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January 9, 2004

Dominican Winter League Report

End of the Regular Season

by Carlos J. Lugo

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One Miracle Short

The long-suffering fans of the Estrellas de Oriente experienced yet another frustration when their ballclub was eliminated for the postseason on the last day of December. The Estrellas were almost out of contention with eight games remaining in the regular season, but suddenly the team caught fire and went on to win five consecutive games, including a both ends of a double-header against the Azucareros on the road, which tied them for fourth place--putting them just one game behind the third place Giants. But the Estrellas were quickly back in fifth place the following day after losing a key game against the Aguilas in Santiago, 10-2, while the Azucareros and Gigantes won their respective ones. The Estrellas needed a victory on their own and a loss from the Azucareros against Licey to force a tiebreaker, but although the former was accomplished (they beat the already qualified Gigantes 14-10) the Azucareros beat Licey 4-0 to clinch the last playoff berth.

The Estrellas had a much better Pythagorean record than the Azucareros (25 projected wins against 20) but the Azucareros benefited from 10 wins in 13 games decided by one run, while the Estrellas had a more realistic 9-9 record on such games.

Wait until next year, and it's now 36 years and counting since the last time the city of San Pedro de Macoris celebrated a championship.

The Second Season

Postseason play started the second day of January, featuring four teams in search of the crown. The Licey Tigers capped a very good month of December (15-8) overtaking the Aguilas for first place, and winning the regular season title with a 30-20 record. In the process, the Tigers stayed in sole possession of the all-time record for consecutive first-place finishes (five) that the Aguilas were attempting to tie this season.

The Aguilas had a poor December with a 10-16 record, and also had an uncharacteristic five-game losing streak during the month. The other two teams on the playoffs are the expansion franchises of Azucareros and Gigantes.

The favorites to make it all the way to the finals are Licey and Aguilas. Both teams have a lot more depth than the two younger clubs, which is key, because the playoff format is a Round Robin of 18 games in 21 days. Each club will play six games against each other, and the teams with the best two records at the end of the schedule will meet in a seven-game final series (without a day off) to decide the champion.

Playoffs Update

After the first five games of the Round Robin, the surprising Cibao Giants are in first place with 4 wins and 1 loss. The Aguilas follows with 3 and 2, Licey is 2 and 3, and Azucareros is 1 and 4.

The Tigers won their first two games, but lost two consecutive against the Aguilas over the weekend, in front of full crowds at Santo Domingo and Santiago. Monday's game at Santiago was a typical classic of these two powerhouses. The Aguilas scored seven runs in the first inning against Randy Keisler and Wilton Chavez, but Licey proceeded to score 10 unanswered runs to take a three-run lead. D'Angelo Jimenez hit a three-run homer off Brett Laxton to crown a five-run rally in the fifth inning, putting the Tigers ahead. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their defense failed miserably in the last two innings, and the Aguilas scored five runs to win the game 12-11. Jimenez went from hero to goat when he botched a groundball for a potential game-ending double play in the ninth, and after a strike out to pinch-hitter Felix Martinez, Victor Diaz followed with a walk-off two-run double off Guillermo Mota to leave the Tigers on the field.

The Tigers have now lost their last three games while the Aguilas have won their last three.

Regular Season All-Star Team

The league doesn't choose an official all-star team at the end of the season, but we will select "our" best by position based on their performance in the regular season.

  • Catcher - Alberto Castillo (Aguilas/S.F. Giants), .245/.342/.294

    You know it was a bad year for catchers when your alternatives are Licey's (and Astros') John Buck (.231/.316/.346) and the veteran Castillo. I choose Castillo based on his superior defensive performance and slight better OBP. But an argument could be made in Buck's favor, as he hit three home runs and three doubles playing in a more difficult hitting environment.

  • First Baseman - Carlos Peña (Licey/Tigers), .291/.378/.515

    Peña had a very good season with the Tigers (the Dominican ones) after skipping winter ball last year. He was second in the league in RBI's with 32, hit six homers and eight doubles, and probably missed the 10 home run mark, and bigger counting stats, because of the cavernous dimensions of the Estadio Quisqueya. Carlos showed a modest improvement in his strike zone judgment (17 walks, 30 strikeouts in 134 at bats) in comparison with his MLB performance, but still not at the levels of his minor league days. As usual, he played a brilliant defensive first-base, and was probably the best defensive player at any position in the league this year. Peña left the Tigers after his marriage, but there's still a chance of him rejoining the club after the first week of January.

  • Second Baseman - D'Angelo Jimenez (Licey/Reds), .360/.485/.500

    D'Angelo enjoyed one of the all-time greatest seasons for a second baseman in the league. Jimenez won the league batting championship, slugged .500 in a severe pitchers' park, and flirted with the single -season OBP mark until a brief slump the last days of the season. In a perfect world, without much emphasis on counting stats and a little understanding of park effects, Jimenez would have won the MVP award, or at least been a strong candidate. He wasn't even mentioned in the discussion.

  • Third Baseman - Pedro Feliz (Gigantes/S.F. Giants), .342/.371/.534

    It was a fine season for Feliz, no doubt, who was never able to meet the high expectations of the Gigantes fans until this season. On the other hand, here are Feliz's home-road splits for the season: .405/.413/.633 at home, .280/.333/.439 on the road. Five of Feliz's seven homers were hit at his home park, which inflated home-run production by an unimaginable 116 percent this season. That's not a typo; the Gigantes and their rivals hit 62 home runs at Julian Javier Stadium and 28 on road games.

  • Shortstop - Angel Berroa (Azucareros/Royals), .289/.366/.392

    The American League Rookie of the Year had a very strong performance in the league after a disappointing previous year. Berroa just played in 26 games, but he joined the team in the middle of a losing streak, and his presence help the club to right the ship and eventually make the playoffs. As in the case of Jimenez and Peña, Angel's offensive stats would be much better if not for his home park, the league's most extreme in favor of pitching. Although Royals' fans will be smiling when they see Angel's OBP, it was product of him being hit by pitches eight times. He just had four unintentional walks in 97 at bats.

  • Outfielder - Abraham Nuñez (Estrellas/Marlins), .292/.404/.562

    A former intriguing prospect, whose future have been affected by injuries and a new birth certificate, Nuñez had by his best season in the league, leading the circuit in homeruns (12), runs scored (35), runs batted-in (36), walks (34), doubles (12), total bases (100) and slugging. Nuñez played a very strong defense in center and right field, if a bit error-prone, and was among the league leaders in assists by an outfielder with six. Along with Jimenez, Nuñez was the logical candidate for the MVP award, although he received much more recognition than the Tigers second baseman. Nuñez hit .341/.451/.588 on the road and .242/.364/.527 at home. Nuñez improved his ability to make contact, with just 26 strikeouts in 178 at bats. He still owns a nice set of skills, and I think he can't do any worse than several fourth outfielders with jobs in the big leagues right now.

  • Outfielder - Julio Ramirez (Gigantes), .299/.333/.542

    The former Angels and White Sox outfielder had a fine season and won the MVP award in a landslide over Estrellas' Abraham Nuñez, 92 votes against 15. Ramirez had good counting stats, leading the league in triples (five) and stolen bases (19), while hitting 10 home runs and appearing among the leaders in doubles, runs scored, RBIs and batting average. His defense was very good, as expected.

    Unfortunately, the voters ignored (had no idea, actually) the context where Ramirez accumulated those shiny totals, also confused "offensive diversity" with "offensive efficiency" and robbed Abraham Nuñez, and arguably D'Angelo Jimenez, of the award. Ramirez hit .326/.376/.640, with eight homers at his home park, and .275/.292/.451 on the road. His mediocre OBP should have removed him from the discussion, from the beginning, and when you see the truth behind the splits, it's depressing.

  • Outfielder - Rich Gomez (Gigantes/Padres), .331/.394/.444

    A case could be made for Alex Fernandez (Aguilas/Padres) to be selected on this spot, mostly because Gomez's home/road splits are as dramatic as his other teammates. But Gomez had a much better OBP, and was third in batting average. Adjusting for context it could be a wash between the two, though.

  • Designated Hitter - Angel Peña (Gigantes/FA), .284/.374/.547

    The former Dodgers' prospect flirted with the single-season homerun mark until the middle of December, before finishing with 11, three short of the mark. Peña played a few games as a catcher and first-baseman, making him a valuable and mildly versatile asset to manager Miguel Dilone. As expected, his park inflated Peña's power numbers but his batting average and OBP were almost identical in both home and the road. He was second in rbi's (32), fourth in runs scored (30) and second in homeruns.

  • Starting Pitcher - Rafael Soriano (Escogido/Mariners), 1 -1 - 0.21 ERA in seven starts

    Sure, Esteban Yan and Robert Ellis won more games (5), Doug Linton pitched more innings and had a 1.48 ERA, and Juan Cruz had arguably the best stuff in the league. But, what do you do with a 0.21 ERA? Ignore it? If a pitcher's job is to prevent the other team from scorint runs, nobody was better than Soriano this season. As we mentioned in a previous report, his strikeout-to-walk ratio should have been better, considering his superior stuff, but the guy allowed just 19 hits and TWO extra-base hits in 42.1 innings pitched. It wasn't his teammates either, as he pitched in front of the league's worst defense according to defensive efficiency ratings. The Lions featured one of the worst offensive groups in the history of the league, scoring just 3.3 runs per game. With an average offense, defense, and bullpen, the guy should have won at least four games.

    In the end, Soriano was 0.006 runs short of the single-season ERA record established by Bartolo Colón in the 1996-97 season. Colón allowed one earned run (four in total) in 43.2 innings pitched for a 0.206 ERA, a slightly better mark than Soriano's 0.212 this season.

    Relief Pitcher - José Vargas (Aguilas/Indians), 22.2 Innings, 2.38 ERA, 13 saves, 21 K

    Former Expo Julio Mañón was much more difficult to hit, but was ineffective the last two weeks of the season, and allowed five home runs, not a good number for a closer. Vargas got the nod because Mañón's peripherals deteriorated in the two aforementioned weeks--but if given a choice, I'd rather have Mañón when he was pitching his best baseball, even though Vargas is the one with some future in the big leagues.

Awards

The league's official awards were as follows:

    MVP: Julio Ramirez (Gigantes)
    Pitcher of the Year: Esteban Yan (Estrellas)
    Rookie of the Year: Victor Diaz (Aguilas/Mets)
    Manager of the Year: Manny Acta (Licey/Expos)

About the MVP selection we talked a few paragraphs above. Yan won the award based mostly on his 5-0 record, reliability (league leading 65 IP) and effectiveness (2.22 ERA). He wasn't the best starting pitcher in the league--that was Soriano--but you just knew the voters weren't going to give the award to a pitcher with just one win, minuscule ERA or not.

The rookie selection was fine; Diaz had a strong finish and had the better numbers. If the Cubs would have let Felix Pié keep playing, he was a strong candidate, but they believed the kid needed rest to be ready for the summer and shut him down for the winter. Another candidate should have been Andy Marte, but his manager kept juggling him in and out of the lineup, eventually benching him, and hurting his performance in the process.

The most controversial award was the Manager of the Year. Acta, the Montréal Expos third-base coach, beat Gigantes' Miguel Dilone by a single vote. Dilone was very upset and accused the Santo Domingo-based media of comspiring against him to give the award to Acta, who manages a team from Santo Domingo. Dilone supporters argued that he led a team with much less talent than the Tigers to the playoffs. On the other hand, Acta led the Tigers to first place, and managed to win ballgames early in the season with young players like Erick Aybar, José Bautista, Felix Pié, Tony Blanco and Felix Díaz. From the tactical standpoint, Acta seemed to take more advantage from his bench and bullpen, because the Tigers led the league in come-from-behind wins.

Given a choice, I'll go with Acta. He handled brilliantly a difficult situation with a lot of personnel for just nine positions, kept the clubhouse together, and the team afloat when many key players were lost to injuries, and in-general outmanaged his rivals in the majority of games I watched. Dilone was a good candidate, but Acta was better Managers with good teams are condemned to be ignored in this award, anywhere.

Prospects

White Sox LHP Arnaldo Muñoz had one of the most valuable pitching seasons in league's history last year (2002-03) for the Aguilas when he won four games without a loss, had an ERA of 1.55, saved four games and posted 77 strikeouts to 11 walks ratio in just 40.2 innings pitched. Muñoz appeared in 20 games, and was the vivid example of what sabermetrically inclined people like us, would call a valuable reliever. The left-handed threw a virtually unhittable curveball, with perfect command, and a solid fastball to setup the curve.

Unfortunately, that heavy workload (Muñoz also pitched around 70 innings in the minor leagues in 2002) had a negative effect on the diminutive lefty this calendar year. Muñoz overcame a very difficult start at Charlotte with a better second half, but his performance in general was a disappointment. Many analysts, including myself, thought that Muñoz was ready to compete for a spot in the Sox' bullpen after his dominant winter. It didn't happen at all, and it's pretty obvious that fatigue has limited Muñoz effectiveness in 2004.

His performance this winter has not been at the same level of last year. The White Sox, understandably, limited Muñoz participation this year, and in 14 innings pitched, Muñoz posted a 4.50 ERA, with 19 strikeouts, seven walks, and 13 hits allowed. Not bad numbers at all, but definitely not great. Muñoz has missed the last two weeks with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand, but is expected to return to action sometime in the next week.

OF-Alex Fernandez (Aguilas/Padres) hit .320/.348/.408, with five doubles, two home runs and 20 RBIs in his first chance as a regular player this season. Fernandez failed to qualify for the batting championship--where he would have finished fifth--by just two plate appearances. As it happens with many Dominican players, strike zone judgment is Fernandez main weakness, as he drew just three unintentional walks in 125 at bats.

Rangers OF prospect Ramón Nivar hit .293/.322/.366 in 19 games for Escogido. Nivar joined the Lions after his stint in the Arizona Fall League, and had a very solid start in the league. But as the Lions were slipping out of contention, Nivar´s offense suffered leaving him with solid, but not impressive numbers. Nivar walked just twice in 82 at bats, not the kind of performance the OBP-challenged Lions needed from his leadoff man.

Red Sox' top-prospect SS-Hanley Ramirez hit just .182/.182/.227 in limited action (nine games and 22 at bats) with Licey. Ramirez defense was also inconsistent, as he committed 3 errors in 25 chances. Ramirez is still very young and inexperienced to be successful in the league, but he could enter in the picture next year, probably fighting the position with Erick Aybar (Angels).

Stats

  • OF-Julio Ramirez (Gigantes) missed by one stolen base the chance to become the first player in league's history with 10 home runs and 20 steals in the same season. Ramirez joined the exclusive 10-10 group (home runs-steals) with former Negro Leagues player 1B-Alonzo Perry (Licey, 1953), former AL MVP George Bell (Azucareros, 1983-84) and Adrian Beltré (Aguilas, 1998-99).

  • Cuban LHP-Raul Valdez (Gigantes) led the league in strikeouts with 46, beating Orioles prospect Denny Bautista and veteran LHP Rafael Roque, both with 40. Valdez was an amateur pitcher in Cuba and is still unsigned for organized baseball. He was given a chance during the Gigantes training camp, and eventually made the club. He's not very young, probably close to 30, and is mostly a finesse lefty with a big curveball.

  • OF-Felix José (Estrellas-FA) hit 4 home runs this season giving him 53 on his career, six behind the all-time mark held by former NL batting champion Rico Carty. José had his worst season in four years, and is one of the reasons the Estrellas missed the playoffs by just one game.

  • The Estrellas (25-25-1 tie) became the first team in league's history to play .500 or better ball and miss the playoffs.

Checking In

Licey signed C-Brandon Marsters (Twins), and LHP's Randy Choate (Expos) and Randy Keisler (Padres). RHP-Felix Rodriguez (Giants) is expected to join the club during the weekend. Rodriguez debut has been postponed twice. 2B-Luis Castillo (Marlins) will rejoin the club Friday.

Aguilas signed RHP´s Mike Garcia and Brett Laxton, and OF-Shawn Garrett (Pirates). 3B-Tony Batista (Expos) joined the club the last day of the regular season. Batista, a key figure in the Aguilas success the last eight years, is a little overweight and out of shape.

The Azucareros revamped their import players group releasing C-J.R. House (Pirates), OF-Ruben Rivera and 1B-J.R. Phillips, they immediately signed 1B-OF Andy Barkett, OF-Darryl Brinkley, OF-Kevin Grijak and RHP-Pat Mahomes (Pirates). OF-José Guillen (Angels) joined the club for the last two games of the season, and was a key factor in those two games, which resulted in wins that pushed the Azucareros into the postseason. Unfortunately, Guillen was hit in his surgically repaired left hand in the ninth inning of the first game of the playoffs (by Licey's Julio Mañon) and was immediately ordered to stop playing by the Angels. Guillen will not return to action. The Angels, as it's been customary the last few years, also denied the permission to play to RHP's Ramón Ortiz (Licey) and Bartolo Colón (Aguilas).

The Gigantes signed OF-Matt Cepicky (Expos) and veteran RHP-Jim Bullinger, but will be without the services of SS-2B José Reyes (Mets). The Mets choose to work on Reyes' move to second base at their facilities in the country and a mini-camp he will attend in Florida.

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@codetel.net.do.

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