Veterans, prospects mix in Winter Leagues
Current big leaguers, players trying to re-emerge dot landscape
Prospects may get the most attention in the Winter Leagues, but a look at a box score from the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Venezuela could reveal some names worthy of a double take.
Look: there's Geronimo Gil playing ball in Mexico, side-by-side with some of the game's top prospects. In the Dominican, sitting near the top of the rankings in ERA, that's 24-year-old Yankees' right-hander Hector Noesi, on the same leaderboard as 32-year-old Lenny Dinardo. Dinardo hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2009.
Brandon Belt, the Giants prospect, hit well in the Dominican, while Oscar Salazar and Edgardo Alfonzo carried respectable numbers in Venezuela. How time flies: Alfonzo has already been out of the Majors for half a decade.
The Winter Leagues, it appears, are the closest thing baseball has to a time warp outside of Cooperstown.
"When you learn to play, when you grow up, and you sign a professional contract, that's your dream, you come to love that," Alfonzo said by phone. "To play baseball, you love the game. That's what I'm doing -- I still love the game. A couple weeks ago I was playing, and I got a chance to go to Japan. I just turned 38. Let's see what happens. Right now, I'm here to play the game, I'm having a good time playing it, and that's my passion."
The Winter Leagues may actually be baseball's truest melting pot: Besides the prospects and the big leaguers past and present, you have guys with varying motives. Some play because they want to represent their country in the Caribbean Series. Some, like 38-year-old Dmitri Young, want to get back to the bigs. And some just want to break Spring Training on the 40-man roster for the first time.
It makes for a competitive environment for everybody involved.
"You have guys that are trying to impress somebody so they can get an offer to go somewhere, whether they're an older player like myself or younger players," said Young by phone from Venezuela, where he's on the comeback trail after dropping nearly 60 pounds. "And then you have the Venezuelan guys that are here. You have the younger guys that are in the Minor Leagues who start off the [winter] season, and then the guys that around this time and after Thanksgiving come down and start playing. The league is already highly competitive, but by the end of the month, it's going to be even more competitive, and that's what I want, the competition."
Going to play winter ball certainly can't hurt a comeback chance. Young's decision to give it a go came from a June conversation with former big-league reliever Mike Timlin, one that prompted Young to reshape his body. Battling diabetes, Young's weight had crept over 300 pounds, but he felt he always had a little left in the tank after announcing his retirement in the spring of 2010. The conversation with Timlin made him wonder just how much more he would have if he could get in shape.
Already, Young said his 50-pound weight-loss goal has been exceeded, and his T-shirt size is down to extra-large. His health will benefit mightily, and now he wants to make inroads on the field, re-learning his body at his new weight.
"I've been swinging it, but it's one of those things where I've been out of the game for two years, now it's just getting re-acclimated to playing, getting the rust off, just getting back to being a player again," Young said. "And that's the challenge right there in itself. Most people just go to Spring Training, say 'I'm making a comeback.' But you got to prove yourself to see exactly where you're at, and that's why I wanted to come play winter ball, for that reason."
To be sure, there's also a cultural element that continuously brings older players back to the game. They grow up with it.
Alfonzo, who is Venezuelan, relishes playing in front of his family. Although he said he could pursue the Japan opportunity, Alfonzo did not speak as adamantly about returning to pro ball as Young did. If he gets an offer, cool, he'll think about it. If not, well, he'll probably come back and play again sometime.
"You play in front of your fans, you play in your own country," Alfonzo said. "You want your family to see you, to come and watch you play, and the people who really back you up or help you to be somebody, now you got an opportunity to play in front of them. It's great, it's something that you always want to do. My family, they came to stay and watch me when I was playing with the Mets, but it's not like here."