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November 11, 2004
Dominican Winter League Report
The Early Going
The Dominican Winter League launched its 51st season after a summer characterized by several uncertainties, a product of the difficult economic situation in the country. Looking for ways to lower costs, the league decided to reduce the limit on foreign players per team from seven to five. At the same time, only Dominican umpires will be used in the games, and the typical four American umpires from the high minor leagues will not be employed, at least for the time being.
The most bizarre offseason saga involved one of the league's charter franchises, the one that plays in the most-recognized baseball town outside the United States, the Estrellas de Oriente from San Pedro de Macoris. The president of the team, Dr. Carlos J. Musa, said that its share of the revenue pool from the league marketing contract wasn't enough to operate the ballclub without losing a significant amount of money. He was implying that the team was pretty much bankrupt. When a plan to sell the ballclub to one of its vice presidents--a very wealthy businessman--failed, the league decided to "adopt" the franchise from San Pedro de Macorís and operate it in a way that resembles the Expos/MLB situation.
At this point, the future of the franchise is in question, if not in jeopardy. It's unlikely that the league is going to operate the club indefinitely, as MLB did with the Expos, so the alternatives are that Musa, or the group he represents, finds enough financial flexibility to operate the club again; that the club "recess" the next season; or that new investors acquire the ballclub. There were rumors last week that two different groups of investors are interested, one of them led by Sammy Sosa.
In what has become a yearly event, the Aguilas are again dominating the early part of the schedule, pretty much locking up a playoff berth in just the second week of November. They lost their first game of the season against their hated rivals Licey, then proceeded to win ten in a row until the Tigres once again defeated them on the sixth, 8-7, in the first game televised live to the U.S. by ESPN Deportes. As of today, their lead is five games over the surprising Estrellas.
Run prevention has been the key for the Aguilas, with excellent performances from both their rotation and bullpen. Former Astro and Rockie Nelson Cruz has a 0.95 ERA in four starts, with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 19 innings. Juan Pena and Mike Nannini have contributed strong outings. In the bullpen, former Pirate and Red Sox southpaw Scott Sauerbeck has tossed seven scoreless innings, allowing just five baserunners and striking out 11. Sauerbeck missed the U.S. season with arm problems, and his performance in the Dominican league should make several teams interested in his services.
Red Sox' shortstop of the future Hanley Ramirez is off to a strong start, winning the first Player of the Week honors. Ramirez hit three homers, two doubles, scored six runs and drove in eight. Two of his home runs decided games for the Tigres. Overall Ramirez, who missed four games when he had to fly to Boston, is hitting .286/.305/.571 with three stolen bases and a league-leading four homers. He has walked just twice in 49 at bats, although he improved his strike-zone judgment this summer in the minors. Ramirez has also shown the improvements in his defense, looking more confident and reliable at shortstop.
With Ramirez playing shortstop for the Tigres, Angels' prospect Erick Aybar was moved to second base, and according to some sources the Angels are the ones interested in the move. With shortstops Alberto Callaspo, Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez in their system, the move itself isn't strange. What is strange is the fact that Aybar was just ranked ahead of both Callaspo and Wood in the latest Baseball America Top Prospects by position list. Aybar is hitting just .250/.328/.339 in 56 at-bats, and is expected to miss at least three weeks after suffering a mild concussion caused by being hit in the helmet by an Ambiorix Burgos pitch in a game on November 9. Cincinnati Reds' shortstop prospect Anderson Machado will replace Aybar at second base.
Burgos' debut in the Dominican League has been a relative success so far. Pitching for the Azucareros del Este (La Romana) Burgos, a right-hander from the Royals organization, has allowed three runs (one earned) in 9 2/3 innings, with just four hits and ten strikeouts. His command has been understandably erratic (seven walks) but his fastball has been as overpowering as advertised. Burgos was clocked consistently between 96 and 98 MPH last Friday on the ESPN radar gun. Burgos was selected in the first round (third overall) by the Azucareros in the prospects draft of last September, and has been used exclusively in relief.
The Braves' Andy Marte is hitting a solid .289/.393/.467 in 45 at bats and leading the league in RBIs with 11. Marte has just one homer, but is second in the league in doubles with five, and his team--Azucareros--plays at Francisco Micheli Stadium, a horrendous offensive environment.
Padres outfielder Freddy Guzman has been a great sparkplug for the Estrellas de Oriente, hitting .387/.486/.581 in eight games with four doubles, a triple and five steals. Guzman suffered a mild ankle sprain in the third game of the season, and while not considered serious, it kept him out of the lineup for a few games.
Since we're talking about Guzmans, Dodgers super-prospect Joel Guzman is also having a good start for the Estrellas. Joel has started all the Estrellas' games at shortstop and is hitting .309/.345/.382. Guzman seems very comfortable at the plate, mainly focused on hitting the ball consistently and driving outside pitches to the opposite field. Just as the scouting reports on Guzman note, he moves very smoothly on defense for a man (well, he's actually 19) of his size, but his range is not great. He's very adept attacking ground balls and throwing to first base smothly. The pitching will become more difficult in the league as the days pass, and for a player as young as Guzman the adjustment could be tough, but so far he's been a very good player for the Estrellas.
The most notable veteran mounting a comeback in the league is the Aguilas' Raul Mondesi. It's the first time that Mondesi--notorious for his late arrivals and subsequent disappearances when he played for Escogido--has started the season this early. Mondesi says that his goal is to get 150 at-bats in the league and show major league organizations that he is in good shape and ready to come back to the big show. Mondesi dismissed his retirement, saying that he's planning to play at least three or four more seasons. The player said that he wasn't discarded by both the Pirates and Angels for performance issues, but rather for the personal problems that didn't allowed him to focus in baseball. "I was not released," said Mondesi in a local newspaper.
Another surprising name on the comeback trail--Dodger fans, you may now skip to the next paragraph--is left-hander Carlos Perez. Until a poor performance against the Azucareros on Tuesday, Perez' ERA was 1.17 in 7 2/3 innings, with nine strikeouts and six baserunners allowed. Whether it's for real or not is debatable; Perez' fastball hasn't been anything special in the early going, and the level of competition the first week of the season is at its lowest level.
If the name Raul Valdez is unfamiliar to you, it's not your fault. Valdez is a Cuban left-hander who pitched last year for the Cibao Giants, and was one of the best pitchers in the league in the first half of the regular season, among the leaders in strikeouts. Valdez was a free agent at the time, and his performance didn't attract big-league scouts because of his age--which is a mystery, to say the least--and his stuff. Valdez throws an assortment of slow breaking stuff and lacks a plus fastball.
The Cubs gave him a try, anyway, and sent the Cuban to the rookie-level Dominican Summer League, which he proceeded to use as his personal playground, finishing with the following video-game like numbers: 0.51 ERA, 87 2/3 IP, 38 H, 8 BB, 152 K. You just have to imagine the terrified 17- and 18-year-old kids trying to hit this man. Well, Valdez is back to his old tricks against the grown-ups of the Winter League, with similar results, with an ERA of 0.84 in 21 1/3 innings for the Azucareros, with 12 hits allowed. Pitching at La Romana, his numbers are going to look much better, but like last year he's been a very valuable pitcher, at least in the first weeks of the season.
Licey right-hander Carlos Morla is being clocked at 98 MPH with pretty good movement on his fastball. He has struck out ten, with seven hits, two walks and two runs allowed in 8 2/3 innings. Morla's command is erratic at best, and he obviously lacks a second pitch... Several foreign players have had poor starts and could be in danger of being replaced, including Blue Jays C Kevin Cash (.120/.267/.160 in 25 AB) and Red Sox IF Earl Snyder (.188/.229/.250 in 32 AB) for Azucareros, and Diamondbacks OF Doug Devore (.114/.273/.229 in 35 AB) and 1B Kyle Nichols (.130/.231/.130 in 46 AB) for the Estrellas… Mets' Cuban refugee right-hander Alay Soler has struck out 17 in nine innings, with just one walk and seven hits allowed. Soler is pitching for Escogido, and we'll have a report on him as soon as we see him pitch live… Giants' right-hander Merkin Valdez has 10 strikeouts and two runs allowed in ten innings pitched and was consistently throwing his fastball between 92 and 95 MPH in a start against the Estrellas last Sunday… In the same game former Yankee prospect Ricardo Aramboles, now a minor-league free agent, was bombed, elevating his ERA for the season to 21.00 in three innings.
Players of the Week
Licey shortstop Hanley Ramirez was the Player of the Week for October 22nd to November 1st. Estrellas third baseman Erick Almonte grabbed the honors for the second week.
The Escogido Lions signed Red Sox catcher Kelly Shoppach, and he debuted Tuesday. The Lions also signed Giants outfielder Jason Ellison. The Azucareros will sign Royals 1B-3B Jarrod Patterson for a second stint with the club. Patterson hit .312/.391/.390 in 24 games last year. Cardinals IF Hector Luna joined the Aguilas last week, and is expected to play regularly at shortstop until the arrival of Miguel Tejada in late December. Former AL Rookie of the Year Angel Berroa is expected to debut with the Azucareros on November 16. The Licey Tigers are expecting White Sox OF Timo Perez and RHP Felix Diaz, Brewers RHP Pedro Liriano and Red Sox Triple-A catcher Sandy Martinez to arrive this weekend.
Outfielders Damon Hollins and Cody Ross, both with Escogido, were the first two foreign players to be fired this season. Hollins hit just .133/.212/.200 in 30 at-bats, and reportedly wasn't able to adapt well to the country. Hollins was highly recommended by players like Rafael Furcal, who plays for both the Braves and the Lions. Ross' final line was .172/.314/.207, a little better than Hollins', but not enough for the Lions management.
Carlos J. Lugo is a broadcaster for ESPN Deportes, covering the Dominican Winter League. He can be seen and heard on Winter League telecasts throughout the offseason. You can reach Lugo here.