Monday, July 25, 2016

Three LMB South teams clinch playoff berths

With three weeks remaining in the Mexican League's regular season schedule, three of the loop's 16 teams have clinched playoff berths.

Puebla (65-29), Yucatan (65-30) and defending champion Quintana Roo (59-37) all reside in the LMB South Division, where the three clubs each have winning percentages of better than .600.  Conversely, the South's bottom four teams (Tabasco, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Carmen) are all below .400 for the season, with Campeche holding fourth place at 47-46, well ahead of 37-59 Tabasco.  The Pericos and Leones are still just a half-game apart as their season-long duel for South supremacy enters the stretch drive of the campaign, but the Tigres and Piratas appear fairly locked in for third and fourth place, respectively.

Although nobody has clinched in the North, teams appear to be positioning themselves for the second season.  Monterrey (60-34) is 3.5 games up on Monclova (57-38) for the lead, but third-place Tijuana 55-40) has won eight of their last ten games under new manager Pedro Mere to close to within two games of Monclova.  Laguna (54-42) has lost their last four contests but still hold fourth place, five games ahead of Mexico City (48-46) and seven games in front of Aguascalientes (46-48).  The Vaqueros host the Diablos Rojos in a three-game series beginning Tuesday that will go a long way towards settling things while the Rieleros visit Monterrey in an attempt to remain in contention.

Puebla catcher Cesar Tapia has cooled at the plate somewhat (4-of-16 over his past four games), but his single in Sunday's 9-7 loss at Mexico City extended his hitting streak to eleven games and Tapia's .381 average still leads the Liga, ahead of Veracruz' Carlos Lopez at .363.  Monterrey third baseman Alex Valdez clubbed a pair of homers in Campeche over the weekend to extend his season total to 26, four more than Quintana Roo's Alex Liddi (pictured above).  The early Triple Crown talk regarding Aguascalientes shortstop Diory Hernandez died weeks ago, but the 32-year-old Dominican swatted a pair of three-run homers last week to push his LMB-leading RBI total to 87.  Liddi drove in four runs on a double and homer against Laguna in Cancun Sunday to close to within four ribbies of Hernandez.  A pair of Saltillo outfielders, Justin Greene and Christian Zazueta, are tied for the circuit lead in stolen bases with 30 swipes apiece, two more than Dustin Martin of Tijuana.

With former Monclova ace Josh Lowey now in South Korea (pitching five innings of one-run ball for the KT Wiz in their win over the Samsung Lions Sunday), former Cubs farmhand Yoanner Negrin has won his last five starts for Yucatan to go to 15-1 for the season, overtaking Lowey's 13 victories for the LMB lead.  Lowey's 131 strikeouts are still well ahead of his former Acereros moundmate Jose Oyervides' 103 and his 1.65 ERA continues to lead the Liga (Tijuana's Miguel Pena is second at 2.04).  Puebla closer Chad Gaudin has gone 7-for-7 in saves situations this month to bring his total to 30, slipping past Monclova's Arcenio Leon for tops in the Mexican League.


Mexican League considering contraction of teams

The 2016 season has been a tough one financially for a large number of Mexican League teams and one result may be the offseason contraction of some of the loop's 16 teams.

Although the Monterrey Sultanes continue to lead all of Minor League Baseball in average attendance with 12,659 fans clicking the turnstiles per opening while Tijuana (8,944), Yucatan (8,767) and Monclova (6,421) have been doing well at the gate, the overall picture for the LMB is a grim one.  Eight clubs are averaging fewer than 3,000 fanaticos per home game, with Oaxaca bringing up the rear at 1,739.  In all, 3,386,938 people attended 727 LMB contests through last weekend for an average of 4,659, a figure surpassed by 15 of 16 Pacific Coast League franchises and 12 of 14 International League teams among other AAA leagues.

Declining attendance south of the border might be partially explained by the rapidly-declining Mexican peso, which was trading at $18.76 per USA dollar as of July 25, but Mexican Pacific League teams dealing with similar peso exchange rates drew nearly 10,000 fans last winter, higher than any professional baseball league outside MLB on the continent.  Civil unrest in Oaxaca has certainly not helped the Guerreros, who lost their first eleven games to quickly fall out of contention, and the ongoing conflict among drug cartels and the government in the north has continued to affect things in places like Reynosa, but the overall picture is bleak.

Various baseball columnists in Mexico are starting to file pieces speculating that LMB president Plinio Escalante and team owners will be considering the contraction of four teams after the current season is over. A Saturday column by Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballasteros says the most likely candidates for contraction appear to be Aguascalientes and Reynosa in the North and Carmen and Tabasco in the South.  Ballasteros adds that while teams in Veracruz and Cancun have been struggling along with most LMB franchises, the Rojos Aguilas and Tigres likely have too much historic significance to be dropped from the rostrum.

According to Ballasteros, Mexico City Diablos Rojos team president Roberto Mansur floated the idea of contraction to 12 teams a number of years ago, a notion that is now apparently gaining traction (reportedly with support coming from franchises in Laguna, Puebla, Tijuana and Yucatan).  The LMB will likely visit the issue at their 2016 Convention at Oaxaca in late September, and any changes in the Liga lineup would probably be announced at December's Baseball Winter Meetings in Maryland.


2015 LMB Rookie of the Year signs with Cubs

Last season's Mexican League Rookie of the Year, Yucatan pitcher Manuel Rodriguez, has signed a contract with the Chicago Cubs.  The Cubs negotiated last October for negotiating rights to the six-foot right-hander, who turns 20 on August 6, but it wasn't until last Thursday that all parties agreed to a deal that will send Rodriguez north of the border for the next phase of his baseball career.

Rodriguez made his Leones debut as a 17-year-old on May 21, 2014 at Merida's Parque Kukulkan with two scoreless innings against Carmen.  He followed up with two rough outings that week before it was determined "not ready" for AAA ball.  Last year was another story, as Rodriguez turned in a 4-0 record with a 1.84 ERA in 50 appearances out of the bullpen as a middleman for Yucatan, good enough for selection to the All-Star Game plus ROY honors while gaining the attention of the Cubbies in the process, resulting in the rights deal swung between Yucatan and Chicago last fall.

2016 has not gone nearly so well for the youngster nicknamed "Bolon."  Although he still hasn't lost a game since 2014, Rodriguez only won one game with no saves and had an ERA of 5.06 in 19 outings before being placed on the Reserve List for the second time this year on June 27.  Even so, the Cubs were willing to go ahead and sign the Yucatan-born hurler last week.

At a press conference in Merida, Chicago scout Sergio Hernandez said Rodriguez will start out with the Cubs' Arizona Rookie League team in Mesa before their Class A Carolina League affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC or even their AA Southern League team in Knoxville, TN.  Hernandez added that "Hopefully, he'll become the first Yucatecan to reach the majors and be an inspiration for many young people."  For his part, Rodriguez told the assembled officials and reporters, "I feel very happy...it all started as a dream and now God has blessed me by giving me this opportunity."