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February 2, 2009

Caribbean Series 2009

Preview

by Derek Jacques

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Normally, I'd start this preview by setting the scene in Mexicali, Mexico, the site of this year's Caribbean Series-you know, lightly bragging about the good weather and local hospitality while the bulk of our readership suffers through yet another harsh North American winter. But I can't open with that intro, because I am in fact writing from New York City. Although I was looking forward to finally visiting Baja California, for reasons too boring to get into in this space, unlike the past couple of years I'll be following this year's series on TV, courtesy of the MLB Network. For that reason, we won't have daily columns on the Series, and most updates on any issues that may arise during the Series will go up on Unfiltered.

For anyone who's new to the Caribbean Series, this is how it works: a field of four national teams, representing the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, face off in a week-long round-robin tournament, each team playing its three opponents twice apiece-that's a doubleheader per day at a single site in the host country. The national teams are their respective winter leagues' champions, "reinforced" with talent from throughout the league. So, for example, if the US were participating in this kind of tourney, their representative would be the Phillies, and the Phils would be free to select an American third baseman or catcher to strengthen themselves at those positions. Ideally, the ultimate effect is something that's better than just a good winter league team, but a bit more cohesive than a hastily assembled national all-star team. I say "ideally" because, particularly in recent years, the reality is that many of the winter league stalwarts who are the property of a major league club are denied permission to participate, or they decide on their own to rest up for spring training, rather than play in the Series. These defections, which seem to have been exacerbated this year by the World Baseball Classic, leave some Caribbean Series teams as an undistinguished patchwork of mediocre talents. Without further ado, here are some quick highlights of the teams who'll be taking the field in Mexicali.

Dominican Republic: Licey Tigers

  • The Story So Far: An exciting regular season and round-robin semifinal were marred by controversy in the final head-to-head round of playoffs. Licey, the reigning Caribbean Series champs, swept their opponents, the Cibao Giants, in five games; however, the team's performance was overshadowed by a series of incidents, mainly involving minor league umpire Jeff Macias. In Game One, Licey's go-ahead run scored on a blown call by home-plate ump Macias-replays showed that veteran Ronnie Belliard never touched the plate. In Game Two, Macias wound up behind the plate again, when his umpiring crewmate fell ill; the Giants players got so worked up over his strike zone that second baseman Felix Martinez charged and attempted to tackle Macias, who was saved by a teammate's intervention.

    After the Giants lost Game Two in extra innings, things got really strange. Martinez was called into the league office, and was apparently cleared to play that night. Sometime between the late afternoon meeting with the league and game time, the league changed its mind, and suspended Martinez for the remainder of the playoffs. Game Three was delayed nearly an hour as the umps refused to accept the Giants' lineup with Martinez leading off, and the Giants refused to take the field without their teammate. The Giants wound up forfeiting the pivotal third game, and all but handing Licey their 20th league championship.

  • Major Leaguers' Participation: The majority of Licey's lineup saw action on a major league active roster last season, including Erick Aybar (Angels), Willy Aybar (Rays), Jose Bautista (Blue Jays), Ron Belliard (Nationals), Anderson Hernandez (Nats), and Ronnie Paulino (Pirates). Manager Jose Offerman seems to be carrying over essentially the same offense that Licey used during the playoffs, focusing most of his reinforcements on the pitching staff, which needed the help-the team lost closer Carlos Marmol and starters Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Daniel Cabrera after the Dominican League finals. So that's four established major leaguers who are being replaced with four players who... aren't (Julio Manon, Alfredo Simon, Nerio Rodriguez, and alleged spousal-abuser Julio Mateo).

  • Prospects to Watch: It's pretty thin gruel in the Caribbean Series overall-everyone's working with veteran rosters. In this crowd, outfielder Fernando Martinez sticks out like a sore thumb; per our own Kevin Goldstein, he's the top prospect in the Mets organization, and he's only 20 years old. Martinez had a nice season in the Dominican Winter League (.314/.376/.542) after being cut by a team in Venezuela. The big question about Martinez is, will he play? Martinez is the only one of the team's outfielders not to play for Licey under Offerman this season-if he's riding the pine and pinch-running for the Dominicans in Mexicali, the Mets are risking an injury for very little return. After Martinez, Robinzon Diaz is youngish and places somewhere on the Pirates' depth chart at catcher. Despite a poor winter league season, he may become a factor in the Series because Paulino is restricted to only three starts behind the plate for the week.

  • Handicapping Their Chances: They're the overwhelming favorites, but the mound substitutions coming into this series should give the wagering classes pause. Licey's play during the season was marked by defensive lapses and sloppy play, which isn't a great sign when someone's about to swap your major league-ready starting rotation for Folger's crystals.

Mexico: Mazatlan Stags

  • The Story So Far: Mazatlan caught fire in the second half of the Mexican League season, and rode that hot streak into the playoffs. While the final against Mochis wasn't a cakewalk-the first game was an 11-inning 1-0 nail-biter-it was a four-game sweep.

  • Major Leaguers' Participation: If you look at the right side of Mexico's infield, you might think you were watching a Padres game, with brothers Edgar and Adrian Gonzalez manning their positions. Another Edgar Gonzalez, this one Edgar G. Gonzalez the Diamondbacks' pitcher, is trying to prove that he's recovered from the elbow troubles that cost him the second half of the season. Otherwise, the roster is full of Mexican Summer League veterans and minor league journeymen.

  • Prospects to Watch: Third baseman Freddy Sandoval had the season of his career in Salt Lake last year (.335 average, 45 doubles), and while his Mexican League season wasn't quite that impressive (.286/.373/.474) he's still intriguing. At 26, he's a bit old for the prospect designation, but then again, his competition is the likes of 2007 Rule 5 pick (now cannon fodder for Mexican Summer League) Sergio Valenzuela. In the non-prospect category, an unfamiliar name that might come up a bit is Mexicali local Christian Presichi. A 28-year-old oufielder, Presichi's a nine-year Mexican League veteran whose performance last summer translated to a .276 EqA.

  • Handicapping Their Chances: The last time the Series was in Mexico, Mazatlan grabbed the title for the home fans, and they hope to do so again. Keeping Adrian Gonzalez in the fold for the Series does show a greater dedication to winning than the last couple of go-rounds, and despite the lack of brand names, Mazatlan's pitching was consistently the best in Mexico, and by a large margin.

Venezuela: Aragua Tigers

  • The Story So Far: Aragua had the hardest fight of any team to make it to the Series, surviving a two-game playoff when the Venezuelan League's round-robin semifinal ended in a three way tie, then going the distance with their arch-rivals, the Caracas Lions.

  • Major Leaguers' Participation: Minimal. Luis Maza and Raul Chavez both had backup work in The Show at some point during 2008, and beyond them, the rest of the squad is made up of minor leaguers, Mexican Leaguers, or worse. Among the Tigers with big-league experience who didn't make it out to Mexicali: the Braves' Martin Prado, Matt Tolbert, and Ronnie Cedeno.

  • Prospects to Watch: The Venezuelan League's MVP, fringe Giants prospect Jesus Guzman, and its Rookie of the Year, Rangers farmhand Max Ramirez, didn't join the Caribbean Series squad. However, the Twins' Wilson Ramos is a promising young catcher and a legitimate prospect. Another Minnesota minor leaguer, Oswaldo Sosa, hasn't acquitted himself very well, in the minors or in winter ball (he had a 9.90 ERA in the regular season), but I'm looking forward to seeing his ground-ball repertoire at work.

  • Handicapping Their Chances: Aragua just netted its third straight Venezuelan Winter League title, as well as its fifth in the past six years. But as far as the Caribbean Series is concerned, they're a bit of a flop-they're not responsible for any of Venezuela's six Caribbean Series titles, and given the talent available, I don't think that's going to change this year. It's amazing that a country that has produced so much high-level baseball talent hasn't put out teams that are representative of that talent more often.

Puerto Rico-Ponce Lions

  • The Story So Far: The big story is just that we have a Puerto Rican team at the Caribbean Series-last season, the Puerto Rican Winter League was out of business, and its slot was filled by a second Dominican team (Licey, who won the series). In this comeback season, Ponce was the class of the league based on superior pitching, which led the league in ERA and strikeouts, during both the regular season and the playoffs. In the Puerto Rican final, they beat the Arecibo Wolves decisively in five games.

  • Major Leaguers' Participation: Uh, Robinson Cancel? The Puerto Ricans actually had the participation of some major league players this winter-guys like Ivan Rodriguez, Pedro Feliciano, Javier Vazquez, and Jose and Javier Valentin-and there were also a number of recent-vintage retreads with major league experience, like Ruben Gotay and Bernie Williams. By the time the Series rolled along, however, all that was left to take to Mexico were marginal guys like Cancel, Raul Casanova, and Fernando Cabrera.

  • Prospects to Watch: Similarly, during the season there were some actual prospects in the Puerto Rican League, such as the Dodgers' second-ranked prospect Ivan De Jesus Jr., as well as guys like Neftali Soto, Dillon Gee, and Ian Kennedy, who may not be on that level, but who still have a decent shot at careers. Of the minor leaguers who made the trip to Mexico, the most promising might be 28-year-old league MVP Jorge Padilla, a onetime top Phillies prospect whose power flamed out at Double-A in 2002, seemed to make a slight comeback in 2007 (when he hit 16 homers between the Texas and Pacific Coast Leagues), and looked to have died for good in the minors this season (.072 unadjusted isolated power, in another season split between Double- and Triple-A). Then Padilla came to Arecibo and hit 10 homers and drove in 44 runs in 39 games. A slump in the playoffs (.273/.298/.409 with 1 home unr and 3 RBI in 10 games) might have made the point about small sample sizes better than I could, but someone may connect this data point with his former toolsy-prospect status to make an argument for giving him a shot.

  • Handicapping Their Chances: No one would enjoy seeing the Puerto Ricans make a triumphant return to the Caribbean Series more than I would, but I think one miracle per winter might be all we should expect, particularly given the way so many of the Puerto Rican League's best and brightest have decided to sit this series out.

---

Working on this off-site, I have to thank the folks at MLB.com, whose ridiculously good Caribbean Series page has been the best resource for rosters and winter league statistics. I'm pretty sure this will be the MLB Network's first attempt to cover a live event, and I'm really quite curious to see how they put together the broadcast. It'd be criminal if they don't find a way to pair Victor Rojas with his father, Cookie, in the broadcast booth, and as a bonus, Eddy Perez is managing the Puerto Rican squad rather than manning a mike.

If any of you are watching the Series, I'll ask you to post your thoughts in the comments section below. If there's enough demand, I'll set up open threads on Unfiltered each day the Series continues, so that we can carry on a conversation about it.

Derek Jacques is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Derek's other articles. You can contact Derek by clicking here

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