Monday, December 25, 2017

MexPac playoff field determined, regular season winds down

Mexicali's MexPac ERA leader Rolando Valdez
Although the pairings for the opening round of the upcoming Mexican Pacific League playoffs have yet to be set, the six teams advancing to the postseason have been determined with four games remaining on the regular season schedule.

The defending champion Mexicali Aguilas have run away with the LMP second half, sporting a 23-6 record to lead 17-12 Navojoa and Culiacan by six games to lock up the eight points accompanying a first-place finish.  The Aguilas collected four points after a 16-19 first half finish landed the borderites in sixth place and led to the replacement of manager Roberto Vizcarra with Pedro Mere.  Under Mere, who won the Mexican League pennant with Tijuana in September, the Aguilas' 12.0 combined points assures them of a playoff berth and home-field advantage at least through the first round.

Things have not gone as well for first-half champion Hermosillo.  Skipper Lorenzo Bundy's Naranjeros have struggled to an 11-17 record in the second half and currently sit seventh on the table, a half-game game behind 12-17 Obregon and three games back from fifth-place Jalisco at 14-14.  The Orangemen will reach the playoffs no matter what because even if they finish with only 3.5 points in the half, the 11.5 total points will be enough to play into January.   Culiacan projects to be the top playoff seed.  The Tomateros picked up 7.0 first-half points after finishing tied with Mazatlan for second at 20-15 while their 17-12 second half mark would give them third place behind Navojoa, good enough for 6.0 points for the half and a combined 13.0 points overall.  Mazatlan and Navojoa will join Mexicali, Hermosillo, Culiacan and Jalisco in the postseason.  The 14-14 Charros sit in sixth, where the 4.5 points attached to a finish in that slot would be added to the 5.0 first-half points garnered by the Guadalajara squad for a 9.5-point overall total and a sixth (and final) seed.

On the outside looking in after this week will be Obregon and Los Mochis.  The 12-17 Yaquis are currently in sixth, two-and-a-half games behind Jalisco, but the most overall points they can mathematically qualify for are 8.0, well behind the Charros' projected 9.5.  The Yaquis canned manager Miguel Ojeda earlier this month and brought in Juan Navarrete, but problem with the Obregon organization run beyond the playing field and any manager would've struggled there this winter.  The 6-23 Caneros have suffered through a total collapse under manager Ramon Orantes, who replaced Luis Sojo at the helm on November 16 after Mochis finished seventh with a 14-21 record in the first half for 3.5 points.  The Caneros will finish with 6.5 overall points no matter what happens this week.

Three ongoing series will conclude Monday night with Obregon at Mexicali, Culiacan visiting Mazatlan and Jalisco hosting Navojoa while Tuesday night will see the Hermosillo at Los Mochis series end.  Starting Wednesday, Hermosillo will host Mexicali, Obregon will welcome Mazatlan, Los Mochis will be in Navojoa and Culiacan will entertain Jalisco in openers of season-ending three-game sets.  
The six playoff teams will choose reinforcements from Obregon and Los Mochis in a two-round draft next weekend prior to next week's first-round openers.  Among the nuggets to be mined from Obregon will be centerfielder Justin Greene, rightfielder Dustin Martin and closer Manny Acosta, the LMP's saves leader with 16.  Los Mochis has infielder Ramon Urias, outfielder Olmo Rosario and veteran first baseman/DH Saul Soto, still a dangerous hitter at age 39.

LMP SECOND HALF STANDINGS (through Sunday, December 24)
Mexicali (4.0) 23-6, Navojoa (4.5) 17-12, Culiacan (7.0) 17-12, Mazatlan (6.0) 15-14, Jalisco (5.0) 14-14, Obregon (3.0) 12-17, Hermosillo (8.0) 11-17, Los Mochis (3.5) 6-23
First half point totals per team are in parentheses
LMP BATTING LEADERS
AVG-Sebastian Elizalde (CUL) .379, H-Sebastian Elizalde (CUL) 92,  R-Randy Arozarena (NAV) 48, HR-Randy Arozarena (NAV) 14, RBI-Manny Rodriguez (JAL) 56, SB-Jeremias Pineda (MAZ) 31.
LMP PITCHING LEADERS
W-Mitch Lively (MAZ) 9, ERA-Rolando Valdez (MXI) 1.87, SO-Tyler Alexander (JAL) 65, SV-Manny Acosta (OBR) 16, HLD-Edgar Gomez (MXI) 17, WHIP-Mitch Lively (MAZ) 0.96.


Ojeda to manage in Durango, not Monterrey, in 2018

Durango's Miguel Ojeda as an MLBer
In what has to be one of the more surprising managerial moves of the Mexican League offseason, former MLB catcher Miguel Ojeda went from being considered a shoo-in as the new manager in Monterrey to signing a contract to lead Durango in 2018 instead.  The deal was announced Sunday by Aguascalientes' El Heraldo, citing "sources close to the negotiations."  

Ojeda will replace Joe Alvarez as Generales skipper after the latter took the team to a 43-66 record for a last-place finish in the LMB North this summer, Durango's first in the Liga in 38 years after owner Virgilio Ruiz moved his franchise there from Carmen.  The Generales spent the first month of the season on the road while ballpark preparations at home were ongoing, winning 11 of their first 21 games before embarking on a crushing 14-game losing streak (six in a row at home) from which they never recovered.  Money problems plagued the team Ojeda is inheriting, with late paychecks and league support to keep the club alive through season's end.  The league wants to replace the underfinanced Ruiz with new ownership, but nothing has been announced on that front.  Durango gave the club remarkably good support given the situation, with the Generales finishing seventh in attendance with a 4,094 average per opening, but Ojeda (who hit .224 with 15 homers in 212 games for San Diego and three other MLB teams between 2003 and 2006) is stepping into a volatile situation.

Meanwhile, back in Monterrey, the Sultanes are back to the drawing board.  Details have not been found as to why things didn't work out between the team and Ojeda.  One omen came during the recent Winter Meetings in Orlando, a  potential "big splash" publicity moment for the Sultanes by introducing a former big league catcher and manager of the 2014 LMB champion Mexico City Diablos Rojos as their new manager.  Instead, he did not appear to even be mentioned by the team during the four-day event.  Ojeda's pending hiring in Monterrey was widely reported in mid-November.

One hiring that did come off was in Monclova, where the Acereros named another ex-MLB catcher as their new helmsman.  Dan Firova, 61, is a bilingual Texan who had three cups of coffee with Seattle and Cleveland in the 1980's and also played all or part of seven seasons in Mexico between 1981 and 1993, mostly for Nuevo Laredo, and hit .264 with 13 homers in 419 games as a defense-oriented backstop.  Firova then spent over two decades managing in the Mexican League winning three pennants with the Mexico City Tigres (1997, 2001, 2001) in his seven-year stint before going on to manage six other LMB teams between 2002 and 2013, reaching the postseason twice in Monterrey and once in Campeche.  He was a coach for the Washington Nationals the past two seasons under Dusty Baker.  

Firova will take over a loaded team that was expected to contend for the pennant last season but instead was knocked out in the first round.  Ex-Mets infielder Wally Backman was hired to manage the Acereros last winter, but his inability to speak or understand Spanish plagued him all the way up to Backman's midseason firing in Monclova, something that won't be a problem for Firova.  Backman, by the way, finished the year as a coach in Puebla and will manage the New Britain Bees of the independent Atlantic League in 2018.


Diablos win Mexican Winter League for third straight year

2017 LIM champions Mexico City Diablos Rojos
It's been a tough baseball year for Alfredo Harp Helu.  The billionaire owner of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, has seen his Mexican League team miss the playoffs for a second straight year with attendance of only 2,503 per game was 14th in the LMB; his new 13,000-seat ballpark (named after himself) has been plagued by construction problems and delays resulting in the move of an anticipated MLB series next season to Monterrey and the possible loss of the 2018 LMB All-Star Game as well; and his franchise is embroiled in a controversy involving the allegedly corrupt transfer of five prospect to the Diablos and an opposing team owner who may arguably be the most popular Mexican ballplayer ever on either side of the border and is also threatening to take the matter to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.  That bad run of luck for Harp extended to his own farm system, as his combined team with the Oaxaca Guerreros (which he also owns) was unable to win their third consecutive Academy Rookie League title, finishing fourth among six teams.

So forgive us for showing a little espíritu navideño when we say we're glad to see Harp's Mexican Winter League team save his year (a little) by winning the pennant, making it three titles in as many seasons for the Little Red Devils.  They copped the regular season crown by going 29-16 in the six-team circuit, which serves as the LMB's sanctioned winter league and includes Liga veterans and prospects alike.  First baseman Yousamot Cota led the league with a .392 average but it was left fielder Daniel Jimenez who swung the big stick by topping the LIM in hits, runs scored and runs batted in.  Jimenez, a 21-year-old Caracas native who played four year of rookieball in the Reds system at home in Venezuela and Arizona, is currently listed on Oaxaca's LMB roster but we've seen how that goes.  Starting pitcher Luis Miranda won five games with a 2.01 ERA to rank first in both categories.

The playoffs followed, with Mexico City being stretched to five games before knocking out Salamanca in a first round series mostly noted for Petroleros player Andres Martin Garcia attacking home plate umpire Carlos Leon, resulting in Martin's suspension from all LMB-related leagues throughout 2018.  The championship series was a trifle quieter, as the Diablos beat Oaxaca, 4 games to 1.  The Guerreros, who had finished in third at 22-23 in the regular season, shocked second-place Moroleon by sweeping the Toros Bravos in three straight games in their semi series.  Mexico City was stretched in Game Five, requiring 13 innings to extinguish the Warriors, 7-5, and claim the flag.

The finals featured two teams owned by the same man, making Harp a winner no matter what happened, and managed by the men who'll lead their respective "big teams" next season: Victor Bojorquez in Mexico City and Jose Luis Sandoval in Oaxaca.  Both are former longtime Diablos stars.  Bojorquez takes the reins of the Red Devils from Miguel Ojeda, who may be having as bad a year as Harp (who still has his billions), while Sandoval succeeds Houston Jimenez with the Guerreros.