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