Baseball is heating up in the Caribbean leagues
This is De Jon Watson's favorite time of year. And it has nothing to do with Thanksgiving, Christmas or the leaves changing colors.
No, the Dodgers assistant general manager for player development loves winter because that's when baseball heats up -- sometimes overheats -- in the Caribbean.
The Red Sox-Yankees and Dodgers-Giants can pass for emotional rivalries in the U.S. but they feel more like sandlot contests compared to the bloodlust that can surround games between Caracas and Maracay in Venezuela or Licey and the Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Republic.
"The fans are really into the game. And loud. And boisterous," said Watson, who has players in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico. "We like our kids to have that exposure and experience of playing a little winter ball. These 50 games are [Latin America's] version of the World Series. And these guys have to understand how important it is to go out and execute and be able to play and yet be under control while playing.
"I love it."
Not that the numbers matter much. Watson says the Dodgers look at winter statistics much the way they do spring training numbers: It's better if they're good, but not so bad if they aren't because the level of competition can be hard to figure.
"We want to see how you're going to handle the adversity," says Watson, who equates winter ball with a finishing school. "How you maintain and if you're physically strong enough. It just allows us an opportunity to continue growing our guys. It's a learning experience for the player. But you come back to us with a clean slate."
One Dodger prospect who would probably like his winter to carry over is Double A shortstop Ivan DeJesus Jr., who has hit in eight of his last nine games for Carolina of the Puerto Rican league, where he ranks third with 12 RBI after 14 games.
But Watson says the Puerto Rican League is especially tough to judge this year since it's just starting up again following a one-year suspension brought on by financial problems. That could also make it difficult to evaluate a pair of former major league left-handers who are using the league as what they hope will be a springboard back into the majors.
Bill Pulsipher, a highly touted Mets prospect before his career was derailed by injury and bouts with depression and anxiety, is 2-0 with a 3.60 earned-run average through three starts with league-leading Arecibo while Bruce Chen, who once won 13 games with the Orioles, has a 2.45 ERA through three starts with last-place Mayaguez. And though both pitchers are older than 30, Watson says
scouts are watching.
"You have to be open and receptive to any player," said Watson, who recently toured the Dominican and Venezuela leagues. "Age is irrelevant if you can play. From an organizational standpoint, we're trying to see every player that's down there playing."
Age, however, can have its drawbacks.
Which is why former all-stars Armando Benitez and Jose Lima, both 36, may not get much attention no matter how well they throw in the pitching-rich Dominican League. Benitez, who pitched just 6 1/3 innings in the majors last season, has a 2.45 ERA through seven relief appearances for Azucareros del Este.
Lima, a former Dodger who spent much of the last two summers in Korea and the independent Atlantic League, entered Monday leading the league with 37 innings pitched, going 1-2 with a 4.62 ERA and 30 strikeouts and only three walks for Aguilas.
The Washington Nationals' Anderson Hernandez, meanwhile, leads the league in hitting with a .402 average. Licey teammate Erick Aybar of the Angels is just three spots back in the batting race at .358. Both, however, would be trailing the Angels' Kendry Morales if Morales had just a few more at-bats.
Morales, playing for Gigantes, was batting .455 after 17 games but he was a handful of plate appearances shy of the 78 needed to qualify for the batting race. Morales went hitless in four at-bats Sunday, ending a streak that had seen him go 10 for 19 with seven runs scored in his previous four games.
One Angel who hasn't had much success is outfielder Reggie Willits, who was sent home after getting just a single in 26 at-bats (.038) for Estrellas de Oriente. Estrellas, which is rumored to be having financial issues, sent Angel infielder Brandon Wood home a week ago after he got off to a .167 start.
ESPN Deportes is scheduled to air two of Morales' Dominican League games this week, when his Gigantes play at Escogido on Friday afternoon and when they meet the Aguilas on Sunday.
If you're the Pacific Coast League batting champion you might want to avoid Mexico. Or at least the Mazatlan team.
In the last three weeks the Venados have cut the last two PCL batting champions, shipping out former Padre Brian Myrow and former Dodger Terry Tiffee. Myrow last played six days ago and was batting .217, while Tiffee, who last played on Halloween, left with a .283 average in 53 at-bats.
Those moves were made to create room in the lineup for Tijuana-born Angels prospect Freddy Sandoval, who has gotten off to a slow start, with just four hits in his first 21 at-bats (.190).
Tiffee, by the way, lasted just a day longer than Dodger prospect Eric Stults, but then again, Stults' depature was planned. The left-hander, limited to 156 1/3 innings split between the Dodgers and Triple A Las Vegas last year, was asked to get in a little additional work this winter so he made four starts -- throwing 20 innings and going 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA -- for Mazatlan.
The Venezuelan League has a well-earned reputation for being an offensive league and, through five weeks, this year is no exception. Three players entered Monday hitting at least .400, three players are already in double digits in home runs and teammates Jesus Guzman (Oakland) and Josh Kroeger (released this fall by the Cubs) have combined for 74 RBI for first-place Caracas, which is hitting .301 as a team, averaging nearly seven runs a contest.
Not surprisingly, the Leones are making a mockery of the first-half standings, having won 22 of their first 31 games to take a 5 1/2-game lead over La Guaira and Lara.
But all that offense has made it tough on pitchers. Just ask former Long Beach State right-hander Kasey Olenberger of the Angels. Olenberger leads the league with five losses and has an 11.42 ERA in eight games for last-place Margarita.
Let's hope the Angels let him start with a clean slate come spring training.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo: The Angels' Shea Hillenbrand is forced out at second base by the Dodgers' Ivan DeJesus Jr. during a Freeway Series game in March. Credit: Christine Cotter / Los Angeles Times