Hawaii is known for many things: Surfing, hula dancing, luaus.
This year it's also known as a place to go to see a lot of top prospects. Hawaii Winter Baseball boasts many recent high draft picks, all plying their trade on the island of Oahu.
Hawaii Winter Baseball is a developmental league in which prospects from the lower levels of the minors join up with some players from the Japanese and Korean leagues for a month and a half of games. It's similar to the Arizona Fall League, which features many top prospects from Double-A and Triple-A.
The fans are very passionate about the individual clubs, with each of the four teams having an assortment of merchandise rivaling any minor league team. It's a tremendous atmosphere to watch some games.
A couple of things to note:
1. Take the stats from the league with a grain of salt. While the Arizona Fall League is known as a hitter's league, in Hawaii, it's all about the pitching. Both stadiums the four teams use are havens for hurlers. Les Murakami Stadium is an all-turf field, with no dirt in the infield, allowing grounders to take true hops. It has huge areas of foul territory, and the winds knock down deep flies and keep them in the park. While Hans L'Orange Park is a bit of a bandbox, the swirling winds in the outfield also make it difficult to hit the ball out.
2. I scouted the league for the first week of play, and while some players had continued to work in other instructional leagues since the minor league season ended, others were coming off of a three-week layoff and still getting back up to speed, especially pitchers.
With that in mind, my observations from the island:
• Oakland's Chris Carter hit just .259 in the high Class A California League this season, but he also blasted 39 homers and slugged .569. In 506 at-bats, the first baseman drew 77 walks and struck out 156 times. Carter looks as advertised in Hawaii, showing big raw power and excellent bat speed. He's been worked carefully by opposing pitchers, but has been perfectly willing to take his walks, and has not been chasing the stuff just off the outside part of the plate. He's vulnerable to getting jammed on the inner half, which could be exploited more as he moves up the ladder, but he should hit for enough average to be a middle of the order hitter in the big leagues.
• The Yankees' Andrew Brackman, the last pick of the first round in 2007, finally made his professional debut after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and showed some great raw stuff. The Yankees knew what they were doing, drafting him even though they knew he was likely to have the surgery. The big, 6-foot-10 righty is hitting a consistent 95-96 mph with arm-side run, and pairing it with an 85-89 mph straight change. He is also throwing two curveballs into the mix; a high-70s knuckle curve that profiles as a plus pitch, and a high-60s slow curve. If you ever saw Zack Greinke's slow curve a few years ago before he dropped it from his repertoire, you'll get the idea. Brackman doesn't use the slow curve often, but will throw it on occasion to keep batters off-balance. He's still battling his mechanics, keeping his delivery too closed at times, and is having the predictable command issues that occur after a ligament replacement in the elbow, but the important thing is his raw stuff has come back, and the 22-year-old could start moving quickly next season. He profiles as a potential front line starter.
• The Yankees had another first-round pitcher there as well in Jeremy Bleich, a 21-year-old lefty from Stanford, who was a supplemental first-round pick this June. His fastball was clocked between 88 and 91 mph with easy arm action, and he coupled it with a potential plus pitch in an upper 70s curveball. Though he has a changeup, he put it in his back pocket for his first outing. He had some command issues, leaving the ball up in the strike zone way too much, but if nothing else he profiles as a solid bullpen arm in the big leagues, and perhaps more if he can find more consistent command.
• Some catchers who were drafted early also made appearances in this league, including San Francisco's Buster Posey. I've seen Posey for a few games in rookie ball, and then a few games in Hawaii, but he hasn't looked great so far. His stats are fine, but he hasn't looked like the Brian McCann-type player you're expecting to get when you hand him $6.2 million dollars as the fifth pick in the draft. Don't get me wrong; he's looked like a solid-average major league catcher, but not an All-Star thus far. He hasn't looked bad, just average, both offensively and defensively. He doesn't generate a lot of backspin on the ball, he's showing limited raw power, but he's been decent behind the plate. To be fair, we're still only a few games into his professional career, and he's still getting back into the swing of things after a layoff. Posey is going to be more of a line-drive contact hitter who can take the ball to all fields.
One catcher who has looked great so far is Houston's Jason Castro, who went five picks after Posey in June. His calling card is going to be power, and he generates plenty of it. Although his swing can get a little long at times, he generates plenty of leverage, has good bat speed through the zone and can turn on good fastballs. In many respects, he's been more impressive than Posey thus far.
Another quality catcher in this league is Austin Romine, son of former big league outfielder Kevin Romine. The Yankees picked him in the second round in 2007, and, at 19, he's one of the youngest players in the league. I liked his smooth swing and line-drive stroke; He profiles as a solid offensive catcher in the majors.
• File this name away: Bradley Emaus. Emaus was an 11th-round pick in the 2007 draft, but batted .302 with a .463 slugging percentage in the Florida State League -- a tough league for hitters -- in his first full season this year. The stocky, 5-foot-11 third baseman wields an impressive bat. He's what we call "short to and long through," meaning he's short to the ball and his bat stays in the strike zone a long time, both very good things. He's been squaring balls up constantly, and he's going to be a big league hitter.
Quick notes: Yonder Alonso, a first baseman who the Reds took seventh overall in the past draft, arrived a couple of days after I left, so I didn't see him. Outfielder Dominic Brown, a top Phillies prospect, had not arrived yet either. Reds shortstop Todd Frazier has played all over the field in Hawaii, including first base and left field. His bat is going to play in the big leagues, but I doubt he's going to stick at short, which won't help his stock with fantasy players. Michael Taylor is a big, 6-foot-6 outfielder the Phillies took in the fifth round in 2007. He hit .346 with 19 homers and a .557 slugging percentage across two levels of Class A ball this year. He looked in much better shape from when I saw him in the past, and is an intriguing name to watch. His swing is a bit long and his bat speed isn't that great, but he has good pitch recognition and could start generating more buzz next year.
Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.