Hawaii Winter Baseball returns for its second season since a near decade-long slumber. The league is doing an excellent job in filling a massive hole in the player development process, being the only offseason league to offer playing time to those not quite advanced enough for the Arizona Fall League or various Latin American winter circuits. Last year’s season was a big hit, with plenty of participants already making contributions in the big leagues, notably pitchers Joba Chamberlain of the Yankees, and Marlins right-hander Rick VandenHurk. This year’s rosters contain a number of notable players, and we’ll came at your from both directions this year, as I take a look at the MLB-affiliated players, while our Japanese baseball expert, Mike Plugh gives us a unique look at the Japanese participants that you won’t find anywhere else among the American media. With that said, lets look at who will be on the four teams when games kick off at the end of the month.

Honolulu Sharks

MLB: The offense kicks off with arguably the biggest name coming over this year, Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters, the fifth overall pick in June who received a $6 million bonus. The second he signed, he became the top prospect in the Orioles system, and he’ll be the one player to watch in
the league this year. A massive switch-hitting catcher with power from both
sides, Wieters should hit for average and power, while also drawing plenty of
walks. A good showing here could line him up for some time in Double-A next
year, with a big league debut potentially coming as soon as late 2008. First base features another Oriole farmhand (and a former catcher), 2005 first-round
pick Brandon Synder, who has seen his progression in the minors
curtailed by shoulder issues. Snyder showed some life offensively with a
.283/.354/.422 line at Low-A Delmarva this year, but for a player in his third
year who’s now a first baseman, that falls a bit short.

On the other side of the infield is third baseman Brad Suttle, a fourth-round pick by the Yankees from this year’s draft who got only eight at-bats in the Gulf Coast League after signing for a $1.3 million bonus. A sophomore-eligible pick out of the University of Texas, Suttle is a switch-hitter with excellent contact skills and a keen batting eye, but how he answers questions about his power ceiling will ultimately define him as a prospect. The middle of the infield is less impressive on a prospect level, although the Red Sox send a minor sleeper in 20-year-old Venezuelan shortstop Argenis Diaz, who hit .279/.342/.380 at Low-A Greenville.

The outfield is filled with big names, as Yankees center fielder Austin Jackson looks to build on his incredible second half, including a .345/.398/.566 line at High-A Tampa, that has put him among the better center field prospects in the game. After that, it’s a pair of disappointing first-round picks, highlighted by Cubs‘ right fielder Ryan Harvey, who continues to show plus-plus power but no knowledge of the strike zone, and 2006 Boston first-round pick Jason Place, who is coming off a rough full-season debut at Greenville, with a .214/.298/.359 line and 160 strikeouts in 129 games.

On the mound, the Red Sox and Yankees both send reclamation projections to Hawaii. Boston 2006 first-round pick Daniel Bard will try to find a semblance of command after coming down with a case of the yips at times this year, finishing with a 7.08 ERA and 78 walks in 75 innings despite throwing one of the best fastballs in the minors. The Yankees will return reliever Mark Melancon for his second stint in the HWB, as last year’s ninth-round pick looked like one of the top relievers in the system before missing all of 2007 while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The Yankees also send big right-hander George Kontos, who recorded more than a strikeout per inning at High-A Tampa, but still needs to find more consistency with his secondary offerings. The bullpen will be anchored by Kris Medlen, one of the more interesting sleepers in the Atlanta system. A 5-foot-10 righty who sits at 92-93 mph and complements it with an impressive curve and changeup, the converted shortstop struck out 63 in 47 innings this year across three levels, while compiling a 1.53 ERA.

NPB: Two groups of Japanese players join the Sharks this season. One group comes to Hawaii from Bobby Valentine‘s Chiba Lotte Marines. Among Bobby V’s boys we find Takuya Furuta, a left-handed starter who has shown real promise in Japan’s Eastern League, where he was among 2006’s top minor league pitchers. His fastball generally sits in the mid-to-high 80s, and he features a nice slider. One of the exciting faces in Hawaii is Takumi Kobe. This 22-year-old hitter is said to have 500-foot home run power and projectable size at 6’3″ and 220 pounds; at this point in his career he needs to learn better selectivity and bat control, but the tools are there. Two right-handed pitchers round out the Marines on the Sharks’ roster. Ryohei Tanaka is 25 years old who and has bounced up and down between the minors and the NPB for three years. His fastball is satisfactory, but the rest of his arsenal needs work. The Marines have high hopes for Tatsuya Uchi thanks to a very good fastball that tops out at 93 as well as a beautiful slider.

The second Japanese contingent in Honolulu comes from GM Marty Kuehnert’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, and is led by Eagles coach Hiroshi Takamura, who has spent the 2007 season working with the club’s outstanding rookie ace, Masahiro Tanaka. Takamura brings with him left-handed pitcher Shingo Matsuzaki, a control pitcher who tops out in the high 80s and features a fair slider. He appeared with the Eagles in several
midsummer games this season, including three starts. He gave a fair account of himself, but also saw some bumpy moments that show he’s not ready for prime time. Shoji Ohiro is a promising power hitter who the Eagles have penciled in as a future infielder with the big club. Given a chance to play on a regular basis in September, he has been overmatched at the plate, and they’ve played him all over the field, including time at first and in right field. Outfielder Fuminori Yokogawa came to Rakuten via college powerhouse Aoyama Gakuin University, where he showed big-time home run power. The Eagles may just find room in the outfield for Yokogawa on a full-time basis in 2008, and he is a good bet to provide some fireworks in Hawaii.

North Shore Honu

MLB: The catching core includes Brewers prospect Angel Salome, who gets knocked by scouts for his 5-foot-7, 200-pound build, but continues to hit, including a .318/.341/.465 line at High-A Brevard County this year. Unfortunately, he got knocked for something else this year, serving a
50-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The Brewers will also be hoping for a rebound from first baseman Chris
, as last year’s fifth-round pick out of the University of California disappointed at Brevard County with a .262/.331/.392 line. The power was a question coming in, but most everyone thought he’d at least hit for average.

The hot corner will be patrolled by another Brewer, Mat Gamel. One of the better hitters in the system, Gamel put up an impressive .300/.378/.472 line in the Florida State League, but he’s playing winter ball to work on his defense after committing an embarrassing 53 errors this year. Reds prospect Chris Valaika will play second base for the Honu; he was one of the top hitters in the Midwest League during the season’s first half, posting a .307/.353/.483 line for Low-A Dayton, but he struggled after a promotion to High-A Sarasota, batting just .253/.310/.332 in 57 games. The most interesting player on the team might be shortstop Cale Iorg. Iorg hasn’t played baseball for more than two years while in Portugal on a mission for the Mormon church, but he showed enough as a freshman on the University of Alabama team in 2005 to warrant a nearly $1.5 million bonus from the Tigers this summer. He’ll certainly be raw, but on a scouting level he has solid power, good speed, and true shortstop skills.

The outfield is headlined by two of the better hitters in the Pirate system. Brad Corley has driven in 193 runs over the past two seasons, and has shown the ability to hit for a solid average with decent power, although he must tighten up his strike zone after walking just 14 times this year. Jamie Romak was acquired by Pittsburgh in the offseason from the Braves, and hit 20 home runs this year and had a .383 on-base percentage. With Steven Pearce already in the big leagues, Romak arguably has the best raw power in the system.

Pitching-wise, the Marlins will use the HWB to get some more work for 2006 first-round pick Brett Sinkbeil, who was limited to just
14 starts at High-A Jupiter while dealing with a nagging oblique injury. When
healthy, his fastball and slider are both plus offerings, and he throws them
for strikes. He’ll be joined in the rotation by Astros breakout prospect Bud Norris, who whiffed 117 in 96 2/3 innings at Low-A Lexington, mostly on the strength of his excellent fastball.

The bullpen will be led by a pair of intriguing Brewers arms, but none more so than Omar Aguilar. The 22-year-old right is built like a fireplug and six-foot and roughly 225 pounds, but he also sits at 93-96 mph and has touched triple digits on occasion this year. He struck out 68 this year in 58 innings, but his violent mechanics are a concern, as are the related control problems. A fifth-round pick in 2005, righty Kevin Roberts thrived in a conversion to relief this year, touching 95 mph with his fastball and showcasing a plus curve while punching out 74 in 65 1/3 frames for Brevard County.

NPB: The North Shore club draws its entire selection of Japanese players from manager Terry Collins’ lowly Orix Buffaloes. Coach Kosuke Yoshihara will watch over his prospects, armed with the benefit of his experience of playing for the Sharks in 1995. Among those young men are right-handed pitcher Takashi Kamoshida, who works in the low- to mid-90s, supported with an improving forkball that he uses as an out pitch. The other righty along for the ride is 25-year old Shinya Nakayama, who led the Western League in strikeouts before getting called up in mid-September. He’s pitched very well in limited action for Orix this month, and should show excellent results in Hawaii, although he is known to do everything well but nothing exceptionally.

Infielder Masahiro Nagata comes from a long line of celebrated high school shortstops, and figures to be in the future plans of the Buffaloes with a nice swing and excellent footwork both at the plate and in the field; he was traded from Yomiuri to Orix in the past offseason. Shintaro Yoshida is the final player on this list. His Waseda University pedigree includes a Tokyo Big Six University batting crown while playing alongside NPB standouts Norichika Aoki (Yakult) and Takashi Toritani (Hanshin). The problem is that all of them are 26 years old, and Yoshida still doesn’t have a spot with the big club.

Waikiki Beach Boys

MLB: Some feel that the Rockies may have found something in catcher Michael McKenry. A seventh-round pick last June, McKenry hit .287/.392/.539 at Low-A Asheville this year while showing solid defensive skills, but be warned–at 22 he was old for the league, and nobody took more advantage of the hitting-friendly home park more than McKenry, who hit just .244/.346/.421 on the road. The infield is Mets-heavy, with the top
hitter being first baseman Nick Evans, who had a bit of a breakout campaign at High-A St. Lucie by delivering a .286/.374/.476 line while showing the rare combination of power and above-average contact skills. He’ll be joined on the right side by fellow Met farmhand Hector Pellot, who has excellent speed.

On the left side, the Athletics were happy to see some more offensive consistency from slick-fielding shortstop Justin Sellers this year, as the 21-year-old hit .274/.350/.378 at High-A Stockton this season. Third base will be shared by Dan Murphy of the Mets and David Maroul of the Giants. The latter has a lot of juice in his bat, but is prone to high strikeout totals because of a loopy swing and an overly aggressive approach.

The outfield features Oakland prospect Jermaine Mitchell, who possesses great tools, but remains inconsistent, yet is coming off a solid .288/.390/.413 showing at Low-A Kane County. Flanking him will be Ben Copeland of the Giants, a fundamentally sound player who is coming off a. 280/.387/.416 line at High-A (and projects as a fourth outfielder), as well as a pair of toolsy Seattle prospects who are coming off miserable and injury-plagued regular season
campaigns–Michael Wilson (.188/.272/.385 at Double-A) and Josh Womack (.207/.278/.314 at High-A).

The most interesting name in the rotation is Australian right-hander Shane Lindsay from the Rockies. In possession of elite-level stuff, he’s missed the majority of the past two seasons with labrum problems, including all of this year. A pair of ailments limited Oakland righty Jared Lansford to just four innings this year at Stockton, but he’s expected to be fully healthy in time for the opener. The Mets help shore up a weak bullpen with this year’s second-round pick, Brant Rustich, a gargantuan right-hander who can get it into the mid-90s and allowed just 12 base runners in 23 innings after signing.

NPB: I wish they all could be Okinawa girls, but the Beach Boys bring in four players and a coach from Japan this year. A pair of right-handed pitchers from the Hanshin Tigers join the rotation, one only 21 years old, and another an unbelievable 18 years old. Yutaka Tamaki (21) shows great balance and form along with a nice assortment of breaking pitches. His ability to think on the mound gives him a great deal of NPB potential, although he only tops out at 89 mph, with an average speed more usually down around 84. Kento Tsujimoto (18) moved to the US at the age of 12 and played for Mater Dei High School in California before becoming the youngest player ever drafted in Japanese history when he was 15. Orix intends to work him along carefully to build up strength and endurance, but his appearance in Hawaii should tell you how highly they think of his ability.

Coach Futoshi Yamabe leads a pair of Yakult lefties to Waikiki this year. Takashi Maruyama pitched alongside Yankee rookies Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy for the West Oahu Canefires in 2006, finishing above both with a 1.32 ERA in 34 innings pitched. He’s not a hard thrower, and needs to work on a number of things before he’s ready to contribute for Yakult, but his curveball is a plus pitch, and should be a source of more than a few strikeouts for the Beach Boys. Kyohei Muranaka also features a big curve, but his out pitch is a very good slider that mixes effectively with his low-90s fastball. Yakult fans are eying a 2008 pro debut for Muranaka, especially given the team’s awful place in the standings.

West Oahu CaneFires

MLB: The CaneFires’ deep catching corps includes Toronto’s Brian Jeroloman, who had one of the strangest seasons around this year, drawing 85 walks in 290 at-bats for a bizarre .259/.421/.338 line at High-A Dunedin. He’s a defensive specialist who profiles to eventually become a fine backup in the big leagues. He’ll be joined by Chad Tracy of the Rangers, who is listed as a catcher despite not playing there since May 29th because of his struggles behind the plate.

First base will be handled by another Ranger–Ian Gac, who will hit some of the longest home runs fans will see in Hawaii, while also gunning for the league lead in strikeouts. Some saw Blue Jay infielder Anthony Hatch as a potential breakout candidate going into the season, but he stumbled at Dunedin with a .249/.305/.418 line, and Toronto will try to get him some time at second base to improve his versatility, as the third base job will likely belong to Josh Bell of the Dodgers, one of the better hitting prospects in the entire league. Bell hit .289/.365/.470 at Low-A Great Lakes, but struggled after a late-season promotion to the California League. The shortstop will be Jeff Bianchi of the Royals, who looks to rebound from his full-season debut, which was a flop at .247/.296/.315 for Low-A Burlington.

The outfield will feature former Indians second-round pick Stephen Head, a power bat who is coming off a big showing in the Double-A Eastern League playoffs, as well as K.C. Herren of the Rangers, who stumbled in the second half but still finished with a decent .276/.364/.435 showing at Low-A Clinton. The Dodgers feel they have a bit of a sleeper in outfielder Jamie Hoffman, a grinder with limited power but excellent bat control who hit .309/.378/.455 at High-A Inland Empire
this year.

The most popular pitcher on the team will likely by Hawaii native Reid Santos of the Indians, but fellow Cleveland pitcher Erik
is also an interesting arm. Undrafted out of Princeton, Stiller showed some impressive stuff coming out of the pen this year at High-A Kinston,
touching 94 mph with his fastball and showing plus command. Tyler Chambliss of the Royals had a storied career at Florida State as an amateur; as a pro he’s a gritty, gutsy, undersized righty who fools batters by changing speeds and projects as a middle reliever. Garrett White of the Dodgers is a massive left-hander with a 90-94 mph fastball that features excellent movement; he struck out 63 in 51 1/3 innings for Great Lakes. Closing duties might go to Jose Marte of the Rangers, who came on strong in the second half and has late-inning potential in the big leagues if he can harness his control issues.

NPB: The Nippon Ham Fighters are sending two rookie left-handed pitchers with Waseda University pedigrees to West Oahu. The more anticipated of the two pitchers, Ken Miyamoto, has a low-90s fastball that is paired with a plus slider that has Fighters manager Trey Hillman chomping at the bit with anticipation over his potential. The other lefty is Kazunori Yamamoto, who made his pro debut in April with several rocky relief appearances. In a brief stint with the club in September, Yamamoto has shown better control and poise in limited action. The club likes his form and balance and low-90’s fastball.

Seibu sends along second baseman Hidekazu Hoshi to the Canefires. Hoshi was converted from catcher, and features excellent speed,
quickness, and perfect footwork in the field; unfortunately, he lacks pop of any kind at the plate. Right-handed pitcher Fumikazu Kimura rounds out the Japanese contingent for West Oahu. Kimura is sure to be overlooked at Seibu with both Hideaki Wakui and Takayuki Kishi sharing the spotlight as young pitching phenoms for the Lions. That said, Kimura is no slouch, throwing a low-90s fastball and a wicked slider that are potentially lethal weapons for this very intelligent pitcher.

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