SoxProspects: Checking on winter leagues

Although the minor league season begins in April and ends in September, in reality, minor league baseball is a year-round enterprise. Following the end of the regular season and playoffs, minor leaguers participate in the Fall Instructional League, Arizona Fall League and various foreign winter leagues.

Fifty-two Red Sox minor leaguers, plus another five free agents who have not yet re-signed with Boston or signed elsewhere, have played in these fall or winter leagues since the end of the season. Each player has different goals. Often, players who miss time due to injury play in order to make up for missed reps. Others use winter leagues to get reps at a new position, such as last offseason when infielder Mike Aviles, thinking he would be used in more of a utility role, played in the outfield for a few weeks in Puerto Rico. Others are earning a bit of extra money -- the teams in the Caribbean Winter Leagues are legitimate professional circuits where teams pay players, have rabid followings and compete hard to win.

With the winter season about halfway over, let’s take a look at how the Sox contingent has performed thus far.

Fall Instructional League

The Fall Instructional League brings together select players from Single-A and lower in the Sox system. “Instructs,” as it’s called, serves many purposes. The top players from lower in the system get continued reps, players who missed time due to injury get reps, and select players who spent the regular season in the Dominican Summer League get their first taste of the United States.

Much of the buzz coming out of Instructs this year centered around Dominican center fielder Manuel Margot. SoxProspects.com director of scouting Chris Mellen commented on Margot’s tools and athleticism. Chris noted Margot’s quick hands, plus-to-better speed and smooth actions out in center.

Other players that our scouting staff, which also includes Northeast scout Ian Cundall, took note of were 6-foot-4 Dominican pitcher Simon Mercedes, who signed this summer and sports a 91-94 mph fastball, and first-round pick Deven Marrero, who looked much more comfortable both at the plate and at shortstop after making his professional debut with the Lowell Spinners this year.

Here’s the full Instructs roster:

Pitchers: Raul Alcantara, Matt Barnes, Luis Bastardo, Luis Diaz, Edwar Garcia, Jason Garcia, Zach Good, Braden Kapteyn, Cody Kukuk, Frank Montas, Nefi Ogando, Henry Owens, Renny Parthemore, Miguel Pena, Mat Price, Noe Ramirez, Matt Spalding, Raynel Velette, Madison Younginer

Catchers: David Sopilka, Alixon Suarez, Blake Swihart, Jordan Weems

Infielders: Mookie Betts, Garin Cecchini, Raymel Flores, Tzu-Wei Lin, Deiner Lopez, Nathan Minnich, Nick Moore, Cleuluis Rondon, Travis Shaw

Outfielders: Iseha Conklin, Keury De La Cruz, Cody Koback, Manuel Margot, Kendrick Perkins, Henry Ramos, Aneury Tavarez

Arizona Fall League

The most well-known of the fall/winter leagues, the AFL essentially is a showcase for some of the best prospects in the game, primarily from Double-A and Triple-A. The league’s focus on prospects, as opposed to winning, is evident: For example, players are chosen for the league’s all-star game, the Rising Stars game, and given all-league honors as members of the Top Prospects team based on a combination of their performance in the league and their projection as future major leaguers. That said, the league’s reputation as a prospect haven is a bit overstated -- it is a hitter-friendly league in which the pitching talent tends not to match the hitters’.

The Red Sox’ seven-player contingent was headlined by right fielder Bryce Brentz, who hit .297 with a pair of home runs and was named to both the Rising Stars game and Top Prospects team. He put up an .804 OPS, but that was good for just 26th in the hitter-friendly, six-team AFL. The other two Sox position players were catcher Christian Vazquez and corner infielder Michael Almanzar. Vazquez, known for his defensive prowess, finished with a respectable .257/.395/.429 line marked by boom-or-bust results from game to game. Although Almanzar, who split his time between first and third base, was named to the Rising Stars game, he struggled at the plate, hitting just .185 on 15 hits in 82 at-bats, striking out 19 times and walking seven. His .506 OPS was second-lowest among qualifying hitters on the circuit.

On the mound, the Sox were represented by four right-handed relievers: Brock Huntzinger, Chris Martin, Ryan Pressly and Pete Ruiz. Huntzinger, returning to the AFL after pitching as a starter last season, put up the best ERA of the four at 1.93 over 14 innings, but it was Martin who arguably turned in the best performance. Martin, a 26-year-old who split his time between the Portland rotation and bullpen this season, allowed eight hits and one walk in 10 2/3 innings, striking out 12, but posted a 3.38 ERA. Pressly got hit a bit, allowing 18 in 14 innings en route to a 3.86 ERA, but his 18-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio showed that his stuff was, at times, very strong. Ruiz, playing a bit over his head after an injury-hampered season at High A Salem, struggled, allowing 11 earned runs in 12 innings, although he did strike out 16.

Dominican Baseball League

The Sox’ largest contingent to the Caribbean is to the Dominican league, as seven current Sox play (or played) on four teams. First baseman Mauro Gomez, the 2012 International League MVP who fans became familiar with during his time in Boston, has received extensive playing time for the Leones (Lions) del Escogido. In his club-leading 122 at-bats, he is hitting .238/.376/.426 with four home runs.

Joining Gomez in Escogido are knuckleballer Steven Wright, who just returned home to the U.S. after five strong starts in which he had a 2.48 ERA, allowing 27 hits and 7 walks while striking out 19 in 29 innings, and catcher Matt Spring, who has just four at-bats in three games.

Other Sox in the Dominican include catcher Dan Butler and shortstop Pedro Ciriaco with the Toros (Bulls) del Este. Butler has struggled to a .164 average in 73 at-bats, while Ciriaco recently returned to the U.S. after suffering a shoulder injury after just 20 at-bats. He is expected to be ready for spring training and has been making promotional appearances in New England this week.

Right-hander Stolmy Pimentel has made eight appearances for the Estrellas (Stars) de Oriente, six starts, struggling to a 5.87 ERA in 23 innings. Finally, reliever Josh Fields was released by the Aguilas Cibaenas (Eagles of Cibao) after eight appearances in which he allowed eight runs in six innings.

Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rico) Baseball League

Six Sox are playing in Puerto Rico, which only started on Nov. 8, headlined by the top Sox prospect playing in the Caribbean, pitcher Anthony Ranaudo. The 9 1/3 innings Ranaudo threw for the Criollos (Creoles) de Caguas apparently are it, as he has reportedly returned to the U.S. after suffering a groin injury in the first inning of his start on Nov. 28. Ranaudo’s other three starts were inconsistent: He was very good in his first and third, tossing seven scoreless innings, but he got shelled in his second start, lasting just 1 2/3 innings and allowing six runs on six hits. If he is indeed done until the spring, this is another chapter in the struggle that has been his 2012 season. He also was shut down with shoulder fatigue.

There have been bright spots elsewhere. Ranaudo’s Caguas teammate, reliever Jose De La Torre, has allowed just three runs on nine hits in 11 innings, striking out 14 without giving up a walk.

Infielder Ivan De Jesus is hitting .373/.387/.508 in 59 at-bats for Atenienses (Athenians) de Manati, playing second base. He is teammates with Christian Vazquez, who joined Manati after the AFL ended and has hit .292/.393/.583 in 24 at-bats.

Right-hander Jeremy Kehrt, who bounced between Triple-A, Double-A and High A in 2012, has been starting for the Indios (Indians) de Mayaguez and turning in a solid performance. In 14 2/3 innings over four starts, he has allowed just three runs on 12 hits and two walks, striking out 10. However, he reportedly left his last start due to injury after just one inning.

Finally, outfielder Henry Ramos, playing a bit over his head after spending 2012 in Low A Greenville, is hitting .208 in 53 at-bats for Leones de Ponce.

Venezuelan Professional Baseball League

The Red Sox in Venezuela have had a mostly non-descript showing. Outfielders J.C. Linares and Ronald Bermudez, playing for the Leones del Caracas and Bravos (Braves) de Margarita, respectively, have 62 at-bats between them. Linares has just a .188 average and has not played since Nov. 7, while Bermudez’s mark is .233 with his last game coming Nov. 18.

Two other players, right-hander Luis Diaz and shortstop Heiker Meneses, started in the LVBP, but after barely playing -- 2 2/3 innings for Diaz and a single at-bat for Meneses -- they are now down in the Liga Paralela, or Parallel League, which is the LVBP minor league. Diaz has thrown six scoreless innings for Caracas there, while Meneses joined 20 other Sox prospects on the “Boston” team in the league. The Red Sox, fielding a club for the second year, are one of five major league teams, joining the Tigers, Phillies, Mariners and Rays, with an affiliate in the league, joining the minor league clubs of the LVBP teams. The 21 Sox players are joined by other non-affiliated free agents to fill out the roster.

The MVP of the Boston club has been catcher Alixon Suarez. After two years on the Red Sox’ Dominican Summer League team, he is hitting .329/.453/.553, by far the best line for a Sox minor leaguer. The top Sox pitcher on the club has been Victor Ramirez, who has followed up a strong pro debut in the DSL bullpen with 28 strong innings, allowing 23 hits and nine walks while striking out 15 en route to a 2.89 ERA in eight games, four starts.

Here is the full list of Sox minor leaguers who have played for the Boston Liga Paralela team:

Pitchers: Luis Bastardo, Ricardo Betancourt, Jose Espitia, Carlos Garcia, Sergio Gomez, Keivin Heras, Elis Jimenez, Victor Ramirez, Jervis Torrealba

Catchers: Leonel Escobar, Oscar Perez, David Soplika, Alixon Suarez

Infielders: Junior Estrella, Andres Garcia, Deiner Lopez, Heiker Meneses, Cleuluis Rondon

Outfielders: Robert Del Rosario, Dreily Guerrero

Mexican Pacific League

Three Sox players have competed in the Mexican Pacific League, not to be confused with the Mexican League, which runs at the same time as the U.S. minor league season and is considered to be approximately at the Triple-A level. Outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker began the league season with the Yaquis de Obregon, but was deactivated after 23 at-bats, reportedly because the team needed pitching. He did hit .261/.346/.565 with two home runs and three steals in that small sample, continuing to show his trademark power/speed combo.

Right-hander Marco Duarte, a reliever who split his time between High-A and Double-A this year before being suspended 50 games for testing positive for an amphetamine, has been starting for Aguilas de Mexicali. Despite throwing just 42 innings during the U.S. season, he has thrown 38 2/3 in nine games, eight of those starts, and posted a 5.59 ERA, striking out 44 while allowing 47 hits and 18 walks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has been tiring of late, allowing 17 runs on 20 hits in 11 innings over his last three starts after allowing just seven runs on 27 hits in his first 27 2/3 innings.

Finally, rookie-level outfielder Jesus Loya recently debuted for the Naranjeros (Orange Growers) de Hermosillo, playing in five games mostly as a defensive replacement in center field and going hitless in five at-bats.

Colombian Professional Baseball League

The Red Sox do not have a player under contract playing in Colombia, although minor league free agent Reynaldo Rodriguez is hitting .286 for the Leones del Monteria with a .516 on-base percentage.

Australian Baseball League/World Baseball Classic Qualifier

Finally, we reach the non-Caribbean international competitions. The third and fourth qualifying tournaments for the World Baseball Classic took place in mid-November, and first baseman Boss Moanaroa and catcher Beau Bishop played for the New Zealand team that competed in Taiwan. The Kiwis fell to Taiwan in the qualifier final, but both players acquitted themselves well in the tournament, Moanaroa hitting 4-for-14 with three walks in the four games, clubbing the Kiwis’ only home run, while Bishop went 2-for-10 with five walks and a double.

Because of the tournament, Moanaroa, who grew up in Australia and holds dual citizenship there and in New Zealand, missed the first two weeks of the Australian Baseball League season, where he is playing for the Sydney Blue Sox. He has failed to carry his strong WBC performance over to that league, going 0 for his first 21, drawing three walks and striking out 11 times.

The other Sox player in the league is pitcher Daniel McGrath, who signed a contract in February but has yet to debut stateside. He has made four appearances as a reliever for the Melbourne Aces, allowing five runs, three earned, in 6 1/3 innings on eight hits and two walks, striking out six. At 18, he’s young for the league, which features players who have made it as high as Triple-A and Double-A.