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February 5, 2004

Dominican Winter League Report

Road to the Finals

by Carlos J. Lugo

The Little Giants and the Road to the Finals

In our last report, the Round Robin playoffs were in the first week of action and the surprising Cibao Gigantes led the pack with a 4 and 1 record, with the weakening Azucareros in last place with a reversed record of 1 and 4. Meanwhile, the heavily-favored Aguilas and Licey were 3-2 and 2-3 respectively, but both were seemingly moving in opposite directions at the time. The Aguilas had won their last two games against Licey, and Licey had lost their last three, looking flat on the field and on the verge of a prolonged losing streak.

But on January 9th, second baseman Luis Castillo (Marlins) rejoined the club and D'Angelo Jimenez (Reds) was moved to shortstop for the injured Cristian Guzman (Twins), and that night Licey started a nine-game winning streak that virtually catapulted the team to the final series. The streak tied the longest in the history of the Round Robin playoffs, also established by Licey in 1998. The team had solid offensive performances from Eric Byrnes (Athletics) (.375/.434/.563, and a new playoff record 20 RBI), José Offerman (.338/.423/.500), Castillo (.442 OBP), Jimenez (.403 OBP), Timo Perez (Mets), Izzy Alcantara, and at the end of the series, Carlos Peña (Tigers) and Henry Rodriguez, each hitting key home runs in the middle of the winning streak.

On the pitching side, José Jimenez (Indians) won his four starts with a 1.13 ERA, Vladimir Nuñez (Rockies) had a 1.35 ERA in 21 innings, and veteran Rafael Roque was moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation and didn't allow a single run in two starts. These three pitchers were key, because the Tigers lost Juan Cruz (Cubs) after just two starts with an injured non-throwing hand, and Salomón Torres (Pirates), who battled a severe case of the flu, and managed to pitch just two innings in the semifinals.

On the other side of the spectrum were the Azucareros del Este. The odds for a team to repeat historically poor performances in two consecutive samples must be very small--more so if the team isn't that horrible on paper in the first place--but incredibly, it happened to the Azucareros once again. The team from La Romana established all kind of negative records in the history of the Round Robin format, when they had a 1-16 and a tie game record in 2002, losing their final fourteen games. The story was painfully similar this year as well. The team won their second game of the series against the Aguilas, and then lost their next sixteen games in a row to break their own mark.

Once again the Azucareros had a lot of bad breaks, José Guillen (Angels) left the club after the first game for differences regarding his contract, Amaury Telemaco (Phillies) was never heard of again after the regular season ended, and Antonio Alfonseca (Braves) pitched in one game and also disappeared without explanation. Another problem for the Azucareros was the fact that their third wave of imported players (OFs Kevin Grijak and Darryl Brinkley, Andy Barkett and Rick Krivda) did not fulfill expectations.

With a team out of competition since the very beginning, and other with one foot into the finals, the attention focused on the two Cibao teams, Aguilas and Gigantes, battling for one spot to the final series. The Aguilas were the logical favorites, being the most experienced, talented and successful team of the two, but the young Gigantes proved to be a tough competitor for the defending champions.

The Aguilas had the extraordinary Miguel Tejada (Orioles)--selected the MVP of the playoffs, this time deservedly, after hitting .382/.468/.750 with six homers, a new playoff record--but you could see that this was not your typical Aguilas team. The bullpen in particular was a huge question mark, lacking reliable arms for the middle and setup roles, and suffering the absence of Arnaldo Muñoz (White Sox), who missed most of the series with a strained left index finger. Since the Aguilas rotation was now on the shoulders of big-name starters like Claudio Vargas (Expos), Julian Tavarez (Cardinals) and Joaquin Benoit (Rangers), the bullpen was critical because none of those pitchers were expected to go more than five or six innings per start. Unfortunately for the Aguilas, Vargas was the only of this group to pitch effectively, and Doug Linton--their best starter of the regular season--struggled with a sore lower back, and also was ineffective.

The Gigantes transformed themselves during the playoffs into a team heavily dependent on pitching and defense. As expected, the batting average oriented offense of the Gigantes was unable to sustain the success of the regular season, and the team went from scoring 5.5 runs to just 4.1 in the playoffs. Great slumps from Pedro Feliz (Giants), Julio Ramirez and Angel Peña affected the offensive production, but fortunately for the Gigantes, Marvin Benard, Rich Gomez, Wilson Valdez, Matt Cepicky and Andy Tracy all hit very well in the series, saving the offense from a complete collapse.

But the big story was on the pitching side, particularly the bullpen, was that the top 10 pitchers combined for a 1.40 ERA in more than 80 relief innings. The big names were RHP's Bartolomé Fortunato (Devil Rays), José Parra, Leoncio Estrella (Brewers), Dario Veras and former major-leaguer Jim Bullinger (four wins and 2.19 ERA in six games); Benito Baez and Juan Perez from the left side. As for the starting rotation, RHPs Beltran Perez (Diamondbacks), Aquilino Lopez (Blue Jays) and 19-year-old Adriano Rosario (Diamondbacks) all had ERAs of 2.11 or better. The young team, managed by Miguel Dilone, became the darlings of the local media because they played good defense, had good pitching and used a lot of one-run strategies.

Things got interesting when Licey lost two consecutive games against both Aguilas and Gigantes with just two games left to play, the Tigers big advantage in the standings was reduced to two and one games in relation to Aguilas and Gigantes respectively. But the Tigers went to Santiago and beat the Aguilas 4-2 clinching their spot for the finals, while at the same time the Gigantes beat the Azucareros as expected. The Aguilas faced themselves in a must-win situation for the next night against the Gigantes, just to force a tiebreaker game.

A record crowd filled San Francisco de Macoris' Julian Javier Stadium for the most important game in the history of the young franchise. The game itself was full of contradictions, since this used to be a city where almost everybody rooted for the Aguilas, the city stadium was named after a long-time Aguilas hero, the team's president (Stan Javier) played all his life for the Aguilas and Dilone, and the manager is the most recognizable icon in the history of the Aguilas. The Gigantes live under the Aguilas' shadow, but this time they had the chance to escape from that, and advance a step in the search of their own identity.

Young Adriano Rosario started the game for the Gigantes, but he was working on an 80-pitch limit imposed by the Diamondbacks organization, and was gone after four innings with the Aguilas leading 1-0. In the meantime, Aguilas starter Joaquin Benoit was cruising after the first four innings, until the bottom of the fifth, when after two outs, Benoit walked one batter and allowed a bloop single, and then Marvin Benard hit a three-run homer over the right field wall to give his team a lead they wouldn't lose. Bullinger and Fortunato, combined with lefties Juan Perez and Francisco Ozuna, bridged the game through closer José Parra who saved the victory and picked up the first ticket to the finals for the Gigantes.

For the Aguilas it was a bitter pill to swallow, since then again they missed the opportunity for sole possession of the championships leader board, where they were tied at the moment with Licey, 17 flags a piece.

The Final Series

The Gigantes' Cinderella story received an early midnight call when the inspired men of Miguel Dilone collided against the Licey juggernaut. The league officials had to push the beginning of the series back one day to January 23rd, because of the announced national strike that took place on the 28th and 29th. The lack of rest was particularly troublesome for the Gigantes, whose bullpen was overworked and had the rotation in disarray after the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Blue Jays organizations imposed usage restrictions to Ramon Ramirez, Adriano Rosario and Aquilino Lopez, neither of whom were going to be available for the series first two games.

In the first game Cuban lefty Raul Valdez, an emergency starter, baffled the Tigers bats the first six innings, and the Gigantes touched Rafael Roque for two runs. But the Gigantes bullpen showed the first sign of fatigue when the Tigers tied the game in the bottom of the eight, and in the bottom of the ninth, Henry Rodriguez drove in the winning run with a single of lefty Francisco Ozuna to finish the game 3-2.

The series moved north to San Francisco the following night and this time it was the Licey's bullpen turn to blow a one-run lead after starter Salomón Torres left after five innings. But once again the tired Gigantes pen couldn't hold a two-run lead when Izzy Alcantara hit his second two-run homer of the game to seal the win for Licey.

In the third game the Gigantes once again took an early lead to lose it eventually when Licey scored five runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to open the game early and win it by score of 12 to 5. This was Henry Rodriguez return to his past glory, with two home runs a single, five runs batted in, four scored and two walks.

A cavalcade of Licey fans drove north to San Francisco with hundreds of brooms with blue (the Tigers identifying color) flags tied in search of the sweep. But starter José Jimenez couldn't hold on a 3-0 early lead and the Gigantes avoided the sweep with an 8-6 victory, forcing the series back again to Santo Domingo.

The Diamondbacks gave permission to right-handed Adriano Rosario to start the fifth game, again on an 80-pitch limit, but the last hope of the Gigantes couldn't even make an out when Licey scored seven runs in the very first inning to start the championship celebrations of the nation's most followed team very early in the night. The series-ending game finished 11-3 in Licey's favor, giving the Tigers their 18th Championship, the most in league's history.

Prospects

Several young players played key roles in the Gigantes first appearance in the final series, the most notable being young RHP-Adriano Rosario (Diamondbacks). Rosario started to get noticed after his first start of the season against Escogido in the middle of November, pitching six-scoreless innings allowing just two singles and a walk, striking out four and getting the win. Rosario finished the season with a record of 4-4, 2.93 ERA in 40 innings, 23 strikeouts, with 32 hits and seven walks allowed. During the semifinals Rosario's ERA was 1.35 in 20 IP, with 12 hits allowed, although his K/BB ratio was mediocre.

Rosario is listed as a 19-year old, and he pitched very well in 2003 in the Midwest league. He does have a live fastball, with a solid breaking pitch and showed exceptional command of his pitches during the whole year. Rosario has a good feel for pitching and shows good maturity on the mound. Rosario's success resulted in 220 innings pitched between A ball and the Dominican league in less than a calendar year, which is why the D'Backs organization limited his pitch counts to 80, but probably a little too late in the playoffs since he just made two more starts after the Snakes officials order.

Other interesting pitcher was Devil Rays' RHP-Bartolomé Fortunato. Fortunato struckout more than one batter per inning between Double-A and Triple-A, and in the winter had a 3.05 ERA in 20.2 relief innings, striking out 25 and allowing just 16 hits and seven walks. Fortunato was even better during the Round Robin where he didn't allowed an earned run in 13.2 IP, allowing just three hits and five walks, while striking out 11. Like Rosario, Fortunato has a live fastball, but less refined command, even though he's a more advanced pitcher.

Finally, SS-Wilson Valdez (Marlins) was an important piece in the Gigantes infield with his solid defensive play. Valdez didn't figure in the early season plans of the Gigantes because they were supposed to have Mets' phenom José Reyes, but the young shortstop made the most of the opportunity hitting .298 in the regular season, .328 in the Semifinals and .353 in the final series. Valdez offensive game consists basically of contact hitting, since he doesn't have much power or draw walks, but he doesn't strike out excessively either. His calling card is his defensive game as he shows good range to both sides with a strong and accurate throwing arm. Valdez could have a chance as a utility infielder in the majors if he keeps making contact and hitting for a decent batting average as he did last summer in Double-A and Triple-A.

Coming Back?

While the Gigantes had important contributions from several young players, the Tigers got some help from a few veteran players looking to return to organized baseball. José Offerman hit .276/.347/.390 in 28 games during the regular season, but he was hitting much better until a slump in the final week. When the semifinals started Offerman's bat returned and he was a key member of the Tigers impressive top of the lineup, hitting .338/.423/.500, and playing adequate defense at first base until Carlos Peña returned from his honeymoon. Offerman baserunning was also very good, although he doesn't have the speed of years ago. His offensive game still has the same virtues of years ago--good plate discipline and solid contact--and he's hitting for a little more power now than in the past. Offerman is in very good physical shape, and if a team could live with his defensive shortcomings, he's not a bad gamble as a bench player.

Perhaps the most unexpected comeback has been Henry Rodriguez's. Rodriguez had been out of baseball for almost a year and a half, and almost everybody was skeptical when he showed up in the Tigers' pre-season training camp trying to compete for a job. The former Expo and Cub was clearly overweight and out of shape and he couldn't even made the team for the season opener, even though there are many spots available early in the season. Licey's manager Manny Acta acted very politely regarding Rodriguez, and refused to discard the possibility of him joining the club later, saying that he just need more time to get back in shape.

The season went on for Licey and Rodriguez wasn't even mentioned in conversations regarding the team, and when the outfielder finally appeared at the end of the season, people thought it was just a good gesture from Acta and the Tigers' front office to let him play a few unimportant games. As expected Rodriguez looked overmatched, hitting just .200/.273/.550 in 20 at-bats, and the line wasn't worse because he had a two-homer game at friendly Julian Javier Stadium.

When the playoffs started manager Acta surprised everybody when he named Rodriguez his everyday leftfielder, but at the end Acta was right because Rodriguez was useful in the playoffs, hitting 3 home runs, two of them in key games, and had an incredible Final Series hitting .579 with two home runs, eight runs batted in, a double and four walks. As expected, Henry was named the series MVP.

There's no doubt that Henry is in much better physical shape than two years ago, and according to him, his troublesome back is not bothering him for the first time in the last few years. He showed good power during the post-season with five homeruns in 18 games played, and his pitch recognition and plate discipline during that time was the best I've seen in him. The big question is if his post-season heroics are going to attract the interest of major league teams. As with Offerman, Rodriguez is not a bad gamble as a non-roster invitee for a team looking for some cheap left-handed bat, with the ability to play leftfield and first base.

In Rodriguez case (and probably in Offerman's too) you have to give credit to manager Manny Acta, who was probably the only person that believed, seriously, that Oh Henry! Was going to be useful for a team with such depth as Licey.

Stats and Notes from the Postseason

  • Licey's infield defense went from a weakness to strength in the playoffs. The presence of 2B-Luis Castillo and 1B-Carlos Peña gave the champions the best right-side of the league, and Ronnie Belliard (Indians) played a brilliant defensive third base, making incredible plays almost daily. The last piece to solidify the infield defense came in an unexpected form, when Cristian Guzman (Twins) couldn't play nursing a sore throwing shoulder and Acta chose to return D'Angelo Jimenez to his original position of shortstop.

    It was a gutsy move, because Jimenez has a bad reputation as a defensive player, but ironically, Jimenez played strong defense back at short giving the Tigers a much better solution than Guzman, who played poor defense in his brief stint, and has never been much of a hitter in the league.

  • Several records were tied or broken in the semifinals this year. Miguel Tejada established a new home run record with six, and Eric Byrnes a new RBI record with 20. From a team standpoint, Licey tied its own mark of consecutive wins with nine, and the Azucareros lost 16 in a row breaking also its own mark of 14.

    In the final series, Izzy Alcantara and Henry Rodriguez became just the second and third players in history to hit two home runs in a finals game. Alcantara hit two in the second game of the series at Julian Javier stadium and Rodriguez repeated the feat the next day at Santo Domingo's Quisqueya Stadium. The only player before to hit two home runs in a finals game was Ricardo Joseph, who did it twice, in the 1960 and 1964 Finals playing for Estrellas and Escogido.

  • Tony Batista (Expos) and Raul Mondesi were two great disappointments for the Aguilas in the postseason. Batista, the semifinals all-time homerun leader, was visibly overweight and out of shape, and hit just .191/.295/.235 with three extra-base hits--all doubles--in 68 at bats. Batista's defense was also problematic in the series, in particular his range and slow reactions.

    Mondesí, on the other hand, did one of his typical "unexpected debuts" in a game against Licey at Santo Domingo, but just played two more games and went 1 for 11. Although Mondesi--still a free agent--looked in good shape, he never returned to the Aguilas lineup the rest of the series. Team officials' said that Mondesí was "severely affected" by flu-like symptoms and was unable to play. He was expected to rejoin the club for the deciding game against the Gigantes, but never arrived to the stadium.

  • The Gigantes established a new all-time mark for collective home runs in a single season with 54--37 of which were hit at their homer-friendly home park--but just managed to hit seven in the 18-game Round Robin, tied for the lowest total with the depleted Azucareros.

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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