Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pirates Winter Ball Review: Part II - Hawaii Winter Baseball

It's the second installment of my Pirates winter ball wrap-up. This time, we'll be looking at the revival of Hawaii Winter Baseball for the first time in ten years.

In 1993, sixteen Major League teams in conjunction with three Japanese professional teams and four Korean professional teams, thought it would be a good idea to send their prospects to Hawaii for a few months of sunshine, Mai Tais, and baseball. Thus, Hawaii Winter Baseball was spawned. For the next five winters, ballparks throughout the island of Oahu were home to future Major League stars such as Ichiro Suzuki, Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Tadahito Iguchi, and the immortal Alex Ochoa.

Ichiro Suzuki in action with the Hilo Stars in 1993.

After 1997, the league went on hiatus for ten years before being reinstated for the 2006 season, one again playing host to players from American, Japanese, and Korean organizations. With other fall leagues such as the AFL already firmly entrenched as part of the offseason for many teams, most Major League teams used HWB as a proving ground for younger prospects, while AA and AAA caliber players remained mostly in the AFL and international winter leagues. The Pirates sent five players to Hawaii, all of whom spent the fall with the Honolulu Sharks.

C Steve Lerud
2006 HWB Line: .227/.338/.333 (66 ABs)
Lerud was drafted in the third round of the 2003 draft after breaking most of the state of Nevada's high school offensive records. He signed relatively quickly, but soon fell into a pattern that is familiar to many Pirates prospects. He would get hurt, then not hit well when he was healthy. Despite his lack of production, the Pirates still promoted him on a regular basis. 2006 was his first full season, and he spent it at low-A Hickory, where he was wholly mediocre in 393 at-bats (.239/.330/.402) and struck out a whopping 146 times.

The Pirates shipped him off to Hawaii at the end of the season, and he started out well there, but tailed off badly as the league neared its end. Just about the only positive thing to come out of his performance in Hawaii was the fact that he drew 11 walks, none of the intentional variety, in only 66 at-bats, but he also struck out 26 times. He was still rather young for the league, but in an organization with Ronny Paulino, Ryan Doumit, and Neil Walker, he needs to get on track rather quickly. 2007 will be a make or break year for him. He could very well start at Lynchburg despite being unimpressive everywhere else thus far.
Overall Winter Performance: NEGATIVE

SS Brian Bixler

2006 HWB line: .304/.381/.375 (56 ABs)
Bixler is the quintessential Creechling - a species of baseball player adored by Pirates Scouting Director Ed Creech that possess the attributes of being small, speedy, and unable to hit home runs, usually incapable of drawing very many walks. When he was drafted out of Eastern Michigan in the second round of the 2004 draft in what was considered a serious overdraft. Ed Creech proclaimed Bixler would be a starting shortstop in the Major Leagues one day, and Pirate Nation laughed.

To Bixler's credit, he has improved steadily as he has risen quickly through the Pirates system, splitting 2006 between Lynchburg and Altoona, hitting over .300 at both stops. His plate discipline has shown marked improvement as well, leading some to believe that maybe Creech was right about Bixler, although he still has shown no tendency to hit for power whatsoever, and his stolen base totals remain a little ho-hum for someone who was touted as a real threat on the basepaths coming out of school.

All the Hawaii Winter Baseball season did for Bixler was essentially affirm what we already knew; his ability to hit for a decent average, draw enough walks to be useful, and rarely get extra-base hits. I don't know if the Sharks just got bored with him or if the Pirates saw all they needed to see, or what, but Bixler was DELETED from the Sharks roster. It would have been worse, I suppose, had he completely tanked in Hawaii. As it is, he'll be playing his age 24 season next year, presumably as Indy's starting shortstop, so he may have some future yet.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

OF Nyjer Morgan
2006 HWB line: .294/.368/.429 (119 ABs)
Nyjer Morgan is a Creechling extraordinaire, and one who always dreamed of playing professional sports in Pittsburgh at that. Only, Morgan envisioned himself as a linemate of Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux with the Penguins. He was a semi-pro hockey player in Canada, and the league he played in was apparently pretty hot shit. He was teammates with this guy as well as three other future NHLers. Unfortunately, he soon came to realize that just being faster than everyone else on your team isn't quite enough.

Thus, with his hockey dream shattered, his first real baseball experience came after he enrolled into Walla Walla Community College at age 20. Although still blazingly fast, his defensive and baserunning insticts were rough. Still, Ed Creech fell in love with his speed and drafted him in the 33rd round in 2002. Since then, Morgan has followed the path of a prototypical Creechling, hitting for a decent, but mostly empty batting average everywhere he's been assigned to play.

Although he turns 27 next July, he's still never played above AA, which is cause for some concern. The fact that he didn't start playing baseball until college mollifies that somewhat, but it's still doubtful that he'll end up as a Major League regular at this point. His winter campaign showed enough to get him added to the 40-man roster. The Pirates particularly wanted him to start showing some power. He did slug .429 in Hawaii, a professional high for him, but it was mostly fueled by 5 triples, and I'd have to know more about those ballparks in Hawaii before I start getting excited about that. He's likely to join Rajai Davis and Vic Buttler as part of an all-Creechling outfield at Indy next year.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

RHP Wardell Starling
2006 HWB line: 5.12 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 35/13 K/BB (31 2/3 IP)
When we last saw Wardell, he was bouncing exuberantly across the players parking lot at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona after just having tossed a masterful performance against the Akron Aeros in the first round of the Eastern League playoffs. Being asked to pitch in Hawaii must have been so anti-climactic for him that he just didn't have the heart to get batter out on a more regular basis there.

In all seriousness, Starling was primed to be a huge disappointment after being drafted in the 4th round in 2002 out of a J.C. in Texas. He slogged through three increasingly mediocre seasons before pitching lights-out in the first half of 2006 at Lynchburg. He had a solid AA debut with Altoona in 13 starts after a midseason callup (plus that one in the postseason), posting a lower ERA but with worse peripherals. The main problem the Pirates have had with Starling is his strikeout rate, which has been frustratingly low for someone who was reaching 97 mph with his fastball at the time he was drafted.

In Hawaii, he started four games for the Sharks and was hit hard in all four of them. Then he was moved to the bullpen, where he pitched muched better as the season progressed. He even finished having struck out more than one hitter per inning. Unfortunately, he picked the wrong organization in which to become a reliever, since Dave Littlefield has already acquired every relief pitcher he can get his grubby little hands on. If he remains a starter, his main advantage is that he's right-handed, and 90% of the starting pitchers in the organization are southpaws. Whether the Pirates view him as a starter or a reliever will have a lot of bearing on where he begins the 2007 season; he stands a much greater chance of making Indy's bullpen than he does its rotation, which should already be full with Masumi Kuwata, Yoslan Herrera, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, and John VanBenschoten, not to mention the Marty McLearys and Shane Youmans of the world.
Overall Winter Performance: NEGATIVE

RHP Justin Vaclavik

2006 HWB line: 6.55 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 6/1 K/BB (11 IP)
Vaclavik was drafted as a "project" out of the University of Houston, where he was the team's closer. Despite his age, he is relatively inexperienced, and his showing in Hawaii was better than his numbers would indicate; five of the eight earned runs he allowed came in one poor outing, and he was nearly unhittable apart from that. Control has always been his main issue, but he walked just one batter this winter. He has good stuff, and is being groomed as a potential closer candidate. He certainly didn't do any damage to his stock in Hawaii, and he should be the primary 9th-inning guy at Lynchburg this year, with the possibility for promotion to Altoona at some point.
Overall Winter Performance: POSITIVE

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