SweetSpot: Winter leagues

Manny homers in Dominican debut

November, 19, 2012
Manny Ramirez homered in his first at-bat with the Aguilas Cibaeñas, which also welcomed Joaquin Arias this week to make a move on the Estrellas Orientales for the top spot in the standings as the Dominican Winter League heads into the second half of its regular season.

Ramirez, playing in the Dominican League for the first time in 17 years, homered on the first pitch he saw from Escogido Leones starter Daniel Cabrera, the league’s ERA leader, and has since gone 4-for-10 in three games.

An apparent ankle sprain forced him to the bench for the weekend, but Ramirez is scheduled to return on Tuesday, when the Aguilas take on the Licey Tigres, a team which showed promise early but has since plummeted to the bottom of the standings.

Despite productive starts from Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon and Mike Olt, who figures prominently in the Texas Rangers’ plans, Licey has not prospered as its pitching staff has given up 231 hits and 148 runs in 24 games. The only bright spot has been New York Yankees minor leaguer Juan Cedeno, who has two of Licey’s eight wins, both coming out of the bullpen.

But the story thus far this season has been the Estrellas’ bullpen, especially the left-right combination of Rommie Lewis and Jerry Gil. Lewis, who pitched in independent league ball this summer in Bridgeport, Conn., after spending part of 2010 and 2011 with the Blue Jays, is 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA while Gil, who was 7-1 at Triple-A Las Vegas for the Blue Jays in 2012, is 1-0 with six saves as he hopes to audition for a bullpen role with the new-look Blue Jays in the spring.

Offensively, the Estrellas have been relying on Junior Lake, who continues to lead the league in hitting with a .342 average, just slightly higher than the Aguilas’ Hector Luna, who is hitting .337.

Elsewhere in the league, the defending champion Escogido Leones announced that Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana will enter regular-season play on Nov. 25.

Wrigley fueling Caracas’ run to the top
Tampa Bay Rays prospect Henry Wrigley has had an impressive week for the Caracas Leones to help his team climb in the standings and put his name atop every offensive category.

Wrigley, who has played both the outfield and first base (positions in which the Rays have gaping holes), is leading the Venezuelen League in hits and RBIs, is tied for the lead in home runs with Philadelphia Phillies prospect Darin Ruf, and is eighth in average at .331.

His offense, along with the bats of Josh Kroeger and Brandon Barnes, is a key reason the Leones, after faltering early, are within three games of the lead, currently held by the Magallanes Navegantes.

Magallanes, which has counted on solid offensive output from Carlos Maldonado, Eliezer Alfonso and veteran minor leaguer Chris Nowak, acquired Victor Zambrano over the weekend in a trade with the Anzoategui Caribes to bolster the starting rotation, currently led by Sergio Perez, Gustavo Chacin and Eric Junge.

Meanwhile, the Zulia Aguilas remain a game and a half off the pace mainly due to the league’s best offense led by Freddy Galvis, Jose Flores and Ernesto Mejia. Through 30 games, the Aguilas are batting a collective .287 with an on-base percentage of .351.

Culiacan relinquishes lead in Mexican League
The Culiacan Tomateros, who started the season on a 10-game win streak, lost 13 of 20 games and now find themselves in second place behind the surging Guasave Algodoneros, who capitalized on the power from Issmael Salas, the speed of Gil Velazquez and the entrance of Antonio Lamas into play to take over first place.

Salas, once a Chicago Cubs prospect and currently a Mexican Summer League mainstay, has clubbed eight homers with 23 RBIs while Velazquez is hitting .321 with seven stolen bases. Lamas is hitting .361 in his last 13 games with a 1.078 OPS. Also contributing to Guasave’s run up the standings are Chris Colabello and Baltimore Orioles prospect Zelous Wheeler, hitting .349 and .346, respectively.

Meanwhile, former Cincinnati Reds prospect Jesse Gutierrez is keeping the Hermosillo Naranjeros in the fight for the playoffs almost single-handedly by making a run at the Mexican League triple crown along with Obregon’s Barbaro Canizares and Culiacan’s Cory Aldridge.

Gutierrez and Aldridge are tied for the league lead in homers with 12 to Canizares’ 10, but Canizares is leading the league in RBIs with 30, while Gutierrez and Aldridge have 26 apiece.

Yasiel Puig makes his debut in Puerto Rico
The Los Angeles Dodgers’ highly-touted outfield prospect Yasiel Puig -- a Cuban defector who signed a seven-year, $42 million deal and is considered to have similar tools as Yoenis Cespedes -- suited up for the Mayaguez Indios and is expected to play until at least the end of the regular season in January.

Puig hit .354 in 23 games between the Arizona Rookie League and Class A Rancho Cucamonga this summer and was expected to play in the Arizona Fall League, but an injured right elbow kept him from action.

Also making his debut in Puerto Rico this week was former Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels starter Scott Kazmir, who threw four innings of shutout baseball for the Carolina Gigantes against the Ponce Leones.

Winter leagues roundup

November, 11, 2012
Rogers, Lake and Linden leading Estrellas Orientales

Led by the unlikely trio of Eddie Rogers, Junior Lake and Todd Linden, the Estrellas Orientales swept the two-time defending champion Escogido Leones over the weekend to take over first place in the Dominican Winter League.

Rogers, a former Baltimore Orioles utility player who spent the summer playing independent ball, is leading the league’s most balanced offense, batting .421. Lake, a prospect in the Chicago Cubs system, is benefitting from playing in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, batting .361. Linden played for Triple-A Fresno in the San Francisco Giants system in 2012, and has provided 16 RBIs in 13 games with five home runs.

The Estrellas are ahead of the heavily-favored Aguilas Cibaeñas, who are hoping that the entrance of Manny Ramirez into play on Nov. 14 will add some power to a lineup that has lacked pop as of late despite productive starts from Hector Luna, Miguel Tejada and New York Mets prospect Francisco Pena.

Elsewhere in the league, Atlanta Braves infielder Juan Francisco knocked the 37th homer of his career in the Dominican League with the Licey Tigres to move into 15th place all-time. The top three posts belong to former Kansas City Royals outfielder Mendy Lopez (61), former major leaguer Felix Jose (60) and Dominican legend Rico Carty (59).

Maldonado coming alive for Magallanes

Carlos Maldonado is trying to jump start his career after being outrighted to Triple-A by the Washington Nationals in August. He has put together a powerful start to his Venezuelan League season hitting .373 with seven homers and 21 RBIs through 19 games, earning him Player of the Week honors while leading his Magallanes Navegantes to the top spot in the standings.

Maldonado had been doing most of the catching, but he was moved to the DH slot by manager Carlos Garcia to make room for Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli should compete for the backup catcher role with the New York Yankees this spring.

A third catcher with big-league experience on the Navegantes roster is Eliezer Alfonzo, fighting his way back to the majors after his 100-game suspension for PED was lifted; he has been playing first base. Alfonzo’s positive test was reversed by Major League Baseball due to circumstances similar to the Ryan Braun case, but he was released by the Colorado Rockies in May and finished the season with Aguascalientes in the Mexican Summer League. Thus far this winter, Alfonzo is batting .319 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 23 games.

Meanwhile, the La Guaira Tiburones keep hitting homers at a record-setting pace this winter having pelted 33 in their first 26 games. With nine homers through 25 games, Darin Ruf is making a run at the single-season mark of 20 set by the late Bo Diaz in 1979-80 and almost equaled by Cecil Fielder (1986-87) and Roberto Zambrano (2001-2002), each of whom hit 19.

Byrd continues to shine for Culiacan

The Mexican Pacific League season is developing into a highly competitive one as six teams are separated by only four games with almost half of the regular season completed.

Leading the way are the Culiacan Tomateros, who continue to rely on former Boston Red Sox outfielder Marlon Byrd and Yankees minor league infielder Ramiro Pena for offense. Byrd is hitting .343 with a 1.125 OPS in 26 games while Pena, not necessarily known for his offense, is batting .333 as he goes job-hunting this spring after yielding his utility job to Eduardo Nunez on the Yankees’ big-league roster.

Meanwhile, Culiacan’s starting rotation has been a key to its success thus far, especially at the front end with Amauri Sanit and Alejandro Armenta combining for a 7-1 record and yielding a combined 14 earned runs in 57 2/3 innings.

The Guasave Algodoneros have relied on a solid bullpen to stay in a second-place tie with the Hermosillo Naranjeros, the MPL’s flagship franchise which is trying to bounce back after not making the playoffs last season.

The Mexicali Aguilas are also getting great relief work. Oscar Villarreal, who has bounced around several teams since last pitching in the majors in 2008 with the Houston Astros, is 7-for-8 in save opportunities, while Mike Benacka is 1-1 with a 1.68 ERA in the Aguilas’ bullpen.

For Hermosillo, veteran Karim Garcia has been leading the offensive charge ,batting .315 while Jesse Gutierrez has driven in 21 runs in 24 games.

Mayaguez fast off the gate in Puerto Rico

The defending champion Mayaguez Indios had a perfect 3-0 opening week in the Puerto Rico Winter League, which began its season on Nov. 8 by welcoming back two franchises which had ceased operations.

The Santurce Cangrejeros, idle since the 2008-2009 season, returned to action despite not being able to land a deal to use San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Instead, they will play their home games in Juncos, about 40 minutes southeast of the capital. Santurce is a sector of San Juan. Former major leaguer Carlos Baerga will serve as the team’s manager and GM.

The Manati Atenienses also returned to action and will join Mayaguez, the Ponce Leones, Caguas Criollos and Carolina Gigantes in the regular season.

Mayaguez is relying on the core of its offense that won the title last season -- led by Irving Falu, Danny Gonzalez and Eddie Rosario -- and is starting the season as the favorite. However, the Caguas Criollos, armed with last year’s Most Valuable Player Jorge Padilla and imported pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Daniel Stange, is poised to have a solid showing.

Alex Cora, who retired last season and is now Caguas’ general manager, said Ranaudo will see limited action as his innings were capped by the Boston Red Sox organization, but he is hopeful the rest of the rotation will be able to fill the void.

Winter leagues: Manny expected to play

November, 4, 2012
Freddy Galvis, who last spring played his way onto the Philadelphia Phillies' Opening Day starting lineup, is off to an eye-opening start in Venezuela as he tries to come back from back surgery and his suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

In his first 19 games with the Zulia Aguilas, Galvis is hitting .342 with three homers and nine RBIs, a sign that he is recovered from his season-ending injury that kept him from returning from his 50-day suspension last August. Galvis hit just .226 for the Phillies in April and May as he filled in for the injured Chase Utley at second base.

Meanwhile, Dodgers outfield prospect Scott Van Slyke is finding his power stroke with the La Guaira Tiburones, hitting seven homers in his first 18 games. While that may be impressive, teammate Darin Ruf, a legitimate candidate for an outfield job with the Phillies after a 2012 season in which he hit 38 homers at Double-A Reading, has nine homers and 18 RBIs through 19 games with La Guaira.

Another Phillies prospect enjoying his winter in Venezuela is relief pitcher Justin Friend, who is 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA in 11 games for La Guaira thus far this season.

Gordon, Marte, Luna start hot in the Dominican

A slew of veteran Dominican players seeking to revive their careers, led by Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada, have flooded the Dominican Winter League this season, but it is the upstart youngsters who are thrilling the crowds.

Dee Gordon, Starling Marte and Hector Luna are off to flying starts offensively while Colorado Rockies pitcher Josh Outman has been the surprise of the league, yielding just two runs in his first 15 innings as a starter with the Toros del Este in a rotation that also includes Atlanta Braves pitcher Jairo Asencio.

Luna, who played 28 games for the Phillies in 2012, is off to a 17-for-44 start with the Aguilas Cibaeñas while Gordon is batting .326 in his first three games with the Licey Tigres. After a disappointing season with the Dodgers, Gordon is trying to impress the club with a strong winter ball season.

Marte, who dazzled in his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates this summer, made his debut with the defending champion Escogido Leones and went 5-for-13 in his first three games.

The league this year is also serving as a refresher course for some prospects who didn’t perform as expected over the summer. Atlanta’s Tyler Pastornicky, Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon and Cincinnati’s Denis Phipps were on opening day rosters and are looking to hone skills for spring training as they’re projected to compete for major league roster spots.

Veteran hitters Fernando Tatis and Timo Perez have also returned while it is expected that Manny Ramirez will don the Aguilas Cibaeñas uniform this week as he seeks a return to the majors.

Cañizares leads Obregón’s attack in Mexican Pacific League

Former Cuban national team member and Atlanta Braves prospect Barbaro Cañizares, who last winter set a new single-season home run record, is on pace to break his own record having belted seven through his first 19 games with the defending champion Ciudad Obregon Yaquis.

Cañizares, 32, had hoped his revamped power stroke earned him a spring training invite last winter but since it did not materialize, he played in the Mexican Summer League with the Oaxaca Guerreros, batting .348 with 28 homers and 103 RBIs in 107 games, primarily as a first baseman.

Meanwhile, Marlon Byrd, trying to salvage his career after getting released by the Red Sox in June, is off and running through 19 games with the Culiacán Tomateros. Byrd is hitting .386 with a 1.213 OPS while teammate Cory Aldridge is batting .338 with a league-leading 11 homers and 22 RBIs. Aldridge joined the Angels’ Triple-A team in Salt Lake after starting the season in Mexico and was unproductive, hitting only .215 in 73 games.

Puerto Rican League getting ready for opening day

The Puerto Rican League, which last season was pared down to just four teams, will return to its six-team format when the season opens on Nov. 8.

The Santurce Cangrejeros, once an iconic franchise that saw legends Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays and Satchel Paige don its uniform, will return to play, even if general manager Carlos Baerga can’t finalize negotiations to use San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium as their home field.

Baerga told media that they have "different options," one of them being sharing a stadium with the Carolina Gigantes. The other team that will return is the Manati Atenienses, a franchise once owned by former major leaguer Jose Valentin. Santurce and Manati will join Carolina, Ponce, Arecibo and the defending champion Mayagüez Indios for this season.

Obregon defends Mexican League title

January, 29, 2012
The Ciudad Obregón Yaquis will get a rare chance to defend their 2011 Caribbean Series title. That’s because they defeated the Guasave Algodoneros to win the Mexican Pacific League crown for the second time in a row.

Led by an offense featuring former Cuban national team first baseman Barbaro Canizares -- who found his power stroke to lead the MPL in home runs -- as well as former big leaguers Alfredo Amezaga, Doug Clark and Karim Garcia, the Yaquis put together a 19-run, 25-hit attack in Game 6 of the finals to clinch the series in convincing fashion.

Ciudad Obregón is only the fourth team in MPL history to win back-to-back titles and the first to do it with a foreign born manager as Eddie Diaz, from the Dominican Republic, has led the squad each of the past two seasons.

The Yaquis have recruited former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Humberto Cota and former Colorado Rockies left-hander Dan Serafini for the Caribbean Series, and will head to Santo Domingo searching to become the first team to repeat as Caribbean Series champion since the Dominican Republic’s Aguilas Cibaenas accomplished the feat in 1998 under manager Mike Quade and then 1999, when they were skippered by Tony Pena, later the American League Manager of the Year and currently the Yankees’ bench coach.

The Caribbean Series will be played February 2-7 at Santo Domingo’s Estadio Quisqueya.

Mayaguez wins title in Puerto Rico

The Mayaguez Indios defeated the Caguas Criollos 5-3 in the best-of-nine series for the Puerto Rico Baseball League, winning their league-leading 17th title since the circuit’s founding in 1939. Managed by former Cincinnati Reds and current Yankees Triple-A manager Dave Miley, the Indios overcame injuries to key starters such as Randy Ruiz and Miguel Negron to defeat the Criollos, who came into the series as the favorites sporting a lineup that included league MVP Jorge Padilla and veteran infielder Alex Cora.

Led by the offense of Jesus Feliciano, Sergio Miranda, Irving Falu and Milwaukee Brewers backup catcher Martin Maldonado, the Indios were able to prevail as Miley received solid pitching from his relief corps led by Justin Thomas.

Battle of wills in Dominican final

The Escogido Leones and Aguilas Cibaenas have engaged in a dramatic back-and-forth in the best-of-nine Dominican League final series with Escogido winning the first three games and Aquilas battling back to win three in a row.

The Leones, led by Julio Lugo, Andy Dirks and Fernando Tatis finally broke through in Game 7 to give Escogido a 5-2 victory to take the series lead and a chance to win the title over the weekend.

Meanwhile, the Aguilas were able to battle back as the bats of Miguel Tejada, Elian Herrera and Joaquin Arias finally awoke in Game 4 and spilled into Game 5 to lead a dramatic comeback win against Escogido closer Fernando Rodney, a victory which was sealed by the perfect relief of Miguel Batista. Batista has eased into the Aguilas’ closer role and notched two of the team’s three victories in the final.

Aragua on verge of the Venezuelan title

The Aragua Tigres are one victory away from winning their sixth title in the last 10 years after starter Yusmeiro Petit shut down the La Guaira Tiburones over five innings to give the Tigres a 7-1 Game 5 victory and a 3-2 series lead.

Aragua has at times looked dominant with catcher Wilson Ramos, who seems to have gotten over the effects of his November kidnapping, leading the way batting .444 in the finals. They also got help from the veteran bats of Edgardo Alfonzo, who hit his first home run of the finals in Game 5, and Hector Gimenez, who have come through with clutch hits in significant situations.

La Guaira is going through an offensive drought. Gregor Blanco, Oscar Salazar and Cesar Suarez were key hitters in La Guaira’s success in the semifinal round-robin, but they are batting a combined .177 in the finals. La Guaira is seeking its first Venezuelan League crown in 26 years.

Cespedes comes alive in Dominican League

January, 22, 2012
Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes lived up to the hype last week in the Dominican League as it was his game-winning RBI double that allowed Aguilas Cibaenas to a win over the favored Licey Tigres and earn a berth in the finals against Escogido Leones.

Since his surprising announcement that he would join Aguilas, Cespedes had struggled, but he came on in the final two games by getting three hits, including a home run, and the series-clinching double.

Aguilas, written off by many after falling four games behind in the semifinal round robin series, won their final six games anchored by an offense led by Cespedes, Brandon Moss, Miguel Tejada, Joaquin Arias and Hector Luna along with strong late-inning relief work from Miguel Batista, who saved the last five games.

Aguilas, managed by former major leaguer Felix Fermin, has won 20 Dominican League titles and will play in the finals for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

Led by Andy Dirks, Julio Lugo, Pablo Ozuna and Mauro Gomez, Escogido had clinched its final series berth earlier in the round robin and will rely on its rotation of Francisco Liriano, Nelson Figueroa, Jordan Norberto and Kris Johnson in the finals.

In his four semifinal outings, however, Liriano has struggled with keeping his breaking ball down in the zone. As a result, opponents hit .394 off the left-hander, who has insisted on using his slider when in strikeout counts.

Escogido, the 2009-10 Dominican League champions, will continue to count on Jose Cabrera and Fernando Rodney to shore up the bullpen in the finals.

Obregon vs. Guasave in Mexican League finals

The long Mexican Pacific League season will come down to a rematch of last year’s finalists as Ciudad Obregon Yaquis will square off against Guasave Algodoneros.

Mario Valenzuela’s two home runs, including one in the eighth inning, helped Guasave eliminate the heavily-favored Culiacan Tomateros in the best-of-seven semifinal series, while Obregon, led by regular season home run champ Barbaro Canizares, Karim Garcia and Doug Clark, dominated Mexicali Aguilas 4-1 in their series.

The defending champion Yaquis, who also won the 2011 Caribbean Series, go into the finals as the favorite as their offense has been hitting on all cylinders during the postseason. Clark, a one-time Oakland A’s farmhand, finished the semifinals batting .385 while Canizares, a former member of the Cuban national team, had seven RBIs in five games, including three in the series clincher.

Yaquis also counts on Alfredo Amezaga and Corey Wimberly, who had a strong semifinal batting .295, for offense while Luis Ayala anchors the bullpen.

Guasave will send Cincinnati Reds prospect James Avery, who was 1-1 in the semifnals, to the mound for the series opener while Obregon will send Luis Mendoza, who made two starts for the Kansas City Royals last season and has pitched solid over the winter in hopes of a shot at a rotation spot with the Royals in spring training.

Aragua rallies, advances to Venezuelan League finals

The Aragua Tigres won six straight games, led by the resurging bat of veteran Edgardo Alfonzo and solid starting pitching from Yusmeiro Petit and Seth Ellerton, to earn a return trip to the Venezuelan League finals.

The 38-year-old Alfonzo carried Tigres with nine RBIs in the semifinal round robin as Aragua also got solid offensive contributions from Ramon Castro and Hector Gimenez while Wil Ledezma was untouchable in relief, giving up only two hits in eight relief appearances during the semifinals.

It's still unresolved who will face Aragua as the Anzoategui Caribes, Magallanes Navegantes and La Guaira Tiburones headed into the weekend within a half game of each other for the second finals berth.

The defending champion Caribes, who lost offensive leader Alexi Amarista to an injury, held the upper hand, but Magallanes, led by the booming bats of Gregor Blanco and Oscar Salazar, who lead the semifinal round with five home runs each, still had a shot at forcing a tiebreaking game.

Mayaguez leading in the Puerto Rican League finals

The Mayaguez Indios, helped by a home run from Jesus Feliciano, rallied from four runs down to defeat the Caguas Criollos, 7-4, and have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-nine finals in Puerto Rico.

Feliciano, who last week signed a minor league deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, has led the Mayaguez offense along with Milwaukee Brewers back-up catcher Martin Maldonado in the absence of Randy Ruiz, who has sat out the finals with an injury to his ankle.

The series has been marked by the fact that the home team has yet to win a game, but the Indios looked to break that trend on Saturday as they took on Criollos in Game 6 with starter Hiram Burgos taking on Caguas' Jose Rosario.

Caguas, the defending champion, has had a bout with the streaky hitting of Jorge Padilla, who parlayed his MVP season in Puerto Rico to a spring training invite from the Miami Marlins, and Alex Cora, who despite playing brilliant defense, has not made much noise with the bat in the final series.

Tatis, Gomez power Escogido in D.R. finals

January, 15, 2012
Led by home runs from Fernando Tatis, Mauro Gomez and Dennis Phipps and triple by Andy Dirks, the Escogido Lions pounded Edinson Volquez and the Cibao Gigantes to clinch a spot in the Dominican League finals.

The Leones got off to a 5-0 start in the 18-game, four-team semifinal round-robin tournament. They have enjoyed plenty of offense from Tatis, Gomez and Dirks, who have combined for 33 RBIs in 16 games while the pitching, anchored by Fernando Rodney, Nelson Figueroa and Boston Red Sox pitching prospect Kris Johnson, have recorded 118 strikeouts in a 16-game span.

The second spot in the finals is up for grabs between the Gigantes, Licey Tigres and Aguilas Cibaenas who are all within one game of each other with only two to play.

The Aguilas have added some firepower to their roster with the activation of Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes while Hector Luna, Miguel Tejada and Oakland Athletics outfielder Brandon Moss continue to contribute on offense. For its part, Licey added Angels shortstop Erick Aybar for the final stages of the round robin while the Gigantes continue to count on Erick Almonte, Alexi Casilla and Wilson Betemit to carry them into the finals.

Aragua making a charge in the semis

The Aragua Tigres, led by former major leaguer Edgardo Alfonzo, have won five straight games -- including a two-game sweep of the defending champion Anzoategui Caribes -- to move to within a half-game of the lead in the five-team Venezuelan League semifinal round robin.

The 38-year-old Alfonzo is batting .417 with an on-base percentage of .512 through 10 games in the semifinals and has paired well with Hector Gimenez (who signed a minor-league deal with the Chicago White Sox last week) and New York Mets utilityman Luis Hernandez to power the Tigres’ offense.

Meanwhile, the Magallanes Navegantes have kept themselves in contention despite losing the services of Chicago Cubs first baseman Brian LaHair, who was recalled by the Cubs. The Navegantes have won of their last four games and are caught in a fight for survival with the La Guaira Tiburones, who have enjoyed a surprisingly strong performance from imports Brian Sweeney (2-0, 0.71 ERA) and Les Walrond (2-0, 2.60 ERA) as they seek their first Venezuelan League title in 26 years.

However, the Caribes still look strong atop the round-robin standings, as Alexi Amarista, Gustavo Molina and Jose Castillo continue to pound opposing pitchers as they have combined to bat .377 with eight homers and 33 RBIs in their last 11 games.

The Zulia Aguilas have already been eliminated as they began the round robin with a nine-game losing streak.

Obregon, Guasave lead in semifinal series

The defending champion Ciudad Obregon Yaquis took a 2-1 lead in their best-of-seven Mexican Pacific League semifinal series against the Mexicali Aguilas with an eighth-inning home run from minor-league veteran Iker Franco, who has carried the Yaquis in the series.

A one-time touted prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization, Franco has combined with import Doug Clark and newly-acquired veteran Karim Garcia to lead the offense to the series lead. The Yaquis have also relied on solid performances from starter Marlon Arias and relievers Mario Mendoza and Luis Ayala to gain an edge over underdog Aguilas.

In the other semifinal, the Guasave Algodoneros hold a 2-1 series lead over the Culiacan Tomateros, but Culiacan, after being down 0-2 in the series, exploded for a 17-4 victory behind three homers by import Cory Aldridge, who became the seventh player to hit three homers in a playoff game in MPL history and the first import to do it since Willie Aikens in 1987. Javier Robles and Humberto Cota equaled the feat in 2005 and 2010, respectively.

Aldridge, a free agent since 2010 when he played in five games for the Los Angeles Angels, led the attack which also included a rare home run from shortstop Ramiro Pena and another from outfielder Refugio Cervantes, who has played the last 12 seasons in the Mexican League.

Starter Rodrigo Lopez got the win as the series resumes in Guasave as regular-season ERA champ Francisco Campos takes the mound for Culiacan against Cincinnati Reds prospect James Avery for Guasave.

Mayaguez pounds Caguas in final series opener

The Mayaguez Indios’ bench came alive in the Puerto Rico Baseball League final series opener as last-minute replacements Danny Ortiz and Danny Gonzalez -- starting for the injured Randy Ruiz and Mickey Negron -- combined to go 5-for-8 with four RBIs to give the Indios a 10-1 victory over the Caguas Criollos.

Fresh off a semifinal series win over the Ponce Leones, the Indios took advantage of the rusty Criollos, who by winning the four-team regular season title had a 10-day layoff to await their opponent in the finals. Mayaguez pounded Criollos starter Matt DeSalvo, who lasted only three innings as Jesus Feliciano, Jeffrey Dominguez and Ruben Gotay all contributed to the attack.

Indios starter Bobby Livingston, a Mexican Summer League standout who most recently pitched in the minors in 2010 for the Tampa Bay Rays organization, pitched five scoreless innings yielding only a double to Criollos second baseman Alex Cora.

Playoffs heat up in winter leagues

January, 8, 2012
Led by Pablo Ozuna, Andy Dirks and Fernando Tatis, the Escogido Leones have taken a commanding three-and-a-half game lead midway through the Dominican League’s four-team, 18-game semifinal round-robin en route to their second berth in the finals in the last three seasons.

The trio is batting a collective .352 as the Leones, who have only hit one home run in the first eight games, are batting .297 as a team.

Escogido’s bullpen has also risen to the occasion as Jose Cabrera has been a perfect 3-0 in four outings while Fernando Rodney and Nelson Payano have shared closer duties without mishaps.

The Leones are pitted against the Aguilas Cibaeñas, Licey Tigres and the defending champions Toros del Este in the semifinal, which has seen an influx of major league players enter action, including unsigned free agents Wilson Betemit, Miguel Tejada, Miguel Batista and Ronny Paulino.

The Aguilas, which began the round-robin with a 3-1 mark, have dropped four straight despite having the top postseason hitter in Hector Luna and are 0-3 in one-run games. The Aguilas were heavily favored to win the championship this season, but are currently a half-game back of the Toros for the second berth in the finals.

Dessens announces his retirement
Former pitcher Elmer Dessens, who pitched parts of 14 seasons with nine teams in the majors, announced this week he was retiring from baseball. Dessens leaves with a career mark 52-64 mark with an ERA of 4.44 in 1,174 innings. He last saw action in the majors with the New York Mets in 2010. Once touted as the right-handed version of Fernando Valenzuela, Dessens had his best season with the Cincinnati Reds in 2000 when he went 11-5 with 85 strikeouts.

Elsewhere in the Mexican Pacific League, the semifinal picture became clear on Friday as the Guasave Algodoneros clinched the final spot with a dramatic 8-5 victory over the defending champion Ciudad Obregón Yaquis with a five-run rally started against Obregon reliever Luis Ayala.

Obregón, which had already clinched a semifinals berth, and Guasave will join Culiacán, which enjoyed a a solid pitching performance from Oliver Perez to eliminate the Navojoa Mayos, and Mexicali, behind veteran Jorge Campillo, which eliminated the potent Hermosillo Naranjeros.

Franco seeks second consecutive title
The Anzoategui Caribes are off to a 4-0 start in the Venezuelan League’s semifinal round-robin as the Julio Franco-managed team looks to become the first team to win consecutive titles since the Aragua Tigres won three in a row from the 2006 to 2009.

Led by stellar pitching performances from Jared Wells and Renyel Pinto and offensive contributions from Alexi Amarista, Gustavo Molina, Rene Reyes and Jose Castillo, the Caribes have a one-game lead over the La Guaira Tiburones, who led the standings at the end of the regular season and are looking for their first title in 26 years -- the longest such drought in the Caribbean leagues.

La Guaira continues to enjoy solid offense from Oscar Salazar and Gregor Blanco while starter Armando Galarraga pitched five innings of one-hit ball in his semifinals debut.

The Magallanes Navegantes, Zulia Aguilas and Aragua round out the semifinal round-robin field.

Cintron fined and suspended in Puerto Rico
Alex Cintron, who played parts of nine seasons in the majors with Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore and Washington, was fined an undisclosed amount and suspended for 15 games after an altercation with home plate umpire Roberto Ortiz while playing for the Carolina Gigantes in the Puerto Rico League.

It was Cintron’s second such incident in less than a year, a reason why PRBL president Sadi Antonmattei said the league will "come down hard" on the player.

It is the second high-profile suspension in the Caribbean leagues this season as Yorvit Torrealba was suspended for 66 games in the Venezuelan league for a similar incident with an umpire.

Cintron’s suspension may not have an effect stateside as he voluntarily retired from the majors last May while playing in the San Diego Padres organization.

Elsewhere in the Puerto Rican league, the Mayagüez Indios and Ponce Leones will begin this week a best-of-five series to decide who will play the Caguas Criollos in the finals. The economically-strapped Puerto Rican League was pared down to four teams at the start of the season.

Big-leaguers enter Dominican semis

December, 31, 2011
Liga Dominicana de BéisoblVictor PerezMiguel Tejada lets it rip for Aguilas.

The stakes have risen in the Dominican League’s semi-final round-robin tournament between the Aguilas Cibaeñas, Escogido Leones, Licey Tigres and Cibao Gigantes. Several veteran major leaguers have entered the fray, led by Miguel Tejada, who hit two doubles in his debut with the Aguilas.

The Aguilas also reinforced their outfield with newly signed Oakland Athletics outfielder Brandon Moss, whom Aguilas manager Felix Fermin is hoping will bring the left-handed power the team has lacked all season, as well as Edwin Encarnacion, who played the past five regular-season games, but has only seen action in one of the first four round-robin games. Starting pitcher Fausto Carmona has also joined the Aguilas for the postseason.

Tejada’s two doubles led to a 6-0 win against Licey to keep pace with Escogido, which reinforced its rotation by welcoming Francisco Liriano and shored up the bullpen with Fernando Rodney, who saved the game in his Leones debut. Led by Pedro Florimon, Fernando Tatis, Julio Lugo and Andy Dirks, the Leones are batting a collective .350 through the first three games of the semifinal round robin.

Ugueto steals home, helping Caribes earn playoff berth

Luis Ugueto stole home in the bottom of the 12th inning against the Lara Cardinals, sending the Anzoategui Caribes into the postseason to join the Aragua Tigres, La Guaira Tiburones, Zulia Aguilas and Magallanes Navegantes in the five-team round robin. Ugueto last played in the major leagues in 2003 with the Seattle Mariners, and was predominantly used a pinch-runner all season. But his late-inning feat gave the Caribes their second consecutive postseason berth.

Elsewhere in Venezuela, Houston Astros infielder Jose Altuve completed an impressive regular season for Magallanes, finishing among the league’s leaders in batting average (.339), at-bats (242), runs scored (32), hits (82), doubles (18), total bases (110) and RBIs (35), making him one of the leading candidates for MVP along with teammate Jesus Flores and La Guaira’s Gregor Blanco.

Among the pitchers, Zulia’s Austin Bibens-Dirkx led the league in victories with a 7-3 mark with an ERA of 2.19, and Renyel Pinto finished at 6-1 with a 2.43 ERA and led the league in strikeouts with 73 in 77.2 innings pitched. Magallanes’ Eric Junge led the league in ERA with a 1.53, putting together a 4-1 mark in 10 starts.

Madera, Canizares lead hitters in the Mexican League

Former Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles farmhand Sandy Madera was crowned the batting champion in the Mexican Pacific League after batting .366 in 49 games with the Los Mochis Cañeros to edge out Navojoa Mayos outfielder Kraig Binick in the last three days of play.

Madera’s impressive offensive year did not help Los Mochis as the Cañeros missed the playoffs by virtue of a tiebreaker against the Navojoa Mayos, who had won their particular regular-season series. The Mazatlan Venados, who had made the playoffs each of the past 11 seasons, were the other team eliminated from semifinal play, which begins on Jan. 1 with Navojoa facing Culiacan, Hermosillo at Mexicali and Guasave at Ciudad Obregon. Former Cuban national team player Barbaro Canizares, Obregon's first baseman, finished as the regular season home run king with 20 in 65 games.

In another MPL note, several veteran free agent pitchers finished the regular season with respectable showings as they seek spring training invitations. Former New York Mets pitcher Oliver Perez has 23 relief appearances with the Culiacan Tomateros and had an ERA of 0.63 in 14 1/3 innings pitched. Former Chicago White Sox and Milwaukee Brewers prospect Francisco Campos, now 38, led the MPL in strikeouts with 74 over 82 innings while putting together an 8-2 record for Culiacan.

Feliciano leads Mayaguez’s charge into the playoffs

Jesus Feliciano was one home run shy from the hitting for the cycle, leading the Mayaguez Indios to a 6-4 win against the Carolina Gigantes on Friday and clinching the second of the three playoffs spots in the Puerto Rican league.

The defending champion Caguas Criollos had clinched a berth last week while Carolina’s loss to Mayaguez placed it in a tough spot of having to sweep its last three games to edge the Ponce Leones for the final playoff berth.

Feliciano, a free agent who spent part of eight seasons with the New York Mets, has teamed up with Milwaukee Brewers prospect Martin Maldonado and former Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Randy Ruiz to lead the charge for Mayaguez, which is looking for its first title since the 2009-10 season.

Meanwhile, the fledgling Puerto Rican league received a bit of good news this week as news spread about the possible return of the San Juan Senadores, who did not play this season after negotiations with the City of San Juan for the lease of San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium were unsuccessful.

Zambrano reviving career in Venezuela

December, 18, 2011
Carlos Zambrano, who was hit in the head by a line drive earlier in the winter season, returned to action with the Caribes de Anzoátegui in the Venezuelan League. After three shaky starts, the embattled Chicago Cubs hurler finally came to form this week, pitching five hitless innings against the Aragua Tigres before yielding to the bullpen to complete an 11-0 shutout.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano recently pitched five hitless innings in Venezuela.
In four starts, Zambrano has a 2.55 ERA in 17.1 innings while recording 13 strikeouts. However, he has been susceptible to the long ball as he gave up six home runs in his first 12 innings of work this winter. It was precisely his leaving the breaking ball up in the zone which led to Zambrano’s problems in Chicago. He was placed on the disqualified list by the Cubs on Aug. 12 after giving up five home runs in a game against the Atlanta Braves. After being ejected for throwing behind Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, Zambrano cleaned out his locker and left Wrigley Field. He has since met with new Cubs president Theo Epstein and they’re working on a way for Zambrano to get back on the Cubs’ active roster.

The Caribes, managed by Julio Franco and trailing the La Guaira Tiburones by two and a half games heading into the final stages of the regular season, have relied on Renyel Pinto to be their ace as he has compiled a 6-0 mark with a 1.27 ERA in 10 outings and striking out 64 in 60 innings. Pinto, who pitched parts of five seasons with the Florida Marlins, was last seen in the majors in 2010 and was eventually released by the St. Louis Cardinals.

In another Venezuelan league note, former New York Yankees outfielder Hensley Meulens took over as manager of the last-place Margarita Bravos after the firing of Don Baylor.

Caribbean Interleague play

A contingent of All-Stars from the Dominican and Venezuelan leagues faced off this week in the Caribbean Interleague All-Star game in which Luis Jimenez shined with two home runs in Venezuela’s 4-0 victory in Caracas.

Jimenez, a first baseman who has spent the past two seasons in the Seattle Mariners organization after playing a year with Japan’s Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, has anchored the Lara Cardenales’ offense, hitting .298 with nine homers and 28 RBIs and is among the Venezuelan League leaders in average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases, on-base percentage and OPS.

Minor league veteran Dwayne Pollock, who has had a solid winter with the Zulia Aguilas, recorded the win for Venezuela while Lorenzo Barcelo was saddled with the loss.

Ayala’s milestone in Mexico

Luis Ayala, a sought-after reliever in MLB’s free agent market, reached a milestone as he became the seventh pitcher in Mexican Pacific League history to record 60 saves. Pitching for the Ciudad Obregon Yaquis, Ayala is perfect in eight save opportunities, yielding one earned run in 14.1 innings.

Ayala, who was used by the Yankees in middle relief last season, is reported to be hearing offers from six MLB teams for 2012, including the Yankees, New York Mets, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox.

Elsewhere in the MPL, former major league first baseman Jorge Cantu has had an immediate impact as he returned to action with the Hermosillo Naranjeros. In his first 17 games, Cantu is batting .328 with seven homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.102 OPS to help Hermosillo back into playoff contention.

Released last July 30 by the San Diego Padres after batting .194 in 57 games, Cantu signed a minor league contract with the Rockies but did not return to the majors and was granted free agency in November. At 29, Cantu has played eight seasons in the majors with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Florida, Texas and San Diego.

Rivera to return to Carolina’s roster

The Minnesota Twins granted catcher Rene Rivera permission to return to the Carolina Gigantes of the Puerto Rico Baseball League a day after signing a new minor league deal that includes an invitation to spring training.

The Twins announced Rivera’s signing on Dec. 13 along with the signing of Sean Burroughs, who revived his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2011.

Rivera, who was Joe Mauer’s substitute for 46 games last season, impressed with his defense as he threw out 40 percent of would-be stealers. In five games with Carolina thus far, he has four singles and a triple in 15 at-bats.

Burroughs, meanwhile, has been active in the Venezuelan League with the Bravos de Margarita, batting .326 in 35 games.

Arias, Blanco look to return to majors

December, 11, 2011
Joaquin Arias, famous for being the "player to be named later" in the deal that sent Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers to the New York Yankees in 2004, is tearing up the Dominican League, batting .370 with 29 RBIs for the Aguilas Cibaeñas and hopes to turn that performance into a chance to compete for a roster spot somewhere in spring training.

Arias spent all of 2011 in Triple-A Omaha in the Kansas City Royals organization where he batted .232 and was granted free agency in November. The Royals had picked him off waivers from the New York Mets in November 2010.

While playing a competent second base for Aguilas, the 27-year-old Arias is also fourth in the league in stolen bases and is tied for league lead in triples with Chicago White Sox prospect Alejandro de Aza, who is playing locally with the Toros del Este.

Meanwhile, free agent pitcher Miguel Batista is trying on a new role with the Aguilas since joining the team a week ago. Batista is sharing closer duties with Boston Red Sox pitcher Tony Peña Jr.

Hamilton wants to be the next Pujols

St. Louis Cardinals prospect Mark Hamilton might be playing himself into contention for a roster spot with the big club by having a productive winter for the Hermosillo Naranjeros in the Mexican Pacific League.

Hamilton, a 6-4 left-handed hitting first baseman, hit .345 at Triple-A Memphis in 2011 and is following up with a .340 winter with 20 RBIs in 77 at-bats in the second half of the regular season.

With the departure of Albert Pujols, the Cardinals need to make decisions for first base in 2012 and might look to fill the roster spot from within. Hamilton was the Cardinals’ second-round draft pick in 2006.

Salazar wants back in the Show

Released by the Marlins last June, Oscar Salazar is determined to make it back to the majors and is putting together a stellar winter season with the La Guaira Tiburones to prove he can return to the same form which saw him hit .302 with the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres in 2009.

Through 48 games, Salazar has 35 RBIs, seven home runs and is batting .260 and has been key in the clutch to help the Tiburones to the top of the standings.

Salazar has teamed up with outfielder Gregor Blanco, who last month signed with the San Francisco Giants, and Hector Sanchez, also a product of the Giants farm, for a combined 99 RBIs in 48 games.

Aviles making an impact

Boston Red Sox infielder Mike Aviles, who is trying his luck playing right field for the Ponce Leones, is making a quick impact since joining the team this week.

Aviles drove in four and hit two home runs, helping the Leones beat the Mayaguez Indios 5-3 in 14 innings in only his second game. Through his first five games, Aviles is hitting .265. Prior to joining the Leones, Aviles, who played five games in the outfield for the Red Sox, had said he wanted to improve his skills to perhaps compete for the Red Sox right field job in spring training.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Brewers prospect Martin Maldonado is batting .338 through 25 games with Mayaguez with three home runs and 11 RBIs.
It’s another day in chilly Dallas for Keith Law, but he braved the elements for the Baseball Today podcast as he and I discussed the latest rumors and happenings from the winter meetings, including:

1. OK, Mr. Pujols, you’ve apparently got your crazy offers, so make a decision. We explain how recent developments could signal a quick ending to this situation.

2. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Miami Marlins infield from Albert Pujols is former shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Is he happy? Is he sad? Does it matter? We try to think like Hanley.

3. Meet the new Mets, making all kinds of deals and rejuvenating their bullpen. Well, perhaps not rejuvenating, but at least they added pieces. We analyze the Mets-Giants trade.

4. And there’s more involving closers on the move, as the Padres get a guy they didn’t need, the White Sox move a guy they didn’t seem to need to move, and where will Ryan Madson and other free agent save fellows go?

5. Finally, Keith talks about what the GMs are actually doing in Dallas, where he likes and doesn’t like the meetings to be held, and congratulates a friend on making it into the Hall of Fame!

So tune in to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast and be entertained and informed! We’ll be back on Thursday to wrap the winter meetings!
DALLAS -- Unable to secure Jose Reyes, lacking the money to pursue a big name free agent, perhaps unwilling to trade David Wright and commit fully to a rebuilding project, the New York Mets instead turned to Plan D, or maybe Plan E or F, at the winter meetings: Collect a bunch of right-handed relievers for the bullpen.

In a flurry of moves over an hour or so, the Mets signed relievers Frank Francisco (2 years, $12 million) and Jon Rauch (1 year, $3.5 million), and reportedly traded center fielder Angel Pagan to the San Francisco Giants for reliever Ramon Ramirez and outfielder Andres Torres.

[+] EnlargeFrank Francisco
Abelimages/Getty ImagesFrank Francisco got a two-year, $12-million deal to be the Mets' new closer, one of several New York moves.
Certainly, bolstering the bullpen without blowing K-Rod money makes sense: In 2011, Mets' relievers posted a 4.33 ERA, 28th in the majors. Their .267 batting average allowed ranked 28th, their 24 blown saves ranked tied for 23rd (18 more than NL East rival Philadelphia) and their .344 on-base percentage allowed ranked 28th. They fared a little better in categories like strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio, but no matter how you slice it the pen wasn't good.

A quick capsule of the players they acquired:

  • Francisco: He'll assume the closer duties, relying on his 93- to 96-mph fastball and split-finger. He's solid if unspectacular and earned the coveted "closer" label primarily by lucking into the job with the 2009 Rangers. He was a flyball pitcher early in his career, but has increased his ground-ball percentage the past two seasons. The biggest concern is that he usually lands on the disabled list once or twice a season and hasn't pitched more than 52 innings in any of the past three years. So even if you make him the closer, you'll likely need a backup closer for 15-20 innings or so.
  • Rauch: Once named Baseball America's top prospect in the minor leagues (ahead of Albert Pujols), Rauch will be joining his fifth team in five seasons. He's a serviceable middle guy who has closed at times (58 career saves), but has been pretty hittable in recent seasons: 256 hits in 251 innings since 2008, with just 197 strikeouts. He's also been prone to the long ball at various times in his career, including allowing 11 with the Blue Jays in just 52 innings last season. Frankly, I don't see Rauch as any improvement over currents Mets relievers Bobby Parnell, Pedro Beato, Tim Byrdak or Manny Acosta. He's mediocre depth, which I guess isn't the worst thing but doesn't exactly have Mets forgetting Jose Reyes.
  • Ramirez and Torres: Pagan and Torres is an exchange of center fielders who played well in 2010, but poorly in 2011. Both were in danger of being non-tendered, although on Monday Mets manager Terry Collins had been talking about using Pagan as his leadoff hitter. The biggest issue with Pagan was that his defense notably slipped from 2010. Torres' bat is a question mark, but he'll draw walks and is a more consistent defender. Still, in the end he's nearly 34 with a career .244/.318/.403 line. He's not going to get better. Ramirez is a fastball/slider/changeup type with a career ERA of 3.16 over five-plus seasons. He was terrific in his year-plus with the Giants and there's no reason to necessarily assume it was home-park effect -- he dominated on the road in 2011, with a .157 average allowed.

So, yes, the Mets now have eight or nine relievers to choose from. The Mets were 67-6 when leading after eight innings and 60-10 when leading after seven innings. Those don't seem like high totals, but actually are worse than the league average, so even though there's nothing flashy in these three relievers, the bullpen should be a few wins better in 2012. Sorry, Mets fans: We mean 4-5 wins or so, not 10 or 12. That's an important improvement, sure, but only a small step if the Mets wish to contend in an NL East that could end up being much tougher in 2012.

While blowing fewer late-innings leads will certainly be less frustrating, the big question remains: How many late-inning leads will they have?

Winter roundup: Peguero, Altuve on a roll

December, 3, 2011
Former Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics slugger Erubiel Durazo is in the midst of one of his best winter league seasons, playing with the Hermosillo Naranjeros of the Mexican Pacific League. Through his first 40 games, Durazo has hit seven home runs with 30 RBIs while batting .267 with an on-base percentage of .324.

Once a promising and powerful left-handed bat, Durazo’s career was slowed by an array of injuries. In his last full major league season in 2004, he hit .321 with 22 home runs and 88 RBIs for the A’s, earning him votes for American League MVP. His biggest highlight, however, came in 2001 when he hit a two-run homer off Tom Glavine in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series to help the Diamondbacks into the World Series. He was traded to Oakland in 2002.

Injuries kept Durazo to just 41 games in 2005, which led to his release by the A’s. He has since signed minor league contracts with the Rangers, Twins, A’s and Yankees, who released him in 2007. He has played in the Mexican summer league ever since.

At 37, Durazo said recently he would not mind returning to the majors and would consider an invitation to the Caribbean Series should his Naranjeros not win the MPL championship.

Peguero’s bat comes alive in the Dominican

Carlos Peguero, one of the Seattle Mariners’ outfield prospects, is currently leading the Dominican League in home runs, doubles and runs scored and is among the leaders in average and RBIs. Playing for the Cibao Gigantes, the left-handed hitting Peguero is batting .310 in 31 games with nine home runs and 24 RBIs to lead the Gigantes into playoff contention.

The Gigantes have also received a pleasant surprise from Erick Almonte, who eight years removed from his last major league game returned to the big leagues in 2011 as an outfielder with the Milwaukee Brewers. Almonte is batting .314 but his power numbers are way below pace with just six extra-base hits and only 16 RBIs in 124 at-bats.

Meanwhile, Yankees pitcher Hector Noesi continues to impress while pitching for the Licey Tigres as he earned Player of the Month honors in November with a 3-1 record and a 2.22 ERA over 28 1/3 innings.

Altuve tearing it up

Fresh off his first half season in the majors, Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is in the middle of a monster season with the Magallanes Navegantes in the Venezuelan league.

The 21-year-old Maracay native is hitting .378 with an on-base percentage of .409 through 38 games, good enough to be among the league leaders in average, at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles, triples, total bases, extra-base hits and slugging. Altuve is trying to make his case for the starting job with the Astros where he is projected to compete with Matt Downs.

Aviles to play the outfield in Puerto Rico

Aware that the Boston Red Sox have a gaping hole in right field, third baseman Mike Aviles will be joining the Ponce Leones this week to work on his outfield skills in hope that he can compete for the right field job in spring training.

Aviles, who hit .317 in 38 games with Boston last season, has experience in all four infield positions, but did not play the outfield in his first three seasons with the Kansas City Royals. He did play five games -- one in left and four in right field -- for the Red Sox.

Leones general manager Frankie Thon -- the brother of former Astros infielder Dickie Thon -- said Aviles should join the team this week and play for the remainder of the regular season.

Reds' Francisco makes push for third base

November, 26, 2011
Former Cuban national team first baseman and Atlanta Braves prospect Barbaro Canizares seems to have found his power stroke this winter as he is leading the Mexican Pacific League with 15 home runs and 37 RBIs and a .319 average through 38 games.

Canizares, who in 2004 was kicked off the Cuban team for trying to defect, signed with the Braves in 2006 as a free agent. Unlike former Cuban national team teammate Kendrys Morales, who found success in the majors with the Angels, Canizares has played just five games at the major league level.

Now a 32-year-old minor league veteran, Canizares -- the International League batting champion in 2010 -- spent last summer with Oaxaca in the Mexican summer league after the Braves released him on April 3. The right-handed hitting Cuban, however, is looking for a shot at a spring training invitation, perhaps with an American League team looking for some punch off the bench as his defense has been his weakness, according to several scouts.

Playing for the defending champion Ciudad Obregón Yaquis, Canizares has teamed up with Ryan Spilborghs, Doug Clark and Alfredo Amezaga to lead the Yaquis to the top of the standings in the early stages of the regular season’s second half after finishing in third place behind Mexicali and Culiacan in the first half.

Williams undefeated in Venezuela

Los Angeles Angels pitcher Jerome Williams is making a strong case for a permanent spot in the 2012 rotation. Pitching for the Magallanes Navegantes, Williams is 5-0 with a 1.00 ERA through six starts with 26 strikeouts and 12 walks while holding opponents to a .219 average.

After bouncing around the National League with San Francisco, Chicago and Washington between 2003 and 2007, Williams hooked up with the Angels last June and went 7-2 at Triple-A Salt Lake before being inserted into the Angels’ rotation, where he made six starts and finished with a respectable 4-0 mark and 3.86 ERA.

The Angels kept Williams on their 40-man roster. Given the possible departure of free agent Joel Pineiro, Williams is poised to be on their Opening Day roster.

Francisco proving he can play

With doubts about the health of Cincinnati Reds third baseman Scott Rolen still lurking, up-and-comer Juan Francisco is jockeying to become the heir to the hot corner in Cincinnati with strong power numbers while playing for the Licey Tigres in the Dominican winter league.

Through 28 games, the 24-year-old Francisco is currently riding an 11-game hitting streak which has upped his average to .315 with three homers, 14 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .387. His last home run allowed him to pass Dominican legend Felipe Alou for 15th place in the all-time career home runs list in the Dominican league.

Rolen was shelved last September and underwent shoulder surgery. Although recent reports place him on course to come back for spring training, the left-handed hitting Francisco could be an inexpensive option for the Reds, who have plenty of questions with their pitching going into the height of the free-agent market.

Padilla eyes a .400 season

Jorge Padilla, who is fighting his way back to the majors after his ill-fated tenure with the Washington Nationals in 2009, is threatening to become the first player to hit over .400 in Puerto Rico since Edgar Martinez batted .423 in 1991-92 for the now-defunct San Juan Metros.

Padilla, an outfielder with the Caguas Criollos, is hitting .475 with an OPS of 1.296. The Criollos, who saw a five-game winning streak snapped by the Ponce Lions on Thanksgiving, have a one-game lead over Ponce in the four-team league.

Padilla, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1998 and has since floated through the Mets, Royals, Blue Jays, Nationals and Marlins organizations, was granted free agency by the Marlins on Nov. 1.

Padilla, now 32, last saw major league action with the Nationals in 2009 when he appeared in 29 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, and compiled a .120 average, going 3-for-25.

Winter leagues roundup: Milledge thriving

November, 23, 2011
Former top prospect Lastings Milledge is putting together a formidable season with the Aragua Tigres in an effort to parlay his performance into a spring training invite.

Through 27 games this winter, Milledge is batting .324 with 10 doubles in 105 at-bats and a .387 on-base percentage and is among the league leaders in total bases and slugging.

Milledge arrived in Venezuela early to join Aragua’s workouts and has since been the cornerstone of the Tigres’ offense and the go-to guy for Aragua manager Buddy Bailey, who manages Daytona -- the Chicago Cubs’ Class A affiliate in the Florida State League.

Noesi shining in the Dominican Republic

One of the main reasons why the New York Yankees are backing off the C.J. Wilson sweepstakes this offseason could be Hector Noesi, who is off to a wonderful winter league season with the Licey Tigres and poised to take over the long-relief slot in the Yankees' bullpen.

Noesi, who the Yankees like a lot, is 3-1 with a 2.31 ERA in four starts for Licey in the offense-driven Dominican league. In his last outing, Noesi held the Cibao Gigantes to three hits over six innings with four strikeouts. This goes with his complete-game shutout over Escogido on his wedding night two weeks ago.

Another milestone for Pudge

Veteran free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez reached another milestone this week as he and his son Dereck Rodriguez became the first father-son tandem in history to play for the same team in the Puerto Rico Winter League.

Ivan, looking to latch on with a major league club for a 22nd season and continue the quest for his 3,000th hit, began the winter season as the Caguas Criollos’ starting catcher while son Dereck, a 19-year-old outfielder and sixth-round pick by the Minnesota Twins, mulls the possibility of converting to pitcher.

For the time being, however, Dereck is on Caguas’ bench.

Keisler making a case

It has been four full seasons since he pitched in the majors, but 35-year-old veteran Randy Keisler is off to a flying start in the Mexican Pacific League, which this season seems chock-full of veterans looking like they still have some big league innings left in their arms.

Keisler, a lefty, is off to a 4-1 start with an ERA of 2.03 and 33 strikeouts over 44.1 innings with the Ciudad Obregón Yaquis.

Other veterans off to good starts in Mexico include Esteban Loaiza, who is off to a 2-1 start with Mexicali, along with teammate, and former Rockies prospect, Marco Duarte. Duarte is leading all pitchers in the MPL with a 4-0 record and a 1.60 ERA over 33.1 innings.