Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Alvarez shipped to Yucatan; Vaqueros fans talking boycott

LMB All-Star first baseman Ricky Alvarez
Syndicate baseball.  While ownership of multiple teams in the same league is something not allowed in Major League Baseball since the Robison brothers' transfer of top players from their Cleveland team to their St. Louis franchise led to the disastrous 20-134 Spiders of 1899, the Mexican League has no such problem.  In fact, incoming LMB president Javier Salinas has said he approves of such arrangements, stating that it's better to have one financially capable owner of two teams than an underfinanced owner of one.  Although there's some logic behind that viewpoint, fans in Puebla and now Laguna would be hard-pressed to agree that they're being well-served by owners who consider their local team as the lesser part of their respective equations.

We've already seen the core players of Puebla's 2016 Liga championship team shifted to Monclova prior to this season by owner Gerardo Benavides, whose grandfather founded the Acereros and desperately wants his hometown to fly its first LMB pennant this year.  Although the Pericos have brought in enough decent replacements to hold third place in the South Division standings at the All-Star Break, that is more the result of belonging to a division in which only Yucatan has a winning record.  With their current 32-33 record, the Parrots would be looking up at six teams in the LMB North rather than trail second-place Quintana Roo by just a half-game in the LMB South.  Not so coincidentally, attendance at Puebla's Estadio Hermanos Serdan has dropped from an average of 4,314 in 2016 to 3,241 per opening in 2017, a decline of 25 percent.  Then again, the Pericos were last in the LMB attendance derby in 2015 with a 2,316 per game average so one could say it's all relative, but it's been made clear to people in the colonial city who DO follow baseball that their team is not a priority to their team's owner.

Now let's shift attention to the Union Laguna Vaqueros.  The Mexican League has had a presence in the Torreon-Gomez Palacio area as far back as 1940, with Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo leading the Algodoneros to the region's first pennant in their third season.  Union Laguna won another title in 1950, but it would turn out to be their last.  The Vaqueros were purchased in the offseason by brothers Jose Juan and Erick Arellano, who also own the South-leading Yucatan Leones.  The Arellanos would love to place an LMB team in their own hometown of Mazatlan, but stalled development of a new ballpark there has put that desire on hold for now.  Unlike Benavides in Puebla, the brothers had largely left their Union Laguna team untouched and the Vaqueros have been in the midst of a battle for a playoff berth in the LMB North with a 35-31 record at the All-Star Break, one game out of the fourth and final postseason slot with one of the Liga's more potent offenses.  Until Monday.

That's when the Arellanos decided to ship the Vaqueros' best player, All-Star first baseman Ricky Alvarez, to Yucatan as part of a six-player swap clearly designed to load the Leones up for the playoffs.  Laguna also sent pitchers Edgar Osuna and Maikel Cleto to Merida in exchange for hurlers Tomas Solis, Alejandro Martinez and Leo Rosales, who have 50 innings pitched between them this year.  Alvarez is the main prize, with the 28-year-old Tijuana product having a season bringing him some support in MVP talks with a .330 average, 13 homers and an LMB-best 75 RBIs.  The former Angels minor league has hit 37 homers and driven in 166 runs over 177 games for the Vaqueros since coming to Torreon in a trade with Tabasco prior to last season.

Then there's Osuna, who set the Liga on fire in April by winning his first five starts but hasn't won a game since to see his record level off at 5-4 while his ERA (which had been 1.61 entering May) ballooned to 5.37 with no quality starts in his last eight outings.  Still, the 29-year-old from Mazatlan will give the Leones pitching staff a lefty with 12 years experience, much of it in the Braves and Royals organizations, and a former Texas League All-Star.  As well, Cleto (who previously pitched in MLB for both the Cardinals the White Sox) has had a good half-season in the Laguna bullpen, with a 3.20 ERA and 4 saves in 5 opportunities over 19 appearances, and will likely replace former Leones closer Jairo Asencio, who was released earlier this month despite being among the LMB leaders in saves.  The team also last Friday released Brad Snyder, another ex-MLBer who was batting .268, was second to Alvarez on the team with 12 homers and third with 41 RBIs while playing errorless ball in the outfield.

While this swap (which has not been officially announced by the Liga office) doesn't have the seismic effect that last winter's mass exodus from Puebla to Monclova, fans in Laguna have already let their opinions be known.   A group of six aficionados released a public letter posted on the Puro Beisbol site calling on others to boycott attending Vaqueros games, at least temporarily, at 86-year-old Estadio Revolucion, where the club is sixth in LMB attendance at 5,206 per opening.  The Vaqueros drew just 2,000 people in Tuesday night's 10-7 loss to Puebla (irony duly noted).

It's hard to believe this is the sort of syndicate ownership Salinas has envisioned for the troubled league he's taking over after current president Plinio Escalante retires following the season.  Then again, with franchise problems in places like Leon, Tabasco and now Quintana Roo (that's another story for another day), among others, perhaps Salinas has no choice as long as the Arellanos pay the bills and Benavides is heading the Assembly of Presidents who sign his paycheck.