See also: Hawaii Winter Baseball Tentative Rosters
The minor league season officially ended a little over a week ago in San Bernadino, Calf., where high Class A Inland Empire toppled Visalia for the California League title.
That was the final postseason series to come to an end, and now it’s time for prospect season to begin. Major League Baseball created the Arizona Fall League in 1992, giving major league organizations an intermediate step between instructional league and fiercely competitive Latin American winter leagues for their prospects to gain experience.
MLB quickly followed by sanctioning Hawaii Winter Baseball in 1993. But the league lasted just four years, folding after the 1997 season. MLB tried additional markets for a fall developmental league, first in Maryland in 1998, then in California in 1999. Neither fared well, and the AFL’s been the only game in town for prospects in this country ever since.
But where the AFL is geared as more of a finishing school for prospects at the upper levels of the minors, with only a few scattered players below Double-A on any of its rosters, the Hawaii league is tailor-made for players at the low and high Class A levels.
It also allows clubs more roster spots to continue the development process without having to send a player to Latin America–especially if that player is not deemed ready for the winter ball experience in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico or the Dominican Republic.
“It allows you a little more flexibility, just from a numbers standpoint,” Indians farm director John Farrell said. “It also gives you a more clear cut development path for younger players during the offseason. It’s a major plus to have a second league domestically for a lot of reasons.”
There’s also an international flair, as Japan’s professional teams sent 30 minor league players to Hawaii, and several organizations have opted to send Latin players to the island state as games begin this weekend.
And while the AFL is known as the premiere offseason league and a haven for top prospects, the talent level in Hawaii is on par with that of the desert.
In the four years of its existence, HWB saw its fair share of future major leaguers such as Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Tadahito Iguchi, A.J. Pierzynski, Todd Helton, Michael Barrett, Adam Kennedy, Mark Kotsay, Preston Wilson and Randy Winn.
Rosters were released today, and though they are still tentative (and some incomplete), seven American first-round picks and four Japanese first-rounders are Hawaii bound.
Among the U.S.-born first-rounders are second baseman Blake DeWitt (Dodgers, 2004), first baseman Mike Stodolka (Royals, 2000), outfielder John Mayberry Jr. (Rangers, 2005), righthander Ian Kennedy (Yankees, 2006), righthander Joba Chamberlain (Yankees, 2006), catcher Jeff Clement (Mariners, 2005), and shortstop Chris Nelson (Rockies, 2004). The first-rounders out of Japan are lefthander Takanobu Tsujuchi (Yomiuri, 2005), infielder Masaya Ozaki (Hokkaido Nippon, 2001), infielder Tomoaki Egawa (Fukouka, 2004), and outfielder Tomtaka Sakaguchi (Orix, 2002).
In addition to Kennedy and Chamberlain, the Yankees are sending several other top pitching prospects to Hawaii, including righthanders Jeff Marquez, Christian Garcia and Mark Melancon. The Braves’ contingent in Hawaii is also prospect heavy, as Atlanta is sending infielders Eric Campbell (second round, 2004) and Van Pope (fifth, 2004), as well as catcher Clint Sammons (sixth, 2004).
Other U.S. prospects include shortstop Brian Bixler (Pirates), outfielder Dexter Fowler (Rockies), righthanders Chin-Lung Lo and Shane Lindsay (Rockies), shortstop Ian Desmond (Nationals), outfielder Nate Schierholtz (Giants), outfielder Jeff Corsaletti (Red Sox), first baseman Mike Carp (Mets) and third baseman Koby Clemens (Astros).
The league will be made up of four teams–the North Shore Honu, West Oahu Canefires, Waikiki Beach Boys and Honolulu Sharks–and features a 40-game schedule.