Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Caribbean Series to open Wednesday; Crucial LMB meeting in Houston set; Xalapa 0-3 in Latin American Series

Mexicali begins CS play tonight

The Mexican Pacific League champion Mexicali Aguilas have held a couple practices at Estadio Tomateros in Culiacan in preparation for their Wednesday night Caribbean Series opener against the Caguas Criollos, Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente League kingpins.  

The Aguilas had a 37-31 overall record in the MexPac, finishing fifth in the first half schedule and fourth in the second half before going 12-7 in playoff series wins over Navojoa, Hermosillo and Los Mochis.  Mexicali posted 113 playoff runs on the scoreboard for an average of 5.9 per game, so scoring hasn't been a problem.  An already-potent daily lineup featuring LMP batting champ Luis Juarez, Yuniesky Betancourt, C.J. Retherford and Chris Roberson has been augmented by reinforcements Jason Bourgeois, Sebastian Valle, Agustin Murillo and Ronnier Mustelier.  Their starting pitchers were a bit inconsistent at times in the postseason, although manager Roberto Vizcarra appears to have addressed that concern by bringing in Hector Daniel Rodriguez, Tyler Alexander, Barry Enright and Manny Barreda as reinforcements to go with holdovers Javier Solano and Miguel Pena.  The Eagles' bullpen appears to be in great shape, with Sergio Romo added to share the closer's role with Jake Sanchez.

Caguas finished third in the five-team Roberto Clemente League during the regular season, going 19-21 in the seven-week regular season prior to topping Mayaguez and Santurce in the playoffs, winning 9 of 14 postseason contests.  The Criollos' everyday lineup featuring infielders Ruben Gotay and Andrew Velazquez, outfielders Rusney Castillo and Jorge Padilla plus catcher Rene Garcia.  Caguas' team batting average of .249 with 11 homers over 40 regular season games won't scare anyone, but it was a down winter for batters in Puerto Rico, with four teams finishing the regular season with ERAs below 3.00.  The Criollos came in fourth at 2.78, well below Santurce's incredible 1.78 team ERA.  Former MLBer Joel Pineiro has been added to a staff that includes another reinforcement, Pitcher of the Year Adalberto Flores, whose 0.95 ERA for Santurce led the Clemente League, along with the circuit's saves leader, Ricardo Gomez (15 saves with a 1.66 ERA). Having won their 17th Puerto Rican pennant, Caguas has had some powerful teams in the past with three Caribbean Series championships, but this year's edition appears somewhat nondescript.  However, never count out a team with good pitching and it does look like the Criollos do have that.

Game time in Culiacan is set for 8:00PM MST (0300 UTC) following opening ceremonies scheduled for 6:30 local time.  Hector Daniel Rodriguez gets the start for Mexicali while Adalberto Flores will likely get the nod from Caguas manager Luis Matos. 

Mexican League to hold important presidents' meeting in Houston 

While the Caribbean Series will be getting underway in Culiacan, the Mexican League will hold an Assembly of Presidents meeting Wednesday in Houston, far from the Liga offices in Mexico City and the kind of scrutiny that past meetings have received from Mexico's baseball writers.  The LMB meeting's venue and timing do not seem coincidental after their January meeting in the D.F. brought the troubled league attention that they would rather not have after president Plinio Escalante resigned or was fired (depending on whose version one chooses to believe) while rumors swirled that the Liga will either split into two eight-team loops or shut down altogether for 2017.

The primary issue between the two warring factions of owners and/or team presidents is the number of Mexican-American players each club will be allowed to carry this year.  One faction of so-called Old Guard owners want to limit the number of such players (who do not count as "foreigners" against the six-man cap in that category) to nine while the opposing New Breed owners want no restrictions on Mexican-American players.  The imbroglio has led to Escalante's exit and the exclusion of Reynosa Broncos team president Eliud Villareal (whose franchise is in flux while seeking a new home) from discussions to give the Old Guard, led by Monterrey owner Jose Maiz, an 8-7 advantage in voting among team presidents.  However, this issue is just a tipping point in a longstanding clash between the Old Guard and New Breed regarding the overall philosophy of how the LMB should be structured and operated.

If the Liga does indeed split into two divisions or even separate leagues, it would likely be along these lines:

Old Guard - Campeche Piratas, Durango Generales, Mexico City Diablos Rojos, Monterrey Sultanes, Oaxaca Guerreros, Quintana Roo Tigres, Saltillo Saraperos, Tabasco Olmecas.

New Breed - Aguascalientes Rieleros, Laguna Vaqueros, Monclova Acereros, Puebla Pericos, Reynosa Broncos, Tijuana Toros, Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, Yucatan Leones.

Underneath all this is the uncertain status of the Durango franchise (which may end up sharing Estadio Monterrey with the Sultanes after ballpark renovations promised in Durango when the team initially moved there from Carmen have not materialized), the somewhat lame-duck status of the Reynosa club (Villareal originally moved the team to Leon, only to face ballpark issues similar to Durango's, and now reportedly wants to move the team to Nuevo Laredo but instead finds himself and his franchise in limbo), declining attendance throughout much of the LMB (while the western LMP has prospered at the gate with no restrictions on Mexican-American players) and an overall murky future with nobody replacing Escalante at the helm.  

The Mexican League is currently at best described as a "hot mess" and it remains to be seen if any accord can be reached in Houston with both sides of the debate apparently entrenched in their positions.

Xalapa Chileros go winless at Latin American Series in Colombia

Speaking of leagues with uncertain futures, the shutdown this winter of the Veracruz Winter League and the resulting rise of the Veracruz State Baseball League has concluded with the latter's Xalapa Chileros being swept in three games at the Latin American Series in Monteria, Colombia.

The Chileros were one of six former LIV teams to take part in the new LBEV, which was organized by former Brewers pitcher Narcisco Elvira in the wake of the decision among LIV owners to not operate in 2016-17.  The LBEV played a one-month, weekends-only regular season schedule of ten games per team, followed by a two-weekend playoff with four teams playing best-of-3 series.  Clubs were allowed to field only players from the state of Veracruz.  While Elvira deserves credit for keeping winterball alive in his home state, there appears to have been a sense of impermanence to the new organization which resulted in the LAS being moved in early January from Xalapa, where it was planned to be staged as Mexico's turn in the four-nation rotation came up in 2017, to Colombia.  The results from the fifth annual tournament, in which champions from what are considered AA leagues (whereas Caribbean Series leagues are regarded as AAA in quality) convene, were likely not envisioned by Elvira, who also managed the Chileros in the LAS.

In losing all three games, Xalapa was outscored by a 19-3 margin.  The Chileros opened the tournament on Thursday, January 26 with a 3-1 loss to the Panama City Metros in which Xalapa shortstop Kevin Flores (a veteran of several Mexican League seasons) had his team's only hit, wasting a strong outing from starter Tony Cordoba, who allowed one run on five hits in five innings.  That was followed by a 7-2 loss to Nicaraguan champion Chinandega on January 27.  The Chileros did outhit the Tigres, 11 to 8, but former Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera socked a homer for the winners as Rene Coss absorbed the loss for Xalapa.  Cordoba was inserted into the batting order as a designated hitter and had two safeties for the Veracruzanos.  The Chileros wrapped up their round robin schedule January 28 with a 9-0 blanking at the hands of Colombian League champs (and LAS hosts) Monteria.  Flores and third baseman Eduardo Santos each had two of the Mexican club's five hits. Chinandega shut out Monteria, 4-0, one day later to claim the LAS title for Nicaragua.

Overall, the Chileros hit only .181 as a team, collecting a total of 17 hits in three games, while Xalapa pitchers registered a 4.32 ERA to finish fourth in that category.  It was an inglorious conclusion to the season for the LBEV, whose future is uncertain.  Baseball has a long and proud history in Veracruz, which was home to 1940's baseball magnate Jorge Pasquel, but this was not a winterball season that will be looked upon fondly in the future.