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January 9, 2006

Dominican Winter League Report

January 5, 2006

by Carlos J. Lugo

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Dominican winter League Report, January 5, 2006

Tigerr-iffic

Despite the fact that most of their major league stars never showed up, and while suffering through the persistent struggles of D'Angelo Jimenez, one of the team's main figures, the Licey Tigers comfortably won the regular season, finishing 32-18, five games ahead of the Cibao Eagles. Licey had the best run differential in the league (+75) and they underperformed their Pythagorean record by just one game. They were the best at run prevention (3.7 runs allowed per game, league average 4.7) and their offense was second behind the Eagles.

Speaking of the Eagles, a late-season slump eliminated the possibility of another first-place finish for the Santiago-based team. The bullpen was mainly responsible for the swoon, not to mention the fact that the Eagles had a lot of turnover in their lineup over the final 10 days, when several players were either joining the club for the first time, or else returning to action.

One of the most interesting teams were the Escogido Lions, which made the postseason with a 26-24 record (tied with the Azucareros) that was a complete aberration if you check the actual performance of the club in the field. Helped by a 13-4 record in one-run games and an early-season nine-game winning streak, the Lions were able to make it to the round-robin playoffs despite a horrendous second half of the season. Statistically speaking, they were the worst team every possible way you analyze it. They were the worst in run differential (-48), last in slugging (.342), last in OBP (.326), tied for last in run prevention (5.26 per game) and second-to-last in runs scored with just 215. The Lions outperformed their Pythagorean record by six games, and there arguably wasn't a big difference between them and the two teams they left behind, the Estrellas and Gigantes.

The Azucareros were helped by a strong group of foreign players headed by White Sox 1B Casey Rogowski, C Chris Stewart, and Cubs LHP Raul Valdez. Also, they got surprising performances from four unheralded relievers: Winston Abreu, Julio Mañón, Miguel Saladín and Alfredo Gonzalez all gave the Azucareros about eighty very good to excellent innings from the bullpen.

As for the two teams left out of the playoffs, the Cibao Giants couldn't overcome a terrible start to their season and an equally terrible performance from their foreign players. The Estrellas still had a chance as they entered the last week of the regular season, but a series of atrocious appearances from their two major league relievers--Devil Rays RHP Jesus Colome and Angels RHP Esteban Yan--dashed any hopes the Estrellas had. Yan lost three games, blew two saves and had an ERA of 12.20 in 10 1/3 innings and Colome blew three save opportunities and his ERA was 8.53 in nine games and 6 1/3 innings pitched.

Regular Season All-Stars

Catcher - Carlos Ruiz (Licey - Phillies), .315/.456/.416

The Panamanian didn't hurt his chances for a backup role with the Phillies with a stellar performance with Licey. He didn't hit with the kind of power he has showed recently in the minors, but was brilliant getting on base. Ruiz masterfully handled the league's best pitching staff and committed just one error on defense. A pulled right hamstring eventually slowed him down, especially with the bat.

First Baseman - Willis Otañez (Licey - FA), .304/.366/.488

Otañez had a great first half and finished with solid numbers, including seven home runs and 31 RBI. Those counting stats helped Otañez beat Esteban German in the MVP voting, even though he wasn't even a key figure during the last part of the season for Licey.

Second Baseman - Anderson Hernandez (Licey - Mets) .307/.352/.386

The Mets prospect formed an entertaining double play and top of the lineup combination with the Angels prospect SS Erick Aybar. The fans dubbed them "Los Menores," which could translate as "The Under-Aged" or simply "The Minors" in English. Hernandez drove in 22 runs, played solid defense and in general gave Licey a steady performance at the position after D'Angelo Jimenez failed to produce with the bat. For his efforts, Hernandez was selected as Rookie of the Year. The Dominican League was the third in which Hernandez would hit above .300 in 2005, a great improvement from his years in the Detroit system. He did a much better job making contact (a strikeout every 8.3 at bats compared with one every five in the minors) but his walk rate remained sub-optimal for a player with his offensive skills.

Third Baseman - Wilson Betemit (Escogido - Braves) .292/.385/.488

Betemit cooled off after a great first half, but finished with strong numbers anyway. He was tied for third in home runs with seven, but also hit 12 doubles playing more than half of his games at Quisqueya-Juan Marichal Stadium, a park with big dimensions. Betemit struck out 47 times in 168 at-bats, but also draw a decent amount of walks with 26.

Shortstop - Erick Aybar (Licey - Angels) .325/.368/.398

Aybar did exactly the same thing he's been doing in his professional career: hit for a high batting average with good power for a shortstop, not many walks, a great ability to make consistent contact (just 17 strikeouts in 166 AB) and a lot of steals. Defensively he showed a good combination of range, soft hands and arm, although he was error-prone this year. Despite his great speed, Aybar has always been a low efficiency base stealer. During the regular season he picked his spots better and his success rate improved with 11 steals in 14 attempts. He is definitely ready to make the jump to Triple-A, and has proven himself to become a viable major leaguer in the near future. Considering the great depth of middle infielders the Angels have, don't be surprised if Aybar is included in a blockbuster trade; he's been followed closely by several organizations during the winter.

Nelson Cruz (Gigantes - Brewers) .308/.344/.608

Cruz lead the league in homers with nine--all of them hit in a 14 game span--and had just 19 more at-bats since our last report. A sore hamstring had bothered Cruz since early in the season, and with the Gigantes virtually out of the playoffs, Cruz didn't see much action in the last three weeks of the regular season. Cruz walked just five times in 120 at-bats.

Abraham Nuñez (Estrellas - Mariners) .302/.415/.448

Nuñez has never regained the power of two years ago (12 homers, .562 SLG) but had an excellent OBP, was second in walks and played solid defense leading all center fielders with five assists. He was not the dominant player of two seasons ago in the Dominican League, and we wonder if he's ever going to get the chance as a fourth or fifth outfielder in the majors.

Jose Bautista (Licey - Pirates) .260/.395/.511

We're cheating a little bit including Bautista in this list, because although he was primarily the Tigers center fielder, he also played a few games at third. Bautista finished strong as his eight homers were second in the league, and he also hit nine doubles and had a 26/27 BB/K ratio. A couple of singles here and there and Bautista could have been a strong MVP candidate.

Utility - Esteban Germán (Azucareros - Royals) .331/.443/.381

German played most of his 47 games at second, but we're listing him as a utility because he was actually used in some sort of infield rotation by the manager Rafael Santana, also playing several games at third. He led the league in walks (36), stolen bases (30) and on-base percentage. German was the runner-up in batting average, runs scored (35) and hits (60). He was the popular choice for the MVP award, before losing it unexpectedly to Licey's Willis Otañez.

Starting pitcher - Jared Fernandez (Aguilas - Brewers) 4-4, 2.95 ERA, 76.1 IP, 42 K's, 11 starts

Fernandez was the most consistent starter in the league, routinely going deep into games and giving his team a chance to win. Despite the .500 record, Fernandez could have won at least six games with more support from his offense and bullpen. He was two outs away from throwing the only complete game of the season against Licey, a game he eventually lost when closer Jose Vargas blew the save for him.

As a knuckeball pitcher, Fernandez has had a hard time establishing himself in the majors, but he's been a very productive pitcher in the Dominican League, not to mention really fun to watch.

Relief Pitcher - Yhency Brazoban (Licey - Dodgers) 3-2, 1.64 ERA, 14 saves, 22 IP, 21 K's

You can make a list of several pitchers that were as productive on a per-inning basis as Brazoban. The list should include Jairo Garcia, Fabio Castro, Carmen Cali, Winston Abreu and Miguel Saladin among others. But Brazoban won the Pitcher of the Year award, when voters no doubt put a lot of stock in his 14 saves. He did have a pretty good season, nonetheless, being the main bullpen arm of the league's best team. Brazoban's fastball was a lot more consistent than last year, and his command was superb with just three unintentional walks issued.

Awards The league official awards were as follows:
MVP: Willis Otañez, Licey
Pitcher of the year: Yhency Brazoban, Licey
Rookie of the year: Anderson Hernandez, Licey
Manager of the year: Rafael Santana, Azucareros

Prospects

Orioles OF Val Majewski continued to get at-bats with the Azucareros after missing the whole summer with a torn labrum in his left (throwing) shoulder. In 17 games he hit .293/.406/.379 with 10 walks, but without a home run, just four extra-base hits and 17 strikeouts in 58 official at-bats. Majewski, who's still unable to play defense, left the team for Christmas and is not expected to return.

The Yankees Melky Cabrera finished the season hitting .315/.376/.405 in 111 at-bats with the Aguilas and was a runner-up in the Rookie of the Year ballot. His strong performance persuaded manager Felix Fermin to keep playing Cabrera semi-regularly during the playoffs and was the first choice as an outfield replacement.

Rangers SS prospect Joaquin Arias was an early season favorite to earn the ROY award, but was sidelined with leg problems and that affected his offense in the middle of the season. Arias finished strong, though, and hit .318/.365/.398 in 88 AB with the Estrellas. His defense received praise from the local media, and he showed great tools at the position, with excellent range to both sides and a cannon for an arm. As is common with young shortstops, Arias frequently botched the routine play (he committed nine errors in 107 chances) but frequently made one or two great plays a night. The sore legs prevented him from showcasing his great speed (just two steals in five attempts) but the team was excited with his performance and is penciling him as the starting shortstop next October.

New Marlins prospect Hanley Ramirez played in 39 games between third base and shortstop for Licey and hit just .266/.335/.331 in 139 at-bats. After Ramirez hit five home runs last season he was expected to provide a good source of power, but he went homerless in the regular season. His playing time decreased significantly when Ronnie Belliard joined the team in December, but Ramirez remains on the active roster as a backup infielder.

Padres OF Freddy Guzman had a disappointing season for the Estrellas, hitting just .257/.355/.305 in 105 at-bats. Guzman was limited to DH duties because of his repaired throwing elbow and didn't play a single inning on the field. He collapsed after the first three weeks of the season, when Guzman hit .372/.491/.419 with 10 walks and 10 runs in the first 13 games he played, only to slump to .177/.250/.226 with 16 strikeouts in 62 at-bats the rest of the way. Guzman stole 11 bases for the Estrellas, but was caught six times.

Watching the performance of the Aybar brothers--Erick and Willy--in the Dominican League, one has to wonder if it was actually Erick, and not Willy, who made it all the way to the big leagues in 2005. Willy, the Dodgers prospect started the season as the regular second baseman for the Estrellas and hit just .143/.182/.238 in 63 at bats, with a 3/12 BB/K ratio. It was pretty much the same story as last year when the team gave Willy the chance to play, and he went 3-for-21 without an extra-base hit and left the team. Unfortunately, Aybar was again unable to deal with the adversity and for practical purposes left the team when the manager gave his job to Pedro Lopez.

Rangers LHP Fabio Castro, the first pick of the most recent Rule 5 draft, had a 2.02 ERA in 22 1/3 IP pitching for the Gigantes. Castro struck out 22 and, although he walked 10, the opposing hitters managed just 13 hits off him, two for extra bases, none of them a home run. Castro threw consistently between 91 and 94 MPH, with solid off-speed stuff and good mound presence.

Rangers RHP Edison Volquez won two games with a 2.21 ERA in four regular season starts for the Azucareros. Volquez--whose mechanics and delivery are almost a copy of his idol Pedro Martinez's--struck out 20 in 20 1/3 IP with four walks, and 18 hits allowed, seven for extra bases, one home run. His stuff is good, no doubt, but he needs to locate his pitches better. He seems to have a pretty good idea of what he's doing on the mound, but has a tendency to overthrow in tight situations. Volquez will be in the rotation for the playoffs for the Azucareros.

Quick Notes

Dodgers SS Joel Guzman became the youngest player ever, at 21, to lead the league in RBI with 33. He slumped at season's end and finished with a solid .280/.368/.472 line. Guzman played third, shortstop and DH for the Estrellas… Former Orioles prospect Ed Rogers won the batting crown with a .366 average. Rogers started the season as a fourth or fifth infielder on the Estrellas, making this the second consecutive season that a player with a remote chance for playing every day comes out of nowhere and wins the batting crown. Last year it was Estrellas OF Juan Camilo… Reds OF Wily Mo Peña almost won the home run title despite playing in only 21 games. Peña hit .363/.458/.650 and finished with seven home runs in 81 at-bats… Peña's teammate with the Aguilas, Angels C Mike Napoli had similar production in abbreviated time hitting .342/.448/.633 with five homers and six doubles in 79 at-bats. Napoli even displaced the veteran catcher and team captain Alberto Castillo from the position with his torrid offensive output. Unfortunately for the Aguilas, Napoli went home for the holidays and left the team waiting for him and his bat. He is not expected to return… Veteran major league backup Jose Offerman hopes to catch with another major league club after a .327/.407/.615 performance in 52 regular season at-bats. Offerman hit four homers--a personal best for him in the league… A battle with myopia could be the reason Rangers 2B D'Angelo Jimenez struggled during the last calendar year. Jimenez told a local newspaper that he thought the problem was corrected with surgery more than two years ago, but he's been having the same problems again. Jimenez--who needs to wear glasses--has tried with contact lenses, and he thinks he's seeing the ball better. Also, he's trying to correct a minor glitch in his left-handed swing. There's a chance Jimenez would need eye surgery once again… Former Athletics prospect, LHP Mario Ramos won four games with a 3.12 ERA in eight appearances and 26 innings for Escogido.

Getting In

The influx of major league players started in late December, during the last two weeks; the list now includes Tony Batista, Victor Diaz, Miguel Batista, Ramon Ortiz, Joaquin Benoit, Wandy Rodriguez, Juan Dominguez, Juan Uribe and superstars David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada. Among the new imports the Aguilas signed Orioles C Ryan Hubele and RHP David Manning, Licey LHP Brian McNichol, Escogido Marlins OF Eric Reed and the Azucareros Pirates RHP Justin Reid, Cuban 1B Jorge Toca, OF Jim Rushford and Diamondbacks SS Kenny Perez.

As for the rumors, Licey is expecting Twins 2B Luis Castillo probably for the weekend, as well as Red Sox RHP Guillermo Mota and RHP Felix Rodriguez. The Tigers front office is also hoping to convince the Anaheim Angels to grant permission to OF Vladimir Guerrero to join the team. Another possibility is Cubs 3B Aramis Ramirez depending on his health.

Getting Out

The Escogido Lions fired manager Bob Geren and pitching coach Ron Romanick after the team's 2-5 start in the playoffs. Geren was heavily criticized during the season by fans and the local media for his handling of the pitching staff. Mike Guerrero was named interim manager for the Lions. The same day Geren was fired, Athletics OF Matt Watson opted to leave the team for personal reasons. Watson was the replacement of injured A's OF Freddie Bynum on the Lions roster. The Tigers could lose star catcher Carlos Ruiz with an injury, a terrible blow for the team.

The Round Robin Playoffs

The league's second season--an 18-game playoff among four teams--started one day after Christmas this year. Licey and Aguilas are again the heavy favorites to make it all the way to the Final Series, and if that's the case, they'll fight for the all time lead in championships won. They're both tied with 18. The first half of the schedule has been played with Licey and Aguilas tied for first with a 6-3 record, and three games behind, also tied with a 3-6 record Escogido and Azucareros.

On Monday, Red Sox DH David Ortiz debuted in the playoffs, but is expected to play just four games because of previous commitments in the United States. Ortiz went 4-for-16 with 3 RBI and 2 doubles during the four games. He promised to join the club again if they still have a chance to reach the finals when he returns.

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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