Hawaii Winter Baseball Top 20 Prospects

Posey's all-around tools stand out in Hawaii




The Arizona Fall League is a higher level of competition, but Hawaii Winter Baseball has gained momentum in its most recent incarnation. The league was dormant from 1998-2005, but HWB has sent plenty of alumni to the majors since it started again in September 2006, highlighted by Troy Tulowitzki (2006), Joba Chamberlain (Yankees, 2006) and Daniel Murphy (Mets, 2007).

As was the case the last two years, when Chamberlain, Matt Wieters and Ian Kennedy were among the players who got their first extensive pro experience in Hawaii, clubs used HWB to allow recent draft picks to get their feet wet. Five of the first 82 players picked in the 2008 draft played in Hawaii, and all five earned spots among the Top 10 prospects. Four of the five played for the Waikiki BeachBoys,

1. Buster Posey, c, Waikiki BeachBoys (Giants)

Posey, the fifth overall pick, finished fourth in the league in batting (.338) in an uneven HWB performance that included a two-week sojourn back to the mainland for some tutoring in instructional league on his receiving. League managers liked how he came back from the trip, making rapid improvement at calling games, blocking balls and receiving pitches such as cutters that he had little experience with in two years of catching at Florida State.

Posey clinched the top spot with an opposite-field home run in the championship game. "He's got a very good, opposite-field approach," Waikiki manager Juan Bustabad said. "He's got an idea with two strikes. He's a very good hitter now and he'll be better down the line."

2. Andrew Brackman, rhp, Waikiki BeachBoys (Yankees)

Brackman was the 30th overall pick in 2007 and was making his pro debut in Hawaii due to Tommy John surgery in August 2007 and a 2008 appendectomy. His first pitch registered 97 mph, though, and he clearly had the best arm in the league while also showing some significant rust. He hadn't pitched in a game since May 2007, and the former N.C. State basketball player showed poor command of his three-pitch repertoire, leading to modest stats (3-4, 5.56, league-high 25 walks and 13 wild pitches).

His fastball consistently sat in the 92-95 mph range throughout the season with a good downhill plane befitting his 6-foot-11 frame. Brackman's curveball is his offspeed pitch, sitting in the 74-78 mph range, and is an above-average pitch when it's on. His changeup is a bit firm at 84-88 but still effective thanks to his fastball velocity.

3. Yonder Alonso, 1b, Waikiki BeachBoys (Reds)

Alonso's offensive upside exceeds that of any prospect in Hawaii, even Posey, because of his raw power. He's strong, short to the ball and extremely selective, putting himself in hitter's counts with maddening consistency. The former Miami Hurricane could move as quickly as any player from the league because of his advanced hitting ability, which includes a willingness to hit to all fields and the hand-eye coordination that leads to good plate coverage.

The biggest adjustment Alonso will have to pro ball is facing lefthanders with quality breaking balls. He hit .222 in 36 at-bats against lefties in Hawaii, and he'll have to learn to trust his hands to handle the steady diet of curves and sliders he's likely to see from southpaws.

4. Dominic Brown, of, Honolulu Sharks (Phillies)

Sharks manager Stu Cole manages in the Rockies system and said Brown stacks up well with Rockies farmhand Dexter Fowler, as both are slender African-American outfielders, both Georgia prep products and both potential five-tool players. The game doesn't quite come as easy in all facets to Brown as it does to Fowler, but Brown's hitting is more advanced at a similar stage of development. The 6-foot-5 lefthanded hitter led HWB in batting and on-base percentage during a .389/.506/.542 campaign over 72 at-bats.

Lithe and athletic, Brown flashed all five tools, including a plus arm. Scouts are divided over how much power he'll have in the long run, which will determine his ultimate ceiling. One called his high-elbow setup at the plate "funky", and he's a long-strider, which could lead to timing issues. But his buggy-whip swing produces the bat speed to produce power when married to his excellent pitch recognition.

5. Kyle Drabek, rhp, Honolulu Sharks (Phillies)

A 2006 first-round pick and son of a big leaguer, Drabek has been on the prospect radar for years but is back on the upswing after enduring a difficult pro debut and Tommy John surgery. He threw just 32 innings in the regular season and got needed innings in Hawaii as a midseason replacement. He implemented some mechanical adjustments he started in instructional league, smoothing out a hip turn and throwing with better direction to the plate.

His stuff remains plus-plus, with a fastball sitting at 93-95 mph and a hammer breaking ball, a hard-breaking power curve with late movement. Drabek also is making progress with a changeup and competed well in Hawaii. Maturity has been an issue, and Drabek took his lone defeat—he gave up a game-winning homer to Marquez Smith in the season's final game—hard. But managers and scouts said he comported himself as a professional in Hawaii.

6. Jason Castro, c, North Shore Honu (Astros)

Castro continues to serve notice that he was no overdraft, having gone 10th overall to the Astros out of Stanford. He hit .333/.438/.487 in Hawaii, showing athletic ability, a smooth swing and good catch-and-throw skills to be a frontline player at his position. And in his short look in Hawaii, Castro showed the ability to hang in against lefthanded pitchers. "He hits to all fields with authority," West Oahu manager Mike Guerrero said, "and he knows the strike zone. I don't know if he'll have more than average power, but I think he'll be a .300 hitter."

Castro and Posey were teammates in the Cape Cod League in 2007, with Castro forced to play first base and outfield in deference to Posey most of the summer. Most HWB observers agreed Castro's receiving, throwing (he has a plus arm) and other defensive skills were more advanced than those of Posey but gave Posey the edge offensively.

7. Todd Frazier, if/of, Waikiki BeachBoys (Reds)

Frazier continues to elicit a strong difference of opinion among scouts due to his unorthodox approach at the plate, where his fast hands compensate for a high setup. He's also far from textbook defensively, but he held his own at shortstop while also playing a lot of left field in Hawaii. He has plus raw power and led the league in slugging at .547, even though he missed almost two weeks due to a concussion incurred in an on-field collision in the outfield.

"The ball jumps off his bat," Bustabad said, "and I think he'll be a frontline hitter. The Reds wanted him to play left field and third base, which he did, but he played some shortstop too, and first base. He played all four well. He's just a baseball player who can hit."

8. Jeremy Bleich, lhp, Waikiki BeachBoys (Yankees)

Bleich wound up being the highest-drafted signee for the Yankees in 2008, putting New York's top picks from its last two drafts on the BeachBoys staff. Bleich wound up as Waikiki's ace, ranking fifth in the league in ERA. He showed the same attributes that prompted the Yankees to draft him highly out of Stanford, including a firm 89-91 mph fastball that he commanded as well as anyone in the league.

Known for his secondary stuff, Bleich showed a plus curve in Hawaii that he commanded well. His change, reputed as above-average in college, lacked the life necessary to earn that grade in HWB. He has good arm speed on the pitch and throws it for strikes, and it will play plus with better movement.

9. Michael Taylor, of, Honolulu Sharks (Phillies)

The third Phillies farmhand in the top 10, Taylor didn't have the performance numbers of most of those ranked ahead of him, but scouts agree he was better than his numbers in Hawaii. He showed off his light-tower power with a homer off an actual light tower at Les Murakami Stadium, controlled the strike zone and made hard contact all fall. He's also a solid defender with a plus arm suitable for right field, though he played left in deference to Brown.

Taylor at times had trouble handling better fastballs, which some attributed to a bit of fatigue after a long season.  "He has serious juice and played better than his numbers," a scout with a National League organization said.

10. Roger Kieschnick, of, Waikiki BeachBoys (Giants)

Kieschnick and former Texas Tech teammate Kyle Martin (Royals) tied for the league lead in home runs, and Kieschnick showed as much power as any player in the league. He didn't sign until mid-August and Hawaii was his first pro experience. Older pitchers exploited his over-aggressiveness and the holes in his swing, and his 46 strikeouts also led the league.

A good athlete, Kieschnick runs well and should have the arm and defensive ability to play right field. He has rough edges to smooth out offensively and defensively. But the separator for him is his power. "The ball just jumps off his bat," Bustabad said. "His home runs are flat-out bombs."

11. Chris Carter, 1b, North Shore (Athletics).

Carter led the minors in total bases and extra-base hits and ranked second in home runs during the regular season. He got off to a fast start in Hawaii but slowed as the season went along, failing to adjust to a steady diet of breaking stuff. Carter also appeared to tire a bit but still showed the raw power to all fields that makes him such a dangerous hitter. He showed good athleticism and the potential to be a solid to above-average defender at first base.

12. Caleb Gindl, of, West Oahu (Brewers).

Scouts and managers alternately compare Gindl to players such as Brian Giles and Matt Stairs, shorter hitters who have hit for power and had long, productive big league careers. At 5-foot-9, Gindl is short, short to the ball with his swing and has a quick, flat swing through the strike zone. His swing plane lends some doubt to how much power he'll eventually have. Gindl has a strong arm and has improved defensively but still projects as just average for the corner spots.

13. Brad Emaus, 2b/3b, Honolulu (Blue Jays).

Emaus resembles Dan Uggla for some managers, but the comparison only holds in that he's an offensive player whose value is all tied up in his bat. Emaus lacks Uggla's 30-home run power, and may not have his defensive tools, either. He lacks range and mobility both at second base and at third, and probably fits better at second, where is average power is a better fit. "He's not pretty in the field," one manager said, "but I think his bat will carry him." Emaus has a short, quick stroke and good gap power as well as excellent plate discipline, with 17 walks and seven strikeouts in HWB play.

14. Jonny Venters, lhp, Honolulu (Braves).

Venters ranked as the league's second-best lefthander (among U.S.-affiliated players) for several observers, trailing only Bleich. A draft-and-follow signee, Venters has taken his time to develop but showed three average pitches in Hawaii. His fastball sits in the 87-90 mph range, at times touching 92. His slider remains too inconsistent for some scouts, but others saw it as an average pitch that flashed plus at times. His changeup is his best pitch, and he projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter.

"His fastball is deceptive and heavy," Cole said. "He hides it well, and his change gives him a putaway pitch."
 
15. Kyle Martin, ss/3b, North Shore (Royals).

Martin could be the find of the league—for the Royals. The organization kept him back in extended spring training, and he didn't go to low Class A Burlington until May. Even then, he was a part-time player, but he got an assignment to HWB and took full advantage. He's too aggressive and consistently hits in the .240s—he hit in that range in the Appy League in 2007, the Midwest League in '08 and in Hawaii—and needs to control the strike zone better. However, he has the bat speed to catch up to good fastballs and surprising above-average power. His six homers tied for the league lead. Plus, Martin is a capable if not flashy infielder, better suited for second base or third but able to fill in at short.

16. Ryan Kalish, of, North Shore (Red Sox).
Kalish still has good tools and a sound swing he repeats well. He was an excellent table-setter for North Shore, drawing 21 walks to rank third in on-base percentage, and he used his plus speed to steal a league-high 13 bases in 14 tries. However, Kalish was coming off a wrist injury and didn't hit for any power in HWB, with just four extra-base hits. He also played only two games in the field, being relegated to DH the rest of the time. His offensive upside involves a lot of projection until scouts can get a read on him at full strength.

17. Mark Hallberg, 2b, West Oahu (Diamondbacks).
Hallberg spent the year at high Class A but missed time early with a torn ligament in his left thumb. He made up for lost time in Hawaii, grinding his way through the season and leading HWB in hits (42) while showing surprising power for his size. He's sacrificed some contact ability for improved power but still covers the plate and is tough to strike out. He's a better athlete and defender than Martin but has less power. While he can fill in at shortstop, Hallberg works best as a second baseman and does a nice job turning the double play.

18. Javy Guerra, rhp, Waikiki (Dodgers).
Guerra and Junior Guerra (Mets) had two of the best fastballs in the league, surpassed only by Andrew Brackman and Kyle Drabek. While Junior Guerra has more life on his fastball, Javy showed more pure velocity, running his fastball up to 96 mph. He also repeats his delivery better than Junior Guerra and throwing more strikes. Javy Guerra's second-best pitch is an average changeup, but his curve remains inconsistent.

19. Kyle Bloom, lhp, West Oahu (Pirates).
Bloom, 25, was among the oldest U.S. players in HWB and has extensive Double-A experience. Even though he finished well at Altoona this season, the Pirates sent him to Hawaii instead of the Arizona Fall League, and he understandably dominated (1-0, 1.50 in seven starts), with 32 strikeouts in 30 innings. He gave up just 15 hits as he ran his fastball up to 92 mph while spotting his curveball and changeup, both average. Bloom was not protected on the Pirates' 40-man roster.

20. Tony Cruz, c/3b, Honolulu (Sharks)

EDITOR'S NOTE: In the print edition of BA, Andy Graham, rhp, Honolulu (Rockies), was the No. 20 prospect. However, Graham made just eight appearances in HWB and didn't qualify for the list. We regret the error.


Cruz, 22, played some catcher in high school and junior college but was primarily at third baseman. The Cardinals sent him to Hawaii to continue working on his catching, and he made improvements. He has above-average arm strength that plays average as a catcher due to a slow transfer. Cruz's footwork and receiving are fringy but have improved. He's much more polished offensively with a short, strong swing. He projects better as a part-time catcher and reserve corner infielder, as there's some doubt as to how much power he'll hit for in the future.