Monday, October 12, 2009

MEX PAC SEASON PREVIEW


The Mexican Pacific League opened its 2009-10 season Friday, October 9 with the Mexicali Aguilas hosting the Hermosillo Naranjeros at the Eagles’ Nest.

With the arrival of Inauguration Weekend, let’s take a look at how the eight Mex Pac teams are shaping up going into the winter schedule:

CULIACAN TOMATEROS


The Tomateros finished with the worst record in the Mexican Pacific League last season at 26-42, and manager Nick Leyva doesn’t want a repeat performance this winter.


One weapon at Leyva’s disposal is first baseman Refugio Cervantes, who hit .296 with 10 homers for the Tomateros last year before batting .334 and cracking 20 homers in 90 games for Mexican League champion Saltillo this summer. Another weapon is outfielder Jesus Cota, a Cervantes teammate in Saltillo who homered in four straight games in the Liga Championship Series and belted three roundtrippers for Mexico against Taiwan in the Baseball World Cup.

The pitching staff is led by returnee Omar Espinoza, who went 7-4 for Culiacan last season with a 3.84 ERA. Mexican League Pitcher of the Year Andres Meza is back, but will need more than the 7 innings he pitched last winter. Jose Silva also brings back his 14 saves.

GUASAVE ALGODONEROS


Guasave was 37-31 and reached the playoffs in 2008-09, and the Algodoneros will be looking to be back in the postseason come January. Manager Lino Rivera will have one of Mexico’s most exciting players, outfielder Cristian Presichi, back in Guasave.
Presichi, who hit .273 with 10 homers and 10 stolen bases for the Cotton Pickers last year, led Mexican batters at the Baseball World Cup. Rounding out the starting outfield will be venerable Mario Valezuela and veteran Eduardo Arredondo. Valenzuela hit .249 with 10 homers in Guasave in 2008-09 while Arredondo batted just .225 but also cracked 10 homers in only 80 at-bats.

Noe Munoz is a well-regarded catcher despite committing seven errors in 53 games last season, and Mexican League Rookie of the Year Japhet Amador will bring young legs to the infield. Beyond starter Rafael Cruz and closer Alan Guerrero, however, the Guasave pitching staff is suspect.

HERMOSILLO NARANJEROS



The Naranjeros are one of the Mex Pac’s proudest franchises and Homar Rojas is one of Mexico’s best managers. That’s a pretty good starting point right there, and Rojas has enough talent on hand to expect a good run this year after finishing 36-32 last winter.


Hermosillo has one of the LMP’s better pitching staffs, anchored by longtime strikeout artist Francisco “Pancho Ponches” Campos, who will be joined by ex-big leaguers Elmer Dessens and Edgar Gonzalez as well as vet Juan Delgadillo and Mexican League Rookie Pitcher of the Year Juan Pablo Oramos to form one of the best rotations in the league.

The Naranjeros have some hitters, too. Outfielder Luis Alfonso Garcia led the Mex Pac with 16 homers last season, and catcher Humberto Cota’s .324 average would’ve been fourth if he’d had enough plate appearances. Steady second baseman Carlos Gastelum hit .298, while outfielder Karim Garcia and first sacker Erubiel Durazo add big league experience and power.

LOS MOCHIS CANEROS


Los Mochis had the second-best record in the Mexican Pacific League last year at 36-29. Manager Juan Francisco Rodriguez has a nice mix of pitching and hitting this year, too.

The Caneros have a solid 1-2 punch in starters Rafael Diaz and Ismael Castillo. A 21-year pro baseball veteran, Diaz pitched for Mexico’s World Cup team after going 2-1 with two saves and a 1.91 ERA for Mochis and 8-3 for Mexican League champs Saltillo. Castillo led the Mex Pac with a 2.86 ERA with the Caneros last winter en route to a 5-5 record. Another World Cup hurler, Arturo Lopez, is back after leading Mochis with a 6-2 mark last winter.

Catcher Saul Soto is home with the Caneros after a stellar summer, batting .370 with 28 homers and 93 RBIs for Monclova to finish among the top three in each category. Outfielder Edgar Quintero comes to Mochis after hitting .378 with 21 homers for Monterrey this year.

MAZATLAN VENADOS


The defending Mexican Pacific League champions return most of last season’s 41-27 team, and will again be a favorite to win the pennant this year. Manager Lorenzo Bundy will have perhaps the most depth of any team in the LMP, with star power at every position.

Ex big leaguer Miguel Ojeda hit .321 with 17 homers for Mexico City this summer after only batting .203 last winter for Mazatlan. DH Roberto Saucedo led the Venados with nine homers and 38 RBIs, third baseman Freddy Sandoval hit .286 in the regular season and sparkled defensively in the Caribbean Series, outfielder Ruben Rivera hit .296 his first year in Mazatlan, and all Christian Quintero did was lead the Mex Pac with a .357 average.

Esteban Loaiza, Pablo Ortega and Walter Silva will anchor a starting rotation deep in experience, while Hector Navarro had 14 saves and a 1.64 ERA.

MEXICALI AGUILAS


Mexicali ended last season with a 33-33 record and a playoff berth. Ex-Dodger shortstop Oscar Robles is back after leading the team with a .309 average in 2008-09, second baseman Oswaldo Morejon will join Robles in the middle of the infield after batting .238 for the Aguilas last year, and veteran DH Carlos Sievers returns to the Eagles’ Nest and hopes to improve on his .257 batting average last winter. Outfielders Gonzalo Meza and Roman Pena hit .286 and .235, respectively, and will be joined by import players in the outer garden this year.

Among pitchers, Alfredo Caudillo went 6-0 splitting between the rotation and bullpen and Oscar Rivera was 5-5 with a 5.16 ERA. Humberto Montemayor was the most effective starter for Mexicali last season. Montemayor pitched better than his 3-6 record indicated, turning in a 4.17 ERA. The Aguilas will need better starting pitching to top the .500 mark.

NAVOJOA MAYOS


Navojoa struggled to a 31-37 mark to miss the postseason last season. Their website thus far is giving little indication of who will play for the team this winter.
We can tell you that the Mayos had an experienced infield in 2008-09, with Mexican baseball veterans Raul Lopez at first base, Jose Amador at second, Abel Martinez at third and Javier Robles at shortstop. Lopez had the best year among them, with a .257 average, four homers and 35 RBIs. Minor league vet Doug Clark hit .283 to anchor a young outfield, and hardnosed catcher Adan Munoz had a solid year, hitting .277 with a team-high eight homers and 50 RBIs.
Navojoa had a decent bullpen, with Scott Chiasson and Hansel Izquierdo combining for 13 saves, but beyond Orlando Lara and Alejandro Armenta, no starter had an ERA under 4.64.

OBREGON YAQUIS


Although Obregon had the seventh-best record in the LMP at 29-38 last winter, they snuck past Navojoa for the sixth and final playoff spot by accruing more points over both halves. Yaquis manager Eddie Diaz’s team should make the playoffs again, but isn’t likely to win a flag.
Newcomers Isauro Pineda, Mario Mendoza Jr. and Mauro Nieblas are hoped to improve what had been a fairly weak pitching staff, but that may be asking more than they’re capable of.
The Obregon offensive outlook is a bit more optimistic. Catcher Iker Franco may need to be replaced defensively in the late innings, but he still hit .282 with a team-best 14 homers last year. The sparkplug of the Yaquis is third baseman Agustin Murillo, the reigning Mex Pac MVP after hitting .345 with 11 homers and 47 RBI while committing just three errors in the field. Second sacker Carlos Valencia needs to rebound from a .230 season, however.

MEXICAN BASEBALL ROAD TRIP (Stop #2): Culiacan, Sinaloa



This week, we pay a visit to Culiacan, home of the Tomateros. Culiacan is a two-hour drive north on Highway 15 from our Road Trip starting point, Mazatlan, and is set a few miles inland from the Gulf of California. While Mazatlan is a better-known place among North Americans, Culiacan is itself a thriving city and the state capital of Sinaloa. The name “Culican” is an old native word which means “place where they adore the God Coltzin.”

A city of over 600,000 residents, Culiacan was a small village when Spanish conquistador Nuno Beltran de Guzman founded the villa of San Miguel de Culiacan on September 29, 1531. From the end of the sixteenth century and throughout much of the 1700’s, San Miguel de Culiacan served as an important staging area for the Spanish conquest of the Mexican West. However, independence from Spain was eventually won for Mexico in the early 1820’s, and Culiacan was granted the status of “city” in 1823. At that time, Sinaloa’s state capital was in Mazatlan, but was eventually shifted to Culiacan in 1873.

As with most of the Mex Pac cities, Culiacan is an agricultural center, surrounded by some of the most arable land in Mexico of which the major crop is tomatoes. While Culiacan has a reputation as a tough town, it is also, in fact, a thriving and busy place with a fine State university in the city center, a lovely 19th Century cathedral sitting three blocks away from the ubiquitous Mexican mercado, there are beaches on the Gulf a few miles away in Atlata and El Tambor, and Ernesto Millan Escalante Park features gardens, pools, an open-air Hellenic theater and the longest water slide in northern Mexico. The Centro Cultural Genaro Estrada contains two theaters, several museums and a cafĂ©, and is a centerpiece for the arts. There are several good restaurants in town, and one of the most popular regional dishes is steak cabreria, which features six different toppings and side dishes…it’s definitely worth a try.

Something else worth a try is catching a Tomateros game at Estadio General Angel Flores, which is the largest ballpark in the LMP with 16,000 seats. The Tomateros have given their fans a lot to cheer about over the years, with nine Mex Pac pennants since 1967. Five of those came under manager Francisco “Paquin” Estrada, who also brought two Caribbean Series titles home to Culiacan. The city hosted the CS in 2001, one of two times the event has been held anywhere other than Mazatlan or Hermosillo in the twelve times the Series has been played in Mexico.



NEXT WEEK: Mexican Baseball Road Trip (Guasave, Sinaloa)