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Andruw Jones' cold summer followed by cold winter

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Depending on whom you believe, Dodger outfielder Andruw Jones is either in Curacao or Atlanta for the holidays and is either returning this weekend or not for the Dominican League playoffs.

Dominican newspaper carried the conflicting reports Monday. Luis Garcia, who works for Jones' agent Scott Boras, says half of the information is right: Jones is in Atlanta and is planning to return for the playoffs.

What there can be no doubt about, however, is that Jones' performance so far this winter has been no better than his performance last summer, when he hit just .158 and struck out 76 times in 75 games.

Playing for Aguilas Cibaenas, Jones is hitting .188 through five games with three singles and eight strikeouts in 16 at-bats. Jones has twice struck out three times in a game and has yet to collect more hits than strikeouts in the same game.

Jones, who has $22.1 million left on his Dodgers contracts, was overweight when he reported to his first spring training with the team last February. He seems to be in better shape physically, but his swing hasn't improved. He has said he'd like to get 40 winter league at-bats and then hopes to play for the Netherlands -- he was born on the Dutch-held island of Curacao -- in the World Baseball Classic this March.

Former Atlanta Braves and current Dodger teammate Rafael Furcal, who helped persuade Jones to come to the Dominican, got off to a better start in his winter league debut with Aguilas, going 2 for 5 in the final game of the regular season. Aguilas, the defending league champion, opens the round-robin playoffs after Christmas, joining Gigantes, the regular-season winner, Azucareros and Licey, the defending Caribbean champion.

"The Gigantes figure to get a playoff boost from the return of Angel slugger Kendrys Morales, who is hitting .404 despite having sat out most of December, while Licey has gotten a great spring from Angel shortstop Erick Aybar, who ended the regular season fifth in the league in hitting at .348. But the MVP of the regular season was Aguilas' outfielder/DH Victor Diaz, a major league free agent, who shattered the Dominican record with 17 home runs and became the first native player in league

history to drive in 50 runs. He also hit .313 and had a league-best .662 slugging percentage in 49 games.

Another big-league free agent -- right-hander Jorge Sosa -- was the pitcher of the year after going 6-2 with a 2.53 ERA for Licey.

In addition to Furcal's quick start, the Dodgers got some good news from recent minor league acquisition Hector Luna, who hit .318 with seven homers and 30 RBI in 44 games for Aguilas, and minor league outfielder Jovanny Rosario, who hit .311 in 25 games for the last-place Estrellas. However utility player Pablo Ozuna, who hit just .219 in 36 games for the Dodgers last season, may prove to be the one that got away. Currently a free agent, he led the Dominican league in hitting during the regular season at .390 for Estrellas de Oriente.

Venezuelan league

Angel prospect David Austen has continued his stellar winter with Zulia, entering Tuesday's action leading the loop in wins at 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA in 10 starts. The right-hander, 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA in 20 games split between Double A and Triple A last summer, has pitched shutout ball in four of his last five starts and hasn't allowed runs in consecutive games since October.

Meanwhile Dodger prospect Victor Garate has been dominant for Caracas, which is running away with the league title. Garate, a 24-year-old lefty who spent most of last season in the Midwest league, is 5-0 with a 1.96 ERA in 16 relief appearances in which he's held opponents to a .164 batting average while striking out 24 in 18 1/3 innings.

San Francisco Giants infield prospect Jesus Guzman is making a run at the Venezuelan triple crown for Caracas. He entered Tuesday second in the league in hitting (.365) and homers (12) while leading in RBI with 63 in 56 games, 17 more than his closest rival.

The Angels' Maicer Izturis, who split playing time with Aybar last summer before missing the final six weeks with injury, is rehabbing nicely with Margarita, hitting .346 in 17 games. Entering Tuesday, Izturis had hit safely in seven of his last eight starts, with six hits in his last eight at-bats.

Former Angel Francisco Rodriguez, who set the single-season save record last summer with 62, got another save in his first appearance of the winter for Lara, but it was a rocky one with Rodriguez giving up three runs, a walk and a run before getting the final out. Rodriguez signed a three-year, $37-million free-agent contract with the New York Mets earlier this month.

Puerto Rican league

Free-agent catcher Pudge Rodriguez began prepping for the World Baseball Classic when he made his long-awaited return to the Puerto Rican league with Caguas a week ago. Through five games, he was hitting .435 with a pair of three-hit games, three extra-base hits and three RBI.

Former Yankee Bernie Williams, who retired following the 2006 season, also hopes to play for Puerto Rico again and began his preparation Monday, going 1 for 3 in his first game with Carolina.

League-leading Ponce, meanwhile, continues to get brilliant pitching from Dillon Gee and Jose Vaquedano, who are both 4-0. Gee, a 22-year-old right-hander in the Mets' system, has a 2.31 ERA through nine starts, while Vaquedano, a 27-year-old Red Sox minor leaguer, has one save and a 1.72 ERA in 20 relief appearances for the Leones, one of just two teams in the league with a winning record.

Ponce outfielder Angel Gonzalez is leading the batting race at .382 after 32 games.

Mexican league

There's been talk that former big-league All-Star Vinny Castilla might try his hand at being a player-manager in this spring's World Baseball Classic. But that experiment may be ending in Hermosillo, where Castilla was hitting just .208 after six games for Manager Francisco Estrada -- though two of his five hits were homers.  And the Marlins' Alfredo Amezaga, who starred for Mexico in the first WBC as well as last winter's Caribbean Series, isn't doing much better, hitting .265 through 26 games for Obregon.

The Angels' Freddy Sandoval has hit a rough patch with league-leading Mazatlan, collecting just one hit in his last six games -- 17 at-bats -- to drop his season average to .278. The Dodgers' Chin-lung Hu has apparently gone home after hitting .275 in 40 at-bats for last-place Culiacan.

-- Kevin Baxter

Photo: Andruw Jones, playing for Aguilas Cibaenas in the Dominican Republic.  Credit: Jose Bueno / European Pressphoto Agency

 
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