Every winter, each organization sends its top prospects to the Arizona Fall League. Most every team has a problem with the league, but for years the lack of a better alternative left them with no choice when a project prospect needed some extra work. Despite an environment that strongly favors hitters, organizations continued to use the AFL as a way gauger the abilities of a number of their farmhands and organizational players.
In 2006, Major League Baseball attempted to help amend some of the problems built into the AFL by re-instituting the Hawaii Winter Baseball league. The league features a mixture of American and Japanese players, and offers a much more neutral-or even pitching-friendly environment-than the dry heat of Arizona could offer. The league’s first season was a success, as alumni like Joba Chamberlain have already gone onto successful following seasons in the minor leagues. While the HWB is seen as a stepping stone before the Arizona Fall League, it is building towards becoming a full-fledged alternative.
Many organizations use the HWB as a precursor to the Arizona Fall League, and send untested players-guys like Brad Suttle or Brant Rustich-to the Pacific. Some, like the Red Sox with Jason Place and Daniel Bard, send low-level projects to given them added repetitions to try and improve on already-disappointing seasons. Numerous organizations send hitters with approach problems, because of the perfect test from the Japanese that awaits them in the mixed HWB, where the pitchers from the Far East offer a backwards-style approach to pitching that leaves hitters adapting to different sequences of pitches.
“The Japanese pitchers were very good this year,” said Honolulu Sharks manager Randy Ingle. “It’s good for the American hitters because they see 3-1, 3-2 breaking balls.” While many of the Japanese pitchers had solid strikeout rates as a result of their breaking ball-first pitching styles, the developmental league offers good lessons for young hitters. As the HWB continues to evolve and find its place amidst the fall baseball landscape, look for organizations to send fastball-hungry hitters to Hawaii more often.
This season, Hawaii proved to be a good antidote for the Arizona Fall League, as the average hitter’s .257/.343/.396 season was a far cry from the AFL’s loftier numbers. The league’s neutral environment allowed for a good balance to be struck between hitters and pitchers, as well as between American and Japanese players. After conversations in the last week with coaches around the Hawaii Winter Baseball league, here are my top 10 Major League Baseball prospects from the league in 2007:
1. Austin Jackson, CF, Honolulu Sharks (Yankees): Another reason a player can be assigned to fall ball is as a reaffirmation following a breakout season. In 2006, Jackson looked like a waste of money after the Yankees had bought out a college basketball career, as he’d hit just .258/.338/.344 in the South Atlantic League. The Yankees re-assigned Jackson to Charleston in 2007, and he continued to struggle, hitting .260/.336/.374 in his repeat campaign. It wasn’t until what seemed an ill-advised promotion to Tampa that the light came on, and Jackson hasn’t looked back since. After becoming the FSL’s best hitter in the second half by hitting .345/.398/.566, Jackson continued to square up in Hawaii, hitting .271/.368/.489. Once profiled as a future leadoff hitter, Jackson instead showed all five tools in Hawaii, and now his ceiling reads much higher. Jackson impressed many coaches with his defense in center field, as well as his speed on the basepaths, where he stole eight bases in nine attempts. However, it’s been Jackson’s continued ability to square up the baseball and show power that left him as the unanimous top prospect amongst coaches.
2. Matt Wieters, C, Honolulu Sharks (Orioles): The league’s most visible player, Wieters didn’t have to do much more than show up to become one of HWB’s top prospects. But, he impressed anyway by hitting .283/.364/.415 in 31 games, showing good gap power and plus contact skills. Given Wieters’ big frame, coaches thought there was no question that it wouldn’t be long before some of his doubles started to clear the fence for home runs. However, the largest question remaining on Wieters’ resume wasn’t answered in Hawaii, as his defense was merely adequate in his 19-game professional debut as a backstop prospect. His arm impressed coaches, but Wieters will have to work on his footwork to enjoy a successful career behind the plate. Given the attention he received in Hawaii, there’s no question the draft’s second-most talented player had a solid debut.
3. Mat Gamel, 3B, North Shore Honu (Brewers): Stop me if you’ve heard this before: This Brewers third baseman continued to prove he can hit, and hit for substantial power, but the questions surrounding his defense have yet to go away. While Ryan Braun fits that profile, Gamel’s breakout season leaves him next on the organizational ladder to try the hot corner in Milwaukee should Braun’s glovework force him to change positions. Gamel was fantastic in the HWB, leading the league in home runs after topping Ian Gac and Chad Tracy with a game-winning home run to send the Honu to the championship game (that was subsequently rained out, with the championship awarded to North Shore). More than just his power, Gamel drew praise for an advanced approach at the plate, waiting for his pitch before clubbing one of 17 extra-base hits. Reviews of his play at third base were mixed-some were more optimistic about his long-term prospects at the position than others-but there’s no question he has a lot of work to do with his footwork and throwing.
4. Bud Norris, RHP, North Shore Honu (Astros): I warned that this would happen two weeks ago, when I put a rush order on my breakout prospects list before Norris drew much attention. However, following a good campaign in Hawaii when he allowed just 16 hits in 24 2/3 innings, he should jump to near the top of most Astros prospect lists. Norris received the most votes for the league’s top American pitching prospect, showing three plus pitches in the league and consistent dominance. Norris was certainly babied, only pitching beyond four innings once, just as the Astros babied him for much of his season in the South Atlantic League. Once Norris adds endurance, he will be the complete package as a prospect, as coaches raved about three different pitches: a low-90s fastball, an advanced changeup, and a good breaking ball. With a fall stint bringing his 2007 innings total near 130, expect the Astros to loosen up the reins a bit next year, maybe even allowing Norris to see the sixth inning in 2008.
5. Argenis Diaz, SS, Honolulu Sharks (Red Sox): Billed by Sharks manager Randy Ingle as the “best-looking player out here,” Diaz was the league’s breakout prospect after a Sally League season where he hit a merely adequate .279/.342/.380. A defense-oriented shortstop, Diaz’ short, quick stroke worked well in Hawaii, as he led the league in hitting until the last week of the season. Diaz will never hit for power, and he doesn’t offer the footspeed to sit atop a lineup, so for now he’s projected as a number two hitter. However, according to West Oahu Canefires manager Jim Gabella, “put Diaz in the big leagues right now, and he’d fit in defensively. He still has to get stronger and he doesn’t run very well, but he’s special at shortstop.” Diaz will move to the hitting-friendly California League in 2008 with offensive expectations facing him for the first time.
6. Daniel Bard, RHP, Honolulu Sharks (Red Sox): After the most disappointing professional debut of any 2006 first-rounder this season, the Red Sox sent Bard to Hawaii to search for answers with Mike Cather, a Red Sox employee and the Sharks’ pitching coach. They decided the answer was a fall of short outings, as Bard appeared in 16 games as a reliever. He took to the new role, allowing just two earned runs on eight hits over 16 2/3 innings. While Bard had a 2.1 groundball/flyball ratio thanks to his good low-90s two-seam fastball, he has still yet to show command with his four-seamer, walking 15 and hitting five batters while in Hawaii. The book on Bard is still the same: no one has easier arm action hitting 98 mph (which he did in Hawaii), but the command issues still exist, and his slurve continues to be inconsistent. However, it might be best for the Red Sox to leave Bard as a reliever, as he showed the ability to pitch well with runners on base and in pressure situations out of the stretch.
7. Blake Wood, RHP, West Oahu CaneFires (Royals): It takes a good arm to be drafted in the third round after posting a 4.79 ERA in a junior season of college, but Wood is just such an anomaly. After a dynamic sophomore season as the ace of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Wood struggled as a junior, allowing 138 hits in 114 2/3 innings. However, his stuff actually was better in 2006, and as a result, the Royals drafted him in the third round. This season Wood was sidelined for much of the season’s first half with a back injury before returning for 13 starts split across three levels. In Hawaii, Wood appeared to get better with every outing, striking out 12 batters in five innings in his last start to take the league’s strikeout crown. “He absolutely overpowered people, running the ball up to 95 mph” manager Jim Gabella said, “and he really developed a nice changeup here.” Now armed with three good pitches and a healthy back, expect Wood to move up the ladder quickly in 2008.
8. Michael Wilson, OF ,Waikiki BeachBoys (Mariners): A classic boom-or-bust prospect, Wilson can go from looking like a future major league star to an A-ball washout in a single at-bat. After a horrific .188/.272/.385 campaign in 55 Southern League games, the light bulb came on in Hawaii, as Wilson hit everything hard. Formerly a switch-hitter, Wilson now bats exclusively from the right side, so the Mariners are hoping his .303/.408/.605 line in Hawaii is more indicative of his future than his Southern League foray. A toolsy outfielder, he looks good in the corners. Wilson has a long swing prone to strikeouts and power, which he showed by clubbing 20 extra-base hits while whiffing 41 times in the HWB. Entering his age-25 season, Wilson still has a lot to prove, but his raw power should at least allow for a career’s worth of minor league home run contests.
9. Josh Bell, 3B, West Oahu CaneFires (Dodgers): Manager Jim Gabella insists that Bell is a better hitter than his .213/.292/.383 line in Hawaii suggests, as more was expected of him following a well above-average 2007 season in the Midwest League. “He hit the ball hard all the time, but it was usually right at people,” Gabella said. “But he has as much raw power as anybody in baseball; the ball just explodes off his bat.” Bell strikes out often, but that’s seen as par for the course given his power profile. Sent to Hawaii to improve on his defense at the hot corner, Bell made significant strides as he worked hard on his footwork. Scouts still question whether he’ll need to move across the diamond, but he should have the power to do so. Bell started to finally look comfortable in Hawaii as the season wound down, so expect big things from him in High-A next season.
10. Brett Sinkbeil, RHP, North Shore Honu (Marlins): Sinkbeil doesn’t always show the stuff of a first-round pitcher on the mound, but with every outing, it was his poise that drew the most praise from the league’s coaches. Hawaii’s most consistent American pitcher, Sinkbeil had a 1.64 ERA over eight appearances (seven starts), allowing just 21 hits in 33 innings. Like he did in the Florida State League, Sinkbeil will lose points for a less than desirable K/9 ratio (5.9 if you group the FSL and HWB together), but his ability to induce groundballs makes up for it. Sinkbeil spots his 88-92 mph sinker well, and had a 2.5 groundball/flyball ratio in Hawaii. Sinkbeil has work to do on his slider, the pitch he used for most of his strikeouts in college, but it had the tendency to flatten out in Hawaii. If that pitch gets tightened up, Sinkbeil has the ability to become that always-desirable strikeout/groundout pitcher, and one with plus command and poise to boot.