Friday, March 24, 2017

Quiroz preps with Yucatan, but will MLB be calling Leones?

Mexico's national team in the recently-concluded featured a roster with several Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball players, including a pitching staff that included notables such as Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna, Royals reliever Joakim Soria, Dodgers signee Sergio Romo (a three-time World Series champ with the Giants and White Sox starter Miguel Angel Gonzalez.  The everyday lineup boasted the likes of reigning Japan Series MVP Brandon Laird and Dodgers five-time All-Star Adrian Gonzalez.  With all the studs on the Mexican roster, however, it was a Pony who raised the most eyebrows earlier this month in Guadalajara and the smallest player on the Verdes Grande roster is now in training camp with the Yucatan Leones.  Whether he remains in Merida all season may be another matter.

Esteban "Pony" Quiroz, like most Mexican players who've spent their careers south of the border, is a virtual unknown in the USA and Canada beyond scouts and farm directors who took notice of the 5'7" 170-pounder two weeks ago after he went 4-for-6 at the plate with two homers and a double for five RBIs while scoring five runs in three games while playing second base and right field for Mexico.  Just in case you're wondering, that's a 1.833 slugging percentage and by drawing three walks and getting plunked by Italy's Pat Venditte, Quiroz had an on-base percentage of .800 over the three games he played.  Curiously, Mexico's manager Edgar Gonzalez lifted the 25-year-old during each game, something not ordinarily done with a team's hottest batter, but Quiroz drew the scouts' attention from the get-go by launching a homer off Italy starter Alex Maestri to lead off the first game of Pool D and they never lost sight of the little guy who can play three infield positions as well as the outfield and swing a good bat no matter where the lineup card has him.  For his efforts, Quiroz was named Mexico's MVP for the 2017 version of the Classic.

Quiroz broke in with the Quintana Roo Tigres as a 19-year-old in 2011, going just 3-for-25 at the plate in 24 games while playing errorless ball at second and all three outfield spots for that season's Mexican League pennant winners.  From that humble beginning, he worked to become a Gil McDougald (look him up) type of player, a guy who can play any of six defensive positions proficiently while being a solid contributor with a bat in his hands.  His totals over six years with the Tigres feature a career batting average of .287 (including .315 and .335 averages the past two summers) with 27 homers and 127 RBIs in 348 games.  Quiroz' on-base percentage in the WBC was no fluke, as the left-handed hitter has drawn 153 walks for an OBP of .394 for Quintana Roo, who won three titles with him on the roster.  Last year, his .335 average included 15 homers and his OBP was an off-the-charts .449 in 97 games.  He showed enough power to be chosen to participate in the Home Run Derby at the Mexican League's All-Star Weekend last year in Monterrey, reaching the finals before losing to Tigres teammate Alex Liddi (a former MLB player who stands nine inches taller and 55 pounds heavier than Quiroz).

All the above makes the Tigres' decision to let Quiroz get away to division rival Yucatan in the offseason a curious one.  Perhaps it was concern over tendinitis in his right knee, a condition that shortened his winterball season in Mazatlan to 31 games, during which he hit just .198 with one homer.  The Obregon native did make a trip to Tokyo last winter with the Mexican National Team and homered in the first of two games against Samurai Japan, but it was largely a lost winter for Quiroz, who was the 2015-16 Mexican Pacific League's Rookie of the Year after hitting .317 with seven roundtrippers for the Venados' MexPac and Carbibean Series championship team (batting .400 for Mazatlan in the CS last year).  Perhaps his trade to the Leones on February 24 was part of a general housecleaning on the part of new Tigres owner Fernando Valenzuela, whose son Fernando Junior is now the GM for the Cancun club.  Whatever the reason, Esteban Quiroz now finds himself in Merida, where he joined his new teammates in training camp last week.

"I fortunately had a very good Classic, where I think I helped a lot and learned from the great players I was around," Quiroz said to Punto Medio's Jessica Sanchez.  "That's one more motivation in my career."  Quiroz added that he's happy to be joining the Leones, who finished with a Liga-best 77-33 record under manager Willy Romero last summer before losing the LMB South title series to eventual champion Puebla.  "I'm happy to be here and will help in whatever I can."  How long he helps the White City team is a topic of conjecture, given how MLB scouts noticed him at the WBC and are now aware of this diminutive Mexican player with versatility in the field (Quiroz' best position is second base but he appears ticketed for shortstop in Yucatan) and both pop and patience at the plate.  There are organizations north of the border he can help and it only seems a matter of time before one of them places a phone call to the team office in Merida.

The Leones open the regular season next Friday when they play the Tigres in Cancun.