The Dominican Winter League is back for its 53rd season, and is commemorating the arrival of the first Dominican-born player to the Major Leagues, Osvaldo or Ozzie Virgil with the New York Giants in 1956. The league has dedicated the season to Virgil, and the six ballclubs are wearing special patches in their uniforms to celebrate the occasion.
Fittingly, a half-century later, the talent level of the league has never been better. Good young Dominican players populate the rosters of every team, and you can usually find three or four top prospects on the field on a nightly basis. If you add to the mix several veteran players with major league experience, and perhaps the best group of foreign players of the last few years, you’re not going to find a better quality of baseball now that the big leaguers will be off until next spring.
On the competition side, the current champions, Tigres del Licey, have a few goals in mind for this season. First of all, Licey is trying to repeat as champions for the first time in more than twenty years. The Tigres won three consecutive titles from the 1982-83 through 1984-85 seasons, but ever since a title revalidation has become elusive for the nation’s most storied and followed franchise. If this goal can be attained, then the next one will be winning their tenth Caribbean Series crown, the most in the history of the event.
In that regard the Tigers are off to a very good start, tied in first place with Escogido Lions with an 8-4 record. Run prevention has been the key for Licey, as their pitching and defense have allowed a league-best 3.8 runs per game, with the bullpen a solid contributor in this regard. As for the Lions, they lost to the Tigers 7-1 on opening night, and then won seven of the next eight games. Keeping Escogido on top is the league’s most efficient offense and solid starting pitching.
The always-dangerous Aguilas Cibaeñas are playing mediocre baseball by their lofty standards. The torrid start that has been the team trademark the last decade is absent this time around, and the result is a 6-6 record. Bullpen depth has been a problem for the team on the early going.
The other team from the Cibao region, the San Francisco de Macoris-based Giants, are also playing .500 baseball, but almost everyone–writers and players equally–believe that this is going to be a dangerous team during the season. The Giants made Cuban-born Kendry Morales (now a Dominican citizen) the first overall pick in last September’s rookie players draft, and now boast a dangerous middle of the order that includes Morales and Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz.
In San Pedro de Macoris, the Estrellas de Oriente have a fine group of infielders and young arms, but lack outfield depth and power. They have also traded away–for understandable reasons according to the team’s front office–a considerable amount of talent the last few years. This summer, for example, in separate deals the team traded Braves infielder Willy Aybar and Rangers outfielder Freddy Guzman for Nationals outfielder Tony Blanco–who’s injured and hasn’t been able to play yet–and Cubs catcher Jose Reyes. An anemic offense generating only 2.9 runs per game is responsible for a mediocre 5-7 start.
The league’s worst pitching staff and a poor offense have sunk the Azucareros del Este to the cellar with a 3-9 record. Many of the team’s best pitchers didn’t start the season with the club, and even though they’re expected to join the team during the month of November, a 50-game schedule doesn’t provide much margin for error or hope.
Foreign players of note
As we mentioned before, several noted American prospects are playing in the first stage of the season in the league. The list includes:
- Aguilas Cibaeñas: Indians 1B-C Ryan Garko leads the group, but he’s hitting just .171/.286/.220 in 41 at-bats, with two doubles and two RBI. Red Sox outfielder Brandon Moss is tearing up the league, though, hitting .261/.314/.500 with a pair of homers in 46 at-bats. On the mound, former Brewer knuckleballer Jared Fernandez was hit hard in his first two outings (losing both), but rebounded with a walk-less five-inning, two-run effort last Tuesday against the Estrellas. Overall, Fernandez has allowed ten runs (eight earned), 16 hits, and six bases on balls in 13 innings pitched, but he won eight games between the regular season and playoffs for this club last year. As far as his 2007 prospects, Fernandez is a minor league free agent.
- Azucareros del Este: Diamondbacks first baseman Chris Carter was the team’s best ranked foreign player, but he suffered an injury in the third game of the season and left the team. Carter went 2-for-9 with a home run and two walks in his brief stint. Indians catcher Wyatt Toregas is hitting .333/.419/.500 with a league-leading six doubles in 36 at-bats.
- Leones del Escogido: The Lions have probably the best group of foreign players at the moment. Reds first baseman Joey Votto is hitting .303/.477/.485 in 33 at-bats. Votto also has 11 walks and four stolen bases. He hit a home run off of Licey’s Jose Jimenez in his first at-bat of the season, but hasn’t homered since. Also from the Reds, outfielder Chris Denorfia is off to a slow start, hitting just .233/.283/.256 with one XBH (a double) in 43 at-bats. Royals outfielder Shane Costa has been struckout just once in 37 at-bats; he’s hitting .324/.375/.432. The pitchers have been very good. Marlins‘ lefty Jason Vargas is trying to finish the year on a good note with six scoreless innings in four appereances from the bullpen; he’s allowed just two hits and two bases on balls against five strikeouts. Also pitching well are veteran minor leaguers Pete Munro (one run, 7 Ks in 10.1 IP) and Britt Reames (2 runs, 7 Ks in 10 IP)
- Estrellas de Oriente: If the Leones have the best crop of imports, then the Estrellas must have, if not the worst, the least inspiring one. Former Red Sox prospects (and busts) first baseman Juan Diaz and outfielder Michael Coleman didn’t hit a lick, and the team released both last Monday. Journeyman Shawn Wooten recently joined the club, and is just 1-for-10. He slugged .361 in the International League, so maybe he’s not the answer to Estrellas’ offensive needs. But there’s a bright side in that they do have Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, who joined the team during the weekend. A rusty Kemp got his first hit of the season, a triple, on Tuesday night. Panamanian Lenin Picota and Japanese Akifumi Takahashi are members of the pitching staff, but neither pitched in organized baseball in 2006.
- Gigantes del Cibao: Tigers infielder Jack Hannahan has walked 11 times, but his BA and SLG are a subpar .206 and .324. Braves catcher Brayan Peña is 4-for-23 with no extra-base hits, but is injured at the moment and is out indefinitely.
- Licey Tigers: Talented Dodgers first base prospect James Loney replaced Devil Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes in the Tigers plans just before the season started. Loney is not hitting the way he’s capable–only .250/.340/.450 so far–but he’s struck out just four times. Loney hit a monstrous home run off Azucareros Juan Morillo at La Romana’s Francisco Micheli Stadium, a terrible home-run park, and you can see from his at-bats that his swing is just a little off. Defensively, Loney has played a brilliant first base so far. Devil Rays catcher Shawn Riggans has played in just four games (going 2-for-14), but has been a victim of the flu and missed a few games. Mets righthander Henry Owens is leading the league with four saves.
Orioles righty Radhames Liz has been the talk of the league on the pitching side with impressive–albeit brief–performances in his first two starts for the Estrellas. Against Escogido on October 21, Liz pitched four scoreless innings, allowing just one hit, no walks. and striking out seven hitters on a limited pitch count. On the 27th, Liz threw four more scoreless innings against the Aguilas, striking out eight hitters, but this time allowing three hits and four walks. The numerous walks and punchouts conspired against Liz’ first career win in the league, as he reached his pitch count very early. The young righthander has exhibited a powerful combination of a 95-97 mph fastball and a nasty curveball he used to dominate two lineups filled with experienced hitters.
Dodgers second baseman Tony Abreu is hitting .375 (9 for 24) with two doubles playing for the Aguilas… Yankees righthander Erick Abreu has allowed one run in eight innings with nine strikeouts and just one walked batter. Abreu is pitching for Escogido… Devil Rays third baseman Joel Guzman is hitting .271/.294/.375 in 48 at bats for the Estrellas. Guzman has one homer and two doubles, but just two walks, although he’s making better contact, striking out six times. Guzman led the league in RBI last year with 33, but has only driven in four in the first 12 games. Defensively, he’s been playing at third and first base… On Tuesday night Angels first baseman Kendry Morales became just the sixth player in league history to hit three homers in one game when the Gigantes defeated Licey 13-3. Morales is now leading the league with five home runs, and after a slow start is hitting .255/.294/.617 in 47 at-bats. Winston Llenas (twice), Rico Carty, Greg Brock, Francisco Morales and Angel Peña are the other players with three homers in a single game… Morales’ teammate, Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, hit two homers in the same game, and is hitting .303/.425/.545 in 33 at-bats. Cruz led the league in homers last season, although his already-high number of strikeouts (14) is a negative… Phillies lefty Fabio Castro is going to be used as a starter by the Gigantes during the season. Castro has allowed three unearned runs in two starts, but has just pitched three innings each time… Cubs outfielder Felix Pie is trying for the third season in a row to establish himself as the regular center fielder for Licey. Pie is hitting .310/.326/.381 with ten RBI, but has walked just once in 42 at-bats. Cubs’ roving hitting instructor Von Joshua was sent to the country to work exclusively with Pie during the early part of the winter season.
Former Twins third baseman Tony Batista joined the Aguilas lineup from the first day of the season, and is hitting .286/.308/.510 with three home runs and a league-leading 15 RBI in 12 games. Defensively, the story is pretty much the same, as Batista has lost a considerable amount of mobility, making him a liability with the glove… A 42-year-old Luis Polonia is hitting .314 in 51 at-bats for the Aguilas. Polonia is playing his 23rd season in the league, and recently broke the career triples record, previously held by Manny Mota with 41… Former Yankee southpaw Felix Heredia is looking for another shot in the bigs, and has a 1.84 ERA in 14.2 IP for the Azucareros. Heredia has walked just three and struck out 11… Another former Yankee, infielder Enrique Wilson, has driven in ten runs for Escogido, but is hitting .244. On a brighter note, Wilson has yet to strike out… Licey outfielder Timo Perez is tied for the league lead in doubles with six, and is hitting .293 in 41 at-bats. Perez played in the Cardinals organization during the summer… Lefthander Carlos Perez has 6 strikeouts and no runs or walks allowed in 3.1 relief innings for Licey. Perez was very good in the situational lefty role since last year.
Rangers shortstop Joaquin Arias, Rockies righthander Denny Bautista. and Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp joined the Estrellas during the last few days. The Estrellas signed former Cardinals righthander Jason Simontacchi, and he’s expected to join the club during the weekend… Rangers righty Joaquin Benoit has been training with the Aguilas, and is expected soon. Tigers outfielder Alexis Gomez will be in the lineup by the end of this week, and Royals righthander Leo Nunez is ready to make his debut… Pirates catcher Ronny Paulino and righties Winston Abreu and Julio Manon will debut for the Azucareros during the week… Dodgers infielder Wilson Betemit debuted with Escogido on Tuesday night, and hit a dramatic three-run walk-off home run, becoming an instant hero for the Leones. The front office expects Phillies infielder Abraham Nuñez and Mariners righthander Julio Mateo for the weekend, and White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe has announced that he’ll be practicing with the team and will probably be ready by early next week… Royals righty reliever Joel Peralta debuted for the Gigantes on Tuesday… Angels shortstop prospect Erick Aybar finally made his debut for Licey on Monday. A sore wrist had previously sidelined him in the season after he’d been one of the heroes of last year’s championship. Mets infielder Anderson Hernandez also joined the team during the weekend. Pitchers Francis Beltran, Carlos Marmol, and Frank Francisco could be pitching in ten days. Veteran Jose Offerman and D’Angelo Jimenez will probably begin to practice with the team sometime during the week. Licey also signed former White Sox pitching prospect Carlos Castillo.
As mentioned before, the Estrellas released Michael Coleman and Juan Diaz. Licey released Dodgers righthander Mark Alexander on Wednesday. Alexander just pitched two innings in four games, but struggled with his command and seemed to be out of shape. Azucareros first baseman Chris Carter left the team after an injury suffered in the third game of the season.
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.