MLB says aloha to league in Hawaii
With HWB's contract up, possibility rises of a new Arizona League
While most of the country is concentrating on its Christmas shopping this week, Major League Baseball scouts may already be looking ahead to the possibility of doing their own virtual "one-stop shopping" next fall when it comes to seeing more of the game's top prospects.
Since Major League Baseball's three-year contract with Hawaii Winter Baseball has expired, the league announced an end to their affiliation Tuesday.
According to a press release issued by HWB, once the game's GMs "voted for logistical reasons to consolidate their ... fall and winter developmental leagues ... the decision essentially ends any participation in HWB by players from the MLB and its Minor League affiliates."
The four-team Hawaiian league had provided an opportunity for several of the game's younger and less experienced prospects to compete alongside young players from Pacific Rim countries Japan and Korea.
While the idea of a similar four-team league in Arizona, not far from the existing infrastructure of the well-established Arizona Fall League, had been something bandied about for awhile, MLB has not yet confirmed the plan as a done deal.
"The operative word is 'possible,'" said Joe Garagiola Jr., the senior vice president for baseball operations for MLB. "The contract is up and there are some alternatives under discussion, including something in Arizona, but at this point I don't know if anything is 'final-final.'"
While not on the level of the better-known six-team Arizona Fall League, which just finished its 17th consecutive season and has established itself as the elite "finishing school" for elite prospects, HWB still drew its share of top prospects.
Among its 2008 participants were recent first-round picks such as catchers Buster Posey (San Francisco) and Jason Castro (Houston) and infielder Yonder Alonso (Cincinnati) as well as premier corner slugger Christopher Carter (Oakland), who had 39 home runs at Advanced A Stockton.
However, many people feel an adjunct Arizona-based league is long overdue, one that will complement but not compete with the AFL.
The recent boom in Cactus League Spring Training complexes -- notably the '09 addition of a new two-team facility in Glendale (the new home of the White Sox and Dodgers) and only slightly more remote Goodyear (where the Indians will begin Spring Training this February, to be joined by the Reds in '10) on what is known as the "West Side" of the Phoenix area -- offers a perfect location for a four-club circuit to operate within.
As it stands now, all 30 organizations annually send several of their upper-level prospects to the AFL, where each of the six clubs combine players from five different systems to compete in a seven-week season that runs from early October to just before Thanksgiving.
While each organization is allowed to send one player who has not played above the Class A level, the majority of players in the AFL are more seasoned prospects, many of whom come in with some big league experience.
The Hawaiian league (and its predecessors), on the other hand, was a training ground for younger or less experienced players.
While the AFL is known for the glut of scouts and front office executives, it was not as easy or cost-effective for scouts to get to Hawaii for "fall ball" games.
In addition, it would be that much easier for organizations to shift players from one league to the other should the need arise either by mismatch or injury.
The AFL started back in 1992, followed in '93 by the original Hawaii Winter League, which kicked off with teams on four islands featuring players from 16 Major League parent clubs as well as players from Japan and Korea. That league lasted intact until '97 and featured names such as Ichiro Suzuki, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, A.J. Pierzynski and Mark Kotsay.
In '98, baseball tried bringing its four-team Class A league action to the Mid-Atlantic area, fielding the Maryland Fall Baseball League in Bowie, Frederick and Aberdeen, Md., and Prince William Co., Va. The next year, a four-team league played in the Inland Empire area of Southern California with teams in Rancho Cucamonga, Lancaster, San Bernardino and Lake Elsinore, all California League stadiums.
Then the concept took a breather until HWB was revived in 2006. Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain honed his pro chops there, as did many current big leaguers and prospects over the past three years.
Now it appears the Valley of the Sun could be the heart and soul for all competitive fall ball action.
While the spectator appeal of a league in Hawaii couldn't be denied, from a professional standpoint it was slightly less appealing. As a result, not as much scouting commitment was made.
"Most of the clubs relied on one of the coaches to provide updates," said the Astros' Paul Ricciarini, the club's senior director of player personnel. "We had (pitching coach) Charley Taylor there, who did a great job of overseeing our kids for us, and (player development director) Ricky Bennett went over, but I don't think we -- or many others -- sent many scouts over there."
Not surprisingly, organizations look forward to the possibility of a strong Class A league in Arizona.
"It [would] become a very useful developmental league," Ricciarini said. "I'm excited about it. I only see upside to [such a] league."
Longtime scout Mike Berger of the Toronto Blue Jays concurred, though the Pittsburgh-based Berger admitted with a rueful laugh that he wished the Maryland Fall Baseball League had been given more of a chance to thrive.
"Obviously, Hawaii was a difficult place to get to, as opposed to the Sun Belt states," he said. "So if we can take the great idea they have going in Hawaii and place it somewhere more convenient, then it's a win-win situation. It makes all the sense in the world."
In Berger's opinion, as long as MLB can keep a strong fall league situation going for the game's younger domestic prospects, that would be the key.
"The bottom line is that these kids have to play or else they're wasted months," he said. "That's why, in so many instances, the young Latin players are ahead of the American players, especially in the early stages, because they just play more than we do."
While an official announcement regarding the future of the "junior" version of the fall league may not be made until after Jan. 1, hopes are high that the decision process will not take too long.
"We're trying to move ahead as quickly as we can on it," Garagiola said.
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.