Seven Reasons to Follow Baseball in Hawaii

Baseball prospects are returning to Hawaii this month. The Hawaii Winter Baseball League has been inactive since a five-year stint in the 1990’s brought together major league prospects like Jason Giambi and Derrek Lee with young Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki and Tadahito Iguchi. The league is being revived this year and will feature lower-level prospects from most Major League Baseball and Japan Professional League organizations.

The 40-game schedule begins this week, so this would be a good time to preview the league from a player development perspective. If you can’t make the trip to the Sandwich Islands this month, you can check out the schedule and listen to the games live.

Who will be Atlanta’s Third Baseman of the Future?

Chipper Jones won’t play forever, and the Braves have a couple of young third basemen who could be contributors to the big league team in another few years. Van Pope‘s season at Myrtle Beach was somewhat disappointing on the surface, but the was showing a lot of power late in the season and collected nearly twice as many more extra base hits on the road than at his spacious home park. The more athletic Eric Campbell is a year and a half younger than Pope and may see some time at second base in Hawaii. The success of his transition in the field, along with the status of Marcus Giles, may have consequences for both Pope and Campbell’s futures.

Can Shane Lindsay be the next big thing?

This Rockies prospect might be the best young baseball pitcher you haven’t heard about. The Australian righthander has struck out 198 batters in 130 innings in the lower minor leagues over the past two years. Lindsay’s repertoire includes a sharp curveball and a 97 mph fastball, so there’s little question that he can succeed at higher levels of competition if two important developments occur. First, he needs to refine his control. Second, he just needs to stay healthy. Lindsay only pitched 66 innings last year and spent much of this season recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff in extended Spring Training. He will pitch for Waikiki this month.

Will Jeff Clement hit?

Clement, an early pick from the 2005 draft, was having a fine start at Double-A San Antonio when he had to miss some time for minor surgeries. When he was ready to play again, the Mariners assigned him to Triple-A Tacoma. Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi believes top prospects should be challenged and learn to deal with failure, and Clement certainly struggled in the Pacific Coast League. He focused on his defense at Tacoma and finished the season with an underwhelming .257/.321/.347 batting line. Although Clement may continue to focus on his receiving skills in Hawaii, he will join a group of players who are more similar to him in age and experience. He could break out and post eye-catching numbers at the plate this month.

Who are the Yankees’ new pitching prospects?

Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain both have a chance to be important pieces of the Yankees pitching staff by 2010, but neither player got much of a chance to pitch as professionals this year because they were signed several months after the first-year player draft. The two new members of the Yankees organization will pitch alongside fellow Yankees prospects Mark Melancon, Christian Garcia with the West Oahu Canefires this month.

How will the Japanese prospects stack up?

The Hawaii Winter Baseball League is uniquely positioned to employ prospects from both the Americas and East Asia. League officials plan to invite prospects from Taiwan and South Korea in the future, but this year’s league includes an impressive collection of talent from Japan. Keisuke Hayashi, a righthanded pitcher with the Chiba Lotte Marines organization, may be the most promising pitching prospect in Hawaii. Outfielder Atsushi Ugmori, a prospect in the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters organization, might be the most promising young hitter among the Japanese contingent. Hayashi will pitch with the North Shore Honu this month. Ugmori will join the aforementioned Braves prospects with the Honolulu Sharks.

Which Kala Kaaihue is for real?

Kaaihue, a 21-year-old first base prospect with the Braves, earned a lot of attention when he hit .329/.458/.614 in the South Atlantic League during the first half of the 2006 season. Kaaihue maintained his power production after the Braves promoted him to the Carolina League, but his on-base skills failed to keep up when he only hit .223 at Myrtle Beach. Kaaihue’s true ability probably lies somewhere between the two performances. Kaaihue’s batting average of balls in play (BABIP) was over .400 in his stint with Rome; well above the league average. His BABIP fell to .230 at Myrtle Beach, so it’s unlikely that his .223 batting average and .342 on base average are accurate reflections of his talent. I expect a strong campaign in Hawaii and more impressive results if he returns to Myrtle Beach next spring.

Can these hitters maintain their late-season surges?

Nate Schierholtz, an outfielder in the Giants organization, was struggling in the Eastern League until he put together a 25-game hitting streak in August. Red Sox outfielder Jeff Corsaletti maintained an OBP above .425 and hit eight home runs during the second half at Wilmington after struggling to reach base and only hitting three home runs earlier in the season. Rangers outfielder John Mayberry was striking out in over one quarter of his plate appearances until August, when he launched 11 extra-base hits and only struck out 13 times in nearly 100 plate appearances.

There are a lot of interesting players participating in the Hawaii Winter Baseball League right now, and I hope you take some time to follow these ballplayers and appreciate the league’s important role in facilitating their development. Next week, I’ll preview the Arizona Fall League, another domestic offseason league that includes more advanced baseball prospects from all major league organizations.

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