Hawaii Winter Baseball Top 20 Prospects
Wieters impresses in first pro exposure
See also: HWB Top 20 Prospects Chat
In its first venture in 1993, Hawaii Winter Baseball lasted just four seasons before Major League Baseball closed the doors of the developmental league in 1997.
HWB returned to the offseason stage last year, and this time around it looks like the league is here to stay.
In 2006, many front-office executives were impressed by the league's talent level, a year in which the league boasted three impact big leaguers in Yankees righthanders Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy and Marlins righthander Rick Vanden Hurk. The 2007 crop was just as talented but not nearly as major league ready.
"There are more tools this year than in 2006, but less polish to those tools," a scout from a National League club said. "The league's reputation is certainly growing throughout the baseball community. It's a great alternative to the Arizona Fall League for younger players with less experience."
So let's discuss some of those tools, beginning with Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, a.k.a. The Six-Million Dollar Man.
1. MATT WIETERS C
After signing late for $6 million, Wieters joined the short-season Aberdeen club, but did not play in a game for the IronBirds. The Orioles then sent him to HWB, where he made his debut, and hit .283/.364/.415 in 106 at-bats for the Sharks. Wieters showed a line-drive approach to all fields. He combines tremendous bat speed and patience to profile as an offensive-minded catcher with well above-average arm strength. "All the tools are playable now, but there is still plenty of projection," said an NL scout. "And for a big guy, he doesn't try to pull everything. He uses the whole field to his advantage."
2. AUSTIN JACKSON OF
After having a breakout season during which he hit .304/.370/.476 across three levels of the minors, Jackson reported to Honolulu and never slowed down. A premium athlete, Jackson finally grew into his tools in 2007. A line-drive hitter with gap power, Jackson's profile is likely as a No. 2 or No. 3 hitter with the ability to drive in runs. He is an above-average defender in center field, getting good reads and jumps on balls while running quality routes. While he doesn't always get out of the batter's box quickly, he's a graceful runner. "Once he gets underway he's a plus-plus runner," an NL scout said. "He's the best athlete in this league. He doesn't have that first-step explosion, but this guy is a real crowd pleaser on the bases."
3. BRANDON SNYDER 1B/3B
Another cog in the Honolulu juggernaut, Snyder's biggest challenge was learning a new position in HWB: third base. Drafted as a catcher, Snyder needed surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder after the 2006 season. Because his bat was more advanced than his defense, the Orioles moved him to first base in spring training. His adjustment to third in HWB was a success, as he committed just one error on the hot corner in 19 total chances. He showed above-average arm strength, but his footwork wasn't great, which affected his throws at times. But it's Snyder's bat that will get him to the big leagues. He stays on breaking balls well, and shows emerging opposite-field power. His polished approach allowed him to win the league batting title with a .378 mark.
4. BRETT SINKBEIL RHP
North Shore (Marlins)
Elbow tendinitis slowed Sinkbeil's development in 2007 at high Class A Jupiter, where he finished the year with just 79 innings. In Hawaii, the 2006 first-rounder showed a plus sinker but struggled with his secondary pitches. His mid-80s slider was inconsistent and his changeup needs work. His arm speed is significantly slower when throwing the changeup, and he has yet to find a comfortable grip with the pitch. While he continued to work on both pitches, he lived off his sinking fastball, inducing a 2.71 groundout-to-fly out rate.
5. DANIEL BARD RHP
Honolulu (Red Sox)
Bard rebounded from an abysmal debut season—in which he went 3-7, 7.08 with 78 walks in 79 innings—by going 0-0, 0.60 in HWB. Still, command remains a major concern, as Bard finished with a 15-11 strikeout-walk ratio during his stint with the Sharks. He falls out of his delivery easily, and battles to maintain a consistent release point. The good news is Bard is no longer a one-pitch pitcher with an electric fastball that topped out at 97 mph. His curveball graded as plus at times, though he had trouble locating it. Bard's changeup is still his third-best offering. "The pure stuff is exceptional, but he has little lapses of letting his arm slot slip," said a scout with an American League club. "When he stays on top and gets working downhill, he's really tough. He started to get to where he was repeating a little better, which is a pretty good sign."
6. BUD NORRIS RHP
North Shore (Astros)
A 2006 sixth-round pick out of Cal Poly, Norris works best in short stints, going right after hitters with upper-90s heat. Norris was inconsistent as a starter at low Class A Lexington in 2007, and while he was in the rotation for North Shore, he might be a better fit out of the bullpen. Though he's undersized, the 6-foot righthander generates easy velocity by creating a downhill plane with an over-the-top delivery. Aside from his power fastball, Norris features a power curveball with 12-to-6 break. He worked on refining the command of his breaking ball in Hawaii with mixed results, but his athletic ability leads scouts to believe he'll at least have average control down the road.
7. GEORGE KONTOS RHP
The Yankees jumped Kontos to high Class A for his first full season, where he had moderate success. The club sent the 22-year-old to HWB to work on fastball command and further refine his changeup. Kontos' fastball sits in the 89-93 mph range, touching 94 occasionally. His mid-80s slider can be devastating at times, and he's also working on a curveball. Kontos still doesn't have enough separation between his fastball and changeup, though he made strides to improve his arm speed on the latter offering.
8. MAT GAMEL 3B
North Shore (Brewers)
Gamel raked his way through the high Class A Florida State League, hitting .300/.378/.472 and adding a 33-game hit streak to his resume at Brevard County. Gamel then ranked as one of the top hitters in HWB, batting .333/.408/.610 in 120 at-bats. One of the best pure hitters in the league, Gamel sprays line drives all over the field with emerging power; he led the league with eight homers after hitting nine in 466 at-bats in the FSL. Defense has been his bugaboo. Gamel committed 10 errors in 30 games for the Honu, most of which came on his throws. His actions and footwork are solid at third, but he separates his hands too soon and gets under the ball when he releases, getting either too little or too much carry across the diamond.
9. KRIS MEDLEN RHP
A 10th-round pick in 2006 out of Santa Ana (Calif.) Junior College, Medlen was simply overpowering in HWB, going 0-1, 0.88 with a 27-4 strikeout-walk mark in 14 innings. Medlen has a power arsenal, pounding the strike zone with three above-average pitches. His 89-94 mph fastball has outstanding late life, and he complements his heater with a plus hammer curveball. Medlen can locate his changeup to either side of the plate with the same arm speed as his fastball. Though he didn't pitch in November due to elbow soreness, it's not a major concern. Medlen could become a fixture in the Atlanta bullpen sometime in 2008.
10. JOSH BELL 3B
West Oahu (Dodgers)
Bell struggled early in the low Class A Midwest League, but then caught fire in May to bring his numbers back to a respectable .289/.354/.470 and earned a promotion to the California League. Bell has tremendous power to all fields, but he struggled just to make contact in HWB as he concentrated fully on his defense. His feet are slow, and he doesn't get them moving early enough to make plays at times. As a result, Bell has trouble with the accuracy on his throws because he tends to rush. "The ball just jumps off his bat," CaneFires manager Jim Gabella said. "He's got that big raw power thing down. The tools to stay at third base are there; he just needs to continue to work to get better."
11. BLAKE WOOD, RHP,
West Oahu (Royals)
Sidelined for the first half of 2007 with a back injury, Wood used his rehab time wisely, fine-tuning his mechanics to improve his overall command of three pitches. Wood has a power arm, topping out at 95 mph in HWB. He still has the tendency to lower his arm slot at times, causing his fastball to elevate. Wood's curveball has above-average depth, and also features a workable changeup. His arm speed with the changeup is good, but he struggles to command it down in the zone at times.
12. CHRIS VALAIKA, SS/2B
North Shore (Reds)
After playing shortstop over the course of his first full season which he finished in high Class A, the 2006 third-round pick reported to Hawaii, where he moved over to second base. His below-average foot speed limited his range at short, and the move was not unexpected. At second base, Valaika showed good actions and range to either side, along with good pivots on double plays. His arm strength is more than adequate for the position and he could profile as an everyday player because of his bat. Valaika has quick hands and strong wrists that produce line drives to all fields, and he has above-average pop for a middle infielder.
13. ARGENIS DIAZ, SS
Honolulu (Red Sox)
Signed out of Venezuela in 2003, Diaz made his U.S. debut in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2006, then jumped to low Class A Greenville last season where he more than held his own as a 20-year-old. An offensive shortstop, Diaz has a compact, line-drive stroke that produces gap power to all fields. He wound up second in HWB in batting, putting up .358/.421/.443 numbers in 106 at-bats. Power is a question, however, as is Diaz's speed. But despite being a below-average runner, Diaz has above-average range to either side at short. He lacks first-step quickness, but is a smart player who makes use of his soft hands and plus arm strength.
14. MIKE MCKENRY, C
A 2006 seventh-round pick out of Middle Tennessee State, McKenry went largely unnoticed in the low Class A South Atlantic League this past season. That's not to say he didn't have a loud year—McKenry batted .287/.392/.539 with 22 homers at Asheville as a 22-year-old. Though 16 of those blasts came at the Tourists' hitter-friendly McCormick Field, he made the case that his power is for real in Hawaii, swatting six homers and slugging .531. Defense remains McKenry's strong suit, however. A solid catch-and-throw guy, McKenry has above-average arm strength and threw out 34 percent of runners in 2007.
15. JERMAINE MITCHELL, OF
One of the fastest runners in HWB, Mitchell has 70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. A 2006 fifth-rounder out of UNC Greensboro, Mitchell came off a solid year in the low Class A Midwest League, hitting .288/.390/.413 with eight homers and 20 doubles, but hit for little power in HWB. Mitchell, 23, has all kinds of tools, though his arm strength is below average in center field. Still, he makes up for his 40 arm with plus speed and his ability to get good jumps. Mitchell's plate discipline is an asset, and while he didn't show much on the offensive side in Hawaii, several managers noted his patience to get quality at-bats.
16. STEPHEN CHAPMAN, 1B
North Shore (Brewers)
A 2004 sixth-round pick out of a Florida high school, Chapman has always shown an intriguing power/speed combination since he signed for $159,000. He reported to Hawaii to replace the injured Chris Errecart, and his fatigue showed as he didn't drive the ball the way he's capable of. The 22-year-old needs to control the strike zone better for his raw above-average power to play more consistently, and Chapman didn't do much to improve his top weakness in HWB, posting a 42-9 strikeout-walk ratio in just 126 at-bats. He was also learning a new position, playing every HWB game at first base. "He's got a decent stroke, but he can get out of his approach pretty easily," said an American League scout. "He had very little lift to his swing here, but he just finished his first full season, so you have to chalk some of that up to fatigue."
17. JASON PLACE, OF
Honolulu (Red Sox)
The Red Sox knew Place was a project when they drafted him in the first round in 2006, and while he showed big power in his first full season at low Class A Greenville, the 19-year-old was inconsistent in his approach and hit just .214/.298/.359 and struck out 160 times in 459 at-bats. It was more of the same in Hawaii offensively, as Place showed exceptional raw pop, but very little else with the bat. He's an above-average runner who made more strides defensively in HWB, playing all three outfield positions after playing exclusively center during the regular season. "The lower half of his swing was bad at Greenville, but he smoothened that out during the offseason," said the scout. "But he still has a long way to go. He's still just getting under balls too much, and that comes in his stride and how he transfers his weight."
18. LUCAS DUDA, 1B
Duda continued a boffo pro debut by swinging the bat with authority—in fact, with more authority with wood than he ever did with a metal bat in college at Southern California. Duda joined the BeachBoys as an injury replacement for Nick Evans and showed premium lefthanded power, hiting .340/.390/.660 in 53 at-bats. Duda has impressive strength at a listed 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, and is working to trim up his body to play both left field and first base. While his defense and run tool are below-average, he's shown good plate discipline, power and the arm strength to play the outfield. As he moves up the ladder, he'll have to handle lefthanded pitchers better and show he can consistently catch up to good fastballs.
19. JONATHAN LUCROY, C
North Shore (Brewers)
While Wieters was the highest-profile 2007 draftee and catcher in HWB,
Lucroy joined him in the league and opened eyes with a fast start, as
he had eight multi-hit games in his first 14 outings. The third-round
pick out of Louisiana-Lafayette, who replaced Angel Salome in HWB when
Salome opted to play in Venezuela instead, slowed down a bit after that
(slumping to a 4-for-23 finish) but flashed average power, an
aggressive bat and solid catch-and-throw tools. He's not yet as skilled
as he'll need to be defensively, but he has enough receiving ability to
get by despite fringy arm strength.
20. DAN MURPHY, 3B
Murphy has a consistent stroke that he maintained through his first full season in pro ball and through his stint in Hawaii. While he's fairly mechanical defensively at third base and has work to do to remain at the position. Murphy can hit. His low-maintenance swing allows him to hit for solid power, with a natural gap-to-gap approach. He's patient and has shown improvement hanging in against lefthanded pitching as well (he hit .375/.400/.792 in 24 at-bats against lefties in Hawaii). Murphy's ability to play third base and developing power will determine whether he becomes a big league regular or a 4-A hitter along the lines of Chris Donnells.