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February 13, 2008

Winter League Top Performers

Position Players

by Clay Davenport

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As the Caribbean Series comes to a close, we can take a look back at who the best players were this winter, translating everything to the same level. It's a fun exercise, seeing who did well and who didn't, but as we found a couple of years ago, it has very little meaning on a player's future performance.

The three leagues this year rated as being a little stronger than they did when I ran them a few years ago. In 2003, the Dominican Winter League rated as the strongest of the then-four leagues, approaching the PCL in terms of quality. The Venezuelan League rated as the weakest back then, although it was still a little above the Texas League qualitatively, so the four were actually pretty tightly bunched. This year the Dominican, Venezuelan, and Mexican Pacific Leagues were even more tightly grouped, with all of them ranked just barely under the Triple-A leagues. Two reasons come to mind to explain this, assuming that it isn't just random fluctuation. One is that the demise of the Puerto Rican League could have funneled some talent into the remaining leagues. The other is that I incorporated the entire playoff system into the stats, whereas before I only looked at the regular season. The playoffs tend to draw the major leaguers in, guys who had otherwise appeared in only a token number of regular-season games.

The winter leagues all were pretty pitching-oriented from the perspective of recent major league performance levels, with the Dominicans leading the way. The batting line for the league was just .247/.315/.334--keep that in mind when you see raw stats from the DWL, since that was a good 100 OPS points below the majors, and 40 behind the lowest US minor league (the Midwest league last year came in at .255/.318/.372). The Mexican Pacific League was also pretty weak: its .257/.324/.373 stands in stark contrast to the .296/.361/.432 line that came from the Mexican summer league. Venezuela was the offensive powerhouse of the Caribbean, such as it was, although a line of .268/.332/.385 is still pretty modest. These are leagues whose average runs per nine innings range from 4.04 (DWL) to 4.48 (VWL).

Stealing an idea from Kevin Goldstein, here are the top 11 hitters from the winter leagues, based on a minimum of 150 plate appearances:

1. Jody Gerut, .332 translated EqA, Caribes de Oriente, Venezuela: The former Indians outfielder hasn't played the last two years because of knee problems, but he hit in Venezuela like he hadn't missed a thing. His translated .336/.435/.552 looks awfully hit-lucky, a good 50 points above his career average for BABIP, but even so, that's a major league-quality line. He recently signed a non-roster deal with the Padres, and their outfield isn't exactly overflowing with talent. This could be a serious comeback story brewing.

2. Alex Cabrera, .322 EqA, Caracas and La Guaira, Venezuela: Cabrera has hit 273 homers in the last seven years, all for the Seibu Lions. While he's been slowing down in recent years, he was in vintage form this winter, with a translated line of .266/.388/.599 that included 18 DT-homers, second-best in the winter. He'll stay in Japan this season, although he'll change teams, joining the Orix Buffaloes. His contract reportedly has clauses for drug tests--he was named in the Mitchell report, based on an incident from 2000, when he was a member of the Diamondbacks.

3. Erubiel Durazo, .317 EqA, Hermosillo, Mexico: The longtime BP fave was forced to seek employment in his native Mexico last year, putting up big numbers in an insanely offense-heavy league, which was enough to get him a trial with Scranton, but not enough that he could crack the Yankees' first baseman-less roster. He went back to his hometown in the offseason and turned out a classic Durazo line of .281/.387/.576.

4. Vince Sinisi, .313 EqA, Escogido, Dominican: A touted hitter when he was in college, Sinisi has done next to nothing in the minors to convince people he could play in the majors--until now. The Padre outfielder (sort of) rates as the top hitter in the Dominican Winter League, narrowly missing league-leading totals in homers and walks while posting a .302/.395/.537 line. That production earned him an invite to spring training that might not have arrived otherwise.

5. Nelson Cruz, .309 EqA, Cibao, Dominican: Cruz has been a massive disappointment in Texas, unable to carry over his good minor league translations (.284 EqA over the last three years) into the majors (.232 EqA). It doesn't look like he thinks this was the majors, hitting in a way that wasn't out of line with his previous minor league performances. His past failures have dropped him down the Texas depth chart; this is what he needs to do to get back on top.

6. Cristhian Presichi, .304 EqA, Guasave, Mexico: Unknown in the US, Presichi is a 27-year-outfielder for Saltillo in Mexico's summer league; he's shown moderate power, but a low average and walk rate don't lead one to believe he's a candidate for the majors. The .314/.372/.528 line he put up this winter is so far removed from anything he's done in a summer season that we almost have to discount it as a fluke.

7. Carlos Rivera, .303 EqA, Obregon, Mexico: Rivera got a couple of cups of coffee as a first baseman with the Pirates in 2003 and 2004. Short of some minor league Gold Gloves, he's never doing anything particularly impressive. Last year was his first full season in Mexico, and he hit .410 for Oaxaca, following it up with a .349 average in the winter ball. The translated line of .328/.384/.509 is a solid match to his .321/.418/.503 Oaxaca DT.

8. Oscar Robles, .300 EqA, Navojoa, Mexico: Robles is a 32-year-old infielder who has bounced back and forth between the Mexican League and southern California MLB teams over the last few years, so he's no stranger to most of you. He hit well over his head this winter, putting up a .311/.401/.455 DT in his quest to impress the Padres which, incidentally, makes him the third Padre I've mentioned here.

9. Jose Castillo, .297 EqA, Caracas and Oriente, Venezuela: The Pirates gave up on Castillo after a third year of declining production; frankly, any .209 EqA is usually worth giving up on. Now a Marlin and trying to stare down Jorge Cantu and Dallas McPherson in a battle for the third base job, he warmed up with a sensational winter campaign: a .319/.344/.562 translation that put him closer to winning a Triple Crown than anyone else this winter. It was a welcome sight to see the power come back for the first time in two years, although there's no way the average is sustainable.

10. Francisco Mendez, .294 EqA, Guasave, Mexico: A 30-year-old first baseman, Mendez is a Mexican summer league veteran. His winter league performance is consistent with what he did last year for Chihuahua, albeit with a small-sample elevated BABIP that characterizes most of this list.

11. Edgardo Alfonzo, .293 EqA, Aragua and Zulia, Venezuela: Yes, that Edgardo Alfonzo, the one who hasn't had a decent year since leaving the Mets after the 2002 season. He just doesn't want to give up and retire yet, even after spending an unimpressive year in the Atlantic League. Judging from the .312/.365/.504 DT he just cranked out in Venezuela, he has a reason to stick around, and it was enough to convince Texas to give him a spring training invite.

Other noteworthy performances: Vinny Castilla, retired from the majors, had a .336 EqA to lead all players with 50 AB or more... Edwin Encarnacion similarly generated a nifty .315 EqA... Elijah Dukes, last seen making cell phone art before being banished from the Rays last June, hit .293 in a winter audition for his new team, Washington... Jose Offerman clocks in at .290... Omar Vizquel keeps on hitting well enough to keep on playing, at .284... Richard Hidalgo produced at a .291 clip... Eliezer Alfonzo bashed out 23 DT-home runs to lead everyone winter ball, while also delivering a .286 EqA... Alberto Callaspo hit for a .328 batting average and a .285 EqA, which should make the Royals happy they traded for the former Angels and D'backs prospect.

Some cringeworthy winters: new Oriole center fielder Adam Jones was only at .242... Felix Pie, .240... new Twin Carlos Gomez, .237... Victor Diaz at .232... Erick Aybar does nothing to secure the shortstop job in Anaheim by delivering only a .228 EqA... Ronnie Belliard was at .229... Fernando Tatis, .212...Andy Marte at .197, ugh... Jose Reyes at .201--just kidding there, it's the catcher Jose Reyes who hit .201, not the Mets shortstop... Guys who keep showing up for jobs in spring, like Alex Sanchez (.191), Roger Cedeno (.169), Timo Perez (.169), and Pablo Ozuna (.162) did nothing to repeal their has-been status, if they ever were... Brandon Wood's .153 is not encouraging.

Next: the pitchers.

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