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December 11, 2003

Dominican Winter League Report

Keeping Tabs on Some Interesting Names

by Carlos J. Lugo

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Fall and winter are times for football, basketball, and snow. For New Englanders, it's a time to mourn another summer that died late, as Roger Angell once said. The only baseball news around for fans are awards announcements, manager firings and hirings and the Hot Stove League league, which doesn't always burn so hot.

But for a few million obsessed fans around the Caribbean basin and the Mexican pacific coast, it's time for "the other" season, one that's even more important in terms of passion and loyalty than the major leagues of the United States. We do have baseball year-round, but the only time we feel the sense of emptiness that the people in Canada and the United States are feeling right now is the 10 days between the end of the Caribbean World Series and the time pitchers and catchers report.

The best league in terms of quality of baseball played is the Dominican Winter League. It was established in 1951 as a league not affiliated with organized baseball. The league lasted four summers before starting its affiliation to organized baseball and shifted to the winter months. The opening of a new baseball stadium in Santo Domingo (the still-standing Estadio Quisqueya) and the growing development of talented ballplayers were the main reasons why league entrepreneurs and MLB decided to start a partnership that's still going strong today.

The league has six teams: Tigres (Tigers) del Licey (Santo Domingo), Aguilas (Eagles) Cibaeñas (Santiago), Estrellas (Stars) de Oriente (San Pedro de Macoris), Leones (Lions) del Escogido (Santo Domingo), Toros Azucareros (Bulls) del Este (La Romana), and the Gigantes (Giants, also called Colts) del Cibao (San Francisco de Macoris).

The teams with the most titles are Licey and Aguilas with 17 each. Licey is also the team with the most Caribbean World Series titles, with eight. Escogido has won 12 times, but none since 1992. The Azucareros have one title (in the 1994-95 season). The Gigantes, the youngest of the franchises, has yet to win a title.

We've left the Estrellas for last, since that team is a strange and interesting case. A Dominican version of the Red Sox and Cubs, the franchise plays in one of the most famous and recognizable baseball towns in the world, yet has not won a championship since the 1967-68 season, having lost several finals and blown opportunities in the painful fashion that characterizes the Red Sox or the Cubs. The Estrellas' other title was in the final summer season of 1954.

I presented this introduction as a way to give the readers a little context before we start the real interesting stuff--the reports on players--while hopefully getting you interested in some of the competition as well. Perhaps some Cubs or Red Sox fans could see themselves in the Estrellas and start rooting for them in the distance. The team needs all kinds of good vibes, that's for sure.

Now, on to the good stuff:

The New OBP King?

There are two single-season records that could be broken this year. Considering that one of them is the home run record, it's obvious that not many people are paying attention to the other record in danger. Stathead favorite D'Angelo Jimenez (Licey) is threatening the OBP record set by former NL batting champ Ralph Garr, reaching base at a .537 clip. Garr posted an .508 OBP playing for the Estrellas in the 1970-71 season, also setting the all time marks for batting average (.457) and hits (105). Jimenez is also leading the league in walks (26) and hits (38), slugging .521 and hitting .404. He's trying to become the sixth player in league's history to hit over .400 in a full season.

On the home run side, 1B Guillermo García (Aguilas, former Reds player) and OF Abraham Nuñez (Estrellas - Marlins) are both leading the league with 10. The all-time record in a single season is shared by former Pirates and Red Sox slugger Dick "Dr. Strangeglove" Stuart and former Pirate Freddy García. Stuart set the mark with 14 homers in the 1956-57 season playing for the Aguilas, while García tied it in the 1988-99 season playing for Escogido. Both Stuart and Freddy Garcia played in regular seasons of 60 games, making it all the more is remarkable that Nuñez and Guillermo García are both on pace to break the record in a 50 -game regular season.

Prospects

The best-known non-Dominican prospect in the league, Arizona's Chad Tracy, hit .244/.313/.477 in 25 games with five homers before leaving the Azucareros. His performance was a mild disappointment, but he was playing in the league's most extreme pitcher's park at La Romana, which deflates offense by 10% to 15% every season. Tracy was on a tear the first two weeks of the season, hitting three home runs, but cooled off significantly after that. His defensive game at third looked solid, but he was being used primarily in the outfield the last two weeks because the Azucareros are giving playing time to super-prospect Andy Marte at third base.

Speaking of Marte, he's off to a solid start, hitting .281/.406/.439 with nine walks in 13 games and 32 at bats. He just has two extra-base hits (a double and a homer) but you have to be impressed with his strike zone judgment so far in a league with so many veteran and quality pitchers.

One of the best pitchers in the league so far has been Mariners' Rafael Soriano, who plays for Escogido. Soriano has not allowed an earned run in 25 innings so far in five starts, allowing just 11 hits, nine walks and striking out 18. Unfortunately his record stands at 0-1, because the Lions have the worst offense of the league, scoring just 1.5 runs per game. I've seen Soriano pitch three times, last on Monday, and he's dominated the league. His fastball regularly clocks on the high 90s and his off-speed pitch has been devastating. One would think that his strikeout ratio should be more impressive, but sometimes I had the impression that Soriano was throwing without much effort at all.

The big question is how many innings the M's willing to let Soriano pitch. He's been starting games so far, and rumor has it that the limit is around 35 innings pitched. That could be bad news for the Lions if they're able to make the playoffs, but they're playing very poorly and that isn't likely to happen.

Licey outfielder Felix Pié (Cubs) is hitting .309/.396/.345 in 55 AB. He's been playing in right and center, looking very good on defense, and his speed is electric. I saw him hit a triple against the Estrellas in Santo Domingo, and he just flew around the bases. His tools are very impressive and hopefully he can translate those into baseball skills. Pié is playing semi-regularly so far, because the Tigers have several experienced outfielders on their roster, but he's made good use of his playing time and could be a nice player to have on the bench in the playoffs.

Veterans

As usual, several minor league veterans are playing in the league, and you'll see one or two of them filling your favorite's team Triple-A roster in May. One of them is pitcher Doug Linton, who's playing for the Cibao Eagles, and surprisingly pitching exceptionally well. Linton is 3-1 and 1.17 ERA in seven starts and an astonishing 31/3 K/BB ratio. Linton, 38, pitched for Escogido in the late 80s, and debuted in the majors for the Blue Jays in 1992. He returned this year for seven games with the Jays. Last year, pitching in Puerto Rico, he posted similar impressive numbers, so the Eagles are counting on him to be a rotation anchor until pitchers like Joaquin Benoit, Claudio Vargas, Julian Tavarez, Nelson Cruz and José Acevedo join the club.

Another veteran pitcher having a fine season is the Astros' Peter Munro (Azucareros), 2 -1 with a 1.56 ERA in six starts. Last week Munro threw the only complete-game shutout so far in the league against the Gigantes, at hitter's paradise Julian Javier Stadium.

On the other hand, former major league starter Masato Yoshii has been ineffective pitching for the Estrellas. Yoshii pitched poorly in Japan in the summer, and signed with the Estrellas hoping to attract the attention of some of the dozens of scouts covering the league during November and early December. He's been used as a starter, but after two or three effective innings, he cannot keep the pace the second time through the opposing lineup. Yoshii had his best outing of the season on Tuesday night against Licey, allowing one unearned run in 5.1 innings. He lowered his ERA to 4.34 while pitching more than four innings for the first time in seven starts.

Players of the Week

Royals' IF Mendy Lopez (Cibao Eagles) was elected Player of the Week for Dec. 1-7t. Lopez hit .333 and slugged .762 in 21 at-bats, with six runs scored and six RBI. The pitcher of the week was the Azucareros' Pete Munro, with his five-hit shutout against the Gigantes.

Stats

Veteran reliever and former Devil Ray and Cardinal Esteban Yan is leading the league in ERA (1.04) as a starting pitcher for the Estrellas. Yan is a free agent, hoping for a contract offer from a major league team in the next few days. He's 3-0 and has allowed just 20 hits in 34 innings with a 16/6 K/BB ratio. Yan seems to be enjoying his new role, although it remains to be seen if he can keep his success going. Yan was a starter in the minors with the Braves when he was originally signed.

The Expos' Julio Mañon (Licey) is tied for the league lead in saves with Indians' minor leaguer José Vargas (Cibao Eagles) with 10. Mañon has been the more impressive pitcher with a 1.69 ERA in 21.1 IP, just 10 hits allowed and a 2/21 K/BB ratio. Mañon saved 14 games last season with Edmonton, and in 29.1 IP with the Expos posted a 4.13 ERA.

The Giants' Pedro Feliz (Cibao Giants) is second in the league in batting average with .376, but if you dig deeper, Feliz has walked just four times (his first walk was after 45 AB, making him a Dominican DiSarStar. His two home runs and seven doubles are not particularly impressive considering his home park. San Francisco de Macoris' Julian Javier Stadium is 330 feet down the lines, 355 in the gaps and just 380 to straightaway center. It's also the second highest park in elevation in the country, with Santiago's Estadio Cibao (Eagles) at the highest altitude.

Several Dominican League managers apparently haven't learned the art of lineup construction. Here are the OBPs of some of the players being used as leadoff hitters the last few games: Cristian Guzman (.250), Anton French (.232), Freddy Guzman (.278), Ramón Santiago (.297), and Wilson Valdez (.304). The league continues to favor short, speedy, slap-hitters in the leadoff spot.

Checking In

The Estrellas announced that Dodgers LHP Odalis Perez will make his debut Dec. 16 against the Azucareros in San Pedro de Macoris. Perez joins the list of significant major leaguers that have debuted the last two weeks: Twins SS Cristian Guzman (Licey) started playing Dec. 4; former Rockies closer José Jimenez is expected to debut as a starter today. The Tigres also announced that relievers Felix Rodriguez (Giants) and Guillermo Mota (Dodgers), OF Eric Byrnes (Athletics) and 2B Luis Castillo (Marlins) will make their debuts Dec. 17th against the Aguilas.

Red Sox 1B-DH and (to some delusional people) MVP Candidate David Ortiz joined the Escogido team last week and hit a 450-foot homer in the second game of a doubleheader in San Pedro de Macoris on Monday. Another notable playing with Escogido is Braves SS Rafael Furcal.

Pirates catching prospect J.R. House, OF Ruben Rivera and 1B-OF J.R. Phillips debuted with the Azucareros this week. The Cibao Giants signed former San Francisco Giants center fielder Marvin Benard and Dodgers 1B-OF Daryle Ward. Both are expected to play late this week. The Cibao Eagles signed Giants 1B Damon Minor. The Escogido Lions signed Devil Rays OF Matt Diaz and are expected to sign White Sox catcher Josh Paul.

Checking Out

It seems that former Phillies manager Nick Leyva's road back to a major league managing position will not be preceded by a successful stint in the Dominican League. The Escogido Lions fired Leyva Dec. 5th, after the team's horrible 7-19 start. The Lions had high expectations, handing him one of the league's most talented and deepest rosters, but Leyva was unable to keep things going after a 3-0 start. He criticized his players' desire and discipline in the local press, and was promptly released from his duties after the statements.

Arizona's Chad Tracy left the Azucareros team and will not return. Tracy, who wasn't expected to play the whole season, had some minor injuries but none of them significant. Also leaving the club is Royals' 3B-OF Jarrod Patterson, the best hitter on the team so far with a .324/.398/.405 line.

Licey released former Expos LHP Eric Knott, who was hit hard in his last four starts after a strong performance the first two weeks of the season. LHP Vic Darensbourg will replace Knott on the roster.

Injuries

Mets OF Timo Perez (Licey) is expected to return to action during the weekend after missing most of the last two weeks with an infected nail on one hand. Perez is hitting .308/.372/.359 in 39 at-bats. Cubs RHP Juan Cruz pitched five strong innings on Tuesday night after missing his last two starts with the flu. Cruz allowed two earned runs in five innings, striking out five without a walk against the Estrellas and earning a no-decision.

Phillies OF Jason Michaels returned to Philadelphia after a cut on one of his hands required seven stitches. It was unclear how Michaels injured his hand, and the Escogido Lions said he will not return.

Braves LHP Jung Bong left the Cibao Giants after a mild ankle strain he suffered didn't heal properly. Bong wasn't expected to miss any starts, but never did return after suffering the injury Nov. 8 in San Pedro de Macoris. Another injured and not-returning Brave is OF Ryan Langerhans, arguably the league's best player the first two weeks of the season. Langerhans had knee problem after hitting .400/.467/.600 to start the season.

Former Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Luis Terrero will miss the remainder of the season after being diagnosed with a severe blockage of a vein on his side. Terrero was taking batting practice before a game when his arm suddenly swelled to almost twice its normal size. He was immediately hospitalized and later sent to a Ft. Lauderdale Hospital to receive treatment. Terrero was the Azucareros' every day center fielder, hitting .276/.344/.379 for the season.

For news, updates, and stats from the Dominican Winter League, check out the league's official Web site--the articles are in Spanish, but OBP is still OBP. Carlos Lugo is the TV voice of the Estrellas de Oriente ballclub and has worked for FOX the last five Dominican Winter League seasons broadcasting games. He can be reached at carlosj.lugo@scotiabank.com.

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