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September 27, 2008

Future Shock

Hawaiian Winter League Preview

by Kevin Goldstein

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The Hawaiian Winter Baseball league kicks off its third season since its rebirth in the middle of the decade, and while it has had its fair share of struggles both economically and on a facilities level, it has improved each year and become a very important off-season league. It now provides a much-needed winter-ball venue for players who are not quite ready for the Arizona Fall League or Latin American baseball. At a level somewhere between High- and Double-A, a new kind of prospect is able to get in some valuable extra at-bats and innings. The league has also been the beneficiary of the new draft signing deadline, as players who signed too late to start the regular season are often now sent to the islands to begin their careers. This year, the league features four first-round picks from this past June (including one supplemental pick), as well as a 2007 pick who is making his highly anticipated pro debut. Here's a look at the top prospects in the league by position.

One caveat for these rankings: They are somewhat off the cuff and based on current knowledge. If things change following more in-depth discussions with scouts and team officials during my off-season work on the Top 11 and Top 100, try not to hold it against me—rankings are always fluid. While many of the players here could be the top-ranked prospects for their organization, many others won't even sniff their team's individual lists.

Catchers

  1. Buster Posey, Waikiki (Giants). The fifth overall pick last June became one of the top catching prospects in the game the moment he signed. He'll get his first extended playing time after looking a little rusty during the California League playoffs.

  2. Jason Castro, North Shore (Astros). The Astros shocked many by taking the Stanford product with the 10th overall pick in June (especially with Justin Smoak still on the board), but he signed quickly and hit .275/.383/.384 in the New York-Penn League. It's hard to see him as a star, but he's above average both offensively and defensively.

  3. Austin Romine, Waikiki (Yankees). Overshadowed by and forced to split catching duties with Jesus Montero at Low-A Charleston, Romine is now in the same situation with Posey at Waikiki. He's not in Montero's class offensively, but he can hit a bit, has gap power, and unlike Montero he's a plus catcher defensively.

  4. James Skelton, West Oahu (Tigers). One of the strangest players around, Skelton is a powerless walk machine who hit .303/.456/.401 between High- and Double-A this year. At 5'11" and a downright skinny 165 pounds, he just doesn't look like a catcher, but he gets the job done defensively and has a plus arm.

Also of Note: Jordan Abruzzo, Honolulu (Mets); Wally Crancer, West Oahu (Orioles); Tony Cruz, Honolulu (Cardinals)

First Base

  1. Yonder Alonso, Waikiki (Reds). The seventh overall pick this June went 6-for-19 with five walks in six Florida State League games after signing at the deadline. His offensive upside is tremendous, but that bat is his only tool.

  2. Chris Carter, North Shore (Athletics). He hit 39 home runs during the regular season and added five more during 12 post-season games, but he remains one of the streakiest hitters around, and finished the year with just a .259 batting average and 156 strikeouts. More interesting will be where he ends up playing; a third baseman in high school, the Athletics tried him out at the position at the tail end of the season, and have dreams of him becoming adequate there and increasing his future value.

  3. Kala Ka'aihue, Honolulu (Braves). He failed to build on last year's breakout season by hitting only 14 home runs in 126 Double-A games, but still had a .417 on-base percentage thanks to 88 walks in just 376 at-bats.

Second Base

  1. Jim Negrych, West Oahu (Pirates). A disappointment entering the year, Negrych finally showed the form from his college days at Pitt by hitting .359/.438/.482 on the year. With no more than doubles power, the Pirates are hoping he can play second base after playing only at third during the regular season.

  2. Brad Emaus, Honolulu (Blue Jays). A true grinder, Emaus doesn't have much in the way of tools, but he showed a pro approach, gap power, and solid defensive fundamentals during a .302/.380/.463 season at High-A Dunedin.

  3. Damon Sublett, Waikiki (Yankees). Injuries limited the former Wichita State star to just 42 games this year, so Sublett will be looking to make up for lost time. He does not have a high ceiling, but if healthy he could move quickly, as he works the count well and laces balls from gap to gap.

  4. Tony Thomas, Waikiki (Cubs). The former Florida State star got off to a tremendous start but faltered down the stretch, hitting just .254/.311/.359 after the All-Star break. A 14-for-29 showing in the post-season earned him MVP honors, and the Cubs hope the bat is back on track, as that's his ticket to the big leagues.

  5. Greg Veloz, Honolulu (Mets). Athletic and raw, the 20-year-old Dominican shows gap power and plus speed, but he's prone to chasing pitches and can be sloppy on defense.

Also of Note: Kyle Martin, North Shore (Royals); Kurt Mertins, North Shore (Royals).

Third Base

  1. Darin Holcomb, Honolulu (Rockies). A .318/.400/.491 season earned him Sally League MVP honors, but at the same time, he's nearly 23 years old and hit just 14 home runs in one of the league's most power-friendly parks, so the jury is still out as far as his prospect status.

  2. Marquez Smith, Waikiki (Cubs). Short and squat, Smith has hitting skills and above-average power, but like Holcomb, he's already 23 and hasn't done anything but prove he can hit Low-A pitching.

Also of Note: Tyler Henson, West Oahu (Orioles); Dustin Realini, North Shore (Indians).

Shortstop

  1. Todd Frazier, Waikiki (Reds). Coming off of a .291/.368/.485 season split between Low- and High-A, there is little doubt that Frazier can hit. The big question is what position he'll end up at; he's fringy at best as a shortstop, and he struggled at third as well. He needs to stick at one of those two to project well, because at first base or left field (two positions where he also spent time this year), his bat projects as merely average.

  2. Yamaico Navarro, North Shore (Red Sox). The Dominican import hit .348/.393/.508 following a move up to the high-octane environment of High-A Lancaster, and scouts like the defensive tools as well. He's a bit of a hacker, but he shows surprising pop for his size. Shortstop remains an iffy proposition for him, as he tries to make up for a lack of speed with instincts that are still developing.

  3. Brian Friday, West Oahu (Pirates). The best defender in the league, Friday has above-average range and arm strength, but a .287/.365/.387 year at High-A Lynchburg marks the high end of his offensive abilities, and he projects as more of a second-division starter who hits towards the bottom of a lineup.

  4. Ruben Tejada, Honolulu (Mets). Overmatched in the Florida State League this year as an 18-year-old, the Panamanian Tejeda doesn't have a ton of tools, but he shows outstanding defensive fundamentals, as well as solid pitch recognition and a feel for contact.

Also of Note: Mark Halberg, West Oahu (Diamondbacks); Ron Rivas, North Shore (Indians)

Outfield

  1. Ryan Kalish, North Shore (Red Sox). While the numbers were disappointing overall (.273/.365/.363), Kalish gets a mulligan for an injured wrist that he's still wearing a brace on. The tools remain elite-level good, though.

  2. Corey Brown, North Shore (Athletics). Hitting 30 home runs and stealing 16 bases in 17 attempts during his first full season is quite impressive. Then there are the 168 strikeouts in 134 games, which is what he'll be working on in Hawaii. If he can stay in center field (where he's average now), he's a very good prospect despite the contact issues.

  3. Michael Taylor, Honolulu (Phillies). One of the more surprising breakouts in the minors, the Stanford washout with the incredible 6'6", 250-pound frame hit .346/.412/.557 while splitting time between the Phillies' two A-level squads. Scouts look forward to the opportunity for more looks to determine just how real this year's production was.

  4. Dominic Brown, Honolulu (Phillies). Ultra-toolsy, Brown hit .291/.382/.417 with 22 stolen bases at Low-A Lakewood this year while showing surprising contact skills and a good approach. If he can translate his raw power to in-game exploits, look out!

  5. Roger Kieschnick, Waikiki (Giants). The third-round pick will make his pro debut in Hawaii. The tools were always well ahead of the performance at Texas Tech; that will have to change in the pros.

  6. Caleb Gindl, West Oahu (Brewers). He hit .307/.388/.474 in his full-season debut for Low-A West Virginia, but at just 5-foot-9, scouts see a corner outfielder with a questionable ceiling who struck out 144 times. Believers see the next Brian Giles.

  7. Mike Mitchell, Honolulu (Rockies). A true burner who had a .365 on-base percentage and 55 stolen bases in 64 attempts at Low-A Ashville. The bad news is that he doesn't walk enough, doesn't hit for power, and is already 23 years old.

  8. Jordan Parraz, North Shore (Astros). His tools and athleticism are off the charts, but he spent four years in short-season leagues and is now almost 24 without having ever played above A-ball. He hit .289/.399/.419 at High-A Salem this year, and the power remains in raw form only.

  9. Greg Burns, West Oahu (Marlins). Burns has never lived up to his promise, but he's still only 21 and had 61 walks and 34 stolen bases at High-A this year. There's something there, but is it enough?

Also of Note: Eric Eiland, Honolulu (Blue Jays); Tommy Giles, Waikiki (Dodgers); Kyle Hankerd, West Oahu (Diamondbacks); Johan Limonta, Waikiki (Mariners); Matt McBride, North Shore (Indians); James McOwen, Waikiki (Mariners); Alfredo Silverio, Waikiki (Dodgers).

Starting Pitchers

  1. Andrew Brackman, RHP, Waikiki (Yankees). He's 6'10" and 270 pounds, and his fastball was sitting in the mid-90s last week in instructional league, touching 98. At the same time, he turns 23 in December, has never pitched a single inning as a pro, is coming off of a Tommy John procedure, and never had any consistent success in college. He offers as much to dream on as anyone, while also throwing up more red flags than an old Soviet embassy.

  2. Connor Graham, RHP, Honolulu (Rockies). The fifth-round pick last June had a 2.26 ERA at Low-A this year and has a plus fastball/slider combination, but his control often goes missing, as he walked 83 in 147 1/3 innings. Including the postseason, he tossed 1551/3 innings and ran up some high pitch counts (given his wildness), so why is he still pitching?

  3. Jeremy Bleich, LHP, Waikiki (Yankees). The supplemental first-round pick got in just three New York-Penn League innings after signing at the deadline. Scouts are mixed; some see him as no more than a back-of-the-rotation type, others think he could have been a true first-rounder with a more healthy spring.

  4. Tyler Herron, RHP, Honolulu (Cardinals). The solid right-hander hopes to regain confidence after moving too quickly through the system and putting up a 5.20 ERA at Double-A. He throws strikes with an effective three-pitch mix.

  5. Chris Cody, LHP, West Oahu (Brewers). He has a career ERA of 2.12 in 51 games and a mid-80s fastball, and is getting it done with movement and fantastic command. Scouts don't think it will last.

Also of Note: Tim Bascom, RHP, West Oahu (Orioles); Kyle Bloom, LHP, West Oahu (Pirates); Jose Capellan, LHP, North Shore (Red Sox); Sean Gleason, RHP, West Oahu (Orioles); Shawn Nottingham, LHP, North Shore (Indians); Dustin Richardson, LHP, North Shore (Red Sox).

Relief Pitchers

  1. Sam Demel, RHP, North Shore (Athletics). This beefy righty can get into the mid-90s with his fastball, which works well as a strikeout pitch (90 in 67 High-A innings). He is also a ground-ball producing machine.

  2. Blake King, RHP, Honolulu (Cardinals). Similar to Demel, Kings offers plenty of velocity and struck out more than a batter per inning this year, but his command completely falls apart at times, as he walked 82 in 93 2/3 innings this year.

  3. Waldis Joaquin, RHP, Waikiki (Giants). The lanky Dominican was converted to relief after Tommy John surgery two years ago. His fastball and slider both register as plus pitches, but a violent delivery has scouts concerned about future.

  4. Chris Hicks, RHP, North Shore (Astros). A 14th-round pick this year who closed at Georgia Tech, Hicks struck out 13 in eight New York-Penn League innings while giving up just three hits. Big body and solid stuff, but still seen as raw.

  5. Jordon Pratt, RHP, Waikiki (Dodgers). A Wild Thing type who brings the heat without having any idea where it will end up. In that last two years at High-A Inland Empire, he's struck out 174 in 152 innings while walking 142.

  6. Junior Guerra, RHP, Honolulu (Mets). He pitched at four levels during the season, allowing just 15 hits in 34 innings while striking out 41. Short and stocky, Guerra has plus velocity, a developing breaking ball, and good command, leaving some to see him as a bit of a sleeper.

Also of Note: Harrison Bishop, RHP, West Oahu (Pirates); Michael Broadway, Honolulu (Braves); Steve Edlefsen, RHP, Waikiki (Giants); Cliff Flagello, RHP, West Oahu (Orioles); Roy Merritt, LHP, Honolulu (Mets); Matt Meyer, LHP, North Shore (Indians); David Patton, RHP, Honolulu (Rockies); Mike Ramlow, LHP, West Oahu (Brewers); Steve Richard, RHP, Waikiki (Mariners); Josh Stinson, RHP, Honolulu (Mets); Philippe-Alexandre Valiquette, LHP, Waikiki (Reds).

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  A's,  The Who,  Dominican Prospect League

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Prospectus Preview: Sa... (09/27)
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Premium Article Future Shock: Does Siz... (09/26)
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Premium Article Future Shock: Missing ... (10/03)
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Premium Article Player Profile: Ricky ... (09/27)

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