With four of six winter leagues underway, the ten-pack makes
a triumphant return, and will stay here throughout the cold winter months to
update you on the most interesting performances in places where there is no
such thing as a cold winter month.

Ryan Braun, 3b, Scottsdale Scorpions (Arizona Fall League; Brewers)

If his .274/.346/.438 line at High Class A Brevard County gave you any pause as to whether or not Braun was one of the top offensive prospects in the game, eliminate that pause and hit the play button again. Braun’s .303/.367/.589 line at Double-A in the offensive black hole that was the Southern League this year was one of the more impressive half-season lines of the year, and he’s picked up where he left off in Arizona. On Friday has was 3-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a home run, and by adding two more hits on Saturday he’s now 7-for-18 overall with 15 total bases. While he’s certainly athletic enough to be a solid third baseman, he’s still shaky there other than a plus arm. If Milwaukee is forced to move him to the outfield, it’s not going to matter in the long term; the bat plays anywhere on the diamond.

Joba Chamberlain, rhp, West Oahu CaneFires (Hawaii Winter League; Yankees)

Chamberlain was seen as a potential top 10 pick early in the
year as Nebraska’s Friday starter, but a sore arm caused him to miss a few
starts in the middle of the season, and when he returned, his velocity and
command were off, causing more concerns and dropping him to the Yankees with
the 41st overall pick. He signed too late to make his pro debut,
but has looked very good so far in Hawaii, allowing three hits and one run over
four innings on Friday while striking out six. In ten innings overall,
Chamberlain has recorded 15 whiffs against two walks. It will be interesting
to attempt to figure out the level of competition in Hawaii once the season is
over. For now, we don’t know what we don’t know. What we do know is that a
perfectly healthy Chamberlain has the potential to be a draft-day steal.

Yunel Escobar, ss, Peoria Javelinas (Arizona Fall League; Braves)

Escobar took the non-standard route for Cuban defectors. Instead of working out and looking for a big free-agent deal, he instead established residency here last May and became draft eligible as a 22-year-old. The Braves drafted him in the second round and he looked impressive, batting .325/.358/.470 in his pro debut. Because of his age, skills and performance, the Braves pushed him to Double-A this year, and Escobar turned in a disappointing campaign, batting just .264/.361/.346 with his lack of power the biggest surprise (in a bad way). Escobar is hoping to recover some luster in Arizona, and while it’s just four games, he’s delivered four multi-hit efforts and leads the league with a .529 batting average (9-for-17). If this continues, the organization might be a little bit more comfortable in having him begin next year at Triple-A as opposed to a return engagement at Mississippi.

Dexter Fowler, of, Waikiki Beach Boys (Hawaii Winter League; Rockies)

The breakout continues. Fowler was a potential first-round
talent in the 2004 draft, but teams shied away from him, assuming he’d go to
college, where he had multi-sport options at Ivy League schools. The Rockies took a flyer on him in the 14th round, and were able to convince him to at the very least delay his further education with bonus of just under a
million dollars. His full-season debut this year was a coming out party, as
Fowler his .296/.373/.462 in 405 at-bats at Low Class A Asheville, showing a
much-improved approach, plus speed, and gap power that should develop into a
real threat as his lanky, long frame begins to fill out. This is the type of
player that would not have had an opportunity to keep playing without the
re-formed Hawaii League. He’s taken advantage of it by leading the league
with a .412 batting average in his first ten games with three doubles, a pair
of triples and three stolen bases. He’ll begin 2007 in the California League,
and the combination of high-ceiling tools, rapidly-improving skills and a
high-offensive environment makes it hard not to predict a breakout

Ben Harrison, of, Caribes de Oriente (Venezuelan
Winter League; Rangers)

Harrison was a fourth-round pick by the Indians in 2003, but
returned to the University of Florida for his senior year in an attempt to
improve his stock. The gambit failed, as Harrison had a disappointing year and
slipped to the eighth round, this time to Texas. After a so-so full-season
debut, Harrison had a strong 2006 campaign, batting .289/.379/.510 overall
while blasting 26 home runs and driving in 101. On Friday, he hit his first
winter league home run, added two more hits on Saturday, as is 6-for-13 overall
in his first three South American contests. The Rangers may be onto something
with Harrison, but at the age of 25, the clock does enter the picture a bit-he’s played just 42 games above A ball.

Billy Sadler, rhp, Scottsdale Scorpions (Arizona Fall League, Giants)

In a system desperate for a breakout performer, Sadler was
just that this year–reaching Triple-A while compiling a 2.43 ERA in 55.2
innings of relief with 79 strikeouts and just 28 hits allowed. The 25-year-old
has made three appearances so far in Arizona, and he’s been almost
untouchable. He’s faced a total of 11 batters, given up a single, walked one,
coaxed a couple of groundball outs, and struck out the other seven, including
three of the four lefthanders he has faced. He has two plus pitches with a
fastball/curve combination, is a bit of a late bloomer at 25, but should be
competing for a big league bullpen job in spring training.

Andy Sisco, lhp, Venados de Mazaltan (Mexican
Pacific League; Royals)

Sisco was the Rule Five snag of the year in 2005. A
second-round pick by the Cubs out of a Washington High School in 2001, Sisco
was highly regarded by the organization, and had 371 strikeouts ind 336.2 minor league innings, but the club took a risk that nobody would be able to keep
a player who had not pitched above High Class A in the big leagues. The Royals
did just that, and he had an impressive year, with a 3.11 ERA in 67 games and
more than a strikeout per inning. This year was a nightmare for the giant
lefthander–his ERA more than doubled to 7.10 as his already-shaky control
abandoned him and he became much more hittable. While he’s not a prospect
anymore, he’s certainly still a work-in-progress, and it’s interesting to see
him getting some winter league innings, and maybe more interesting to see him
starting in Mexico, beginning his season with four shutout innings, allowing
just one hit and striking out five. I may be reading too much into this, but
Sisco’s stuff is plus, and the Royals’ 2007 rotation has some openings. Worth keeping an eye on.

Takanobu Tsujiuchi, lhp, Honolulu Sharks (Hawaii Winter League; Yomiuri Giants)

Tsujiuchi is one of Japan’s wunderkinds. Just 18 years old, the lefthander already has low 90s velocity and a plus breaking ball. On Friday, he pitched six shutout innings; allowing one hit, walking two and striking out eight while facing a lineup that featured several players who were in Double-A this year. He’s a precocious young talent, and we could be hearing about bidding wars when he comes to the big leagues through Japan’s complicated posting system . . . 6-to-10 years from now.

Rick Vanden Hurk, rhp, Waikiki Beach Boys (Hawaii Winter League; Marlins)

Since signing him as a teenager out of The Netherlands, the Marlins have always had high hopes for Vanden Hurk, but injuries have gotten in the way so far. Shoulder and elbow problems have limited him to just 86.2 innings over the last couple of years, but the team thinks he’s finally healthy and turning a corner. Based on his performance in Hawaii so far, they couldn’t be more correct. In three appearances, the six-foot-five righty has allowed just one hit over 9.1 innings, while walking one and striking out a whopping 18. Despite the limited workload, and even more limited experience overall, Vanden Hurk is much more than just projection–he has a significant amount of ‘right now’ abilities, including a fastball that is consistently in the low 90s, a solid curveball, and surprisingly good command for a guy who didn’t pitch off a mound until he was a teenager. Still just 21, he’ll likely begin next year in the Florida State League, and could reach Double-A if his effectiveness, and his health, continues.

Michael Wilson, of, Peoria Javelinas (Arizona Fall League; Mariners)

A second-round pick in 2001, Wilson needed to be bought out of a football scholarship, and was a pure bet on athletic potential, as the Tulsa, Oklahoma native was a far better football player than outfielder in high school. As a 6-foot-2, 240 pound switch hitter, Wilson is an impressive physical specimen, and after three years of short-season play, he many finally be paying some dividends. Last year’s .266/.360/.464 line with 19 home runs at Low Class A Wisconsin was the first indication of real potential here, and he followed that up by batting .276/.360/.494 this season split between High and Double-A. Like many raw talents, he strikes out a lot, but he’s not a complete hacker as he also draws a decent share of walks. On Friday, Wilson accomplished the rare feat of driving in six runs with just one hit on the day (grand slam, bases-loaded walk, sac fly), and he drove in four more on Saturday, including his second home run in as many days. There’s a lot to like here, and he’s coming quickly.

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