Friday, February 24, 2017

Benavides shifts four ex-MLBers from Puebla to Monclova

Ever since the Cleveland Spiders' disastrous 1899 National League season (you can Google it), Major League Baseball has not allowed so-called "syndicate ownership" of franchises in which more than one team can be owned and controlled by the same owners.  That has not been the case south of the border, as no less than three ownership groups control two teams apiece.

One of those is Gerardo Benavides, the owner of the 2016 Mexican League champion Puebla Pericos who completed the purchase of the Monclova Acereros earlier this month.  Although Benavides can't yet be compared to the Robison brothers, he's taking a similar path in transferring players from his pennant-winning team to Monclova, located in his home state of Coahuila.  No less than four key members of the Pericos, all former big leaguers, were released by Puebla during the offseason, only to re-emerge with the Acereros:  Outfielders Nyjer Morgan and Willy Taveras, first baseman Daric Barton and closer Chad Gaudin will all be performing under new Acereros manager Wally Backman this summer.  A hyper-competitive sort who undoubtedly bristled regularly at edicts from farm directors telling him to to play (and for how long) during his seasons managing in the Diamondbacks, White Sox and Mets organizations, Backman should have no such problems as long as he lasts with the Acereros.

The most recognizable of the four, the 36-year-old Morgan (pictured) hit .306 with 11 homers and 22 steals in 101 regular season games for Puebla last year.  Morgan was a career .282 batter in seven MLB seasons for four teams between 2007 and 2014 before a ten-game stint in Korea in 2015.  Taveras batted .274 over seven big league seasons, leading the National League with 68 steals for Colorado in 2008.  The 35-year-old hit .325 for the Pericos in 2016, stealing 16 bases.  Barton, 31, hit .247 (with a .356 on-base percentage) in 551 games for Oakland from 2007 and 2014 and topped American League batters in walks with 110 in 2010.  Although he was never regarded as a power hitter before coming to Mexico, Barton swatted 20 homers for Puebla last season after hitting a total of 30 over eight MLB campaigns.  Like Barton, Gaudin spent time in Oakland during a somewhat nomadic 11-year stretch in the majors, compiling a 45-44 record and a 4.44 ERA for nine teams between 2003 and 2013.  The 33-year-old righty came out of retirement last year to post a 1.64 ERA with 33 saves for Puebla, striking out 48 of the 185 batters he faced.

One of the top pitchers in the Mexican League the past two seasons, Josh Lowey, is back in Monclova after having a rough time of it following a midseason move to Korea's KT Wiz.  Lowey was the Liga's Pitcher of the Year in 2015 for the Acereros, going 13-6 with a 3.06 and leading the circuit with 145 strikeouts in 142.2 innings.  He was off to an even better start last year, leading the LMB in all three pitching Triple Crown categories with 13 wins, a 1.65 ERA and 131 whiffs in 16 starts for Monclova before leaving for the Far East in early July.  Things didn't go as well for the 32-year-old Floridian in the KBO, where he ended up with a 3-5 mark and a 6.22 ERA in eleven starts for the Wiz.  He'll be rejoined in the Monclova rotation by fellow All-Star pitcher Jose Oyervides, who finished at 10-2 with a 2.78 ERA for the Acereros in 2016, striking out 120 batsmen in 102.2 innings.  Needless to say, Monclova is an early LMB North favorite this season.

As for the Pericos?  Besides losing the four aforementioned players to Monclova, last year's Playoff MVP, Travis Blackley (another ex-MLBer), has signed with Detroit while former White Sox hurler Deunte Heath has hooked on with Cincinnati.  Puebla recently signed their first foreign player for 2017, outfielder Cole Gillespie.  The 32-year-old Oregon native spent all or part of six seasons in The Show, including 41 games with Miami last year (where he hit .235).  In all, Gillespie is a career .251 hitter over 221 MLB games for six teams.  There may be more help on the way to the colonial city, but defending their pennant will be awfully difficult with so many important pieces of last year's champions gone.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Davis bows out, "El Titan" questionable for Mexico in WBC

One aspect of the World Baseball Classic that the event's critics rarely fail to bring up is that a nation's best baseball players are often made unavailable to represent their country in the WBC, either because their major league organization wants to withhold their services during spring training or because the player himself does not want to jeopardize his chances of making a big league roster if he's considered on the fringe.  Injuries are also a concern, of course, no matter what the MLB organizations or players have in mind.

Two of the expected power sources for Mexico's 2017 World Baseball Classic squad may end up being scratches next month for Pool D play in Guadalajara.  Oakland outfielder Khris Davis, who khrashed 42 homers for the A's last summer, has pulled out of the WBC altogether while Dodgers first baseman Adrian "El Titan" Gonzalez may have to sit out his fourth Classic after coming down with tendinitis in his right (non-throwing) elbow during winter training.

Davis, whose 42 roundtrippers helped him drive in 102 runs in 2016 after a slow start in which he was hitting just .222 with 5 homers on May 22 before picking up the pace the rest of the season.  The Cal State-Fullerton product, whose mother Sonia was born in Mexico before coming to the USA at age 4, expressed remorse at his withdrawal from the WBC.  "I'm not going to be able to do it due to some timing issues," the San Jose Mercury News quoted Davis as saying.  "I feel kind of overextended personally.  You take on a lot.  It's days away.  May main focus is this organization.  I feel this year I want to get off on the right foot this year..."

"I feel horrible about it.  I feel terrible.  At the same time, I have to be here."

On the other hand, Gonzalez' decision may be predicated on his physical fitness more than a desire to get off to a better start. The five-time All-Star first sacker, who hit .285 with 18 homers and 90 RBIs for Los Angeles last year, says he first noticed a twinge in his elbow two months ago.  "It's tennis elbow from jsut working out," Gonzalez tells MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, "too much hitting and too much boxing.  I felt it while working out in early December and it didn't seem like much, but it hasn't gone away."  Gonzalez has been shut down from swinging a bat for two weeks.  Although he's been one of the most durable first basemen in baseball, playing in at least 156 games in each of the past eleven years, the 34-year-old career .290 hitter (308 homers, 1,146 ribbies) may need to miss the WBC to continue resting his elbow after representing Mexico in 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Mexico manager Edgar Gonzalez, Adrian's brother and former teammate in both Mazatlan and San Diego as well as with the Verdes Grande, will have to adjust his lineup even before their first game.  Losing Davis left him with three outfielders on the roster: Chris Roberson, Jose Juan Aguilar and Alex Verdugo.  Efren Navarro, a former Angels first baseman who hit .275 with seven homers splitting 126 games between AAA Tacoma and Memphis last year, can play the outfield, but it's likely Gonzalez will replace Davis on the roster with a regular outfielder.

Replacing Adrian Gonzalez would prove an impossible task.  Although the aforementioned Navarro has MLB experience at first base, the call might go to the mountainous Japhet Amador, the 6'4" 330-pound El Gigante de Mulege.  Amador, the 2015 Mexican League MVP when he hit .346 with an LMB-topping 41 homers and 117 RBIs in 103 games, will be playing his second season in Japan in 2017 with the Rakuten Golden Eagles.  In an injury-nagged 2016 debut in the Pacific League, Amador hit .258 with nine homers and 19 RBIs in just 39 games.  The big fella is more nimble than one would expect and has made himself into a decent fielder at first base, but he doesn't compare to the four-time Gold Glove-winning Gonzalez.

Losing Gonzalez would mean more than losing Mexico's best ballplayer, as if that wouldn't be enough on a standalone basis.  For ten years, El Titan and Edgar helped form the heart and soul of the Verdes Grande lineup and clubhouse, so losing even one of them would leave a hole in the team that can't be quantified by hardware or sabermetrics.  However, there are 22 million rea$on$ why Adrian Gonzalez may have to beg off from playing in his fourth Classic and I can't blame him.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Twenty-six Mexican players in MLB spring training camps

Although the Caribbean Series concluded Mexico's four-month winterball season less than two weeks ago, pro baseball is only now stirring to life north of the border as Major League Baseball organizations open spring training camps in Florida and Arizona this month.  There are 26 Mexican players scattered among 15 big league teams, including ten non-roster invitees.

Fifteen of the 25 are in National League camps.  The Los Angeles Dodgers have four Mexicans training with the big club while the San Diego Padres have three among 16 MLB teams with at least one Mexican player in camp.  Left-handed pitcher Jorge De La Rosa (pictured above), who'll turn 36 on April 5, signed with Arizona this weekend as a free agent after a nine-year stint with the Colorado Rockies, for whom he went 86-61 between 2008 and 2016, winning 16 games twice and 14 once.  De La Rosa is the Rockies' all-time wins leader while going 53-20 record at Coors Field. De La Rosa signed a minor league contract with the Diamondbacks, but has been invited to the team's major league camp.

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Chicago White Sox - RHP Miguel Angel Gonzalez
Kansas City Royals - RHP Joakim Soria
Los Angeles Angels - LHP Manny Banuelos*
New York Yankees - RHP Luis Cessa, RHP Giovanny Gallegos
Seattle Mariners - RHP Yovanni Gallardo, C Sebastian Valle*
Texas Rangers - RHP Eddie Gamboa
Toronto Blue Jays - RHP Marco Estrada, RHP Roberto Osuna

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Arizona Diamondbacks - Jorge De La Rosa*
Atlanta Braves - LHP Jaime Garcia
Cincinnati Reds - OF Sebastian Elizalde*
Colorado Rockies - IF Daniel Castro*
Los Angeles Dodgers - 1B Adrian Gonzalez, RHP Sergio Romo, LHP Julio Cesar Urias, OF Alex Verdugo*
New York Mets - C Xorge Carrillo*, RHP Fernando Salas
Philadelphia Phillies - RHP Victor Arano*
San Diego Padres - IF Luis Urias*, RHP Cesar Vargas, 3B Christian Villanueva*
Washington Nationals - RHP Rafael Martin, LHP Oliver Perez
*-Non-roster invitee

One more Mexican in a major league camp is former utility infielder Tony Perezchica, a Mexicali native making his debut as a third base coach in Arizona under new manager Torey Luvollo.  Perezchica hit .228 in 69 games over parts of four seasons with San Francisco and Cleveland between 1988 and 1992.  A Giants third round draft pick in 1984, the 50-year-old Palm Springs HS grad has been coaching and managing in the D-Backs system since 2004.

Perezchica becomes the first major league coach born in Mexico since the legendary Ben "Cananea" Reyes (pictured left) spent the 1981 season as the Seattle Mariners' third base coach after being brought north by M's skipper Maury Wills, under whom Reyes had coached in Hermosillo during the 1970-71 Mexican Pacific League season.  Reyes unofficially became the first Mexican to manage an MLB team after Wills was suspended two games in 1981 for having the batter's box altered before a game at the Kingdome.

Reyes lost his April 28 debut in Minnesota, 4-1, as Richie Sisk's fifth inning homer was the only blot on Pete Redfern's five-hitter for the Twins.  The two teams battled to a rare 7-7 tie on April 29 as rain halted play in the bottom of the eighth inning at old Metropolitan Stadium.  Reyes has never officially received credit for filling in for Wills, who was fired a week after returning to the Mariners dugout.  Reyes stayed the rest of the season under new Seattle manager Rene Lachemann.

Reyes had more success managing at home, winning five Mexican League pennants managing the Mexico City Red Devils after winning a flag with Jalisco in 1971.  He also managed four Mexican Pacific League champions (three in Hermosillo) and took Caribbean Series titles with the Naranjeros in 1976 and Mexicali in 1986 for the only CS crown the Aguilas have won.  Reyes died in late 1991 at age 54, and was elected to Mexican baseball's Salon de la Fama the following year.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hector Velazquez signs with Boston, in Sox Florida camp

Mexican Pacific League Pitcher of the Year Hector Velazquez has been purchased by the Boston Red Sox.  Puro Beisbol columnist Roberto Riveros says Velazquez signed with Boston over the weekend, pending a physical, and will be joining the team at their spring training complex in Fort Myers, Florida.  The Red Sox first had to negotiate with the Mexican League Campeche Piratas, who own the Obregon native's rights, prior to inking a pact with Velazquez himself in a ritual similar to the process of signing players from Japan.

 Although Velazquez signed a minor league contract and will not train with the big club, Riveros believes the Baseball Mexico Winter MVP could make his way to Boston as a reliever or a fourth or fifth starter, citing that only Rick Porcello, Chris Sale and David Price have been assured spots in the rotation.  Riveros projects a four-way battle among Velazquez, Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez.  Pomeranz appears safe as a fourth starter after going 11-12 with a 3.32 ERA and 186 strikeouts over 170 innings and 30 starts for Boston last year, so the other three mentioned may be vying for one berth.

Given his performance over the past twelve months, it would be unwise to count Velazquez out.  A six-footer who turned 28 in November, he broke into the Liga with Campeche in 2010, winning Rookie of the Year honors by posting a 6-4 record and a 2.93 ERA for the Piratas over 14 starts and 15 relief appearances.  Since then, Velazquez has exclusively been a starter, with only one appearance out of the bullpen the past six seasons.  After going 38-28 for Campeche between 2010 and 2015 (winning 11 times in both 2012 and 2014), Velazquez was loaned to Monclova last year.  In a somewhat odd campaign during which he posted 16 no-decisions in 22 starts despite averaging just under six innings per outing, Velazquez was 5-1 for the Acereros in 2016 with a sparkling 2.47 ERA (no mean feat in the LMB).  His control was much improved, as Velazquez walked only 16 batters and struck out 120 in 131.1 innings last summer.

The winter went even better as Velazquez led the MexPac with nine wins and 87 strikeouts in 85.1 innings for Navojoa, narrowly finishing second to Los Mochis' Manny Barreda in both ERA (2.32) and WHIP (1.10).  After racking up another LMP-best five wins in six playoff starts for both the Mayos and Mexicali (where he was a reinforcement pickup), Velazquez finished his winter with two strong starts for the Aguilas in the Caribbean Series, going 1-0 with an 0.82 ERA in 11 innings.  In 22 starts over the entire winter, Velazquez was 15-4 with a 2.71 ERA over 133 innings pitched, striking out 129 batters and walking 30.

Should Velazquez indeed end up playing in Boston, Riveros says he'd become the eighth Ciudad Obregon product to reach the major leagues, joining Karim Garcia and Marco Estrada among others.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Ferrnando Valenzuela, investors buy Tigres; team keeps name

A group led by former Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Fernando Valenzuela has agreed to terms for the purchase of Cancun's Quintana Roo Tigres, one of the Mexican League's most storied franchises.  The amount Valenzuela's group is paying for the Tigres (including the team's nickname itself, which owner Carlos Peralta originally said was not for sale) was not immediately available.

During a Sunday press conference in Cancun, which will remain the team's home for the 2017 season, Peralta said, "Being sensitive to the many comments and expressions I've received from the fans, manifested in their fear that the great tradition and legacy of the Tigres may disappear, and given the opportunity and interest of a regional group of investors with proven moral quality, love for baseball and a future developmental plan for the team in the Cancun market, after careful consideration, I've decided to sell the team and the name Tigres."

Few, if any, details are available about the transaction, including the price, nor is the level of involvement of the state government known, although Quintana Roo governor Carlos Joaquin was introduced at the press conference.  Peralta was one of many LMB owners who've benefitted from state subsidies in past years, mostly among the so-called "Old Guard" ownership group that has butted heads with the "New Breed" group of owners who largely want to steer away from such arrangements.  The latter faction leans toward marketing their teams aggressively, relying on ticket and merchandise sales along with corporate sponsorships to generate revenues instead of subsidies.

It is not known which faction Valenzuela will align himself with, a crucial consideration with the two sides split almost evenly in votes during league meetings.  At the press conference, the Navojoa native said, "I'm very happy that baseball will continue.  I never imagined being in charge of an organization, let alone a team like the Tigres.  I think the fans have greatly identified with the Tigres, and I think that's a great advantage for us."

Thus, for the first time in 62 years, there will not be a Peralta heading a Liga team.  The legendary Alejo Peralta formed the Mexico City Tigres in time for the 1955 season and went on to run the franchise until his death in 1997.  The older Peralta ran his team in a similar fashion to soccer's Chivas club: A profoundly pro-Mexican organization that bypassed bringing in foreign players and putting a premium on domestic talent, often winning titles with an all-homegrown lineup.  The Tigres shared Mexico City with the Diablos Rojos for nearly five decades, creating the country's fiercest baseball rivalry.

That ended somewhat when the younger Peralta did what had been considered unthinkable by moving the Tigres out of the nation's capital, first to Puebla in 2002 and then to Cancun in 2007, but the rivalry has never truly died and there is sentiment among many fans and journalists south of the border that the Tigres should ultimately return to Mexico City.  Wherever they've called "home," the Tigres have won 18 division championships and 12 pennants, the last coming in 2015.  Although he has come under criticism at regular intervals since taking over for his father 20 years ago, the team HAS won eleven Mexican League titles under Carlos Peralta and his right-hand man, team executive president Cuauhtemoc "Chito" Rodriguez.

The LMB will hold an Assembly of Presidents meeting on Friday in Mexico City.  Now that it's been determined that there will be a 16-team league (with new teams in Leon and Durango while the Tigres are staying put in Cancun), conjuring a schedule for the upcoming season may be on the agenda since Opening Day is projected for Friday, March 31.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Ojeda back at Diablos helm, 15 of 16 LMB managers named

After spending last season managing the Giants' AA Richmond affiliate in the Southern League, former MLB catcher Miguel Ojeda will be back home in 2017, returning to manage his former team, the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.  The Guaymas-born Ojeda went 201-133 with three division titles and a 2013 pennant with the Diablos in three seasons before joining the San Francisco organization, for whom he led Richmond to a 62-79 record under Ojeda in 2016.

La Aficion quoted Ojeda as saying, "I'll try to be a manager who respects the game and thinks about winning, winning, winning.  I only thought about that as a player and now as a manager with more reasons.  It's what I'm going to ask of my players, that they always give think about winning."  Ojeda, who turned 42 in January, spent all or part of four MLB seasons with four teams between 2003 and 2006, batting .224 with 15 homers and 72 RBIs in 212 games.  His best campaign came in 2004 with San Diego, where he hit .256 with 8 homers in 62 games for the Padres.

Of the 16 Mexican League teams preparing to open spring training this month, only one is still searching for a helmsman.  The Durango Generales have yet to find a replacement for Orlando Sanchez, who took over from Jose Offerman in Carmen one month into last season.  The Delfines finished last in the LMB South in 2016 with a 31-76 record before Sanchez moved back to Saltillo (where he won two Liga pennants) and the Delfines moved to Durango and renamed the Generales.  Team owner Virgilio Ruiz reportedly looked into moving to Monterrey instead, sharing the 26,000-seat Estadio Monterrey with Old Guard ally Pepe Maiz' Sultanes, but apparently will keep the club in Durango after all once promised repairs to 8,000-seat Estadio Francisco Villa finally got underway.

Whoever gets the call in Durango will be the sixth new manager in the LMB since the end of the 2016 season.  Also finding new addresses are first-time skipper Ramon Orantes in Laguna, Homar Rojas in Aguascalientes, Francisco "Paquin" Estrada in Leon, Ojeda in Mexico City and Wally Backman in Monclova.  The other ten managers are holdovers.

2017 MEXICAN LEAGUE MANAGERS
Aguascalientes Rieleros - Homar Rojas
Campeche Piratas- Lino Rivera
Durango Generales - TBA
Laguna Vaqueros - Ramon Orantes
Leon Bravos - Francisco "Paquin" Estrada
Mexico City Diablos Rojos - Miguel Ojeda
Monclova Acereros- Wally Backman
Monterrey Sultanes - Felix Fermin
Oaxaca Guerreros - Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez
Puebla Pericos - Von Hayes
Quintana Roo - Roberto Vizcarra
Saltillo Saraperos - Orlando Sanchez
Tabasco Olmecas - Enrique "Che" Reyes
Tijuana Toros - Pedro Mere
Veracruz Rojo del Aguila - Eddie Castro
Yucatan Leones - Willie Romero

Meanwhile, the situation in Cancun concerning the fate of the Quintana Roo Tigres remains in limbo, pending the next Mexican League Assembly of Presidents meeting.  Tigres owner Carlos Peralta put the franchise up for sale earlier this month after Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor ruled that the Liga cannot place a limit on the number of Mexican-American players a team may carry, saying that such a rule is in violation fo the Mexican constitution.  On the Heraldo de Chiapas website, writer Alfredo Valverde says that team founder Alejo Peralta stated in his will that son Carlos cannot give up the Tigres, so the younger Peralta is not allowing the "Tigres" name or its intellectual properties to be part of a sale.  Roberto Vizcarra is expected to return as the team's manager regardless of what nickname they carry or what city they call home in 2017.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ex-Met Wally Backman to manage Monclova in 2017

Perhaps seeking similar results to what his Puebla Pericos had under former major leaguer Von Hayes, new Monclova owner Gerardo Benadives has named former MLB second baseman Wally Backman as the Acereros' manager for the upcoming 2017 Mexican League season.  The sale of the LMB franchise to Benavides was finalized earlier this month.  Multiple team owenerships are allowed in the Liga.

The Acereros reached the Liga's championship series in 2015, losing to Quintana Roo.  Monclova finished second in the LMB North last year with a 69-43 record before being swept by Tijuana in the first round of playoffs last summer under then-manager Homar Rojas, who will be managing in Aguascalientes in 2017.  The team also finished fourth in the LMB attendance derby in 2016, drawing 353,252 fans to 11,000-seat Estadio Beisbol de Monclova for an average of 6,423 per opening.  In short, the Acereros could be reasonably considered one of the Mexican League's better franchises.

Bringing Backman to Monclova appears to be a coup of sorts for Benavides.  After his 1993 retirement as a scrappy second baseman, Backman been successful as a minor league manager over 18 seasons in both independent and affiliated leagues, with ten winning seasons and three pennants: 1999 with Tri-City of the indy Western League, 2002 with Birmingham of the AA Southern League and 2007 with South Georgia in the indy South Coast League.  He was named The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year in 2004 after leading Class A Lancaster of the California League to an 86-54 regular season record (Puebla skipper Hayes managed Modesto to a league-best 90-50 mark that year).  The Oregon native has managed the Mets' AAA Las Vegas affiliate the past four seasons, winning the Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year award in 2014 after leading the 51's to the PCL South regular season title with an 81-63 record, nine games ahead of second-place El Paso, before a first-round playoff loss.  He's got a solid resume.

On the other hand, Backman brings some baggage across the border.  After he was named manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 1, 2004, the New York Times ran a story depicting the former second sacker's legal and financial problems, including a 1996 restraining order filed against him by his first wife, a 2001 DUI arrest, an incident that same year involving his second wife and a friend that resulted in a misdemeanor harrassment plea, and a personal bankruptcy filing in 2003.  The Diamondbacks fired him five days after hiring him.  Backman went back to indy ball before signing on to manage in the Mets system in 2010, but was let go by the Mets after last season.  He's since accused Mets GM Sandy Alderson of blackballing him among organized baseball organizations, a charge others have denied but Backman says he learned of from a friend in MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's office.

Although he's said he's grateful to be managing the Acereros, Backman may view working in Mexico as a temporary situation.  Writer Bob Klapisch with USA Today's NorthJersey.com site says Backman (who speaks little Spanish) has let it be known he'd jump at an offer from an MLB organization, even if it meant breaking his commitment to the Acereros.  "I would take it in a minute," Backman is quoted as saying.  "What I'm worried about is being out of sight, out of mind.  If I go to Mexico, I'll be out of sight from the people I'm trying to connect with."