Baseball's winter leagues aren't only for the players

Andruw Jones

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

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Andruw Jones' cold summer followed by cold winter

Andruw_jones_2

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

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Andruw Jones already thinking of next free-agent contract

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

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Andruw Jones strikes out, singles in Dominican debut

Andruw Jones picked up in the Dominican Republic right where he left off in the major leagues, striking out in his debut with Aguilas Cibaenas in his first winter league game Friday in Santiago.

Jones, who struck out 76 times in 75 games with the Dodgers during an injury-plagued summer in which he batted just .158, also singled and walked in three appearances as Aguilas got four-hit in a 5-1 loss to Azucareros of La Romana.

Jones' former Braves and Dodgers teammate Rafael Furcal, who lives in Santiago and played for Aguilas last season, watched the game from the dugout.

-- Kevin Baxter

Andruw Jones ready to begin Dominican assignment

Andruw Jones avoids a collision as Matt Kemp makes a running catch.

LAS VEGAS -- Dodger outfielder Andruw Jones, who suffered through both a knee injury and his worst season on the field last summer, arrived in the Dominican Republic by private jet Tuesday afternoon, hoping to prove his fitness during a winter league assignment with Aguilas Cibaenas.

Jones was met on the tarmac at the small airport in the central Dominican city of Santiago by former Dodger and Atlanta Braves teammate Rafael Furcal, who lives there and played last season for Aguilas while rehabbing from an injury of his own.

"Really, I don't know what happened," Jones, who hit just .158, striking out 76 times in 75 games, told the Dominican newspaper Listin Diario, which ran a photo of Jones and Furcal. "But I think the injury affected me more mentally than physically."

Jones, who had midseason surgery on the knee last summer, said he expects to make his winter league debut either Thursday, when Agulias plays in Santo Domingo against Escogido, or Friday in a home game in Santiago against the Azucareros.

-- Kevin Baxter

Photo: Andruw Jones avoids a collision as Matt Kemp makes a running catch during a July 25 game against the Washington Nationals. Credit: Lori Shepler / Los Angeles Times

Dodgers' Andruw Jones set to join Dominican team

Andruw Jones

LAS VEGAS -- Dodgers outfielder Andruw Jones, coming off the worst season of his All-Star career -- one that included a .158 batting average, 76 strikeouts in 209 at-bats and mid-season knee surgery -- is expected to begin playing winter league baseball with Aguilas Cibaenas of the Dominican League, possibly as early as this weekend.

Jones, who has been doing strength and conditioning exercises at his Atlanta home, took a post-Thanksgiving vacation with his family and then said he would report to his winter league team for the reminder of the first half.

Jones could continue playing with Aguilas if the team -- locked in a tight pennant race with five teams separated by just four games -- makes the post-Christmas playoffs.

-- Kevin Baxter

Photo: Andruw Jones, back in July. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Records Continue to Fall in Dominican

Victor Diaz, left, is congratulated by his manager Felix Fermin, right, and the pitching coach Gilberto Rondon.

The records continued to fall in the Dominican Winter League as Victor Diaz cracked his 15th home run of the season Sunday to break the league’s single-season mark.

But where Diaz broke the record is almost as historic as the record itself because the standard fell not in Santiago, where Diaz plays for the Aguilas Cibaenas, but in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Aguilas was playing Santurce of the Puerto Rican league in the first-ever exchange series between the two islands’ winter leagues.

The “interchange games” were partly designed to welcome the Puerto Rican league back after it suspended play for the first time in six decades last winter because of financial problems. The Dominican League sent Licey, Aguilas and Estrellas to Puerto Rico while playing host to Arecibo, Ponce and Carolina of the Puerto Rican League. And the Dominicans got the better of the matchup, winning seven of the 12 games, including four of the six at home.

Diaz’s homer, which came in a 4-3 loss that dropped Aguilas two games back of front-running Gigantes in a tight pennant race , surpassed a record set by Dick Stuart in 1957-58, then equaled by Freddy Garcia in 1998-99. And it joins a slew of records to fall this winter, including team marks for most runs in a game, most walks, most homers and individual career records for hits and runs, which were broken by the ageless Luis Polonia.

But while Diaz -- a minor league free agent who hit .282 with 25 homers and 107 RBI last season in Triple A -- is having a fine winter, leading the league in homers and RBI (42) while batting .318 through 40 games, the Angels' Erick Aybar is arguably having a better one. A week ago, after being hit twice by pitches in the same game with Gigantes, Aybar charged the mound, touching off a melee that forced umpires to suspend the game and threatened to land several players, including

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Angels' Kendry Morales is hot, just like the winter weather

Angels teammates swarm Kendry Morales

Kendry Morales admits there's a noticeable difference between professional baseball in the U.S. and  winter ball in the Caribbean. The U.S. is "a lot colder," the Angels slugger says.

But Morales' performance has been anything but chilly this season in the Dominican Republic, where he went 3 for 4 with a triple and four RBI on Sunday to raise his league-leading average to .418. Morales also has 26 RBI in 23 games. That's a marked difference from the .213 he hit in 27 games with the Angels last summer, a rough period he chalked up partly as a learning experience.

"I know a little bit more after another year in the big leagues," said Morales, who had 119 at-bats with the Angels in 2007. "I got more opportunities, I got to play more freely. And that's why you're seeing the results you're seeing now."

Although Morales made the Angels' postseason roster and played into October last summer, he took just 15 days before joining Gigantes del Cibao, his winter league team in the Dominican. And with Gigantes taking the league's best record into December, Morales figures to be playing deep into January in the Dominican playoffs.

Look for him to cool off a bit between now and then, however -- and for reasons that have nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with pitching. One National League executive, who didn't want to be quoted by name comparing the four Latin American winter leagues, said the Dominican League is always the most competitive because "they've got power arms out there every day. They roll that pitching over."

But most of that pitching hasn't shown up yet because most big-league teams hold back their top pitching prospects until January to limit workloads.

"He's not facing the big dogs yet," the executive said. "He's facing those guys that are in A ball, that are in the Midwest League. Those are the hard throwers who are just waiting for the veteran guys to come out."

Morales isn't the only hitter feasting in the meantime. Last week the Washington Nationals' Ronnie Belliard became the first player in Dominican history to hit grand slams in consecutive games -- both  coming off of the same pitcher, the Gigantes' Julio DePaula.

Belliard also had a two-run homer in the first game, his winter debut, as Licey and Gigantes combined for a league-record 10 home runs between them in the Gigantes' 16-8 victory. In the second game, also won by Gigantes 21-13, the teams combined for a league-record 21 walks. (The

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Baseball is heating up in the Caribbean leagues

Shea Hillenbrand is forced out at second base by the Dodgers' Ivan DeJesus.

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

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Winter league report: Kendry Morales

Kendry Morales, right, celebrates with Angels teammate Mike Napoli after hitting a home run.

In many ways, Kendry Morales had his best -- and longest -- season as a pro last summer.

He played a career-high 78 games for Triple A Salt Lake City, batting .341 with 15 homers and a lifetime-best 64 RBI. In 27 games spread over four separate stays with the Angels, he compiled a .393 slugging percentage, earning a spot on the team's post-season roster, and batted .500.

So what did Morales do to celebrate? He signed up to play winter ball, and he's hardly missed a beat, hitting .455 with five homers in 12 games for Gigantes del Cibao, who began the week atop the Dominican League standings.

"With guys like that, we wanted to get as much exposure as possible at different levels," said Tory Hernandez, the Angels' manager of baseball operations. "For Kendry, although he was with us at the end of the season, he didn't see a lot of at-bats."

The Angels have been keeping a close eye on the at-bats Morales is getting in the Dominican because his performance there could play a role in determining how hard they push to resign free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira.

After all, that was the position the Angels hoped to some day turn over to Morales when they signed the Cuban defector four years ago. But despite batting .341 combined in his last two minor-league seasons, Morales has struggled in the majors, hitting just .249 with 45 RBI in 127 games.

Once the Angels have seen enough this winter, they may shut Morales down to keep him fresh for the start of spring training. Or maybe not.

"We're not ready to make that call yet," Hernandez said of Morales, who played a full season for Gigantes last winter as well. "If these guys continue to have success, they might want to keep playing."

Three other Angel infielders are playing in the Dominican this winter, with Sean Rodriguez ranking among the league leaders with six homers in 17 games for Gigantes and Erick Aybar fourth in the league in hitting at .377 after 16 games with Licey. But Brandon Wood, who has struggled mightily with Estrellas de Oriente -- striking out a third of the time and batting just .167 through 48 at-bats -- was released by the club on Monday.

"There's always a concern when a guy's hitting .167, no matter what league," Hernandez said. "We want to see a guy have success."

Morales and Rodriguez are playing for Venezuelan-born manager Luis Dorante, the Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen coach who has been both a successful minor-league manager and a former Manager of the Year in the Venezuelan League. He helped guide Gigantes to the Dominican League playoffs last year and, at the age of 40, is a guy many clubs might soon be adding to their short list of prospective managers

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