December 22, 2003
Dominican Winter League Report
Down the Stretch They Come
Small Market Blues
With just eight games left on the schedule, the Dominican Winter League is entering in the final and decisive stretch to decide which four teams are going to the playoffs beginning January 2nd. Two teams are already in: the Licey Tigers and the Cibao Eagles and three others are fighting for the final two spots. Two-and-a-half games separate the Giants, Toros and Estrellas, yet the Estrellas are at a marked disadvantage.
Before the season started, there were signals that the team from San Pedro de Macoris was working with a different agenda than the other five ballclubs. Most of their foreign players were from the Japanese League (Masato Yoshii, Takahito Nomura and Brian Mallette) or the Taiwanese League (Jeff Andra). Only three played the whole summer in organized baseball: Greg Bauer, Koyie Hill and J.D. Closser. The clear motives for this curious strategy were economic, as the ballclub was not in the same financial position as the two previous seasons, when their payroll was almost at the same level of the big-market clubs in Santo Domingo and Santiago.
When the exchange rate crisis exploded in mid-November (the U.S. dollar value went from 23 Dominican pesos to 45) the team had to fire the manager and the pitching coach (the Dodgers' Dino Ebel and Mark Brewer) and two imported players to balance the budget. Since then, the team has been playing with just five, and sometimes four, imported players (of seven)--something that has been a huge disadvantage. What's more incredible is that a team with just three or four above-average offensive players and a suspect bullpen is still in the race to make the playoffs.
In happier news, the league's two powerhouses (Licey and Aguilas) are now tied for first place after a six-game winning streak for Licey and a five-game losing streak for the Aguilas erased the five-and-a-half games difference between them. And yt, winning the regular season and finishing in first place doesn't mean anything at all because of the playoffs format, which is a long, 18-game round robin between four clubs. Nevertheless, the Aguilas are trying to break the all-time mark of consecutive years finishing in first place (five), which they now share with their hated rival Licey.
The Lion (Offense) Sleeps Tonight
Once again the most underachiving team in the league is the Escogido Lions. The Lions, one of the league's big market clubs, have a deep roster and some well-established major league players like David Ortiz and Rafael Furcal, but for the second time in three years are not going to qualify for the playoffs.
For more than a decade the team has been the early-season favorite of the media, but even though they've been able to play in several finals (three in the last six years) the ultimate prize has eluded them.
The Lions' strategy for this season was very dubious. For the first time in years, their mid-level talent (the guys who play until the big-leaguers are ready) is not that good, particularly on offense. Unfortunately they were not able to identify this problem, and suddenly their offense was leaning on the shoulders of guys like Wilton Veras, Juan Uribe, Ramon Santiago, Abraham Nuñez, Amado German, Elpidio Guzman and Rule 5ers Enrique Cruz and José Morban. The fact that their imported players, Jamie Burke, Keith McDonald, Henri Stanley and Scott Hodges were unable to produce offensively didn't help either. By the time the big guys like Ortiz, Furcal and Neifi Perez (I'm not joking, somehow he's been useful in this league) came to the rescue, it was too late.
In the end the Lions put on the field one of the worst offenses in league's history, scoring at the time of this writing, just 3.3 runs per game. Although that's not one of the ten or fifteen worst figures in history, we must take into account that the average team score around 3.3 to 3.6 RPG the seasons where the negative records were established. This year the average team is scoring around 4.4 RPG, a big difference in context.
The time is passing for those players trying to break the all-time single-season home run mark of 14. A new name has entered into the race; former Dodgers' farmhand Angel Peña (Cibao Giants) has joined Abraham Nuñez (Marlins-Estrellas) and Guillermo Garcia in their quest. Each player has 11 homers with eight more games to play. Angel Peña has the advantage of playing half his games (four more) at hitters' paradise Julian Javier Stadium, and if anyone has a chance, it's him. History is not in any of these players side. The last few years three players had much better projections and only one of them--Freddy Garcia--was able to catch Dick Stuart's 14 home runs.
Another player distancing himself from an all-time mark, highest on-base percentage (.508), is D'Angelo Jimenez (Reds-Licey). Jimenez has slumped a little in the last eight games and his numbers have dropped to .360/.485/.500. Still, only eight players in history have posted OBPs above .480, and Jimenez has a great chance to join that exclusive list. Jimenez will probably be a victim of the media's failure to recognize context in evaluating a player's performance. The race for the league's MVP is now between Estrellas outfielder Abraham Nuñez (11 HR, 28 RBIs), Licey 1B Carlos Peña (6 HR, 29 RBI) and Giants 1B-DH-C Angel Peña (11 HR, 31 RBI's) and 3B Pedro Feliz (.356 BA, 6 HR, 20 RBI). The last two plays half their games at the aforementioned Julian Javier Stadium, and have taken a big advantage of their park. Jimenez, on the other hand, plays half his games at the league's second most extreme pitchers' park, and will probably going to be completely ignored by the voters.
IF Victor Diaz (Mets-Aguilas) is hitting .303/.330/.424 with nine doubles in 99 at-bats, but his strike-zone judgment has been very poor (three walks and 27 strikeouts). Cincinnati OF Wily Mo Peña performance as a whole has been very disappointing. Peña is hitting just .198/.247/.242 in 29 games and 91 AB. Obviously, he's having a lot of troubles recognizing pitches (4 BB/28 Ks) and even the few times he's been able to make contact, the result has been a bunch of singles. Peña has only two extra-base hits, a double and a homer. Not the kind of numbers the Reds fans would like to see.
Newly acquired Expo RHP Wilton Chavez has a 2.89 ERA in 28 innings for Licey, with only four walks. His other peripheral numbers are not that impressive, though: Chavez has allowed 31 hits and struck out just 17 in those 28 innings. He's been pitching in long-relief and as a spot starter for manager Manny Acta.
White Sox' RHP Felix Diaz has a 2.31 ERA as a starter for Licey in 27 Innings and has showed the good command that characterized him this past summer in Triple-A. Diaz has walked five with 16 strikeouts with 19 hits allowed. Diaz missed three starts with minor injuries, and returned to the rotation this week.
Mariners' RHP Rafael Soriano finally allowed his first earned run of the season last Saturday against the Aguilas. Soriano had his worst start of the season, lasting less than three innings against the Aguilas. He left the bases loaded with just one out, but the bullpen was able to strand the inherited runners, so Soriano's ERA didn't suffered much damage. His ERA is now 0.25, and the all-time mark is 0.21 by Bartolo Colón. Soriano has actually pitch poorly his last two starts, but the other one was at the Interleague All-Star Game played in Puerto Rico. In our first article we noted that Soriano's K/BB ratio was not that impressive considering his perfect ERA. Well, is gotten worse. Soriano now has a 14/20 BB/K ratio in 35.1 innings pitched. I think is just a fluke, but is worth noting that it hasn't really improved at all.
Koyie Hill would probably not be the Dodgers' catcher of the future after all. The Estrellas released Hill after hitting a horrible .149/ .194/ .299 in 87 at-bats. Hill, a notorious streaky hitter in the minors, was on a cold streak all the time for the Estrellas, and his defense wasn't stellar either, as Hill had problems controlling the running game.
Rule 5 Players
Four players selected in the recent Rule 5 draft are playing in the Dominican League, but the one with most playing time has been José Bautista is hitting .280/.341/.341, in 82 at-bats for Licey. OF Luis Polonia, one of the best players in league's history, is hitting .299/.371/.408 in 157 at-bats for the Aguilas. Polonia has not played in any league during the summer for two years in a row now, and somehow has been able to stay in shape and be productive in the winter. Last season, one that was supposed to be the end of the diminutive outfielder, he answered his critics by hitting .305/.366/.414 in the regular season, .484/.515/.641 in the round robin playoffs, and .308/.550/.615 in the finals. But, as it was last season, still no major-league club has expressed interest in sign Polonia.
OF Ruben Rivera is off to a .094/ .216/ .188 start in 32 at-bats with the Azucareros. Another veteran outfielder with a poor start is Cibao Giants Marvin Benard (.158/ .261/ .211) in his first 19 at-bats.
New Orioles shortstop and former AL MVP Miguel Tejada debuted last Saturday for the Aguilas. Tejada went 0-for-4 and scored in a run, the first earned run allowed by Rafael Soriano in the season. As expected, several major leaguers also debuted last week : LHP Odalis Perez (Dodgers-Estrellas), 2B Luis Castillo (Licey-Marlins), OF Eric Byrnes (Licey-Athletics), LHP Damaso Marte (White Sox-Estrellas), RHP José Jimenez (FA-Licey), RHP Guillermo Mota (Licey-Dodgers) and RHP Julian Tavarez (Aguilas-FA).
3B Tony Batista (FA) and RHP Claudio Vargas (Expos) are expected to play on Monday for the Aguilas and RHP Felix Rodriguez (Giants-Licey) will pitch also for Licey on Monday night.
Royals OF Dee Brown joined the Azucareros last week, and the team from La Romana also signed former Orioles' LHP Rick Krivda and Royals RHP Nate Field. The Estrellas signed former A's OF Doug Jennings and Rangers C Danny Ardoin, they're expected to join the club on Monday.
The Estrellas released Japanese pitcher Masato Yoshii and catcher Koyie Hill. Azucareros' RHP Peter Munro left the team for personal reasons after being their most-effective starter (2-1-1.43 ERA in 37 innings) the Azucareros also released Rockies OF Luke Allen, their MVP last season, who was hitting just .232/.320/.321. Licey released veteran LHP Bobby M. Jones and Escogido released most of their imported players still with the team, OF Henri Stanley, 3B Scott Hodges, C Keith McDonald, LHP Derek Lee and LHP Lance Davis.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.