Baseball is Coming! (to Puerto Rico)
By Chris Hannum
Just two more days and it will be February… two weeks after that Spring Training will begin… but we don’t have to wait that long to watch some quality baseball. I’m not talking about Magglio Ordonez serving up fries with the winter caravan, I’m talking about the Caribbean Series.
For those of you who aren’t in the know, the champions of the four offseason Caribbean leagues (Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican & Mexican) play a week-long round-robin championship series every February. This year it will be held in Puerto Rico and runs from February 2 (next Wednesday) through February 7 (the following Monday). Games will be televised (or so I hear) on ESPN Deportes. The winter leagues don’t get an awful lot of coverage in the US, though MiLB.com does keep track of regular season (not postseason) winter league stats for Caribbean leagues just like the AFL and MLB.com (though their site really doesn’t function well for it) posts scoreboards, box scores and rosters. They are a big deal down there, though, an issue of national pride – so much so that major leaguers want to play even if they don’t make millions.
The Puerto Rican representative has just been decided, the Criollos de Caguas defeated the Leones de Ponce for the championship. The Tigers don’t have any representatives on the Criollos, unless you count offseason minor-league free-agent catcher Omir Santos. The prospect of watching Santos isn’t anything to get excited about, but for those of you who crave baseball like I do… ?
The Dominican Winter League playoffs wrapped up a week ago, with the Toros del Este from La Romana emerging victorious. Tigers prospect Andy Dirks made a big contribution toward getting the team into the playoffs, with a .906 OPS in 165 at-bats during the regular (winter) season. He continued that torrid pace in the round-robin, the first round of the Dominican playoffs with an .835 OPS in 52 at-bats. He did not hit well in the finals, with only one hit. I’d be curious to see him play on a slightly larger stage in the Caribbean Series, but unfortunately he did not make the final Caribbean Series roster. I am puzzled wondering why, given how much and how well he played, that would be the case. Did he get hurt? Is he not able to represent the Dominican Republic? There isn’t a lot of news from down there, in English anyway, so I just don’t know. Much like I don’t know what happened to Robbie Weinhardt in Puerto Rico or Casper Wells in the Dominican. What I get through Google Translate is “outfielder Andy Dirks, imported the best in the league last season, anticipated to be unable to participate” (don’t you love Google Translate?) I hope something changes and he does get to play, but I doubt it.
The remaining two leagues champions are yet to be decided, although one or both should be by the time this is posted. The Mexican Pacific League finals will shortly be beginning the clinching game 7 between Guasave and Obregon. If any Tigers fans out there remember Jose Macias, he’s on the Guasave squad – though currently on the DL. Is Guasave wins game seven, we may see Macias again in the Caribbean Series. Most of the players on both squads play in the Mexican league, as Macias has for the past four years, and while we see a fair number of former major leaguers we don’t see so many prospects.
The last to be decided may be the Venezuelan league… as I write this, Saturday night, the Tigres de Aragua have a 2-1 lead over the Caribes de Anzoategui in the fourth inning of game 6. The Caribes hold a 3-2 lead, so if the Tigres de Aragua are able to force a game seven the Venezuelan champion will be decided Sunday night. Gustavo Nunez, Brayan Villarreal and Avisail Garcia all played a bit for the Caribes early in the season, but none played well and none played much. None saw postseason action. Magglio Ordonez has played for the Caribes in the past, and reportedly wanted do play again this year but was not allowed by the terms of his major league contract. The same goes for Miguel Cabrera, who will be cheering but not playing for his team the Tigres de Aragua. This comes from, so it could be a bit garbled, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing our stars yet this February. To me, that’s a disappointment. I’m not a big fan of the idea of an enforced ‘offseason’ for baseball players, except possibly pitchers. The risk of injury is not all that high, and it isn’t related to wear and tear so much as poor conditioning and stretching. If the Tigers management allowed, or even encouraged, players like Cabrera and Ordonez to play winter ball like the do for minor leaguers the gains for the Venezuelan scouting and development program could make it well worth the risks. And, of course, I’d get to watch them play come February 2.