The short-season Northwest League, which kicked off its season on June 20th, offers an intriguing blend of talent.
"This is an advanced first-year league with predominately college players and Latin players who have two or three years of service," Vancouver manager Rick Magnante told Baseball America.
That mix was evident last year when polished college draftees like Christian Friedrich and James Darnell made their way through the league along with international talents like Martin Perez and Wilfredo Boscan. In previous seasons, the league served as the launching pad for prospects such as Mat Latos, Kellen Kulbacki and Juan Ramirez.
The talent level remains strong this year and the following five are among the prospects to watch as the season progresses.
Hak-Ju Lee, SS, Boise (Chicago-N)
Lee, 18, was signed out of Korea last year for $725,000. The Cubs had made splashes in Korea in the past -- most notably Jae Kuk Ryu and Hee Seop Choi -- but both proved to be wasted investments. A potential top-of-the-order hitter, Lee is hoping to make the Cubs look better than his predecessors did and he's off to a good start, going 14-for-39 with four doubles and four steals through his first nine games. "He's got a good swing and he's got good balance. I would say right now he's more of guy who uses the whole field to hit, (who) stays inside the ball good. I wouldn't say he's going to be a power guy, but he's got some power," Cubs Pacific Rim scout Paul Weaver told Baseball America. Between Starlin Castro, Darwin Barney, Junior Lake and Ryan Flaherty, the Cubs have a slew of promising shortstop prospects and Lee is at least as intriguing as any of them.
Matt Davidson, 1B/3B, Yakima (Arizona)
The Arizona farm system entered the season as one of the worst in the majors, so it's a good thing they had eight top 100 picks, including five of the first 50. Davidson, 18, was the team's third pick -- 35th overall -- and he signed for $900,000 two days after the draft. Some feel that Arizona may have gotten a steal. "I talked to one scout who went as far as to say Davidson might be the second-best hitter in the draft behind (second overall pick Dustin) Ackley," wrote ESPN.com's Jason Grey. Jon Kilma of Baseball Beginnings also raves about Davidson's bat. "You are buying the bat. Offensive-oriented AL-type player. Should be middle of the order bat on a contending team. Best power I saw this spring," he wrote. His defense might lag behind his hitting and he could ultimately end up at first base. Offensive expectations would be higher, but Davidson could have the bat to make it. He has started his professional career by going 8-for-40 with a double, a homer, four walks, and 15 strikeouts.
Rashun Dixon, OF, Vancouver (Oakland)
Dixon was a two-sport star in high school. Besides baseball, he was also a standout wide receiver and had committed to play football for Mississippi State. Major league teams didn't think they could pry him away, so Dixon tumbled in last year's draft. Oakland was able to snatch him in the tenth round for $600,000 -- the equivalent of mid-to-late second round money last year. Dixon, 18, made his professional debut last summer in the Gulf Coast League and showed impressive power (.270 ISOP) and speed (10 triples). On the downside, he struck out too much (34.2%). That's a trend he's carried over into this year (16 K in 49 PA) and that went along with pre-draft reports that indicated Dixon didn't have great plate discipline. Since he devoted half of his time to football in high school, it's reasonable to expect him to be behind other players his age. Dixon won't move quickly and he could be one of those high ceiling/low floor types, but if everything comes together, he could be an impressive power/speed player in the majors -- likely at a corner outfield spot.
Robbie Ross, LHP, Spokane (Texas)
A six-foot southpaw out of Lexington, Kentucky, Ross was selected 57th overall in last year's draft and was given first round money ($1,575,000) to keep him from honoring his commitment to the University of Kentucky. The 20-year-old has a 90-91 MPH fastball, a put away slider, as well as a solid change. Ross walked two and fanned 15 -- all but one coming on a swinging third strike -- in his first two starts. "He's the type of pitcher who always gets more out of his stuff than others might. He may not have a ton of projection, but he's already pretty good," wrote MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. There may not be another organization that can match Texas' pitching depth, and Ross will have to leapfrog a lot of other prospects, but the Rangers think highly of him and he's off to a good start.
Tim Wheeler, OF, Tri-City (Colorado)
Colorado drafted Wheeler with the 32nd pick in this year's draft and quickly signed him for a slightly below-slot $900,000. A product of Sacramento State, Wheeler gets praised for his plus speed, but a lack of power seemed likely to keep him from being a top pick. That changed this spring when the 21-year-old hit 18 homers after going deep just three times the previous year. Making adjustments to his swing were crucial in Wheeler's breakout junior season. "He worked on mechanical issues with his swing, focusing on getting his hands and hips to work together," wrote John Schumacher of The Sacramento Bee. Thanks to his speed and his arm, some analysts believe Wheeler could play centerfield in the majors, but don't expect that to happen. "He projects more as a corner outfielder than a center fielder. He's a good tools kid. He has a chance to hit and hit with some power," Rockies vice president of scouting Bill Schmidt told MLB.com. Wheeler is off to an 9-for-26 start with four doubles, a homer, and two stolen bases.
As is the case with the New York-Penn League, we can expect more of this year's draftees to debut in the league once they sign.
Contact Ryan Fay at email@example.com