Major League Baseball sponsors two offseason leagues dedicated exclusively to prospect development, the Hawaii Winter League (HWL) and the Arizona Fall League (AFL). The former features youngsters who generally have not played above A Ball, while the latter is for more advanced prospects who have reached at least Double A. We’ll use today’s column to take a look at the HWL’s ten best prospects and will examine the AFL’s top youngsters later in the week.
Just a quick note of caution—although the players’ statistical performance this past autumn is the most important criterion we’ve used to determine whether they’re worthy of mention, it’s not our only measuring stick. We’ve also taken into consideration a candidate’s tools and to what extent they’ll enable him to eventually make a meaningful contribution at the big league level. Despite the fact that the HWL is an extreme pitcher’s league (the composite batting average and OPS were just .248 and .701, respectively), only three pitchers made the list. Also, the 2008 draft class was well represented, with five of the ten players featured in this column having been selected this past June.
1) Yonder Alonso (1B), 21, Cincinnati Reds– Alonso, who was the seventh overall pick in June, was by far the most polished hitter in Hawaii. He not only exhibited a quick bat and the ability to go the other way, but his pitch recognition was outstanding, as evidenced by his BB/K ratio of 20/23. One area that still needs work, however, is his performance against lefties. He hit just .222 against them with 12 strikeouts in 36 at bats.
2) Jason Castro (C), 21, Houston Astros– Another first-round pick from June, Castro used the HWL to make a case for himself as the most athletic backstop in the minors. The former Stanford Cardinal showcased above average agility (despite a 6’3” frame), soft hands and a strong, accurate arm. Castro is no slouch at the plate either. He has excellent balance and generates plenty of power with a sweet, left-handed stroke.
3) Brett Hunter (RHP), 21, Oakland A’s– Don’t let the 5.59 ERA fool you. In just 9.2 innings out of the bullpen, the Pepperdine alum was lights out, striking out an astounding 18 batters while yielding just four hits. His fastball sat at 95-97 mph and occasionally hit triple digits, and his curveball was just as filthy. Hunter was wild at times, as he tried to shake off the rust that was the result of him sitting out most of the spring with an elbow injury. The A’s haven’t announced whether he’ll start or relieve as a pro. If it’s the latter, he could evolve into a Brad Lidge-style shutdown closer.
4) Buster Posey (C), 21, San Francisco Giants– If this list was based purely on offense, Posey might be sitting at the top, as his short, crisp stroke produced line drive after line drive en route to a .338 average. Posey’s defense was another story, however. He rarely showed the form which enabled him to win the Golden Spikes award while at Florida State and led the HWL in passed balls. Still, the Giants’ love his athleticism and strong arm and believe that in due time they’ll be able to iron out his rough edges.
5) Kyle Drabek (RHP), 20, Philadelphia Phillies– The son of 1990 N.L. Cy Young winner, Doug Drabek, rebounded nicely after missing most of the 2008 regular season recovering from Tommy John Surgery. His mid 90’s fastball and hammer curve enabled him to whiff 19 hitters in 20.2 innings against just four walks. He’s barely six feet tall so it’ll be interesting to see how his arm holds up as he moves through the minors.
6) Jeremy Bleich (LHP), 21, New York Yankees– The last of the 2008 draftees on this list, Bleich is a four-pitch control specialist whose fastball rarely breaks 90-91 mph. Still, the cerebral Stanford alum commands all four quadrants of the plate like a ten-year veteran and is able to generate his fair share of swings and misses. Like Hunter, Bleich missed a substantial portion of the college season because of arm problems and signed too late to log any meaningful innings during the regular season. If Bleich’s health issues are behind him, expect a rapid progression through the Yankees’ system.
7) Andrew Brackman (RHP), 22, New York Yankees– This 6’10” giant made his professional debut in Hawaii after recovering from Tommy John Surgery performed shortly after he was drafted in 2007. The velocity on Brackman’s fastball received rave reviews (he consistently worked in the mid-90), but he needs to develop better command of it. He also needs to work on the release point on his overhand curve. After posting a WHIP of 1.65 and walking 25 in 34 innings, it’s evident that Brackman will need much more minor league seasoning than the polished Bleich.
8) Ryan Kalish (OF), 20, Boston Red Sox– Kalish was still feeling the effects of the broken hamate bone he suffered in 2007, which robbed him of his power throughout all of 2008. Still, as his .446 OBP attests, he displayed outstanding pitch recognition for such a young player and was a spark plug on the bases with 12 steals in 13 attempts. An excellent athlete, Kalish can play anywhere in the outfield and has a strong, accurate arm.
9) Todd Frazier (OF-3B), 22, Cincinnati Reds– All Frazier has done since being drafted in 2007 is hit, and he continued to do that in Hawaii, where he posted a .922 OPS with 16 extra base hits in just 27 games. The Reds, however, are still undecided on his position. He was drafted out of Rutgers as a shortstop, but lacks the range to play there. He’s played some third base, but lacks the footwork to stay at the hot corner. Our guess is that he’ll wind up in left field once he gets to the majors. He has more than enough arm strength and speed for the position.
10) Michael Taylor (OF), 22, Philadelphia Phillies– Taylor’s .247/.347/.412 performance in Hawaii was disappointing compared to his regular season line of .346/.412/.557; however, the former Stanford Cardinal (sensing a pattern here?) remains a legitimate prospect. At 6’6” 250 pounds, Taylor is a mountain of a man whose overall game elicits memories of Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. He can hit the ball a country mile, run like a deer and play a vintage right field. If he makes the same progress in 2009 like he made last season he could be at Citizens Bank Park sometime during the second half.