," Franchuk said. "Against us, his breaking ball was hard and it was tight."

17. Jared Doyle, lhp, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
Doyle played with his twin brother Nathan at James Madison, but stepped out on his own last summer in the amateur Coastal Plain League. He made the all-star team and flashed a 94-mph fastball, attracting scouts. After teaming with Braves first-rounder Dan Meyer to help lead the Dukes to an NCAA regional berth, he took over as ace of a bad Yakima team.

Doyle's power arm kept attracting attention despite his lack of a supporting cast. He held opponents to a .198 batting average by locating his sneaky-fast heater and using an effective changeup that tails away from righthanders when it's working. His slurvy slider needs to be tightened, but he has the work ethic and athleticism to make improvement.

"He's a mature guy who really worked on the game," Aldrete said. "When he was on, he pretty much dominated."

18. Brian Stavisky, of, Vancouver Canadians (Athletics)
The A's had seven of the first 39 picks in the 2002 draft, and they may have gotten a steal in the sixth round with Stavisky. A two-time preseason All-American at Notre Dame, his power bat long has captivated scouts.

He doesn't hit bombs because he has yet to learn to loft the ball–though Vancouver teammate Justin Crowder, whom Stavisky took deep to wrap up Notre Dame's 5-3 victory against Rice in the 2002 College World Series, would disagree. Instead, he slams screaming line drives to all fields with plus bat speed, and has the makings of the plate discipline required in the A's organization.

Stavisky's biggest drawback is defense. He played half his games at DH this summer, and Franchuk said he will get work at first base in instructional league. Stavisky's arm regularly graded as the minimum 20 on the 20-80 scouting scale during his college career, but Franchuk said it had improved to at least a 30.

"His throwing mechanics were so bad, so we just started over, breaking them down and starting from scratch," Franchuck said. "He spent tons of time with me, our pitching coach and our roving instructors to work on it. He has excellent makeup. He wants to work."

19. Greg Aquino, rhp, Yakima Bears (Diamondbacks)
Aquino was known as Greg Valera prior to this season, but he had a more significant identity change before he started using his middle name. The Dominican was a middle infielder for five years after signing in 1996 at age 16, but moved to the mound after posting a .229 average in 716 minor league at-bats.

With his power arm, the Diamondbacks gave him a chance on the mound. Though he still has to make up for lost time, he showed a fastball that touched 96 mph before he was promoted to high Class A Lancaster. He also showed a slider and changeup that were at times average pitches.

"He brought it to the table at 95," Gideon said. "He also brought a hard slider and showed the ability to pitch up and down in the zone with his fastball."

20. Jason Fransz, of, Boise Hawks (Cubs)
Fransz has the polished game of a college draftee. The Cubs became the third team to select him, with the Phillies and Royals each trying to lure him away from Riverside Community College. Instead Fransz helped Riverside win back-to-back California state titles, then ended up at Oklahoma for his junior season, earning first-team all-Big 12 Conference honors.

He brought his polished approach to the Boise outfield and was the Hawks' most consistent righthanded bat. Fransz trusts his quick hands, allowing him to wait on breaking balls and to handle good fastballs. He has the strength to hit for power, and he doesn't get fooled by breaking pitches.

"He's got a good swing and looks like a plus bat in right field," Franchuk said. "He gets good jumps in the outfield and runs pretty well."

Top 10 prospects five years ago
* has reached majors

1. * Dermal Brown, of, Spokane (Royals)
2. * Gil Meche, rhp, Everett (Mariners)
3. Nelson Castro, ss, Boise (Angels)
4. Jason Dewey, c, Boise (Angels)
5. Nick Leach, 1b, Yakima (Dodgers)
6. Juan LeBron, of, Spokane (Royals)
7. * Adam Piatt, 3b, Southern Oregon (Athletics)
8. Mike Byas, of, Salem-Keizer (Giants)
9. Nathan Haynes, of, Southern Oregon (Athletics)
10. Greg Jones, rhp, Boise (Angels)

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