Friday, September 22, 2017

BBM Summer Awards: Most Valuable Player

Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias
I've mentioned a couple times that I was facing some mighty tough choices in picking the Summer Bammys this year, but none was harder than Most Valuable Player.  There were several standout performances this season in the Mexican League, only some of which BBM has already highlighted this week, but the MVP award (to me) boiled down to three players:  Tijuana centerfielder Corey Brown, Aguascalientes first baseman Jesus "Jesse" Castillo and Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias.  Of all the Bammys I've considered since 2010, I agonized over this one more than any of the others and even broke down offensive and defensive stats for each player AND their respective teams to try determine who contributed the most to their club's success, and it's taken me until literally minutes before I started typing this piece to decide.

There are such good arguments for all three men.  Tijuana, of course, is this year's LMB champion and Brown was perhaps the main cog in the Toros machine.  He batted .291, his 24 homers were second in Liga to Saltillo's Rainel Rosario's 26 and finished fifth with 85 RBIs.  In addition, Brown was very effective on the basepaths, stealing 19 bases in 21 attempts to just miss being the sole member of the loop's 20/20 Club in 2017.  Defensively, he was an adequate centerfielder, hauling in 214 fly balls and throwing out four baserunners for a .982 fielding percentage with a 2.10 range factor.  Brown also played in this year's LMB All-Star Game at Campeche.  While it was his first such contest in the LMB, Brown previously played four midseason classics in the International, Texas and Midwest Leagues.  Despite his relatively-low batting average, he was my pick until Wednesday night, when I began considering Jesse Castillo.

Aguascalientes was the surprise team in the Liga's regular season this summer, winning 64 of 110 games to pull away from Union Laguna and Mexico City for fourth place in the LMB North, then provided perhaps the strongest opposition Tijuana faced in the playoffs before falling in six games in the division semis.  Rieleros manager Homar Rojas had to contend with a budget-limited roster along with the vagaries any skipper will encounter over a season, but the one constant was Castillo.  The veteran first sacker hit a rock-solid .342 with 20 homers and 82 RBIs while matching Brown with 79 runs to finish in the top ten in all four categories along with on-base percentage (.435), slugging percentage (.548) and OPS (.548).  Castillo also acquitted himself well at first with a .994 fielding percentage over 773 chances, including 712 putouts, 56 assists and a 9.72 range factor.  He played in his seventh All-Star Game this summer and was named its Most Valuable Player.  While Jose Vargas combined with Castillo to form a lethal 1-2 punch, the latter was clearly the most important player in Aguascalientes' unexpected success.  A legit MVP candidate, for sure.  But then on Thursday afternoon, I turned my attention to Ramon Urias.

The Diablos' wunderkind shortstop (he turned 23 in June) was able to carry his team to a 57-54 record and coming within four games of forcing a postseason play-in game against Aguascalientes despite a pitching staff with a 5.06 ERA while injuries and Father Time took their toll on Red Devils' position players.  Despite just missing the batting derby's top ten list (he was 12th at .340), Urias met that standard in several other offensive categories, leading the LMB with 91 runs scored along with 132 hits (tied for 10th), 29 doubles (tied for 7th), 19 homers (tied for 6th), 79 RBIs (8th), 224 total bases (tied for 4th), a .433 on-base percentage (5th), a .577 slugging percentage (4th) and 1.011 OPS (2nd).  He played most of his defensive time (65 games) at short but also spent 45 contests at second base, with a combined .967 fielding average in 530 total chances, contributing 203 putouts, 309 assists and taking part in 79 double plays (two fewer than Castillo) for a combined range factor of 4.65 over the two positions.  Although the Escarlatas missed the playoffs a second year in a row (after reaching the postseason every year between 1984 and 2015), those are numbers impossible to ignore.

As you can see, there's not a lot to create much separation among those three players, so I started comparing their individual stats with their team's overall stats and while I'll spare you that breakdown, it appeared rather clearly to me that Urias meant more to the Diablos Rojos than Brown did to the Toros and even Castillo did to the Rieleros.  While Brown and Castillo had stats similar or even below their respective team's, Urias' were better (some significantly) than his teammates accrued while working behind a pitching staff demonstrably inferior to Tijuana's and Aguascalientes'.  Adding in the fact that he was only 22 when his breakout season opened (Brown is 31 while Castillo is 34) and that being on a non-contending team didn't hurt another shortstop named Ernie Banks win TWO consecutive National League MVPs in the late 1950's, I've finally determined Urias is my top LMB player for 2017.

For being such a tender age, Urias (whose 20-year-old brother Luis is the premier shortstop prospect in the Padres system) has completed his seventh year as a pro.  Ramon spent two years in the Dominican Summer League after signing with Texas as a 16-year-old free agent in November 2010 (batting .213 in 2011 and .268 in 2012) before landing with Mexico City in 2013.  After batting an even .300 in 12 sporadic appearances that year, Urias took over the Diablos' shortstop job in 2014 and hit .262 in the regular season before raking pitchers for a .393 average with a homer over nine games as the Diablos had the Liga's best regular-season record and swept their way through the playoffs for their 16th LMB pennant.  He hit .351 with 10 homers in 2015 and was at .301 in 2016 before a June 22 injury in a game against Carmen ended his season early.

As major league scouts have also likely noticed, Urias appears to have recovered nicely.

Summer 2010    Willis Otanez, Puebla
Winter 2010-11   Justin Christian, Los Mochis
Summer 2011     Luis Terrero, Mexico City
Winter 2015-16   Christian Villanueva, Obregon
Summer 2016     Cesar Tapia, Puebla
Winter 2016-17   Hector Velazquez, Navojoa
Summer 2017     Ramon Urias, Mexico City

Thursday, September 21, 2017

BBM 2017 Summer Awards: Playoff MVP

Tijuana outfielder Cyle Hankerd
Although he had a largely forgettable series in the Mexican League North Division championships against Monterrey, there were also enough big games over three postseason sets for Cyle Hankerd of newly-crowned LMB pennant winners Tijuana to earn BBM's Playoff Most Valuable Player Award.

The former USC All-Pac 12 pick and Arizona Diamondbacks minor leaguer batted .309 in 16 playoff games for the Toros, leading all LMB players in the postseason with 19 RBIs and tying teammate Corey Brown for most playoff homers with five.  Hankerd also scored 13 runs to tie another TJ teammate, Roberto Lopez, for second in that category behind Brown's 17 counters.  All this despite a five-game dry spell in the Toros' LMB North finals against Monterrey during which he suffered through an 0-for-14 stretch.  But, oh, those games when the hits were flowing!

First, there was Tijuana's opening round series against a pesky Aguascalientes team.  Hankerd went 7-for-19 (.368) in six games against Rieleros pitchers, collecting three RBIs in both Game One and Game Four while socking a solo homer in Game Three.  His performance in the August 24 opening game of the Monterrey series was rock-solid as the 32-year-old Californian belted a two-run homer off Sultanes starter Javier Solano in the fourth inning and lined a run-scoring single off reliever Isaac Jimenez during a wild seven-run seventh.  Although Hankerd's offensive well ran dry the rest of that series, it was the Serie del Rey against defending champion Puebla when he really turned up the heat.

Hankerd went 3-for-5 in Game One on September 5 with a pair of singles and a double, scoring one run and driving in another.  One night later, he lofted a two-run homer off Pericos starter Jaime Lugo in the third to break a scoreless tie in the Bulls' 5-3 win.  After the series shifted to Puebla, he was 2-for-3 with a double, a run and one ribbie on September 8 in TJ's 4-0 Game Three win to put manager Pedro Mere's team one win away from a sweep.  Hankerd went hitless on September 9 as the Pericos kept their flickering hopes alive with a 6-3 win before homering twice and driving in four runs in the Toros' pennant-clinching 15-3 rout to finish the Serie del Rey with a .444 average and three homers in five games.

Tijuana's title capped off a strong season for Hankerd, who hit .321 with 17 homers and 69 RBIs over 94 games in the regular season, which ended a little early for him when he was drilled by a pitch from Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo in the August 4 opener of a home series with the Sultanes, the 15th time Hankerd was plunked over 94 games (he was on the receiving end of eight more HBPs in the postseason).

Hankerd is no stranger to postseason heroics, having stroked a game-winning walkoff single in the bottom of the tenth for Mazatlan in the Venados' Mexican Pacific League pennant-clinching 4-3 win over Mexicali on January 25 of last year.  Playing third base for the Mexican champions, Hankerd then hit .294 with a homer and played error-free ball over six games as the Venados ran the table for the Caribbean Series title.

After signing with Arizona out of Southern Cal in 2006, Hankerd started his pro career off with a bang, winning the Class A Northwest League's Most Valuable Player award that summer by hitting .384 with four homers and 38 RBIs in 54 games for Yakima.  That began an ascent up the D-Backs chain that included a 2007 season in Visalia of the Class A California League, where he hit .285 with 8 homers and three years at AA Mobile of the Southern League, hitting in the .250-.260 range with about a half-dozen homers a year while representing the BayBears in the 2009 SL All-Star Game.  He also had a seven-game cup of coffee in AAA Reno of the Pacific Coast League during an injury-plagued 2010, hitting an even .400 with 5 ribbies over 7 games, but was released in early 2011.

Hankerd spent much of the 2011 season with Amarillo of the independent American Association, knocking AA pitchers around for a .355 average with 10 homers and 55 RBIs over 70 games before he signed with Philadelphia in August and spent the rest of the campaign with Clearwater of the Class A Florida State League and hitting .248 in 31 games.  After two relatively undistinguished years bouncing between indy ball and both the White Sox and Dodgers organizations, Hankerd made his Mexican League debut in 2014 with Yucatan, hitting .284 with four homers for the Leones.  He then moved over to Mexico City in 2015 and hit .384 with 22 homers in just 58 games for the Diablos Rojos while also spending time with Southern Maryland of the independent Atlantic League (.354/9/20 in 33 games).  Hankerd spent all of the 2016 schedule back in Mexico City and hit .322 with 16 homers for the Diablos in 104 contests before moving to Tijuana this year.  He's also played the last two winters for Mazatlan in the MexPac, turning in a .301 average for the Venados in their 2015-16 CS title season before going .280/10/32 last winter.

Winter 2010-11  Iker Franco, Obregon
Summer 2011    Pablo Ortega, Quintana Roo
Winter 2015-16  Danny Rodriguez, Mexicali
Summer 2016    Mauricio Lara, Puebla
Winter 2016-17  Danny Rodriguez, Mexicali
Summer 2017   Cyle Hankerd, Tijuana

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

BBM 2017 Summer Awards: Batter of the Year

Saltillo outfielder Rainel Rosario
There hasn't been a lot to cheer about with the Saltillo Saraperos lately.  It wasn't that long ago that they were one of the Mexican League's flagship franchises, winning four LMB North titles between 2004 and 2010, copping the pennant in 2009 and 2010.  The Sarape Makers were boffo at the box office as well in that timeframe, averaging over 10,000 fans per game in 2005 and 2006 and annually ranking among the Liga's attendance leaders.

Times changed in 2013, however, when owners Grupo Ley sold the Saraperos to Alejandro Garza Diaz (who, in turn, sold the franchise to Antonio Nerio Rodriguez two years later).  Although Saltillo has remained among the LMB's attendance leaders throughout, the team has gradually declined from their 2013 North Division regular season title, finishing seventh in 2016 and 2017.  In addition, the franchise has had financial problems and is reportedly one of many in the Liga on the verge of financial insolvency.  In short, the picture in Saltillo is anything but pretty.

Thank goodness for Rainel Rosario.

A journeyman outfielder whose stints in the Cardinals and Red Sox organizations bookended a two-year stay in Japan with the Hiroshima Carp, Rosario's first year in Mexico was a resounding success.  The 28-year-old Dominican led the Saraperos with a .336 batting average in 2017 while topping the LMB with 26 home runs and finishing second to Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez with 104 RBIs.  Rosario was especially devastating at home, battering opposing pitchers for a .398 average and 20 homers in 54 games at Estadio Francisco I. Madero.  He enjoyed a torrid July by recording a .455 average with 5 roundtrippers and 27 ribbies in 99 at-bats over 26 games.  Rosario was a sure bet when batting with runners in scoring position, going 59-for-119 (.420) with 7 homers and an amazing 76 RBIs in such situations.  Right-handed pitchers suffered the brunt of inflicted damage by being knocked around by the right-handed hitter for 19 homers and 80 RBI in 306 at-bats.

Like last summer's BBM Batter of the Year, Diory Hernandez of Aguascalientes, nobody could've anticipated those kinds of numbers from Rosario in Saltillo.  After signing with St. Louis as a 17-year-old free agent in April 2006, the 6'1" 190-pounder spent seven summers in the Cardinals system and never hitting more than nine homers or driving in one season.  His first four years were spent playing Rookie league ball and he eventually rose as high as AA Springfield in the Texas League (where he hit .214 over 22 games in 2012), but Rosario never reached whatever potential the Cards saw when he was signed.

After sitting out the 2013 season entirely, Rosario made his way to the Far East with Hiroshima of the Central League, Japanese baseball's senior circuit, for 2014.  He had a standout rookie season with the Carp that year, hitting .336 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs in 69 games, but his sophomore year wasn't as successful as his numbers plummeted to .258/2/12 in 42 contests for 2015.  Still, he did well enough to return to MiLB in 2016 after signing with Boston in June.  After going 0-for-7 in two games with AAA Pawtucket, Rosario was sent to AA Portland and hit .254 with a pair of homers in 101 games over the remainder of the season.  After the Sox allowed his contract to expire in November, Rosario signed on with Saltillo one day before the Saraperos' 2017 season opener at Monterrey.

Will Rainel Rosario be able to repeat this year's breakthrough numbers in 2018?  History would indicate otherwise.  After all, Diory Hernandez went from being the offensive linchpin in Aguascalientes in 2016 to being released by the Rieleros on May 14 and again by Union Laguna six weeks later even though he hit .300 for both teams, so who knows?  In the end, in a 2017 season that saw a bit of resurgence for Mexican League batters after pitchers had enjoyed recent unaccustomed success in a loop known for decades as a hitter's league, Rosario's campaign in Saltillo gets BBM's nod as being the best among a number of qualified candidates for our Batter of the Year award.  Let's just hope his follow-up year goes better than Diory Hernandez' did.

Winter 2015-16  Jose Amador, Hermosillo
Summer 2016    Diory Hernandez, Aguascalinetes
Winter 2016-17  Manny Rodriguez, Culiacan
Summer 2017    Rainel Rosario, Saltillo

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

BBM 2017 Summer Awards: Pitcher of the Year

Veracruz Rojos del Aguila pitcher Nestor Molina
There were a number of strong pitching performances in the Mexican League during the 2017 season.  Yucatan's Jose Samayoa was a surprising 11-2 while finishing second with a 2.29 ERA, Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez (10-2, 2.67) and Miguel Pena (11-2, 2.77) led the circuit's top mound staff while 2016 Pitcher of the Year, Yoanner Negrin of Yucatan (11-4, 2.93), had a second straight standout season.  However, the choice for our 2017 Summer Bammy Pitcher of the Year Award came down to two hurlers.

Mexico City's Octavio Acosta, who won only a combined three of eight decisions over the previous two campaigns for Oaxaca in 2015 and the Diablos Rojos, turned in a career year this summer.  The onetime Mets minor leaguer led the league in wins while posting a superb 14-1 record for a team that missed the playoffs for the second year in a row, finished tenth with a 2.99 ERA and registered 102 strikeouts to come in sixth in that category.  The Guasave native's lone loss in 2017 came back on May 21, when defending champion Puebla topped Acosta and the Red Devils, 7-4, at Estadio Fray Nano in the capital city.  It was a career year for the 27-year-old righty, but not quite enough to edge out an even more spectacular season-long performance by Veracruz ace Nestor Molina.

Like Acosta, not much was expected from Molina when the 2017 campaign dawned.  The Valencia, Venezuela product had turned in a combined 7-4 record for Oaxaca and Tabasco with a 4.94 ERA last year before going 2-0 and 2.95 in a late-season, four-game stint with the Braves' AA Eastern League affiliate Richmond under manager Miguel Ojeda, who ironically served as Acosta's skipper this year in Mexico City.  Although he had his moments in 2016 (winning seven games for either the Guerreros or Olmecas in one season is no mean feat), nothing prepared the Mexican League for what was to come this season.

Pitching for one of the Liga's most underpowered lineups, Molina had to bring his "A" game every five nights and while he faded a bit in the late going, he was otherwise up to the task.  After showing an 0-1 record following his second start on April 8, Molina would not lose a second game until dropping a 1-0 heartbreaker to Tabasco on July 27 in Villahermosa.  Over the 15 weeks between defeats, the 6'1" right-hander won eleven straight decisions and lowered his ERA to a microscopic 1.41 after tossing six scoreless innings in Tabasco during a 3-2 win.

Although only two of his final five starts in the regular season could be considered "quality," Molina finished with a league-leading 1.89 ERA and was tied for second in wins with Aguascalientes starter Yohan Flande with a 12-3 record.  Molina also led the LMB with a 1.08 WHIP, his 124 strikeouts were second to Monclova's Josh Lowey's 148 while his three complete games topped the loop.

One cursory glance at Veracruz' everyday lineup might bring a sense of wonder that they were able to qualify for the postseason, even if it was a single play-in game home loss on August 11 to Walter Silva and fifth-place Leon in the weaker LMB South.  Molina was not one of the seven Rojos del Aguila pitchers sent to the mound in that contest by manager Eddy Castro, who surprised some by surviving the entire season at the helm in Veracruz (where in-season firings had become as common as shrimpboats in the port city's harbor).  The Eagle Reds finished fourth in the LMB South with a 48-57 record.  While that may be the definition of backing into the playoffs, they wouldn't have had a sniff of playing beyond the regular season without Molina.

With all due respect to Octavio Acosta, whose great year while backed by one of the the Liga's top offenses (the Diablos posted a team .301 batting average), Molina was performing miracles with a lineup that came in 15th with a .271 average and finished near the bottom in nearly all offensive categories.  Whether the Rojos del Aguila remain in Veracruz for 2018 or move to the Texas border, Nestor Molina should give his team a chance to win no matter where they're playing or who's in the field behind him.

Summer 2010    Bobby Cramer, Quintana Roo
Winter 2010-11  Jose Silva, Culiacan
Summer 2011    Francisco Campos, Campeche
Winter 2015-16  Javier Solano, Mexicali
Summer 2016    Yoanner Negrin, Yucatan
Winter 2016-17  Jake Sanchez, Mexicali
Summer 2017    Nestor Molina, Veracruz

Monday, September 18, 2017

BBM 2017 Summer Awards: Manager of the Year

Aguascalientes Rieleros manager Homar Rojas
While Pedro Mere in Tijuana has his second career pennant to burnish his credentials and Tim Johnson led a Puebla team with more than 20 of its players relocated to Monclova to an unexpected appearance in the Serie del Rey, choosing Baseball Mexico's 2017 Summer Manager of the Year was the easiest of the five selections to be announced this week: Veteran skipper Homar Rojas took over a moribund Aguascalientes team in February and piloted the Rieleros' bargain-basement roster to a 64-46 record (fifth-best in the Mexican League), the team's first playoff berth since 2012 and was able to extend the Railroaders' first-round series to six games before falling to Mere's Toros.

Cobbling teams together from shoestring budgets is nothing new to Rojas, who learned to make do in eleven previous seasons at the helm of LMB franchises in Oaxaca, Reynosa, Campeche and Monclova, where he went 188-145 with three playoff berths (including a 2015 Serie del Rey appearance) for the Acereros between 2014 and 2016.  New owner Gerardo Bustamante, who bought the team last winter, decided he could find a manager who'd improve Monclova's 2016 record of 69-43 and brought in Wally Backman, who lasted 42 games before being fired.

Rojas, for his part, landed on his feel in Aguascalientes in February after also getting axed from his winter job as skipper with the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros when the 15-19 first-half record the Guadalajara team posted was deemed insufficient.  The Rieleros roster had little to recommend going into the 2017 season, although they did have BBM's 2016 Summer Batter of the Year, infielder Diory Hernandez, who was coming off a .319/23/97 season during which he led the Liga in RBIs.  Aguascalientes was sixth in the LMB North with a 53-58 record, ending the season under interim player-manager Saul Soto (who returned to his player-only role this year).  The Rieleros had some good hitters but a suspect pitching staff going into their 2017 schedule under Rojas.

The Nuevo Leon native oversaw a few changes in his lineup, including the surprising early-season release of Hernandez, and struck gold by inserting indy ball infielder Jose Vargas, LMB veteran outfielder Dave Sappelt into the Rieleros' everyday lineup while adding onetime Rockies hurler Yohan Flande and ex-Dodgers farmhand Roy Merritt to his starting rotation and installing onetime MLB reliever Jose Valverde as his closer.  The result was a plucky team that punched above its weight, especially in the second half of the season, and improved their record 11.5 games over 2016 while establishing themselves as a very scary fourth-place team that none of the three teams finishing ahead of them (Tijuana, Monterrey and Monclova) wanted to draw as a playoff opponent.  Attendance in Aguascalientes also improved, as the Rieleros averaged 3,572 at 70-year-old Parque Alberto Romo Chavez, an increase of 19 percent over 2016's turnstile count.

After the Rieleros were eliminated by Tijuana, the 53-year-old Rojas (who managed LMP pennant-winners with Obregon in 2007-08 and Hermosillo in 2009-10) looked back upon the unexpected success of Aguascalientes and lauded his players' attitude and desire during games: "The only thing I've heard are good things about this team, and it was the players who did that, "he told El Clarinete of Aguascalientes.  "I'm congratulating them in the media but I already did that in person in Tijuana, where I took away some important things from them.  I was very satisfied with all their work."

So were we, and that was due to Rojas' steady, calm hand at the Rieleros' helm.  The former catcher now has a twelve-year career LMB managerial mark of 703-646.  This was not a hard choice to make.

Summer 2010   Eddie Diaz, Oaxaca
Winter 2010-11  Matias Carrillo, Guasave
Summer 2011   Daniel Fernandez, Veracruz
Winter 2015-16  Edgar Gonzalez, Mexicali
Summer 2016   Willie Romero, Yucatan
Winter 2016-17  Luis Sojo, Los Mochis
Summer 2017   Homar Rojas, Aguascalientes

Friday, September 15, 2017

Changing of the guard: What is Mexican baseball's future?

This is going to be the longest story ever on either BBM or predecessor Viva Beisbol at over 2,200 words in length, but it's necessary because an awful lot of ground is going to be covered in reviewing the most momentous year in Mexican baseball since the current Mexican League was raised from the ashes in 1955, and there are many more changes in store over the winter.  If you're truly interested in the present state of the sport in Mexico, settle in and keep reading.  If not, We'll see you Monday with the first of our 2017 BBM Summer Award winners as we wrap up our regular coverage of the Mexican League season and start preparing for the upcoming Mexican Pacific League season.

Baseball Mexico is meant to be an English-language information source about the game south of the border for North American baseball fans unable to read Spanish (myself included), so I've tried to stay away from opining about a topic that I frankly have much to learn about.  I take what I write here very seriously because BBM is by default the only site one can regularly follow Mexican baseball en Ingles and I want to be fair to the people I'm writing about, but it's like what Aristotle said centuries ago: The more you know, the more you know you DON'T know.  Still, it's hard to write well over a thousand stories dating back to 2005 and not have observations to share (opinions will be mine alone), so here we go...

Baseball in Mexico has been undergoing a hugely transitional year in 2017 and the changes are only beginning.  People who have read this site over the past year are already aware of the Mexican League's inner turmoil ever since Monterrey Sultanes then-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz expressed outrage over his team losing the LMB North Division finals to a Tijuana side he felt employed far too many Mexican-American players.  The outrage carried through the winter as Maiz, Mexico City Diablos Rojos president Roberto Mansur and others squared off against Toros owner Alberto Uribe, brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano (owners of the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Vaqueros) and others in an "Old Guard vs. New Breed" confrontation that split the loop down the middle.  The schism led to outgoing LMB president Plinio Escalante's ouster in an Old Guard power play and threatened to bring about two eight-team leagues or the cancellation of the 2017 schedule altogether until Minor League President Pat O'Connor convened an emergency meeting in Houston, read the warring factions the Riot Act and forced Escalante's return to the presidency.

There is no way to minimize the effect of that meeting.  Shortly thereafter, Old Guarder Carlos Peralta, whose family had owned the storied Quintana Roo Tigres franchise since its inception in 1955 as a Mexico City team and eventual foil to the Diablos Rojos in Mexican baseball's biggest rivalry, sold the club to former Dodgers All-Star pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Fernando Valenzuela heading a small group of investors.  The same weekend that deal was announced amid great fanfare in Cancun, Maiz quietly sold a majority interest in the Sultanes to the Grupo Multimedios media conglomeration, taking a back seat as a (relatively) silent least until the recently-concluded playoffs.  Mansur recently announced his retirement as president of the Diablos, citing health reasons.  The void at the top has been filled by Toros owner Uribe, Puebla Pericos and Monclova Acereros owner Gerardo Benavides and incoming league president Javier Salinas, a former marketing maven for the Liga MX soccer league.  The classic explanation may be that while the Old Guard won a January battle that resulted in Escalante's ouster and a brief hegemony over Liga affairs, O'Connor's intervention handed the New Breed victory in the war.

The past seven months have witnessed a changing of the guard, but what exactly does that mean?  Will baseball in Mexico be improved as a result?  On the surface, I would say yes, but there remain many items of concern that make me wonder how much things will really change when the dust finally settles.

First of all, I can see both sides of the past schism:  Part of me understands why Maiz and compatriots wanted to keep the LMB focused on prioritizing Mexican players.  There was money to be made by the Old Guard from selling the rights of homegrown players to major league organizations, something most teams could not do because they lacked funds to sign and develop those players.  More to the point, there is something to be said in favor of the Mexican League being the province of Mexican players.  Personally, I want to see Mexico improve from its current sixth-place standing in the World Baseball Softball Congress' international men's baseball rankings but that won't happen with benchwarmers.  On the other hand, having sixteen teams in the LMB spreads domestic talent too thinly and creates the need to bring in players from outside the country to improve the on-field quality of play, an argument made by New Breed owners.  A little of both philosophies would make for a workable middle ground, but these are not compromise-driven men making those decisions.

In addition, the break from the Old Guard way of doing things represents a break from the practice of relying on largesse from state and local governments to pay bills and even cover payrolls.  It's been a common practice for years among many teams serving as virtual wards of the state to the point that some teams are in effect "owned" by their local governments.   However, the procedure has been in decline in the wake of complicit politicians finding themselves in hot water for handing millions of pesos over to privately-owned minor league baseball teams (among other pecadillos).  The New Breed ostensibly eschews such cozy arrangements in favor of making money the old-fashioned way:  Building winning teams and creating entertaining in-game presentations to draw more paying fans to the ballpark.  Tijuana has been at the vanguard of this movement for some time and Grupo Multimedios has made similar moves since taking over in Monterrey, although the Sultanes still paper the house with free tickets, a two-edged sword that ultimately devalues a franchise among its target demographics.  Given Salinas' background in marketing.  The New Breed philosophy will likely be the order of the day and that can only improve the Mexican League in the long run.

About Salinas.  He announced with little detail over the summer that in 2018, the Mexican League will adopt a similar format to the Liga MX in that the LMB will play two separate seasons between late February and mid-November.  While many purists are screaming bloody murder over what is depicted as an abrogation of baseball's one-year, one-season tradition, that tradition has not helped many teams fill seats in LMB ballparks.  Although Monterrey and Tijuana both averaged over 10,000 fans per game in 2017 while Yucatan, Monclova and Saltillo all averaged more than 5,000 turnstile clicks last season, more than half the Liga's sixteen teams averaged less than 4,000 per game, with six of them clocking in at less than 3,000 (bottoming out with Tabasco's average of 1,437 that included several nights of fewer than a thousand people at games in Villahermosa).

Simply put, this can't continue and Salinas is betting that cutting seasons back from 112 to 66 games will lead to less ennui among fans who've been disinterested by teams out of postseason contention with weeks and even months to go in the schedule.  Speaking for myself, I'm intrigued how this will work out, but it's proven to be a successful format in a Liga MX that is drawing nearly 24,000 per match in the month-old Apertura tournament, which will run between August and December.  Whether or not Salinas' gamble works, it will put a strain on the winter Mexican Pacific League whose own October-to-January schedule will be a month old by the time the LMB's second season concludes next November, which brings us back to the talent dilution question:  If 16 teams are having a hard time finding quality players, how will 24 teams in two leagues playing simultaneously do it?  The MexPac recently raised its limit of foreign players from six to eight per team, but that won't do much in the face of so many players who've performed in both leagues being locked up in LMB playoff competition.

Then there is the question of those 16 Liga teams, an estimated half of which are either in bankruptcy or a hare's breath away from it.  Tabasco has been an unqualified disaster, Valenzuela's partners bailed out on him and wife Linda Burgos in midseason, both Veracruz and Puebla teams are looking north for potential moves to cities along the Texas border (not the wisest choice of destination, given how the same drug cartels that helped drive the Broncos out of Reynosa in 2016 are alive and well in both Nuevo Laredo and Juarez), both Durango and Leon teams had difficulty paying players and league assessments during the season, Saltillo's ownership is in turmoil despite operating in one of Mexico's best baseball cities and the list goes on.  In short, there is not enough support in enough places for the Mexican League to operate with 16 teams.  Rather than letting franchises set up in other cities with no assurance they'll do any better in Ciudad B than they have in Ciudad A, there desperately needs to be a contraction to 12 teams at the most.  Which four teams should disappear?  It's a tough call because there are so many basket-case operations in the LMB, but I'd go with Tabasco, Leon, Campeche and Veracruz (the latter reluctantly, because there's so much baseball history in the port city).  The Oaxaca franchise should probably also close shop because they've never been well-supported but the team is owned by Alfredo Harp Helu, who also owns the Diablos, is the richest owner in the Liga and is very unlikely to allow the Guerreros to fade into history.  To me, contraction would do far more to solidify the LMB than extending the schedule will, but we're not hearing anything about it from the league, only columnists.

The question of people owning multiple teams should also be addressed, but it won't.  Salinas has said he'd rather have owners with solid financial credentials operating two franchise than unstable owners operating one apiece.  While Salinas' view makes perfect sense from a fiscal standpoint, try selling it to fans in Puebla who saw more than twenty players from their 2016 championship teams transferred to Monclova after Gerardo Benavides bought his hometown Acereros last winter.  The Pericos earned a moral victory by advancing to the Serie del Rey this year while the Steelers were knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, but Puebla fans largely stayed away from Estadio Hermanos Serdan in 2017 until the LMB South championship series against Yucatan and whatever trust might've existed between team and fan base there has been obliterated as a result of Benavides' machinations.  Multiple team owners like Benavides, Harp and the Arellano brothers may have the wherewithal to pay bills in more than one city, but they'll never shed the impression among fans in one city that their team is secondary to the team they own in another location.  Major League Baseball wisely outlawed syndicate ownership after the disastrous 1899 Cleveland Spiders season, but it's full steam ahead with Salinas and the LMB.

Finally, what is to become of the Mexican Pacific League if, indeed, the LMB schedule stretches a month into the MexPac season while players previously allowed to play winterball out west are kept out of the LMP for rest?  There will be a meeting between Salinas and MexPac president Omar Canizales on September 18 in Miami that one hopes will lead to a compromise that works for everyone, but Salinas has not shown any indication that compromise is in his makeup while Canizales has wisely refrained from making any comment on the scheduling overlap's potential effect on his league.  It's hard for me to envision any solution coming out of Miami that will work for teams in both circuits, but it's also hard to envision Canizales quietly accepting a move that will harm the LMP's future.

Like Salinas, Canizales entered the presidency of the MexPac in 2009 with a media background light on baseball experience (Salinas has none in the sport).  However, Canizales took over a league that was already well-supported with eight teams in the baseball-mad states of Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California Norte and he has overseen a circuit that has grown in popularity to the point that an average of nearly 10,000 fans attended LMP games leaguewide.  While MLB has reaffirmed its support of the Mexican League as the country's go-to source for all things baseball, Canizales and the LMP are dealing from a position of strength because they enjoy better support, better ballparks and passable to solid ownership in all eight cities from Mexicali to Mazatlan.  While it'll be business as usual for the MexPac this winter, they face a potentially severe player-pool shortage for 2018-19 if the LMB does extend their schedule two months as stated by Salinas.  A solution?  How about no limits on players due to their foreign or Mexican-American status?  Fans out west have been used to seeing extraneros form the core of their teams for decades, so an open policy on player recruitment may not be a problem if it means the standard of play is maintained (if not actually improved).

It's been a long year in Mexican baseball, on and off the field, and the intrigue begun last fall is not going to abate anytime soon.  If anything, it may accelerate over the months ahead.  With the changing of the guard in the Mexican League, the sport itself will change south of the border and I hope and pray it'll be for the better.  I love baseball, I love writing about it and (thanks in no small part to Carl Franz' The People's Guide to Mexico) I love Mexico and its people.  It's selfish of me, perhaps, but I don't want to see any of that screwed up.

Thanks for staying awake long enough to read this.  We now return you to your regularly-scheduled programming, with Baseball Mexico's 2017 Summer Award winners to be announced next week.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Tijuana blows out Puebla, 15-3, to clinch first LMB title

Tijuana Toros DH Cyle Hankerd 
Cyle Hankerd belted a pair of homers, driving in four runs, and starting pitcher Miguel Pena allowed one run in 5.2 innings as the Tijuana Toros defeated the Puebla Pericos, 15-3, Sunday afternoon in Puebla to clinch the 2017 Mexican League championship.  In winning Game Five of the Serie del Rey, the Toros bring Tijuana the city's first Liga pennant.  It was the second flag for TJ manager Pedro Mere, who led the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila to the 2012 LMB title. The Pericos were attempting to stay alive in their quest for a second consecutive LMB title despite having had their roster decimated by player transfers to Monclova during the offseason.

Tijuana 15-19-0, PUEBLA 3-9-0 (Tijuana wins Serie del Rey, 4 games to 1)
W-M. Pena (1-0).  L-Roenicke (0-2).  A-6,954.  T-3:13.

The Pericos actually led this one early.  Julio Borbon led off the bottom off by getting hit by a Pena pitch, then moved to second when Pena walked Endy Chavez.  Issmael Salas then grounded into a 5-4-3 double play but Borbon was able to advance to third on the play, then scored when Jesus Arredondo poked a grounder past second into center field.

Puebla held on to their slim 1-0 lead until the top of the third, when Tijuana scored six runs.  Isaac Rodriguez started things off with a one-out single to right, went from first to third on Jose Guadalupe Chavez' single to left and scored the tying run on a Roberto Lopez sacrifice fly to right.  Pericos starter Josh Roenicke then lost his control while trying to record the third out of the inning, walking Corey Brown, Hankerd (2006 MVP of the Class A Northwest League) and Jorge Cantu in succession, the latter forcing Chavez across the plate with the go-ahead tally.  Dustin Martin then cleared the bases by launching a grand slam over the centerfield wall to make it a 6-2 contest.

The Toros posted four more counters on the scoreboard in the fourth to knock Roenicke out of the game and effectively put the contest (and pennant) out of Puebla's reach.  With one out and runners on second and third, Lopez lifted another sacrifice fly to right, this time scoring Alex Liddi from third.  A Brown single plated Rodriguez from third to make it an 8-2 score, sending Roenicke to the showers and bringing in Angel Rodriguez from the bullpen.  The first batter Rodriguez faced, Hankerd, belted his second homer of the Serie del Rey, a two-run shot to right that brought the score to 10-2.  One inning later, Liddi took Henry Garcia deep to left, giving the Toros a nine-run bulge.

Puebla got one run back in the bottom of the seventh when Alberto Carreon greeter TJ middleman Mark Serrano with a leadoff homer over the leftfield wall, but the Toros scored twice in the top of the eighth when Hankerd hit his second homer of the afternoon, a two-run shot to center off Julio Felix that brought in Brown, who'd just doubled off Felix.  The Pericos scored once more in the bottom of the eighth when Cesar Tapia singled in Arredondo, narrowing the gap to 13-3, but Brown put an exclamation point on the Toros' playoff run by slamming a two-run dinger off yet another Pericos reliever, Fabian Williamson, to bring the count to 15-3. Jason Urquidez then came in and ended the game and Mexican league season with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth, with Salas flying out to Lopez to bring the 2017 schedule to a close.

While Pena's 5.2 innings were decent enough on their own merit (giving up one run on five hits, striking out four and walking three to earn the win), he had plenty of support as the Toros went on to batter six Puebla hurlers for 19 hits, including five homers.  Hankerd finished the day with two homers and four RBIs while Brown was 3-for-5 with a homer, three runs and three ribbies.  Tapia led Puebla with three hits while Arredondo and Ricky Rodriguez each had two safeties.  Roenicke absorbed his second loss in the Serie del Rey after being knocked around for nine runs on eight hits and three walks.

After drawing crowds of 10,000 for every home game in both the LMB South championships and the Serie del Rey, attendance at Estadio Hermanos Serdan dipped to 6,954 on Sunday.  Pericos owner Gerardo Benavides has threatened to move the team, perhaps to Nuevo Laredo or Juarez along the Texas border, one year after Puebla won the Liga pennant over Tijuana in six games.  Benavides then bought his hometown Monclova Acereros last winter and shifted more than twenty members of Puebla's champions to his new club.  The Steelers were a playoff team before the massive influx of Pericos stalwarts and a preseason pick among many to win the flag this year, but fell to Monterrey in the first round of the playoffs.

The Toros win caps quite a year for what has become perhaps the leading organization in the Mexican League. Tijuana home games were perhaps the loop's most-entertaining openings (finishing second to Monterrey in regular season attendance with an average of 10,872), the team sold a number of prospects they'd developed to MLB organizations during the summer and now the "Gateway to Mexico" has its first Mexican League championship team and first organized ball pennant winner since the 1952 Potros, led by Triple Crown winner Pete Hughes (.366/28/131), won the Class C Southwest International League crown.  The Tijuana Potros also won winterball titles in the Mexican Pacific League for 1987-88 and 1990-91.