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Andruw Jones already thinking of next free-agent contract

December 15, 2008 |  8:30 pm

Andruw Jones

A thinner, hungrier, more focused Andruw Jones took the field in the Dominican Republic on Friday in his winter league debut. And that could be good news for the Dodgers.

Jones struggled with his weight and a knee that required midseason surgery last summer, his first in Los Angeles. He batted .158 and struck out 76 times in 75 games. So when Jones showed up in the central Dominican city of Santiago last week to play for Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican league, the stakes were high.

The Dominican daily Listin Diario, in a headline for a story noting Jones' arrival, said the 10-time Gold Glove winner was hoping to "demonstrate he's not done."

But in an interview published on the Aguilas website, Jones blamed his troubles last season primarily on his knee problems.  "For the first time I lost nearly the whole season to

injury," he said. In reality, though, Jones didn't look right from the time he arrived in spring training more than 20 pounds overweight.

And while he's just three games into his Dominican season, Jones is already looking past the coming summer to next winter, when his two-year, $36.2-million deal with the Dodgers will be up and he'll be heading back into the free-agent market.

"After the next season I'll be a free agent again," he said. "I have to regain my confidence in the game, get the injury out of my mind and run like normal. That confidence is what I've come to look for with the Aguilas."

In that case, the results have been mixed. In his first game, Jones had one of the four Aguilas hits. But he struck out four times in his next eight plate appearances -- including three times Sunday -- and has just three singles in nine at-bats.

The Aguilas, who last year won their 20th Dominican league title, are going to need a little more production than that if they hope to repeat. With five games left in the regular season, they're locked in a tight pennant race, with four teams within two games of first. The league will take a holiday break after Sunday's games before beginning a round-robin playoff featuring the top four finishers in the regular season.

Licey heads into the final week of the regular season tied with Aguilas for third place, two games behind Azucareros of La Romana and Gigantes of San Francisco de Macoris. If Licey makes the postseason it will do so with a new manager, former Dodger Jose Offerman having assumed the role a week ago.

Offerman started the winter on Licey's roster, and though he hit just .083 in 24 at-bats, striking out 11 times, he said he planned to finish the season as a player-manager after replacing Hector De La Cruz.

But the Tigres don't need much offensive help since they're hitting a league-best .299 and have the league's leading hitter in Anderson Hernandez of the Washington Nationals, who is batting .371. He also leads the Dominican with 38 runs and 72 hits. Teammate Erick Aybar of the Angels is fourth in batting at .351. (Angels teammate Kendry Morales is hitting .411 but hasn't played since Dec. 1, complaining of some minor physical problems. He could return to the Gigantes' lineup this week.)

Offerman, 40, is the 39th manager in Licey's 101-year history. The Tigres, the reigning Caribbean champions, won their first three games under Offerman and will end the regular season on ESPN Deportes Sunday afternoon when they meet Escogido in Santo Domingo.

The other ESPN Deportes telecast from the Dominican this week will feature Jones' Aguilas against Escogido from Santo Domingo on Friday afternoon.

Puerto Rican League

Five-time All-Star Bernie Williams, who retired following the 2006 season, plans to return to the field with Carolina this week to get ready for the World Baseball Classic.

Williams, who hit .297 in 16 seasons with the Yankees, winning four World Series, batted .280 in six games for Puerto Rico in the inaugural Classic three years ago. Also likely to see winter action in Puerto Rico to prepare for the Classic are Mets outfielder Carlos Beltran, who is on the Santurce roster, and catcher Ivan Rodriguez, a free agent who is on the Caugus roster.

With three weeks left on the regular-season schedule Ponce has surged to a 3 1/2-game lead over Mayaguez and Santurce, with Arecibo another half-game back. Ponce has done it with pitching, its 3.91 earned-run average second in the league to Santurce's 3.90.

The Leones have two unbeaten three-game winners in Boston Red Sox right-hander Jose Vaquedano (2.13 ERA, two saves in 17 games) and Mets double-A right-hander Dillon Gee (2.72 ERA in eight starts and 39 2/3 innings, the second-most innings pitched in the league). If Vaquedano, who was 4-1 in 30 relief appearances at triple-A Pawtucket last summer, makes the majors this year he'll be just the second Honduran to play in the big leagues.

Arecibo outfielder Jesus Felicano (Mets) is leading Puerto Rico in batting, hitting .385 through 26 games, while teammate Jorge Padilla (Washington) is top in homers (seven) and runs batted in (32). 

Venezuelan League

Venezuela gained a small measure of revenge for February's Caribbean Series loss to Licey of the Dominican by beating a team of Dominican All-Stars, 4-3, on Jose Castillo's solo homer in the eighth inning Tuesday in Caracas.

For Castillo, a free agent who played for Houston and San Francisco last season, the tiebreaking homer was just another high point in a season of them. He's hitting .317 with seven homers and 31 RBIs in 39 games, ranking 15th in he league in batting and in the top 10 in homers and RBIs for Caracas, which has won two-thirds of its games to roll up a 5 1/2-game lead, virtually assuring itself of the regular-season title.

Teammate Jesus Guzman (Giants) has a chance to win Venezuela's triple crown, entering the final two weeks of the regular season third in hitting at .364, second in homers with 11 and first in RBIs with 56 through 48 games. Caracas, 20-4 at home this winter, is hitting a league-best .289 as a team.

On the mound, Angels prospect David Austen of Zulia continues his impressive winter, leading the league with five wins in eight starts. His 2.31 ERA also ranks near the top of the league for starters. Former Yankees and Red Sox reliever Ramiro Mendoza, 36, who last pitched in the majors in 2005, is also having a fine season in Venezuela, going 4-0 with three saves and 1.19 ERA in 17 games for Lara. And 24-year-old Dodgers prospect Victor Garate (9-3 with a 2.79 ERA in 116 minor league innings, most as a starter, in the summer) is 4- with a 1.17 ERA in 14 games out of the bullpen for first-place Caracas.

ESPN Deportes will show Lara against Aragua on Wednesday in its only Venezuelan League broadcast of the week.

Mexican League

With 16 hits in his last 10 games, Mazatlan's Freddy Sandoval, the Angels' minor league player of the year, has caught fire after a slow start, raising his average to .316 after 24 games. That would be good for fifth in the league if Sandoval had the requisite number of plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

The Dodgers' Chin-lung Hu, who struggled offensively all summer, also started slowly in Mexico but has shown signs of coming around, batting .313 in December and .275 in his last 10 games, raising his winter average to .241 in 15 games for Culican.

On the mound, former Angels prospect Miguel Gonzalez, claimed by Boston in the Rule V draft Thursday, celebrated his promotion to a major league roster with his fourth win in five decisions for league-leading Mazatlan. Opponents are hitting just .210 against Gonzalez, and the right-hander from L.A. Mission College also has a 1.52 ERA in 41 1/3 innings split between the rotation and the bullpen.

Speaking of the bullpen, former Met Tim Lavigne, 30, is unbeaten in three decisions with a 1.73 ERA and a league-high 15 saves in 25 games for second-place Guasave.

-- Kevin Baxter

Photo: Andruw Jones hits the ball for Aguilas Cibaenas during a game against Toros del Este at Cibau Stadium in Santiago, Dominican Republic, on Friday. Credit: Jose Bueno / European Pressphoto Agency

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