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December 8, 2005

Dominican Winter League Report

December 8, 2005

by Carlos J. Lugo

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The Boys of Winter are back!

The new season of the Dominican Winter League started a few days earlier than usual, in an effort to avoid the past nightmare of having to quickly select the Dominican team for the Caribbean World Series.

The current champion Eagles finished the first half of the season in an unfamiliar position, third place. This was just the second time in the last seven years that the Eagles didn't finish in first place during that span. Bullpen inconsistency has been one of the team's main problems, specifically the lack of a dominant front end, but a timely five game winning streak has returned the Eagles to a tie for first place.

The Licey Tigers have been the most consistent team in the league, never having a long losing streak, yet at the same time not having the big winning streaks of the Lions and Eagles. Licey has been the best team at run-prevention, with their pitching and defense allowing 4.22 runs per game, easily the best mark in the league.

At La Romana the Azucareros del Este have won eight of their last ten games, and are now alone in third place, with a chance to fight for first. This could be a very dangerous team in the playoffs due to their pitching depth. A collection of young power arms that includes Daniel Cabrera, Ambiorix Burgos, Juan Morillo, Eude Brito, Juan Dominguez and Edison Volquez is well complemented by veterans such as Felix Heredia, the intriguing Cuban Raul Valdez and former prospects Winston Abreu and Miguel Saladin.

The Escogido Lions--unable to make the playoffs the last two years--battled against the league's two powerhouses, the Licey Tigers and Cibao Eagles, for first place, but they have lost 9 of their last eleven games, falling all the way to fourth. One can argue that luck was the Lions' best ally during the hot streak that put them in first place. The team has been outscored on the season (217 runs allowed to 171 scored) and they've benefited from an unusual 12-1 record in one-run games. A regression to the mean was due, and it seems to be happening now.

The bottom half of the standings has the Estrellas de Oriente in fifth place, on the verge of their 38th consecutive season of disappointment. The team from San Pedro de Macoris is now four games behind the Lions with twelve left to play on the schedule. The Estrellas have missed two key players from last season's team: Pablo Ozuna and Robinson Cano. Ozuna missed the start of the season because of the World Series, then had arthroscopic surgery on his left wrist and has yet to play. As for Cano, the Yankees are reluctant to let their new second baseman play this winter. The Cibao Giants are in last place, pretty much planning for next October already. The regular season ends on December 22, and the start of the Round Robin playoffs is scheduled to start one day after Christmas.

The New Home Run king

On November 19th Felix Jose of the Estrellas connected on the first pitch from Ramon Peña of the Giants for his record breaking 60th career home run in the Dominican League, breaking Rico Carty's mark of 59. Jose's homer was the 46th with the Estrellas franchise, also breaking the team's record, previously held by former Astro Rafael Batista. Home run number 59, for the tie, was also of note because Jose became just the eighth player ever to hit a homer over the giant center field green wall of Quisqueya Stadium in Santo Domingo.

During a recent interview, Jose credited his transformation into a big-time power hitter to former hitting coach Mike Easler. According to Felix, Easler changed his hitting approach and swing to take better advantage of his raw power.

Great Expectations

A few noted American young players were announced to participate in the league before the start of the season. Due to their status, great things were expected from them on the field, but unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the league proved to be too much for many of them.

For example, Baseball America selected OF Nate McLouth as the sixth best prospect in the Pirates organization. The Cibao Eagles signed McLouth but he played in just five games, going 3-for-16 with three walks and no extra-base hits. Another failed Pirate was catcher Ryan Doumit, who left the team because of fatigue. Doumit hit .269/.367/.269 in 9 games.

And they weren't alone.

The Licey Tigers signed the "other" Tigers' Curtis Granderson, who hit just .194/.326/.250 in 21 games. The only positive in Granderson's performance was his 14 walks in 72 at bats, although he also struck out 17 times. Among the others of note, the Rangers' Jason Botts hit .148/.258/.185 in 27 at bats for Escogido. The Devil Rays' Joey Gathright did much better replacing him in the Lions' outfield (.305/.365/.347, 20 runs and 9 steals in 22 games) but was released due to disciplinary reasons about ten days ago. Apparently Gathright wasn't very enthusiastic about the idea of playing in the Dominican Republic, and came to the league at the Rays' request. Rockies SS Clint Barmes noticed a big difference between hitting at Coors Field and hitting at cavernous Estadio Quisqueya. Barmes "hit" .233/.269/.291 in 103 at bats for Escogido, with three extra base hits and 18 strikeouts with just 3 walks. At least the local observers praised his defense, and there were no reports of hunting trips.

Of the "Big name Imports" of this year, Mets pitchers Aaron Heilman and Heath Bell, pitching for Licey, did probably the best job of all. Heilman started five games with a 3-1 record and 2.36 ERA (he did not allow an unearned run) and a 22/6 strikeout to walk ratio in 26.2 innings pitched. Heilmann told us that he came to the league trying to regain the feel for starting games, and also to work on adding an extra pitch to his repertoire. He said he wants to be ready if an opening presents itself in the Mets' rotation during the spring.

As for Bell, he was part of a brilliant bullpen combination with the Dodgers' Yhency Brazoban. Bell appeared in 13 games, tossed 13 innings and allowed four runs, ten hits and had a 16 to 5 K/BB ratio. Both Heilman and Bell were signed for one month, and they left the team when their contracts expired.

Prospects

The Yankees Melky Cabrera is hitting .298/.375/.393 with 11 RBI, 11 walks, 6 doubles and 5 stolen bases in 84 at bats for the Cibao Eagles. Unfortunately for him, as with the Yankees, his chances for playing time have been diminishing because of the integration of more experienced players to the Eagles' roster.

Braves' shortstop prospect T.J. Peña has shown off his excellent defense in the league while playing for the Eagles, and has displaced more experienced players like the Cardinals' Hector Luna and Felix Martinez in the process. There have been reports that the pitchers have asked the manager to play Peña over the rest; his performance with the bat has been a little bit better than it was in the International League, as he's hitting .266/.308/.422 in 109 at bats.

White Sox' prospects Casey Rogowski and Chris Stewart have both been key components with the Azucareros. Rogowski is hitting .273/.368/.381 and is leading the league in RBI with 27 and is second in doubles with 12. Rogowski's lack of power for a corner infielder has been evident (just one homer) but ironically his hitting approach has suited him perfectly to take advantage of the Azucareros' home park, Francisco Micheli Stadium, notable for being a nightmare to home run hitters. As for Stewart, he's providing a little offense from the catching position, hitting .329/.396/.412 in 85 at-bats. Also playing for the Azucareros are the Angels' Nick Gorneault (.277/.348/.426, 3 homers, 25 RBI in 148 at bats), the Orioles' Val Majewski (.333/.448/.417 in 24 at-bats), and the Padres' Ben Johnson. The last two joined the team about ten days ago.

Colorado Rockies RHP Juan Morillo was recently clocked at 100 m.p.h. in a game pitching for the Azucareros. Morillo has a fine ERA (2.20) but a mediocre K/BB ratio of 14/13. The Orioles' RHP Daniel Cabrera also reached triple digits in his last start.

Indians' 1B Ryan Mulhern is second in the league with 8 home runs, but the rest of his line is rather unimpressive: .246/.291/.500 in 118 at bats. Mulhern's poor control of the strike zone (7 walks, 40 strikeouts) has hurt his performance, although the Eagles were not expecting much from him, so you could argue he's held his own in the league.

The Athletics' RHP Jairo Garcia has been lights-out so far with the Lions. Garcia has pitched 19.1 innings, with 10 hits allowed, 6 walks and 17 strikeouts. His ERA is 0.93 with five total runs allowed. Garcia was consistently clocked between 95 and 97 MPH with a very good slider to boot in Sunday's game against Licey.

The Dodgers' Joel Guzman is continuing his steady development, a trend that started in 2004. Guzman is hitting .294/.370/.513 with 5 homers, 9 doubles, 26 RBI, 14 walks and 26 strikeouts in 119 at bats playing for the Estrellas. His notorious raw power has been on display more often in game action this year, and he's shown a much better understanding of the strike zone. Guzman has drawn a walk every 8.5 at bats and has struck out every 4.6, compared to 10.5 and 3.4 at Double-A during the summer. Joel told us at the season's start that former Dodger GM Paul DePodesta wanted him to concentrate more on his hitting and at bats, no matter where the Estrellas put him on the field. Guzman has played primarily at both infield corners, and recently was moved back to shortstop. He has committed eleven errors on the season.

Brewers' OF Nelson Cruz has nine home runs in the last 14 games playing for the Giants and is now leading the league with 9. We must note that Cruz has lost eleven games due to hamstring problems, and five of his home runs have been on the road, so the total is not entirely a product of Julian Javier Stadium's cozy dimensions. Cruz is hitting .317/.346/.644 in 101 at-bats and the only negative has been a worrisome walk to strikeout ratio of 4 to 23.

The Cubs' number one prospect, Felix Pié, is struggling for a second consecutive season. Pie is hitting .209/.250/.319 in 91 at bats playing for Licey. His injured left ankle seems to be OK--Pie is running smoothly and without a noticeable problem--and his range in the outfield has been fine. The main problem is that his issues with the strike zone remain unresolved (4 walks, 19 strikeouts) and his ability to make contact has been affected by this. His athleticism is fun to watch, though, and he's still young enough to refine his tools. Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita praised Pie's talents in a brief conversation we had with him.

Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz is hitting .361/.500/.459 in 61 at-bats for the Licey Tigers. Ruiz has walked 15 times already, boosting his on-base percentage to stratospheric levels. His defensive work behind the plate has also been very steady, and his chances for a job with the big club are very good. Pat Gillick's special assistant, Ron Welke, was watching Ruiz at a recent game in Santo Domingo. Ruiz missed more than a week with a right hamstring pull, but has returned to the lineup for the last two games.

Veterans

D'Angelo Jimenez' nightmare of a year has continued in the Dominican League. His stat line of .169/.311/.186 with one extra base hit (a double) in 59 at bats looks like a typo, especially for a player just two years removed from a .360/.485/.500 season (with a batting title to boot). You can trace Jimenez' problems to this time of the year in 2004, actually. After a fine season with the Reds, D'Angelo joined the Licey Tigers and hit just .203/.306/.257 in 74 regular season at bats. At the time, we ignored the performance and blamed it on a small sample size and Jimenez being noticeably out of shape. But Jimenez' performance wasn't much better during the playoffs, and you know the rest of his story in Cincinnati.

A consistent and troublesome sign during all this time has been Jimenez' sudden decline in his power numbers. Here are his slugging percentages including all his stops since the aforementioned performance last season in the winter: .257, .346, .250, .295 (at Cincinnati), .422 (at Double-A Chattanooga) and .186 as of this writing. Watching Jimenez, he's definitely struggling to make hard and consistent contact. It looks as if he's completely lost that ability, and he's told some people that he just can't explain what's happening to him. He says that his swing is the same in batting practice, and that he's hitting the ball as hard as ever, but somehow that's not translating to live game action. The control of the strike zone is still there, but right now he's seeing his career's most important challenge since his near-fatal car accident six years ago.

Checking In

The Azucareros signed outfielders Val Majewski (Orioles) and Ben Johnson (Padres) and now have five foreign players in their everyday lineup… Veteran minor leaguers Andy Abad and J.R. Phillips were signed by the Estrellas in a last time effort to upgrade the league's worst offense… Cubs SS Neifi Perez debuted for the Escogido Lions last weekend, and went hitless in his first eight at bats… The Lions signed Athletics OF Matt Watson to replace injured OF Freddie Bynum. Bynum has an injured shoulder and there's a chance he could return to the club for the playoffs, if they make it… Reds RHP Jose Acevedo and Phillies RHP Robinson Tejeda joined the Eagles staff last week… Braves RHP Jorge Sosa debuted for Licey last Sunday, and veteran free agent infielder Jose Offerman made his debut two days earlier… There are increasing rumors that Orioles OF Eric Byrnes will play for Licey for a fifth straight season… The Cibao Eagles could have Orioles all-star SS Miguel Tejada for the last week of the regular season…another All Star joining the league in the next few days could be Red Sox 1B/DH David Ortiz who plays for the Escogido Lions.

Quick Notes

  • Knuckleballer RHP Jared Fernandez is leading the league in innings pitched with 60.1 and has been a steady member of the Eagles rotation. Fernandez' ERA is 3.43, while the league average is 4.08.

  • Eagles' manager Felix Fermin is using White Sox LHP Arnaldo Muñoz exclusively from the bullpen. Muñoz started 18 games for the Charlotte Knights at Triple-A this year, and has pitched 22 innings in 13 appearances in winter league action. Fermin's usage pattern with Muñoz has been the same as previous years, when the diminutive lefty usually threw multiple innings. His performance has been all right so far--2.45 ERA, 23 to 8 K/BB, 17 hits allowed, 3 saves--but at times Muñoz has struggled with his command. He still remains an intriguing lefty arm for some team needing bullpen help.

  • Braves 3B Andy Marte is again failing to establish himself in the Dominican League. Marte is hitting .247/.360/.381 in 97 at bats for the Azucareros, and although his home park hurts his offensive performance, much more is expected from him.

  • Also with the Azucareros, Diamondbacks OF Luis Terrero is having a very good season hitting .297/.382/.475 in 118 at bats. The Snakes' former top prospect has 7 doubles, 4 home runs, 7 stolen bases and his defense has been good in center.

  • RHP Winston Abreu has been one of the most interesting stories of the year. The former Braves farmhand has struck out 30 in 19.2 IP, with 12 walks, 11 hits and a stellar 1.83 ERA. He's been a key figure in the Azucareros bullpen, one without a steady pitcher in the closer's role. Abreu got bombed in the PCL during the summer (although he struck out 42 in 33 IP) finishing in the Mexican League with 10 saves and 4 wins in 18 appearances. We've seen Abreu a couple of times in action, and his strikeout pitch is a big breaking ball, which sometimes is out of the strike zone, hence the poor walk ratio. He's another interesting pickup for a team looking to fill a high minors roster with free talent.

  • For the third season in a row the Cubs' 28 year old Cuban prospect Raul Valdez has been virtually unbeatable, baffling hitters with his curveball, slider and average fastball. Valdez is leading the league in wins and strikeous with 5 and 49, and his 2.54 ERA is the third best. Valdez went 5-2 with a 0.79 ERA last year in 57 innings for the Azucareros. As we've explained in previous reports, parts of those numbers are a byproduct of his home stadium, a horrendous hitting environment. But is hard to ignore that Valdez has been a good to great pitcher for three years running in the league.

  • Mariners RHP Rafael Soriano has hit a big bump on his road to total recovery in the Dominican League. His numbers are awful: 13.2 innings, 14 runs, 10 earned, 28 hits, 5 walks and 8 strikeouts. The velocity on his fastball has been in the low 90's, and rarely--if ever--has climbed higher than that. Hopefully for Soriano and the Mariners this is just part of the rehab process. ESPN Deportes analyst and Hall of Famer Juan Marichal said that Soriano's delivery looks fluid enough, but also noted that he seems to be restraining himself a little bit, which may psychological resulting from his injury and subsequent surgery.

  • Royals RHP Joel Peralta has won 3 games with an ERA of 1.47 in 18.1 innings for the Giants. The former Angels pitcher has 15 strikeouts.

  • Dodgers RHP Yhency Brazoban is leading the league in saves with 12 for the first-place Licey Tigers. Brazoban has a 1.96 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 18.1 IP

  • RHP Jose Lima, pitching for the Eagles, has allowed just one earned run in two starts (0.84 ERA) despite one strikeout in 10.2 innings

  • Reds OF Wily Mo Peña has five home runs in 12 games and is hitting .404/.491/.723 in 46 at bats with 8 walks and 7 strikeouts.

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 him here

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