Last month, I profiled the return of the Hawaii Winter League after a nearly decade-long hiatus. Based on what I was hearing from both agents and player development personnel, I was skeptical at the level of talent we’d see there in year one. With opening day of a 40-game schedule this weekend, and rosters finally released this week, I’ve done a complete 180 degree turn, and so have some teams. While some officials indicated off the record that they were sending fringe talent who were under the gun of roster decisions, in the weeks leading up to the start of the season, more and more impressive talent got assigned to the league.
Looking at the rosters now, the league is clearly filling what was a gaping hole in the winter league circuit–the need for lower-level talent to get additional playing time. The four Latin American winter leagues are far too advanced for younger talent, as they require both a mature set of playing skills, and in many cases, a mature person to adjust to the cultural differences. With the Arizona Fall League not only advanced, but putting in rules that limit the number of A-level players on each team, up until now there was nowhere for younger players who need to work on their skills to go except for instructional leagues.
Here’s a look at the four teams, and keep in mind that each team also has prospects from Japan, with each squad suiting up 5-10 prospects from the Japan Professional League. In future seasons, league officials hope to add prospects from Korea and Taiwan as well.
(Blue Jays, Braves, Indians, Orioles, Pirates)
Catching: A pair of Japanese minor league veterans join fringy Braves catcher Clint Sammons and fringy Pirates catcher Steve Lerud. The latter is young and has some power potential, but that’s about it.
Infield: Atlanta’s Kala Ka’aihue will man first base, so we get some more evidence as to what exactly he is. The 21-year-old came out of nowhere to lead the Braves organization with 28 home runs this year, but he hit .329 at Low-A Rome and then just .223 at High-A Myrtle Beach. The most interesting development is the Braves also sending a pair of third basemen, Van Pope and Eric Campbell, to the team. Pope had an impressive year at Myrtle Beach this year, and Campbell was even better at Rome, earning a mid-season ranking as the eighth-best third baseman in the minors. The news here is that the athletic Campbell will be tried at second base, which could be related to the fact that the team expects Marcus Giles to depart for free agency after next year. Campbell could develop into a Jeff Kent-esque player there if he can handle the defensive side of things. Pirates shortstop Brian Bixler is a solid-but-unspectacular shortstop with some on-base skills, and he’ll be joined by Cleveland veteran (and Hawaii native) Rodney Choy Foo.
Outfield: Not as interesting as the infield. Pirates outfielder Nyjer Morgan is your classic minor league speedster with very limited secondary skills, while Toronto’s Ryan Patterson is your classic college bat with little-to-no projection. The most interesting outfielder is 19-year-old Atsushi Ugumori. Long and lean, Ugumori is considered one of the top young power prospects in Japan.
Pitching: The list of Americans is uninspiring, though it will be interesting to see if Baltimore lefthander Dave Haehnel can turn things around after a miserable conversion from reliever to starter this year. The veteran leader here is Pittsburgh’s Wardell Starling, who had a 2.98 ERA this season and reached Double-A, but also recorded just 87 strikeouts in 160.1 innings. Eighteen-year-old Takanobu Tsujiuchi of the Yomiuri Giants was considered one of the top amateur lefthanders in Japan, and has reportedly touched 94 mph with his fastball.
North Shore Honu
(Astros, Brewers, Cubs, Dodgers, Mets)
Catching: Dodgers farmhand Anthony Harper is a singles hitter, which is more than one can say about Drew Butera. The Mets fifth-round pick last year, Butera hit a miserable .186/.297/.281 at Low A Hagerstown, and he’ll need to find some semblance of ability at the plate, or his plus skills behind it are all for naught.
Infield: A pair of interesting sluggers who both toiled in the Florida State League this year man first base. Mike Carp of the Mets opened some eyes with a .287/.379/.450 campaign for St. Lucie, while Cory Dunlap of the Dodgers hit a strange .260/.434/.458 with a walk rate (89 in 288 at-bats) almost as big as his waistline. Listed at 240 pounds, Dunlap clearly had one leg on the floor when that was recorded. The best prospect on the team is Dunlap’s teammate for half a season, second baseman Blake DeWitt. The 2004 first-rounder got off to a strong start at High-A Vero Beach, but hit just .183/.241/.221 in 26 games following a promotion to Double-A and now gets the opportunity to end the season on a high note. Houston’s Koby Clemens plays third base, and scouts say his .229/.313/.346 line at Low-A Lexington was as bad as it looks. His left-side partner this year, shortstop Tommy Manzella, has fantastic defensive skills and just enough bat to project as a utility player.
Outfield: After winning MVP honors in the Arizona League last year, 20-year-old Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain proved that he’s not just a fluke, batting .307/.384/.425 for Low-A West Virginia while leading the Sally League in hits. His West Virginia teammate, Darren Ford, stole 69 bases this year, but did little else. Dodgers outfielder Xavier Paul resurrected his prospect status with a .285/.343/.430 year at Vero Beach. He does many things well, but currently lacks
that one plus tool to put him over the top.
Pitching: It’s the most Japan-heavy staff in the league, with the Chiba Lotte Marines and Seibu Lions combining to send six arms, the best of which is teenage righthander Keisuke Hayashi. Small lefty Wesley Wright of the Dodgers had a great year out of the bullpen, with a 2.54 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 63.2 innings split between Vero Beach and Double-A Jacksonville.
Wakiki Beach Boys
(Giants, Mariners, Marlins, Nationals, Rockies)
Catching: The Nationals send defensive specialist Devin Ivany, and then the Mariners really shake things up by providing 2005 number three overall pick Jeff Clement. Minor surgery on a number of joints limited Clement to just 82 games this year, and he hit just .257/.321/.347 at Triple-A in a disappointing campaign; although he was unduly rushed.
Infield: Colorado sends second baseman Eric Young, Jr., who led the minor leagues with 87 stolen bases while batting .295/.391/.409 for Low-A Asheville. Young went from a one-trick-pony to at least some kind of prospect by hitting .352 after July 1st, reaching base 106 times in 55 games. Shortstop will be split between a pair of athletic, highly-regarded players who have had some bumps in the road as pros: Washington’s Ian Desmond and Colorado’s Chris Nelson. One of the more interesting players on the team is 19-year-old third baseman Tomoaki Egawa, a first-round pick in the Japan draft two years ago who has already reached the Pacific League, playing in eleven games this year.
Outfield: The Mariners’ Sebastian Boucher is kind of a Jason Tyner type, and the Giants supply 2003 second-round pick Nate Schierholtz, who hit a disappointing .270/.325/.443 at Double-A Connecticut, but finished strong. The big story here is Dexter Fowler, the toolsiest player in the Colorado system, and who hit .296/.373/.462 in his full-season debut at Asheville, showing plus power, plus speed and a surprisingly advanced approach.
Pitching: The big name here is Colorado’s Shane Lindsay. The 21-year-old Aussie struck out 91 in 62.2 innings this year and can dial it up to 98 mph on occasion. Joining Lindsay from the Rockies will be Ching-Lung Lo, a Taiwanese righty who has been unable to live up to the expectations that came with his $1.4 million signing bonus. The other American arms are no more than fringy, but keep an eye on Marlins righthander Rick Vanden Hurk. His career so far has been plagued by injuries, but when he’s been healthy, the 21-year-old import from the Netherlands has been pretty dominant, including 41 punch outs this year in 25 innings.
West Oahu Cane Fires
(Diamondbacks, Padres, Rangers, Red Sox, Royals, Yankees)
Catching: Both the D-Backs (Josh Ford) and Red Sox (Josh Otness) sent fringy talents, but Rangers prospect Emerson Frostad is somewhat interesting. The 23-year-old convert did not embarrass himself defensively in his first year behind the plate, and hit .320/.389/.553 at High-A Bakersfield. But here’s why this league is so valuable: a hand injury and time with Team Canada limited Frostad to just 79 games this year, and what he obviously needs are more defensive reps. This league provides an opportunity that did not exist last year.
Infield: The Royals are sending a pair of first basemen, but Kila
Ka’aihue is there more because he’s Hawaiian as opposed to any sort of prospect, as he hit a whopping .199/.303/.300 this year at Double-A Wichita. More interesting is Mike Stodolka, as the 2002 first-round pick hit a surprising .284/.396/.449 in his first year as a position player, although it was at High Desert. The left side of the infield will be primarily handled by Japanese prospects, although Texas third baseman Johnny Whittleman, a second-round pick in 2005, will also see some playing time after a disappointing full-season debut at Low-A Clinton (.227/.313/.343).
Outfield: Texas 2005 first-round pick John Mayberry hit 21 home runs at Clinton, but also hit just .268 with more than a strikeout for every four at-bats. Arizona’s Chris Rahl hit .327/.369/.502 at Lancaster and led the minor leagues with 186 hits, but he offers little in the way of secondary skills, and his numbers are highly park-inflated. One of the few
bright spots in the San Diego system this year was Will Venable, who hit .314/.389/.477 for Low-A Fort Wayne, but the former Princeton hoops star turns 24 years old in a couple of weeks, and needs to move quickly. This is his opportunity to maybe prove to the organization that he could afford a skip a level and begin 2007 in Double-A. Boston’s Jeff Corsaletti provides depth and on-base skills.
Pitching: The most interesting assignments on this team belong to the New York Yankees, and they are all pitchers. Both of their first-round picks this year, righthanders Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy signed too late to get their career going during the regular season, although Kennedy did make one appearance. Joining them are sixth-round pick Mark Malancon, who was considered one of the best relievers in the draft before coming down with arm soreness, and 2004 third-round pick Christian Garcia, a highly-regarded arm who was limited to just 53 innings this year. Completing the quintet is 2004 first-round
pick Jeff Marquez, who has been a bit of a disappointment so far as a pro. The Padres and Diamondbacks supply a pair of somewhat promising relievers in Neil Jamison and Kyler Newby.