Sandoval the"Juanderdog"

Right-hander Juan Sandoval (M's)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When the Mariners' management looks down upon their fruitful farm system, they have to like what they see. With talented prospects like Felix Hernandez, Shin-soo Choo and Yuniesky Betancourt, the future is as exciting as it is bright. But as a player in the farm system, particularly a middle-tier prospect without much fanfare, it's easy to get lost in the mix.

Juan Sandoval, a 24-year-old right-hander from Santo Domingo, is one pitcher to whom this might apply. With fellow starters Thomas Oldham, Bobby Livingston and Ryan Rowland-Smith sharing much of the spotlight with Sandoval, it could be easy to get over looked. Regardless of recognition, or a lack thereof, Sandoval has quietly went about his business and provided the Missions with a quality starter all season long.

Athletes can approach competition in one of many ways; they can feed off the pressure or they can falter under it. Sandoval prefers to use the success of his fellow Missions' pitchers as motivation, which in turn elevates his performance on the mound.

"You compete with everybody," he said. "You compete with hitters, you compete against other pitchers... so I don't look at it as pressure, I look at it as motivation."

One highly-respected major league scout noted that Sandoval is, in his opinion, the best pitching prospect the Missions currently have on their roster.

"He needs innings, and to face adversity and also conquer that adversity," said the scout. "That's why he is here."

It isn't that Sandoval hasn't been faced with adversity this season. He has, just as every pitcher in baseball has. In fact, one need only look at a recent start of his to see that. He surrendered five runs on nine hits in four innings on Friday.

"He left too many pitches up in the zone...he had good stuff but his release point wasn't were it needed to be," Dwight Bernard, the Missions' pitching coach, told InsidethePark.com afterwards. "This is where Sandoval is expected to make adjustments, get past adversity, and return to form for his next start on Wednesday."

The upside of Sandoval is hard to forecast; he throws a fastball that reaches the low 90s with exceptional movement and uses a sharp breaking slider to confuse hitters. His aggressive approach and confidence on the mound are evident every time he takes the hill.

"I do not pitch to their weaknesses I pitch to my strengths," Sandoval says.

Even when it is evident that a hitter cannot hit a breaking ball, Sandoval does not necessarily pitch to that weakness. Instead, he goes at the hitter with his strengths, spotting up his fastball and letting them put the ball in play.

"I like to get the first pitch in the zone and get quick outs," he said. "That way I can go longer into games."

So far this season, that formula has worked, as Sandoval has averaged more innings per start than any other pitcher on the staff.

With Sandoval's youthful exuberance and underrated talent, his efforts won't likely be overlooked for long.

Besides, people love underdogs. Especially ones with the upside of one Juan Sandoval.
Warren Sims covers the San Antonio Missions for InsideThePark.com and can be reached via e-mail at warren.sims@gmail.com

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