Baseball's winter leagues aren't only for the players
Baseball's winter leagues aren't a testing ground for players only. Agents, too, use the four Caribbean leagues as a place to prove themselves.
Take South Florida-based agent Scott Shapiro, who has helped negotiate contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for such clients as Carlos Zambrano, Carlos Silva and Jose Hernandez.
"Winter ball's been great for me," he says. "A lot of what I did was just meeting a lot of people in the Dominican. I had some really good relationships with managers and general managers and so had access to meet a lot of the guys in winter ball."
That helped him forge deals with former Dodgers Mariano Duncan and Wilson Betemit, the New York Yankees' Robinson Cano and others. He once introduced himself to former Angel pitcher Matt Perisho when both found themselves in the same Santo Domingo hotel one winter. Perisho asked Shapiro to represent him, then later introduced Shapiro to teammate Carl Pavano, for whom Shapiro would later negotiate a $39-million contract with the Yankees.
Partly because of geography, however, Shapiro has dedicated much of his business to helping Latin players.
"The Dominican Republic is like our backyard," says Shapiro, who even got married on the island. "It's almost an extension of South Florida. There's a different impact when you go down to their country and they know you're there. That you know the culture, [and are] willing to meeting their families, know where they live, understand what life is like at home.
"A lot of what I've learned over the years is to be there for these guys beyond what a typical agent would do."
Speaking of the Dominican, the league's four-team round-robin playoffs opened the day after Christmas with La Romana's Azucareros del Este, second during the regular season, winning three of their first four games. The defending league champion Aguilas Cibaenas, meanwhile, entered today winless in three games. Aguilas has received virtually no support from the big guns in its offense with Andruw Jones managing just a single in six at-bats, Rafael Furcal going 2 for 8 and outfielder Victor Diaz, who set regular-season records with 17 homers and 50 RBI, sitting out the first three games.
Jones, who had a awful debut season with the Dodgers, batting .158 with 76 strikeouts in 75 games, is hitting .182 with nine strikeouts in 22 winter league at-bats.
The Angels' Kendry Morales, who returned to the Gigantes' lineup just before the Christmas break, finishing the regular season hitting .404 with eight homers and 29 RBI in
99 at-bats, is hitting .294 in the playoffs after homering and scoring twice in a losing effort Monday against Azucareros. The save in that game went to Rockies' prospect Juan Morillo, who had a 2.25 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 13 regular-season appearances and has followed that up by winning twice in two scoreless outings in the playoffs.
Giants infield prospect Jesus Guzman will lead front-running Caracas into the 16-game round-robin playoffs, which begin this week, after breaking the league's RBI record with a two-run single Sunday, giving him 67 runs batted in in 61 games. That broke the 35-year-old record of 65 RBI held since 1973-74 by former big-leaguer Pete Koegel and left Guzman with a .349 average and 13 homers -- third in the league. Guzman also led the league in hits (81) and runs (48) for the Leones, who were 20 games over .500 through Monday's games thanks to an offense that batted .298, averaging better than 10 hits and nearly 6 1/2 runs a game.
Angels' minor league David Austen will finish the regular season with a league-high eight wins and a 1.98 ERA in 11 starts for fifth-place Zulia. Austen, who split the summer between Double A and Triple A, allowed less than a base runner an inning.
Meanwhile former Angel Francisco Rodriguez, now with the Mets, rebounded from a rough start with a pair of perfect appearances for La Guaira. In the second of those, the right-hander struck out the side.
Puerto Rican League
With Ponce, under first-year manager Eduardo Perez, having taken all the suspense out of the pennant race, attention in Puerto Rico has focused on the long-awaited return of big-league stars such as Pudge Rodriguez and Bernie Williams.
Rodriguez, a free agent who finished the 2008 season with the Yankees, and Williams, who hasn't played since finishing the 2006 season with New York, are using the Puerto Rican League to prepare for this spring's World Baseball Classic. Both represented Puerto Rico in the first WBC three years ago and hope to play again, although they got off to very different starts with Rodriguez hitting .370 through 27 at-bats for Caguas and Williams getting just one hit in his first three games with Carolina.
The Puerto Rican League suspended play a season ago citing financial difficulties and one cause, team owners said, was the unwillingness of Puerto Rico's top big-league stars to play in their homeland, as major leagues from the Dominican, Venezuela and Mexico commonly do. In the next few weeks, however, All-Stars Jorge Posada, Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado could all join Williams and Rodriguez in using the Puerto Rican League as preparation for the WBC, which could give the league a big boost at the gate.
Angels' minor league Freddy Sandoval continues to follow up his solid summer at Triple A Salt Lake City with a solid winter, snapping out of a shallow slump with a pair of two-hit games over the weekend -- including a two-triple, three-RBI effort Saturday that helped raise his season average to .285 in 34 games for Mazatlan, which is running away with the second-half pennant.
The Dodgers' Xavier Paul also had a solid winter, batting .293 with seven homers, 18 RBI and 37 runs in 41 games for Mexico City before coming home at the end of November.
On the mound, former New York Mets minor league Tim Lavigne, who has pitched just briefly above Double A in a nine-year minor-league career, has been impressive out of the bullpen for Guasave, recording three wins and 19 saves and posting a 1.80 ERA in 29 games.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo: Andruw Jones, who plays for the Aguilas Cibaenas, has a single in six at-bats. Credit: Jose Bueno / European Pressphoto Agency