Although it’s the darkest time of the year right now, the sun is shining brightly on prospects and washed up Major Leaguers who are plying their trade in the Winter Leagues of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Most regular seasons have concluded and playoffs have begun – so now is the perfect time to look back at how current and former Blue Jays are doing and to have a look at some other notable names.
Moises Sierra racked up 157 at-bats for the Gigantes de Cibao of the Dominican Winter League. He is having a fine season, sporting the 10th best OPS in the league with a .798 mark. Sierra, who played all of 20 games in 2011, is making up for lost time. He played 133 games for New Hampshire in 2011 and then went on to play winter baseball in the Dominican. Last season he played a combined 149 games at the Minor & Major League levels, and now he’s back at it in the Dominican Winter League. Before long it will be spring training again. Sierra might be gassed at this point – give this man a break!
Acquired from the Kansas City Royals at the beginning of the off-season, the Toronto Blue Jays have penciled Jeremy Jeffress into their opening day bullpen (according to the depth chart, at least). Jeffress made two appearances for Margarita in late November for a total of 3.1 innings… and then vanished. Was it an injury? Did he get freaked out by safety concerns in Venezuela? It seems strange to travel all that way for three innings of work, no?
One of the Blue Jays’ top Canadian prospects, Marcus Knecht is playing a whole world away in the relatively new Australian Baseball League. The Canberra Cavalry’s outfielder has had a slow start to his season but has steadily improved since. Knecht has carried the first-place Cavalry over his last 10 games, posting a .282/.333/.590 line. Perhaps he just needed to shake off the jet lag from the 16 hour time difference between Canberra and Toronto.
Kelvim Escobar hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009, but is attempting to make a comeback with the Lara Cardenales of the Venezuelan Winter League. Although Escobar is sporting a sparkling 1.64 ERA, if one looks at his periphery numbers, it is clear to see he is up to the same old tricks he used to play as a Blue Jay. Kelvim has walked more hitters than he’s struck out – nearly one per inning. Apparently Escobar drew some interest at the Winter Meetings in Nashville, but at this point all he can hope for is a non-roster invite to a spring camp.
After pitching in the Atlantic League in 2012, Gustavo Chacin returned to his native Venezuela to play for the Navigantes del Magallanes. He’s been mediocre, but he’s keeping the ball in the ballpark. Usually a team would sign a pitcher like Gustavo to be an innings-eater at the back of the rotation, but Chacin can’t be counted on eating too many innings with his injury history. Again, like Kelvim Escobar, the best he can hope for is a non-roster Spring Training invite with the hope of being a minor league depth piece. Teams won’t consider using him as a LOOGY either. Left-handed hitters are hitting .306 against him; righties are hitting .254 (albeit in a small sample size). He’s got two things going for him: he’s cheap and he can hit the long ball.
Click to play
The enigma that is Randy Ruiz is back in Puerto Rico to get the magic back. Last season, Ruiz straight-up mashed for the AAA Reno Aces, posting a 1.019 OPS that he was able to parlay into a second stint in Japan. Ruiz struggled yet again in Japan, hitting .210 with little-to-no power. So he’s back in Puerto Rico where he posted a .336/.411/.500 line in 2011. The quintessential AAAA player has not had as much success this go-around, although he has been limited to only 89 at-bats.
Another AAAA player, Danny Farquhar is in Venezuela and pitching for the Cardenales de Lara. Farquhar’s mother is Venezuelan and Farquhar is fluent in Spanish, so the Venezuelan Winter League is a comfortable fit for him. Farquhar played for five teams in 2012 and his totals were above-average. Combined, Farquhar finished with a 2.65 ERA in 68 innings with a 70:21 K:BB ratio. He also allowed only three home runs while playing many of his games in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. With that said, as a side-armer, Farquhar has the advantage when facing hitters who have not seen him (due to his funky delivery) each time he switches leagues. That might be a reason to attribute his success in Venezuela.
Like his compadre Gustavo Chacin, Rommie Lews plied his trade in the Atlantic League last season. And you know what? He pitched like a stud. In 53 innings of relief, Lewis had a 47:11 K:BB ratio with a 2.01 ERA. He also allowed only two home runs, however, the Atlantic League is not known for its complement of sluggers. Playing for the Estrellas de Oriente of the Dominican Winter League, Lewis is continuing to perform well. He’s signed to a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks so he won’t have to go back to delivering pizzas for the foreseeable future.
Other Notable Names:
All that Barbaro Cañizares does is mash and this winter is no different. Last season, playing for the Oaxaca Guerreros, Barbaro went HAM on Mexican League pitching: a .352/.462/.662 line in 382 at-bats. At the conclusion of the season he carried Team Spain to a qualifying birth at the 2012 World Baseball Classic. He’s back in Mexico and is playing for Ciudad Obregon of the Mexican Pacific League… and doing what he always does. Will this guy ever get another shot?
Manny’s being Manny in the Dominican Winter League for Aguilas Cibaeñas. While he is putting up a fine season, it looks like there’s a bit of a power outage in Ramirez’s offensive game. It could be that father time is finally slowing down the 40-year old’s bat speed.
Javier Vazquez signed to play with the Ponce Leones of the Puerto Rico Winter League in order to prepare himself to pitch for Puerto Rico at the World Baseball Classic. The 36-year-old right-hander did not pitch in 2012 after going 13-11 with a 3.69 ERA for the Marlins in 2011. It turns out that he’s pitching so well, he might try to make a Major League comeback in 2013. In a six-inning start on January 4th, Vazquez struck out five and his fastball touched 93mph. Whether Alex Anthopoulos is just doing his due diligence or is actually interested in the right-hander, Drunk Jays Fans tipped us off to the fact that the Blue Jays are scouting him.
Miguel Angel Sano
The star of the terrific movie Pelotero, the 19-year old Miguel Angel Sano is a boy among men in the Dominican Winter League, but he sure isn’t playing like one. As an 18/19 year old in the single-A Midwest League in 2012, Sano posted a .258/.373/.521 line with 28 doubles and 28 home runs. Although it’s a small sample size at 49 at-bats, Sano is performing even better than that in a man’s league. In my opinion the Minnesota Twins have a bona fide super-star on their hands. He’ll be an exciting player to watch for years to come.
The Los Angeles Dodgers made headlines in June when they signed Cuban defector Yasiel Puig to a seven-year $42 million contract. Between rookie and high-A levels, Puig showed everyone what all the fuss was about. He posted an eye-popping .354/.442/.634 slash line in 82 at-bats. He was assigned to the Arizona Fall League, but was scratched due to a staph infection in his elbow that required surgery. After taking two months to recover, Puig joined the Mayaguez Indios of the Puerto Rican Winter League and homered in his first at-bat. Since that first at-bat, however, Puig has performed poorly. It looks like he’ll need additional time to get back into the swing of things.
Pedro Luis Lazo
Lazo emerged from baseball purgatory this past season when he joined the Campeche Pirates of the Mexican League as a reliever. He fared quite well, so he decided to keep the good times going as a member of the Cañeros de Los Mochis of the Mexican Winter League. The only difference is that Lazo has been converted from a reliever to a starter. Perhaps it was not such a wise decision to move an overweight 39 year old from short relief stints to starting, as the results clearly show. Lazo is getting lit up like a lightbulb; his 9 home runs allowed in 41 innings put him on pace for approximately 45 home runs allowed in a 200 inning season. Yikes.
In stark contrast to Pedro Luis Lazo, I present to you Rodrigo Lopez. As a member of the Chicago Cubs in 2012, Lopez pitched 6 innings of substandard relief. At this point in his career, Lopez has basically no stuff to speak of whatsover. His fastball sits at ~87mph and he doesn’t have much else to go with it. One would think with an arsenal such as Rodrigo’s, balls would be flying out of the ballpark – especially in the high altitude of the Mexican Pacific League. Not so. Lopez has been absolutely dominant in his 38.1 innings. He sports a sparkling 0.60 WHIP while holding opposing hitters to a paltry .142 average. He’s also keeping the ball in the ballpark, with only two home runs allowed in almost as many innings as Lazo has pitched. Not surprisingly, he’s not striking out anyone, but he doesn’t need to. Rodrigo just knows how to pitch.
Featured image courtesy of Prensa GC. Player headshots and statistics courtesy of MiLB.com and MLB.com.