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October 18, 2009

Winter League Preview

The Dominican League

by Carlos J. Lugo

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The "National Religion" came back on October 16th, as the Dominican League launched its 56th edition. Reliably praised as having the highest level of talent among the winter leagues, one should expect to watch another mix of highly ranked prospects, mid-level major leaguers, a few recognizable American players, veterans looking for another shot, and some major league stars between now and the end of the Caribbean Series in February. The league format has six teams playing a 50-game regular-season schedule, with the four best records advancing to a long 18-game round-robin playoff, and the two remaining best clubs play a best-of-nine final series to decide the league's champion. Without further ado, here's what this season will bring us:

Tigres del Licey (Licey Tigers)
Home: Santo Domingo
2008-09 record: 26-24, fourth place (tied) regular season; 12-6, first place round-robin; beat the Gigantes in the final series 5-0.
Ballpark: Estadio Quisqueya; strong pitcher's park, with a Park Factor of 92.

Outlook: The Tigres won their 20th championship last season to once again tied with the Aguilas for the most crowns in the league's history. The team's goal this time is to win back-to-back championships for the first time since the 1984-85 season, when a powerhouse team managed by former Astros and Angels manager Terry Collins, won for a third straight time. It appears that the team will start this season with a roster weakened by the absences of three key players from the last few seasons: Erick Aybar, Anderson Hernandez, and Emilio Bonifacio, who are not going to be around for the start of the season, but will play later.

The Manager: Baltimore Orioles bench coach and veteran minor league manager Dave Jauss will return to manage Licey for a fourth time, tying him with none other than Tommy Lasorda as the only foreigners to manage the club as many seasons. Jauss's first two seasons-1997-98 and 1998-99-at the helm were very successful, losing a finals against the Aguilas in six games in his first year, and winning the championship and the Caribbean Series in his second.

Young Players to Watch: From the pitching side the team boasts the Cubs' Esmailin Caridad, top Padres prospect Simon Castro, the Astros' Sam Gervacio, Mets prospect Jenrry Mejia, and the Rockies' Esmil Rogers. Among the position players, Tigers outfielder Wilkin Ramirez and Mariners infielder Carlos Triunfel stand out.

The Foreign Legion: The foreign players (or reinforcements, as they are called here) expected to play for Licey this season will be the Dodgers' Blake DeWitt in the infield and right-hander James McDonald on the mound, veteran minor league catchers Mike Rabelo and Matt Tupman, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond and outfielder Elijah Dukes, Orioles shortstop Robert Andino, Cubs slugger Jake Fox, and Royals right-hander Matt Wright. The team will also feature a pair of notable Cuban imports, outfielder Amaury Cazaña and pitcher Yadel Martí. There's a chance that Diamondbacks outfielder Eric Byrnes-a local folk hero nicknamed 'Captain America' by the fans-will join the team by late December and the postseason.

The Native Core: Licey's roster features a mix of veteran players and young major leaguers. The team's offense will be constructed around Emilio Bonifacio, Anderson Hernandez, Felix Pié, Jose Bautista, Timo Perez, Wily Mo Peña, Ronnie Belliard, Erick Aybar, Willy Aybar, and Ronny Paulino, plus the foreign players. The pitching staff will feature Alberto Arias, Denny Bautista, Daniel Cabrera, Freddy Dolsi, Victor Marte, Oneli Perez, Ramon Ortiz, Johnny Núñez, Jorge Sosa, and Edwar Ramirez.

Santa Claus Will Bring: Erick Aybar will probably report in December, and that's why the club will import not one but two shortstops for the first time in decades. Jake Fox is expected to join the team in December as well. The door is open for relievers Carlos Marmol, Damaso Marte, Frank Francisco, Guillermo Mota, and Juan Cruz. National League batting champ Hanley Ramirez has always shown interest in playing in the playoffs, but the Marlins have never been very open to the idea. Maybe the Angels will let Ervin Santana pitch a few innings-he has in the last two seasons-but that's up in the air. Other established major leaguers like Carlos Peña, Jose Guillen, Luis Castillo, Vladimir Guerrero, Ubaldo Jimenez, Aramis Ramirez, and Pedro Martinez are members of Licey, but are real longshots to see action.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Jose Offerman, who was named manager in the middle of the playoffs and led the team to the championship, will return as a combination of player/coach and manager trainee. Timo Perez played in the Mexican and the independent leagues during the summer, and will be a key piece for the first month of the season. Former major league starters Carlos Perez and Jose Mercedes will also pitch for Licey.

Gigantes del Cibao (Cibao Giants)
Home: San Francisco de Macoris, 100 miles northeast of Santo Domingo.
2008-09 record: 30-20, first place regular season; 12-7 second place round-robin, beat Toros in a tie-breaker; lost final series to Licey 0-5.
Ballpark: Estadio Julian Javier; strong hitter's park, Park Factor of 107.

Outlook: A promising season ended in bitter disappointment, as the Gigantes were swept by Licey in a controversial final series that witnessed a forfeited game in favor of the eventual champion. This time the other team in the Cibao region will look for help from the league's most successful manager, Felix Fermin, who managed the Aguilas to five championships, but was fired after the season. It will be a challenge for Fermin because the Gigantes won't have several members of their powerful offensive core in action until mid-December. Kendry Morales and Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz aren't expected to play for the most part of the regular season after successful 2009 seasons in the majors. Royals backup catcher Brayan Peña will be playing in Venezuela this time, so that's a third key component who will be missed. Young Reds third baseman Juan Francisco-who hit 11 home runs last season-will be back, and will have to carry a lot of weight on his shoulders until the help comes.

The Manager: Former big-league shortstop Felix Fermin was a member of the Aguilas Cibaeñas all of his winter league life as a player, coach, and then manager. But a disastrous 2-16 record in the round-robin seemed to give management a convenient excuse to part ways with Felix, a move rumored to be in their minds for the last couple of years. Fermin will try to bring his experience and winning ways to the Gigantes, joining forces with former major leaguer Candy Maldonado, who was hired as the new GM. At least for the first half of the season Fermin won't have the great roster he was accustomed to working with during his time with the Aguilas, but if the team plays well, he should have his stars available for the playoffs.

Young Players to Watch: The powerful Francisco hit 27 home runs in two levels before a cup of coffee with the big club. It will be hard to top his .361/.419/.646 winter line of last year, but he seems capable of doing something like it again. Giants middle infielder Emmanuel Burris, who plays as a native because of Dominican heritage, is expected to see action in November. Phillies lefty Antonio Bastardo should be in the rotation by late November, and the club will feature other young arms such as Waldis Joaquin, Rafael Rodriguez, Carlos Rosa, Pedro Strop, and Pedro Viola. Red Sox shortstop prospect Oscar Tejeda and Indians outfielder Abner Abreu are on the roster, but they probably won't see much action.

The Foreign Legion: Since they won't have Morales and Cruz for a good chunk of the year, the Gigantes will need help from their foreign players to keep the offense running. Mark Wagner of the Red Sox organization will be the regular catcher, and Angels prospect Mark Trumbo will share the DH/1B positions with minor league vet Andy Tracy. Former big leaguer Jacob Cruz will be joined in the outfield by the Padres' Luis Durango and the Cardinals' Mark Hamilton. Brewers lefty Sam Narron and indie leaguer Luis Villareal will pitch in the rotation, while the Angels' David Herndon goes to the bullpen.

The Native Core: The Gigantes have one the league's deepest rosters alongside Licey and Aguilas. That depth will be tested this season because of the reasons we've mentioned before. Still, they'll have Juan Francisco, Emmanuel Burris, Alexi Casilla, Ramon Santiago, Antonio Perez, Erick Almonte, Wilson Valdez, and Lucas Montero among their position players. Their pitching is also talented, as it will feature Erick Abreu, Antonio Bastardo, Jose F. Capellan, Fabio Castro, Alfredo Simon, Julio De Paula, Aquilino Lopez, Joel Peralta, Dario Veras, and Rafael Rodriguez.

Santa Claus Will Bring: Nelson Cruz and Kendry Morales, as mentioned. Major league relievers Rafael Perez, Tony Peña, and perhaps Ramon Ramirez will pitch in December. Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz didn't play last season, but that was the first time he did not in years, so don't be surprised if he jumps into the party by the holidays. Even though there's just one in a trillion chances, we should mention that Albert Pujols, Jose Reyes, and Placido Polanco are members of this team as well. Now those guys would be big-time Christmas presents, for this or any roster.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Dario Veras is second all-time with 64 saves in the league's history, and he will need a couple more effective seasons to catch leader Arturo Peña, who has 86.

Toros del Este (Eastern Bulls)
Home: La Romana, 65 miles east of Santo Domingo. 2008-09 record: 28-22 second place regular season, 11-8, third place round-robin, lost a tiebreaker to the Gigantes.
Ballpark: Estadio Francisco A. Micheli; extreme pitcher's park, Park Factor of 89.

Outlook: The Toros combined a small ball-oriented offense, a lucky performance with balls in play, and a flukish record in one-run and close games to make it one game short of the finals despite an aggregate -2 in run differential. It remains to be seen if an offense based on high batting averages can do the trick for a second time despite playing half its games in a park that reduces batting average almost eight percent. All that said, it was the Toros' most successful season in years, as the team on the field, new colors, and an aggressive PR campaign brought the fans back to the stadium and pumped up interest in the franchise.

The Manager: Marlins coach Dean Treanor returns after an excellent 2008-09 in which he won the circuit's manager of the year award. Treanor implemented the small-ball offensive approach, realizing that it was almost impossible to do it any other way in a ballpark where fly balls die in the air, and home runs are rare. Much of the pitching success is obviously a mirage of the park, and even though their offense's collective OBP was .367, it was mainly batting average-driven. Because of Treanor's aggressive, play-the-right-way, fundamental baseball style of managing, he was adored by the media and the fans. On a team whose talent is not really overwhelming, he will need to repeat the formula to get back to the playoffs.

Young Players to Watch: The first name on this list would have been the Giants' top prospect Angel Villalona, but as many of you know, he's been accused of the murder of one of his friends during a bar fight. The chances of seeing him on a baseball field in the near future are slim. One just has to wonder if this is finally the year we see Brewers catcher Angel Salome playing with the Toros, as the first-round pick in the 2005 draft has never seen action with the club. Phillies lefty Yohan Flande, the club's first-round pick in this year's draft, will probably compete for a rotation spot in the early going. If Yankees hurler Humberto Sanchez is healthy, there's a chance we'll see him pitching a few innings.

The Foreign Legion: At the time the Toros have announced just two foreign position players, Angels outfielder Chris Pettit and utilityman Vinny Rottino. According to the team's GM, there's a chance that Rangers catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia will play with the club, as the Rangers offered his services to the Toros. Salty played last season with Escogido and destroyed the league to a .364/.506/.848 clip, hitting nine homers in 66 at-bats. Pitchers Robert Mosebach, Wesley Wright, Matt DeSalvo, and Rich Thompson complete the list of foreign players.

The Native Core: The Toros don't have the same sort of major league talent on their roster that other clubs have. For many years now, the team's two most consistent players have been utilitymen Esteban German and Eddy Garabito. The rest of the offense will include Ricardo Nanita, Andy Marte, Manny Mayorson, Danny Richar, Victor Mercedes, Angel Berroa, Alejandro De Aza, Jose Constanza, and Ruddy Yan. The starting rotation has been a source of strength the last couple of seasons, and will feature Omar Beltré, Joselo Diaz, Robinson Tejeda, Jose M. Capellan, Ruddy Lugo and Eude Brito. Winston Abreu, Angel Castro, Juan Morillo, and closer Julio Mañon are the prominent relievers.

Santa Claus Will Bring: The Toros believe they will have super-prospect Neftali Feliz pitching for them, mostly because the Rangers are moving him back to starting games, and winter ball could be the perfect place for him to take his refresher course. If they can have Saltalamacchia as the fries alongside the Feliz Happy Meal combo (something the Rangers, according to the Toros GM, are thinking) then so much the better. Dodgers pitcher Ramon Troncoso is a possibility, although he has pitched a lot of innings in '09, and is still pitching in the postseason. Astros closer Jose Valverde is a longshot, although he practiced a couple of times with the team last season, and hinted at his desire to pitch in the finals, but the Toros fell short.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Former star reliever Armando Benitez, who saved 16 games in the independent Atlantic League and pitched in Triple A for Houston, is another arm the Toros will have in the bullpen.

Aguilas Cibaeñas (Cibao Eagles)
Home: Santiago de los Caballeros, 110 miles northwest of Santo Domingo
2008-09 record: 26-24, fourth place (tied) regular season; 2-16, last place round-robin.
Ballpark: Estadio Cibao; extreme hitter's park, Park factor of 112

Outlook: The league's other dominant franchise suffered a disappointing season that included the decline of some of their veteran players, internal turmoil, the defections of some players in the round-robin tournament (most notably relievers Leo Nuñez and Jose Arredondo), and the cosmic failure of signing Andruw Jones in his attempt to come back from a disastrous 2008 with the Dodgers. After the dust settled, the manager with the longest tenure in league's history, the successful Felix Fermin, was unceremoniously let go by as his contract expired. Luichy Sanchez, one of the team's broadcasters, was promoted to general manager, and a few weeks later the team released a group of veteran players, including catcher Alberto Castillo, outfielder Alexis Gomez, and utilityman Bernie Castro. It seems the Aguilas are in a transitional period and open to give more opportunity to young players, but if the team is returning to the finals next season, they still will be dependent of their veterans and major league stars.

The Manager: The front office decided to look overseas when they hired a new manager. Reds minor league manager Rick Sweet will be the man in charge this season, and he comes with a previous experience managing in winter ball. Sweet played with Escogido in the late '70s, so he knows a little bit about the league. The last two Americans to manage the Aguilas won the championship, Terry Francona in '96 and Mike Quade in '97.

Young players to watch: The Aguilas hope new Diamondback Tony Abreu can have a healthy season and be their regular second baseman. Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon should be the everyday leadoff man. Rockies right-hander Sam Deduno led the Texas League in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, and will be in the Aguilas' starting rotation from day one. And then there's Tony Peña, Jr. who, for all practical purposes, will be an inexperienced young pitcher after his brief big-league career as a shortstop. The Aguilas love his kid brother, Francisco Peña, and are selling him as a backup catcher possibility, even though he had another undistinguished season with the bat in High-A.

The Foreign Legion: Sweet will bring a few of his guys from Louisville, including catcher Craig Tatum, first baseman Kevin Barker, and pitchers Ben Jukich, Jeff Kennard, and Sam LeCure. Rounding out the foreign forces, the team will have veteran southpaw John Halama and outfielder Matt Carson. Reds outfielder Jay Bruce was officially announced as someone who'd play for a month with the Aguilas, but he decided after the major league season ended that he'd gotten enough at-bats and wasn't going to need the extra winter league work.

The Native Core: For the first stage of the season the Aguilas will heavily depend on the aforementioned Abreu and Borbon, Hector Luna, Mendy Lopez, Luis Terrero, Victor Diaz, Dionys Cesar (who's coming back after several years of playing in the Mexican Pacific League during the winter), and of course the incomparable Luis Polonia. After his regression in 2009, the Aguilas are expecting Blue Jays third baseman Edwin Encarnacion to be on the club by November. On the pitching side, veterans Julian Tavarez and Jose Lima will anchor the rotation, with Claudio Vargas jumping in by mid-November. The bullpen has Wilkins Arias, Armando Gabino, Luis Perdomo, Santiago Ramirez, and Jose Vargas.

Santa Claus Will Bring: A flurry of major league regulars, possibly including Miguel Tejada (who didn't play last season, but who is also going to be a free agent), Rafael Furcal, Jhonny Peralta, Willy Taveras, and Melky Cabrera for offensive help, and Johnny Cueto, Jose Arredondo, Leo Nuñez, Fausto Carmona, Bartolo Colon, Luis Vizcaino, Carlos Villanueva, and Wandy Rodriguez on the pitching side. Not all of them will play, of course, but the Aguilas will be happy with just a third of this group.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Polonia debuted in the Dominican League during the 1984-85 season. Last year he hit .328 in 192 at-bats (that's the 2008-09 winter league), breaking Miguel Dilone's all-time hits record with 903. It is almost unbelievable that a guy who's probably older than 45, and who hasn't play organized baseball during the summer for a few years now, can still be productive in a league of this level.

Leones del Escogido (Escogido Lions)
Home: Santo Domingo
2008-09 record: 25-25, fifth place regular season; didn't qualify for the playoffs.
Ballpark: Estadio Quisqueya; strong pitcher's park, Park Factor of 92.

Outlook: It was another season of failure for Escogido, as they missed the playoffs by one game, losing a couple of games against the Aguilas when they were battling for the last playoff spot at the end of the regular schedule. But the most important development for Escogido happened off the field. Three of the country's richest families organized a group and bought the team from Dr. Julio Hazim, who failed in his attempts to win a crown after buying the club about six years ago. One of the new management's first steps was to bring back Junior Noboa, a key member of the Escogido dynasty in the late '80s, and a man with a lot of experience at the GM position in the league. Even though Noboa will have the responsibility of building the team, he doesn't have the GM's title. That's because Moises Alou, who was traded from the Aguilas to Escogido for Raul Mondesi in 2000, and is the son and nephew of two of the greatest Escogido players of all time (Felipe and Matty) is the team's new GM. Curiously, Moises never played an inning with the Lions, but has the chance to be a hero from the management side.

The Manager: Former big league third baseman Ken Oberkfell will manage the team this season. It will be interesting to see what happens if they start slowly because Oberkfell was actually signed by the Hazim regime. The manager has been a position of instability for the team, as 13 different men have occupied the seat in this decade, including Mako Oliveras and Bruce Fields, who managed the team more than once, and Tony Peña Sr., who was hired once during the playoffs, getting introduced officially to the press only to resign three hours later without managing a game, and already on his way back home.

Young Players to Watch: Top Indians prospect Carlos Santana will catch, and is probably the most attractive young name in the league. Santana didn't play in the last winter ball season because of fatigue, but Noboa is confident the Indians will let him play this time. Cuban Donell Linares of the Braves has the inside track to be the regular third baseman. Outfielder Fernando Martinez of the Mets had an impressive first complete season in the Dominican last year, hitting .314/.376/.542 in 153 at-bats, and will be a key member of this team if he's healthy.

The Foreign Legion: Offensively, the Lions will feature outfielders Jamie Hoffman, Brennan Boesch, and Conor Jackson, who's looking for at-bats after a 2009 essentially lost to illness. Second baseman Eric Young Jr. and catchers Michael McKenry and Alex Avila round out the position players. The pitchers will count Royals lefty Dusty Hughes among their number; he's returning after a successful season last year with Escogido. They'll also have Zack Segovia, Tobi Stoner, and Shane Lindsay. The Mets' Daniel Murphy was supposed to continue his education as a first baseman with Escogido during the winter, but as with Jay Bruce with the Aguilas, he decided to stay home.

The Native Core: If healthy, Santana and Martinez will be prominent members of this core. Wilson Betemit is the third baseman, at least on opening day. Returning from an excellent .329/.403/.516 campaign last winter will be Diory Hernandez, and he'll be playing at shortstop. Argenis Reyes, Abraham Nuñez, Willis Otañez, and Freddy Guzman will all see regular action. After a 2009 that showed he still have a lot to learn, one assumes Carlos Gomez of the Twins should join the team very early and work on his game. The pitching staff includes Carlos Almanzar, Jorge De Paula, Bartolome Fortunato, Julio Mateo, Warner Madrigal, Yunior Novoa, Nerio Rodriguez, Elizardo Ramirez, Edward Valdez, Victor Santos, Merkin Valdez, and Jose Veras.

Santa Claus Will Bring: Well not A-Rod and Big Papi, who are members of the roster, but no one expect to see in the near future wearing Escogido red. Major league relievers like Santiago Casilla, Roman Colon, and Rafael Soriano could be available if the team makes the playoffs, and the list could expand to include Francisco Cordero, Octavio Dotel, and Fernando Rodney. Another player who can use a few weeks of winter ball to work on things is Twins lefty Francisco Liriano, who the Lions would love to have in their rotation. Veteran infielder Juan Uribe and catcher Miguel Olivo are two other names expected to join the team in December.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Ruben Mateo was once of baseball's best outfield prospects. He played in Mexico briefly during the summer, and he will try to keep his career alive coming from the bench with Escogido.

Estrellas de Oriente (Oriental Stars)
Home: San Pedro de Macoris, 45 miles east of Santo Domingo
2008-09 record: 16-34, sixth place regular season; didn't qualify for the playoffs.
Ballpark: Estadio Tetelo Vargas; neutral, Park Factor of 101.

Outlook: An improbable run to the finals that fell short during the 2007-08 season was, ironically, one of the main reasons for the Estrellas' total collapse last year. As often happens in the majors, the brief and unlikely success of a group of overachievers gave management the belief they were very close to a championship, when reality was a totally different story. Alfredo Griffin resigned as a GM in the middle of the season when upper management forced him to release all the foreign players he brought with him from the Angels organization. Days later, manager Arturo DeFreites was removed from his position, and Orioles chief scout and former coach Carlos Bernhardt was promoted from pitching coach to manager. The team played well under his guidance, finishing the season 10-9, and the owners rewarded Bernhardt with total control of the team, making him both the GM and field manager for this season. Bernhardt previous experience as a GM was a few years ago with the Toros, and the team qualified for the round-robin twice under him.

The Manager: Bernhardt had his long-time dream of becoming the Estrellas' manager finally materialize, and he's talking championship everywhere he goes, showing great optimism about the team he is building for this season. He's a pitching expert, but it remains to be seen how well he'll handle the other facets of the game during his first full season at the helm. Managing a team that hasn't won a championship since 1968, Bernhardt might see a statue erected for him on every street of the town if he somehow wins one.

Young Players to Watch: The team's disastrous season provided the first pick of the draft, and with it the team selected top Pirates prospect Pedro Alvarez for third base. It is not clear, however, if Alvarez is going to play with the team this season, but if he does, he'll be one of the league's noteworthy attractions. Giants infielder Eugenio Velez will join the team almost from the beginning and will bat leadoff. Tigers right-hander Alfredo Figaro is one of Bernhardt's projected starters, and Giants righty Henry Sosa also has a chance to see action.

The Foreign Legion: A group of minor league veterans and former major leaguers will lead the position players group this year. Outfielders Brady Clark and Paul McAnulty team up with first baseman Josh Pressley. The Estrellas also have Cuban outfielder Yasser Gomez and Japanese shortstop Tetsuya Tani. The rotation will have left-handers Evan McLane and Shouji Nagamine, both returning to pitch for the team, and righty Tim Corcoran will be among the starters.

The Native Core: The Estrellas believe they have a much better group than they had the year before, one that includes Fernando Tatis, Eugenio Velez, Robinzon Diaz, Joel Guzman, Tony Blanco, Pablo Ozuna, Henry Mateo, Pedro Lopez, Juan Richardson and Jovanny Rosario. The pitchers should be Odalis Perez, Greg Aquino, Jesus Colome, Eulogio De la Cruz, Alfredo Figaro, Roberto Giron, Kelvin Jimenez, Radhames Liz, and Jailen Peguero.

Santa Claus Will Bring: Robinson Cano, and hopefully without a limited number of at-bats. Cano has played with his hometown team the last two seasons, but the Estrellas' bad luck is such that two years ago the Yankees ordered Cano to stop playing just when the team needed him most in the playoffs (maybe costing the team a trip to the finals), and the 75 at-bats he had last season were irrelevant because the team was out of competition very early. If the team can advance to the playoffs, Cano's bat would be invaluable. You can also include Pedro Alvarez in the list of possible presents; his bat is advanced enough that he could provide the club a dangerous pair of bats if he joins Cano.

No, Really, They're Still Around: Antonio Alfonseca saved 15 games in the independent Atlantic League, but his ERA was almost 7.00, and it remains to be seen if Bernhardt will find a place for him in the Estrellas bullpen.

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