It's playoff time in Winter Leagues
Many come to warm up for '07, others hope to land on a team
For many baseball fans, waiting from the end of the World Series to the start of Spring Training can be intolerable. Forced to live off Hot Stove reports, awards and Hall of Fame announcements, many are chomping at the bit for the players to return to the field.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, these fans should have turned their attention to Winter League baseball, where, to borrow a certain dotcom's slogan, "Baseball is always on."
The four premier Winter Leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela have been going on in full force. Regular seasons have come to an end, and the four leagues are in playoff mode. The winners of each league will convene in Puerto Rico for the 2007 Caribbean Series, which will be played at Roberto Clemente Stadium in Carolina from Feb. 2-7.
In the Dominican Winter League, the postseason began on Dec. 26, with the semifinals continuing until Jan. 16. They play a round-robin tournament, with the top two teams moving on to the finals. Aguilas tied for the lead atop the four-team tourney with an 8-3 record. The Indians' Fausto Carmona (2-0, 0.00 ERA) and Jose Lima (2-0, 1.40) are leading the way on the mound, and the Yankees' Melky Cabrera (.359), Tony Batista (.326, 11 RBIs) and the Reds' Edwin Encarnacion (.349, 11 RBIs) are heading up the offense. Gigantes is 8-3, thanks to Kendry Morales, the Angels first baseman who hit a playoff-leading .421 with three homers and 11 RBIs through 10 games, and the Twins' Alexi Casilla, who's hitting .391. On the mound, it's been the Phillies' Fabio Castro, who has a 1.29 ERA over 14 postseason innings, as well as the Brewers' Jose Capellan, who is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA. Licey is 6-5 and Este is 0-11.
The postseason began in the Mexican Pacific League with a best-of-seven series on Jan. 2. Hermosillo, owners of the best regular-season record, topped Los Mochis in five games. Erubiel Durazo, who hit .344 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs during the regular season, once again led Hermosillo in the first round of the playoffs by hitting .438 with a pair of homers in the five games. Durazo recently signed a Minor League deal with the A's, with an invite to big-league camp. Mazatlan is also through to the next round, dispatching Navojoa in five games. Edgar Gonzalez, who'll head to the Cardinals' big-league camp this spring, hit .444 in the series. Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez hit .364 with three homers for the Venados de Mazatlan. Tomateros de Culiacan outlasted Obregon in seven games with a 9-8 victory in the deciding game. Casey McGehee hit .348 for Culiacan, while Adan Amezcua hit five homers with nine RBIs. Alfredo Aceves, who won the deciding Game 7, had a 0.73 ERA over 12 1/3 innings against Obregon.
Puerto Rico's playoffs just got underway. The top four teams advanced to the semifinals. Mayaguez, which finished with the best record, won its first game against Carolina, 6-5. Arecibo also took a 1-0 lead in its series with a 5-2 victory over Caguas. The Mayaguez offense is led by Randy Ruiz and Reggie Taylor, who finished in a tie for the regular-season lead with seven homers each. They drove in 23 and 22 runs, respectively. Jesus Feliciano is the catalyst for Arecibo. He finished second with a .331 average (Caguas' Mickey Negron, now with the Cardinals, led the league with a .381 mark) and also stole 12 bags. Raul Casanova, the former big-league backstop, led the league with 31 RBIs for Caguas. Bruce Chen had a 0.72 ERA and .114 batting average against during the regular season for Caguas. Veteran Bill Pulsipher was almost as good for Arecibo, with a 1.68 ERA, while Mayaguez relied on annual Puerto Rico winter-ball standout Jonathan Albaladejo, the Pirates' farmhand who finished with a 2.12 ERA.
Finally, in the Venezuelan Winter League, it employs a round-robin format as well. Beginning play on Jan. 2 and running through Jan. 21, Magallanes led with a perfect 7-0 playoff record after topping the league during the regular season. Richard Hidalgo, who last played in the Majors in 2005, has hit .400 with five homers in seven games. He's tied with Aragua's Miguel Cabrera, the Marlins star who always joins the Venezuelan Winter League during the playoffs, with six postseason RBIs. Aragua is 5-2.
Veteran Geremi Gonzalez has been lights out on the mound for Magallanes, going 2-0 with 15 1/3 shutout playoff innings. Aragua's Horacio Estrada isn't far behind with 10 1/3 scoreless frames. Zulia is 3-5, Lara is 3-4 and Caracas has gone winless at 0-7.
There were scores of some top performers during the regular season throughout all four Winter Leagues. Here are the best of the best, both on the mound and at the plate:
Willy Aybar, Braves: The infielder may have made an early case for Atlanta's second base job by hitting .303 over 33 games for Licey in the Dominican. Drawing 16 walks for a .381 OBP doesn't hurt, either.
Raul Casanova: Last in the big leagues in 2005, the veteran backstop hit .294 and led the Puerto Rican Winter League with 31 RBIs for Caguas.
Erubiel Durazo, A's: Durazo faces an uphill battle as a non-roster invitee to A's camp, but a 1.086 OPS during the regular season and a 1.466 OPS over the first five games of the postseason for Hermosillo in Mexico is a nice way to make an impression.
Carlos Gonzalez, Diamondbacks: One of the top bats in Arizona's farm system, Gonzalez led the Venezuelan Winter League with a .530 slugging percentage. The outfielder hit .318 with nine homers and 41 RBIs to help Zulia reach the playoffs.
Nick Gorneault, Angels: The Halos' outfield is very crowded, but Gorneault may try to work his way in there if he keeps hitting .333 with a league-leading .483 OBP (leading to a 1.061 OPS) like he did for Gigantes in the Dominican.
Miguel Negron, Cardinals: He just signed a Minor League deal with St. Louis and he made a good first impression, winning the batting title in Puerto Rico with a .381 average for Caguas.
Ruben Rivera: He hasn't played in the bigs since 2003, but the veteran outfielder may get a look after leading the Mexican League in homers (21) and RBIs (58) during the regular season. Rivera followed that up by hitting .333 with another pair of home runs in Culiacan's seven-game victory over Obregon in the opening round of the playoffs.
Alex Romero, Twins: Still just 23, Romero turned it around after a rough Triple-A debut in 2006. He finished second in Venezuela with a .345 average, third in hits with 70, fourth with a .419 OBP while also stealing eight bases for Aragua.
Marco Scutaro, A's: The gritty infielder won himself a batting title with Caracas in Venezuela, hitting .367 over 41 games. He also topped the league with a .464 OBP.
Derrick White: Have bat, will travel. After hitting .346 with 12 homers, 43 RBIs and a 1.017 OPS for Mexicali during the regular season, the outfielder went from Mexico to Venezuela to join Caracas for the playoffs there. White promptly hit .333 with three homers and six RBIs over his first six games for his new team.
Jonathan Albaladejo, Pirates: The big right-hander has a history of pitching well in his Puerto Rico home, then not carrying it over into the Minor League season. The Pirates have turned him into a reliever, but he started for Mayaguez and led the league in wins (six) and was third with his 2.12 ERA and 54 strikeouts.
Cory Bailey: Remember him? Last spotted in affiliated baseball back in 2002 -- he's appeared in Japan and independent ball since -- Bailey was lights out for Aragua in Venezuela. He finished third with a 2.24 ERA and had an astounding 45/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 68 1/3 innings. He's continued to pitch well in the postseason.
Chris Begg: All the Team Canada participant did in Venezuela was lead the league with a miniscule 1.08 ERA over 50 innings for Zulia, and it does, "begg" the question: Why doesn't Begg have a job somewhere?
Bruce Chen: Still a free agent, the lefty will undoubtedly land somewhere after dominating the Puerto Rican Winter League. In 50 innings, Chen had a 0.72 ERA, a .114 batting average against and 59 strikeouts versus just eight walks to lead Caguas into the postseason.
Rich Garces: El Guapo (The handsome one) lives! The rotund reliever, last seen in the big leagues with the Red Sox back in 2002, finished third in Venezuela with 11 saves. The league hit just .173 against him and he struck out 23 in 23 1/3 innings. He's picked up a win and a save in the playoffs to boot.
Derek Lee: An innings-eater for the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City last season, Lee pitched extremely well, for Aguilas in the Dominican. He gave up just one earned run over his first five outings, spanning 27 2/3 innings, and has continued to pitch well into the playoffs.
Nick Masset, White Sox: Closing for Mazatlan, Masset finished second in Mexico with 15 saves in 17 opportunities. Hitters hit .228 against him and he struck out 22 while walking just two in 20 2/3 innings. Look for Masset to be a factor in the White Sox bullpen in 2007.
Henry Owens, Marlins: As of right now, no one knows who Florida's closer will be in 2007. Owens put forth an early claim by leading the Dominican with nine saves in nine opportunities. He allowed just one earned run in 11 1/3 regular-season innings.
Joakim Soria, Royals: Kansas City took Soria in the Rule 5 Draft largely based on how he was throwing in Mexico. The right-hander nearly won the pitcher's version of the Triple Crown, topping the league in wins and strikeouts while finishing second in ERA. His first start after the draft was a nine-inning no-hitter. He didn't pitch as well in his final two outings, but heads to the Royals with a chance at a rotation spot.
Brian Wilson, Giants: The reliever had a rough go of it during his first taste of big-league life in 2006, but he may have figured some things out in Puerto Rico. Wilson tied for the league lead in saves 14 as Mayaguez's closer. He didn't allow a run of any kind, yielding just five hits (.094 batting average against) and striking out 21 in 16 2/3 innings.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.