Monday, November 26, 2018

CULIACAN WINS FIRST-HALF TITLE, 8 PLAYOFF POINTS

Culiacan Tomateros manager Robinson Cancel
Although defending Mexican Pacific League champion Culiacan lost their final game of the first half, 5-3, at Hermosillo last Thursday, the Tomateros had already clinched first place and the accompanying eight playoff points by then.  The defeat gave Culiacan a final record of 21-14 for the half, three games ahead of Hermosillo, Mazatlan and Obregon (who all finished 18-17) while Mexicali and Navojoa tied for fifth at 17-17.  Los Mochis and Jalisco were tied for seventh with 15-20 marks to round out the standings.

The first-half crown marked a turnaround of sorts for the Tomateros, who were 8-10 when first-year manager Lorenzo Bundy was fired on November 3.  Bundy, a Philadelphia native whose long winterball career has seen him manage almost every MexPac franchise (including a long stint in Hermosillo prior to this season), never really got into a groove with his new team and was replaced by former MLB catcher Robinson Cancel, who led Culiacan to a 13-4 record the rest of the way.  Cancel was joined in the dugout by one-time Padres infielder Oscar Robles, who was jettisoned as Obregon skipper on October 24 and later hired by the Tomateros as a coach.  

Even though the first six weeks of their season was certainly a success, the Tomateros haven't been resting on their laurels.  The late-ending Mexican League season led to the LMP expanding the number of foreign players allowed per team to 12, but that number has dropped to 8 for the second half as domestic talent has begun filtering west after receiving postseason rests after their Liga seasons concluded.  Culiacan has added first baseman Joey Meneses (the International League MVP who signed with Japan's Orix Buffaloes for next year), outfielder Sebastian Elizalde, ex-Yankees infielder Ramiro Pena and pitcher Romario Gil, the Mexican League's Rookie of the Year since November started.  In fact, the MexPac's second half is expected to be as hard-fought as the first as all eight teams are loading up on Mexican talent while picking and choosing which imports best fit their plans for the rest of the regular season and playoffs.

Hermosillo third baseman Jasson Atondo has hit .415 over his past ten games to take over the LMP batting race with a .377 average.  The 23-year-old Atondo has played sparingly for the Naranjeros the past three winters while serving as a backup infielder for the Campeche Piratas since 2015.  He was expected to fill a similar role again for the Orangemen until former Padres infielder Ryan Schimpf left the team in October after just two games.  Schimpf, outfielder Bryce Brentz and pitcher Reed Garrett were reportedly sent packing October 24 after failing to show up for a road trip to Culiacan that week.  While Atondo adds little power to manager Bronswell Patrick's lineup (36 of his 40 hits have been singles), he's been consistent at getting on base while committing just one error in 18 games at the hot corner.

Another third baseman, Navojoa's Jovan Rosa, socked a homer against Mazatlan last Thursday to take the LMP lead with eight roundtrippers, one more than Jalisco's Manny Rodriguez (whose 29 RBIs rank tops in the circuit).  Rosa's Mayos teammate, Alonzo Harris, has a commanding lead in stolen bases with 17 in 20 attempts, leading Culiacan's Rico Noel by four swipes.  Mazatlan pitcher Konner Wade was finally knocked from the unbeaten ranks when he took a 3-0 loss in Navojoa last Tuesday, but his 5-1 record still gives him the MexPac lead in wins among pitchers (eleven pitchers are tied for second with three victories) while Wade's 2.43 ERA ties him for second with Hermosillo's Arturo Reyes and Jamie Lugo of Navojoa, behind the 2.11 mark of Jalisco hurler Elian Leyva.  Mexicali veteran Javier Solano struck out four Jalisco batsmen last Friday in a no-decision to bring his season total to 39 whiffs in 47.1 innings pitched.  Culiacan closer Casey Coleman earned three saves last week, giving him 14 for the winter (two more than Navojoa's Jesus Pirela).

FINAL LMP FIRST HALF STANDINGS: Culiacan 21-14 (8.0 points), Mazatlan 18-17 (7.0), Hermosillo 18-17 (6.0), Obregon 18-17 (5.0), Mexicali 17-17 (4.5), Navojoa 17-17 (4.0), Jalisco 15-20 (3.5), Los Mochis 15-20 (3.0).


MONCLOVA'S PEGUERO NAMED LMB FALL 2018 MVP
Fall MVP Francisco Peguero of Monclova

Monclova Acereros outfielder Francisco Peguero has been named Most Valuable Player for the Mexican League's Fall 2018 season.  Since making his pro debut at 18 in 2006 with the Giants' Domincan Summer League affiliate, Peguero had fashioned a decent minor league career as a .300-level hitter with good speed and some gap power and had a couple short stints with San Francisco in 2012 and 2013 before making his LMB debut with Quintana Roo in 2015, when he hit .294 with 16 homers in 98 games.  He went to Monclova in 2016 and had a .311 season at the plate with 15 more homers but was released the following February.

Peguero then went to Japan, playing with the Toyama Thunderbirds of the independent Challenge League in 2017 and doing well enough to sign a deal with the Chiba Lotte Marines of the Pacific League, but was released on June 29 after playing 50 games for the Marines' minor league team.  The 30-year-old Dominican signed the same day with Monclova and went on to post a strong Fall season with a .368 average augmented by 13 homers and 60 RBIs for the Acereros in 52 games and playing errorless ball defensively in left field.  Although the Steelers once again failed to win a pennant after a stellar regular season, Peguero's performance was good enough to garner MVP honors.  Teammate Jesse Castillo won the Spring MVP crown after a .376/13/57 campaign over 57 contests.

Yet another Acereros performer, Josh Lowey, was named Pitcher of the Year for all of 2018.  Arguably the best pitcher in the Mexican League the past five years, Lowey posted a combined 14-5 record with a 3.12 ERA and 133 strikeouts over 144 innings for Monclova.  Nicknamed El Alcalde (or "The Mayor") by Monclova fans, the soon-to-turn-34 Floridian pitched independent ball for six seasons before coming to the Liga in 2014, where he's compiled a 55-24 overall record with a 2.97 ERA in the hitter-friendly LMB, striking out 655 batters in 640.1 innings.  Lowey is currently pitching for Escogido of the Dominican League, where he has a 4-2 mark and 2.78 ERA in six starts for the Leones.

Three other pitchers garnered 2018 LMB honors.  Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo was selected Relier of the Year after going a combined 5-3 with 24 saves in 52 appearances for Fall champion Monterrey.  Obispo had a sub-3.00 ERA both seasons for the Sultanes (2.54 overall) and now has 74 saves over three years with the team after splitting the previous ten summers with mostly AAA teams for four MLB organizations with a couple stints in Japan thrown in.  

Left-hander Romario Gil was chosen Rookie of the Year after the Culican native (who turned 24 in September) went a combined 6-2 with a 3.01 ERA in 17 starts for Puebla in 2018.  Although Gil cooled down with a 2-2 Fall mark for the Pericos after going 4-0 and 2.47 in the Spring season, he's expected to be one of the first players chosen in next month's dispersal draft when players from the former Puebla, Aguascalientes, Union Laguna and Leon teams are made available to the remaining 12 Liga teams for 2019.  

Dos Laredos hurler Jose Oyervides is the 2018 Comeback Player of the Year.  A former Padres and Astros farmhand who made his Mexican League debut with Reynosa in 2009, the 36-year-old Oyervides has pitched in five LMB All-Star Games since 2010 for Nuevo Laredo, Laguna and Monclova.  A Laredo product, the 5'11" righty came out of a short retirement this year but was released by the Acereros after only winning one game with an 11.25 ERA in the Spring season.  He then went 4-1 and 3.29 in 12 starts for his hometown Tecolotes in the Fall after being assigned to Dos Laredos the same day he was released by the Steelers. 

First-year Monterrey pilot Roberto Kelly was named Manager of the Year after leading the Sultanes to the Fall pennant, their first since 2007.  Taking the reins from former big league shortstop Felix Fermin last winter, the former Yankees outfielder rebuilt the underachieving Sultanes (who routinely played well in the regular season but fell short in the playoffs) into a team that relied as much on pitching, defense and aggressive baserunning as hitting prowess.  Kelly replaced players he didn't think fit the image he wanted and brought in the ones who did. While Monterrey stayed true to form by finishing first in the LMB North last Spring with a 37-20 record but losing to Tijuana in the division finals, they went 34-23 in the Fall to come in third before topping Tijuana, Monclova and Oaxaca in the postseason to win the city's tenth Mexican League championship.

The LMB also named their Dream Team for both 2018 seasons.  One notable omission was Jesse Castillo, the Monclova third baseman who was the Spring MVP before a creditable Fall en route to a combined .351/17/100 in 108 contests.  Instead, the Liga gave the nod to Monterrey veteran Agustin Murillo, who went a combined .317/16/70 for the Sultanes and played well in the clutch during the fall playoffs.

2018 MEXICAN LEAGUE DREAM TEAM
SP-Josh Lowey, Monclova
RP-Wirfin Obispo, Monterrey
C-Ali Solis, Monterrey
1B-Felix Perez, Aguascalientes-Monterrey
2B-Isaac Rodriguez, Tijuana
3B-Agustin Murillo, Monterrey
SS-Jose Guadalupe Chavez,Tijuana
LF-Francisco Peguero, Monclova
CF-Cedric Hunter, Leon
RF-Yeison Ascencio, Mexico City
DH-Luis Juarez, Yucatan 


CHANGES IN DURANGO: OJEDA, CARRILLO GONE


Ex-Durango team president Miguel Ojeda (center)
In a surprising development, the Mexican League's Durango Generales have parted ways with both team co-owner Miguel Ojeda and manager Matias Carrillo.  While the second-year franchise missed the playoffs twice in 2018, attendance at Generales home games averaged over 3,000 per game to rank in the top half for both mini-seasons and it was believed that the presence of both Ojeda in the front office and Carrillo in the dugout gave the team a stability that was lacking during their chaotic first season in  2017.

Ojeda signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh in 1993 and went on to play in Major League Baseball as a catcher between 2003 and 2006, including three seasons with San Diego, hitting .224 with 15 homers in 212 games.  His best year was in 2004, when he batted .256 with eight homers in 62 games for the Padres.  The Guaymas product wound up spending 20 seasons in pro ball before retiring after a 2012 season in which he hit .256 with Quintana Roo over 99 games.  He then went into managing and led the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (for whom he played from 1995 to 2003) to the 2014 LMB pennant, turning in a 70-42 regular season record before winning 12 of 14 games over three playoff series.

Ojeda was one of a group of investors to buy the financially-plagued Generales last February, serving as team president along with a seat on the team's board of directors.  Ojeda has sold his shares in the team to the remaining ownership group and will reportedly return to Mexico City to serve as the Diablos' general manager in 2019.


Outgoiong Durango manager Matias Carrillo
The man Ojeda brought to manage Durango when Joe Alvarez was let go after taking the club to a 24-33 record in the Spring 2018 season, Matias Carrillo, will not be back in the Generales dugout next year. Team GM Francisco Lizarraga was quoted in Durango's El Siglio earlier this month that Carrillo does not enter into their plans for 2019.  "We have not talked to him," said Lizarraga.  "Today he is still our manager because we have not yet decided who we are going to bring in, but it is more likely that we will change our manager."  The Generales have already signed Ricardo Osuna as pitching coach next year and are looking over candidates to take over for Carrillo as helmsman.

Like Ojeda, Carrillo had a short major league playing career, batting .251 without a homer in 107 games for Milwaukee and Florida between 1991 and 1994.  His Mexican League career was far more successful as "El Coyote" spent 20 his 28 professional seasons with the Mexican League's Tigres franchise in Mexico City, Puebla and Quintana Roo after spending 1982 and 1983 with Poza Rica.  Carrillo hit .335 with 2,484 hits in his 22-year Liga career, belting 325 homers and driving in 1,526 runs and was a member of five LMB championship teams as a player before retiring as a player following the 2009 season.  He later managed Quintana Roo to the 2011 Serie del Rey title by sweeping their longtime rival Mexico City Diablos in four straight games.

Since then, however, Carrillo's career has taken the twists and turns typically seen south of the border, although some remain inexplicable.  After another LMB South title in 2012, he was fired by Tigres owner Carlos Peralta for "poor performance" with two weeks left in the 2013 regular season and the Cancun club holding a 55-43 record.  He was quickly hired by Yucatan and led the Leones for the final 12 games of the regular season but felt the axe one month into the 2014 campaign after winning just 8 of Yucatan's first 26 games.  Carrillo's next job was another pit stop, this time joining Tijuana shortly after his ouster in Merida.  Taking over a Toros team that was 18-23, Carrillo led the borderites to a 37-35 record the rest of the way but was sent packing after Tijuana failed to reach the postseason.  

Carrillo's strangest firing may have come in Puebla, where he was hired during the 2015 season and managed the Pericos to a 38-38 record, getting the okay from owner Gerardo Benavides for the following year.  However, after leading Puebla to an LMB-best 38-15 record going into the 2016 All-Star Break, he was canned in favor of ex-MLB infielder Cory Snyder, who went on to take the squad to the pennant.  His winterball managerial resume has been no less nomadic, as he's led four different teams, mostly successfully.  Carrillo was the Mexican Pacific League Manager of the Year with Guasave in 2010-11, took Hermosillo to a Caribbean Series title in 2014 and won another Manager of the Year award with Navojoa in 2016-17, three months before being sent packing by Mayos owner Victor Cuevas.

Monday, November 19, 2018

MLB SIGNING BAN ON MEXICAN PROSPECTS TO END

Major League Baseball and the Mexican League have reportedly worked out a new agreement that outlines how MLB organizations will sign Mexican prospects.

For the first time ever, young Mexican ballplayers will receive the entire signing bonus called for when they sign their first contract to play for teams north of the border. According to Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros, LMB teams holding the prospect's domestic rights will also receive an amount of money equal to 35 percent of the signing bonus from the MLB organization. The new pact is expected to be formally announced at next month's Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.

Prior to the new arrangement, LMB teams holding domestic rights to Mexican prospects as young as 14 years old were able to negotiate the sale of those rights outside the country, then typically give the prospect 25 percent of the proceeds.  The system sometimes inflated the price a Major League organization would have to pay LMB franchises for signing young Mexicans, leading MLB teams to seek less-expensive talent in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic while the Mexican player would have to remain at home in order to play.  

The old system was also subject to chicanery, with one egregious example being right-handed pitcher Luis Heredia, a 6'5" Mazatlan native who signed a contract with Pittsburgh at age 16 in 2010.  The deal was facilitated by Pirates Latin America scouting director Rene Gayo, who reportedly took his own cut of a reported US$2.6 million deal between the Bucs and the former Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, who owned Heredia's rights in Mexico.  MLB subsequently investigated Pittsburgh's signing of Heredia, who spent seven years in the Pirates system and registered a career 26-26 record with a 3.88 ERA before his release following the 2017 season, and (at the behest of Liga president Javier Salinas) decreed in January that no big league scout could work simultaneously for an LMB team. Two months earlier, the Pirates fired the Miami-born Gayo after 13 years with the organization after his role in the signing was confirmed.

However, that was not enough to put the issue of LMB player control to rest and in the wake of the "Rookiegate" scandal involving the Quintana Roo Tigres, Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Texas Rangers, MLB subsequently instituted a ban on its member organizations from signing Mexican prospects via Liga franchises until a new system considered more fair to the young players could be hammered out.  A number of Mexican League teams with the financial means to develop their own homegrown prospects, such as the Tijuana Toros and Mexico City Diablos Rojos, have benefitted from such sales in past years.

For his part, Heredia (who never advanced higher than Class AA) has not pitched since last year's release from the Pirates.  The 24-year-old's Mexican League rights have been retained by the former Veracruz franchise, which was moved by owner Jose Antonio Mansur to Nuevo Laredo last winter while his hometown Mazatlan Venados hold Heredia's Mexican Pacific League rights.

CULIACAN NEARS FIRST HALF LMP TITLE WITH 3 GAMES REMAINING
Culiacan catcher Ali Solis

With three games left in the Mexican Pacific League's first-half schedule, the defending champion Culiacan Tomateros are on the verge of clinching first place in the standings along with the eight points assigned to the top finisher in each half. Ali Solis' walkoff single to deep short brought in Rico Noel from third base with the winning run Sunday as Culiacan nipped Mexicali, 3-2, in front of 15,557 fans at Estadio Tomateros. A native of Mexicali, the 31-year-old Solis played pro ball for 13 seasons, with cups of coffee in San Diego (2012) and Tampa Bay (2014), before batting .366 in 21 games for Fall champions Monterrey in his Mexican League debut this year. THis is his eighth winter with the Tomateros.

Sunday's victory gave Culiacan a 20-12 first-half record, three games ahead of Mazatlan (17-15). It's been an unusually close race in the LMP over the first 35-game half of the 2018-19 season and while there's now a smidgen of breathing room, Culiacan is six games ahead of last-place Los Mochis (14-18) in the eight-team circuit while the second-place Venados are only two games up on Jalisco and Obregon, who are tied for sixth at 15-17. Needless to say, the four upcoming midweek series will be hard-fought as teams try to finish as high on the table as possible to secure as many points as possible heading into their respective second-half schedules Friday. For the record, Culiacan will be at Hermosillo, Mazatlan will visit Navojoa, Los Mochis is hosting Mexicali and Jalisco will welcome Obregon to Guadalajara in three-game series starting Tuesday as the MexPac wraps up the half.

After a number of hitters were flirting with a .400 average most of the first half, bats have been cooling down leaguewide the past couple weeks and now nobody is within 40 points of that magic mark. Mazatlan's Alex Liddi, a former Mariners infielder and a key player with Tijuana's 2016 Mexican League championship team, is tops in the LMP with a .358 average, seven points ahead of Navojoa's Victor Mendoza, who's been a backup first baseman for Monterrey the past six summers. Mendoza's Mayos teammate, Jovan Rosa (a one-time Cubs prospect and four-year vet of the independent Atlantic League) homered in consecutive games against Obregon to tie Jalisco's Manny Rodriguez for the MexPac lead in roundtrippers with seven apiece. Rodriguez is tops in RBIs with 26, two more than Rosa's 24, while Navojoa second baseman Alonzo Harris (who led the LMP in batting much of the first half and still packs a .342 average) tops the stolen bases list with 16 in 18 attempts.

Mazatlan's Konner Wade limited Obregon to one run while scattering seven hits last Thursday to run his record to a perfect 5-0 on the season. The Arizonan has won his past four starts and his 2.27 ERA would tie Elian Leyva of Jalisco for second in the LMP (behind the 2.23 of Mexicali's David Reyes) but Wade's 31.1 innings pitched are barely below the 32 IP required to qualify. There's a spirited battle for the strikeouts lead, with Mexicali's Javier Solano (35) one K ahead of Jose Hernandez of Mazatlan and Obregon's Sean Nolin. Hernandez, a 22-year-old Astros minor leaguer, has whiffed his 34 batsmen in just 26 frames while walking only three. Even with those impressive numbers, the Venados' hometown product is 2-3 with a 4.50 ERA in six starts after giving up seven runs in three innings against Hermosillo last Friday.

Speaking of the Venados, they swung a trade last week that sent pitcher Miguel Gonzalez to Culiacan for veteran slugger Jorge "Chato" Vazquez. Known as "El Mariachi," Gonzalez has spent the past seven seasons pitching in the majors, six as a starter. He won a combined 21 games for Baltimore in 2011 and 2012 but has struggled since. The 34-year-old righty has pitched four winters with the Venados but none since 2010-11. Vazquez, a former Yankees farmhand who belted 32 homers for AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011, has had an injury-plagued career that began as a 17-year-old with the Mexico City Tigres in 1999. He retired during the 2017 season as a member of the Mexico CIty Diablos Rojos but came out of retirement to play for Durango this year, batting .257 and .297 with a combined eight homers over 46 total games. The 36-year-old Vazquez was hitting .243 with no homers in 14 games when he was traded by his hometown team, for whom he'd played 16 winters.


VIZCARRA: OUT IN YUCATAN, ON HOT SEAT IN JALISCO

Jalisco Charros manager Roberto Vizcarra
The Yucatan Leones have parted ways with manager Roberto Vizcarra, who led the team to the Mexican League Spring 2018 pennant after finishing with a Liga-best 40-17 regular season record. Vizcarra then took the Leones to place first in the LMB South a second time at 32-24 for the Fall campaign before Yucatan dropped a first round playoff series to Oaxaca. A 72-41 record with two first-place finishes and a championship in one year would ordinarily be enough to save a manager's job, but losing to the Guerreros may have been what cost Vizcarra his. Oaxaca went 26-30 to come in fifth in the South, then had to beat Leon in a wild-card game to qualify for the postseason; the Guerreros eventually beat Mexico City for the South title before losing to Monterrey in the Serie del Rey.

The 51-year-old product of San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora debuted with Leon in 1986 as a 19-year-old infielder and went on to play 23 summers for five teams in the Mexican League, ending his playing career with Campeche in 2008. Vizcarra mostly played first base the final seasons of his career but was proficient defensively at all four infield positions. No matter where he played in the field, he was always useful in the batter's box, stroking 2,581 hits for a career .304 batting average. The 5'9" right-handed hitter was more noted for his speed (470 doubles, 465 stolen bases) than his power (229 homers) and topped the 1,100 mark in both runs scored and runs batted in.

Vizcarra has since been no less successful as a manager. He debuted as a helmsman in 2014, taking Quintana Roo to a Liga-best 65-48 record and a berth in the LMB South finals. The Tigres went 64-47 and won the pennant under Vizcarra in 2015, then turned in a 68-45 mark in 2016 but were swept by Puebla in the first playoff round. "Chapo" was cut loose in Cancun late in a 2017 campaign in which the Tigres fell to 49-56 and lost to Puebla in four straight once more. He was hired by the Leones in the offseason and did manage the Merida team to their first pennant since 2006 last spring, so it's unlikely Vizcarra will be out of work in the LMB for long.

Then there's his current winterball situation with the Jalisco Charros. As with Yucatan, this is Vizcarra's first Mexican Pacific League season in Guadalajara after he was fired by Mexicali last November after managing the Aguilas to a 16-19 first-half record. He'd led the border city to an LMP pennant and Caribbean Series berth just nine months earlier. The Charros hired him a week later to replace ex-MLB outfielder Tony Tarasco as dugout boss. Vizcarra took the Horsemen to a 15-11 record the rest of the way and a berth in the playoff semis last January before losing to Navojoa in six games.

Jalisco is off to a 15-17 start this winter and while the seventh-place Charros are only half a game out of fourth, four LMP managers were either fired or quit less than one month into the season and Vizcarra's future in Guadalajara is said to be in doubt. The Charros have a veteran-laden roster with such stars as Japhet Amador, Manny Rodriguez, Amadeo Zazueta and Agustin Murillo (and that's just the infield), but the pitching has been subpar and the team in general has not met lofty front office expectations. It should be noted that Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez, himself a longtime passenger on the Mexican managerial merry-go-round, is one of Vizcarra's bench coaches while ex-Dos Laredos slugger Marco Antonio Romero (who has managed in the LMB) is also on the Charros' staff. Just in case.

Monday, November 12, 2018

MEXICAN LEAGUE TO DROP TO 12 TEAMS FOR 2019

Laguna's Estadio Revolucion will sit empty in 2019
When the Mexican League opens its 95th season of play next spring, it’ll be with four fewer teams taking the field.  At a recent Assembly of Presidents meeting in Morelia, Liga leaders agreed to place franchises in Puebla, Laguna, Aguascalientes and Leon on hiatus for at least one year, dropping the number of teams in the loop from 16 to 12. The disastrous two-season format has been partly blamed after attendance dropped precipitously during the Fall campaign, which began only days after Yucatan won the Spring pennant. While a number of Mexican baseball columnists have called for an LMB contraction for some time, the move might’ve been a surprise to some observers if only because of who WASN’T included in the drawback.  

Puebla owner Gerardo Benavides, who also owns the Monclova Acereros, has been trying to sell the Pericos for months but has not been successful in attracting a qualified buyer. As well, brothers Erick and Jose Juan Arellano, who own the Union Laguna Algodoneros, have made it clear that they would prefer to concentrate on the Yucatan Leones team they also co-own but likewise have been unable to find a buyer for their Laguna team, meaning 78-year-old Estadio Revolucion (the LMB's oldest ballpark) will sit empty next season.  Thus, the LMB eliminates two-thirds of its so-called “timeshare” dilemma in which two or more teams have the same owner(s), something not allowed in Major League Baseball since its own syndicate ownership days of the 1890's. In the case of Aguascalientes, the Rieleros have struggled to make a go of it financially in 72-year-old Parque Alberto Romo Chavez since re-entering the LMB in 2012 and the team accepted the Liga's edict without protest. Things were not so clear-cut in Leon, where the troubled Bravos wanted a third season to turn things around and vowed to return in 2020 after their one-year sabbatical.

Still standing for next year, however, are Tabasco, Campeche and Oaxaca. The Olmecas staggered through 2018 under essentially state ownership after the Dagdug brothers were unable to improve an already-moribund situation in Villahermosa (firing manager Houston Jimenez after a Spring season in which Tabasco did better than expected on the field and at the gate couldn't have helped). The Piratas have had their own financial miseries, averaging an embarrassing 855 fans over 27 home games in the Fall, but ownership for the Fort City team are apparently committed to continue the fight for another year.

Things are different in Oaxaca, where the Guerreros have never been one of the LMB's better-supported teams, although the team drew packed houses at home for last month's Serie del Rey title set against eventual champions Monterrey. The club is owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu, who also owns the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. The Liga does not wish to anger their richest owner in its biggest city, even if it means continuing with one timeshare situation. Harp, who is building a new ballpark in Mexico City and a new Salon de la Fama facility in Monterrey, has been at odds with the LMB office over more than one issue and forcing him to shut down his Oaxaca team would not be well-received.

Players from the four contracted teams will go into a pool for a draft held among the remaining 12 clubs next month. With four fewer teams and more domestic veteran talent to build rosters with, the LMB is also expected to lower its limit of foreign players from 7 to 6 or 5 per team next year. The Liga is also planning to scale back its ambitious 2019 schedule that would've seen an expansion to 120 games, Tuesdays joining Mondays as travel days and a season with playoffs stretching into November. While the number of games is expected to remain at 120 per team, the schedule is reportedly going to be redrawn to a more traditional April-to-September format (assuming the second off-day plan is abandoned in the process).


MANAGER ALVAREZ LEAVES MAZATLAN WITH TEAM TIED FOR FIRST


Manager Joe Alvarez before leaving Mazatlan
It's obvious that managers in the Mexican Pacific League are on a shorter leash than usual this winter after three skippers were dismissed by their teams less than a month into the current season.  After Oscar Robles, Luis Sojo and Lorenzo Bundy were fired by Obregon, Mexicali and Culiacan, respectively, in October after slow starts, a fourth MexPac manager has been separated from his squad.  This time, however,  it was while his team was at the top of the standings and the departure was his idea.
Mazatlan helmsman Joe Alvarez, who was hired by the Venados in the offseason to replace Daniel Fernandez as dugout boss, had led the team to an 11-9 record and a share of first place in the LMP with Jalisco heading into a three-game series against the Charros in Guadalajara.  There was no talk of the Cuban-born skipper being replaced.  Instead, it was Alvarez who cut the cord during his first season managing a winterball team in Mexico with 14 games remaining in the Venados' first-half schedule.

Alvarez (who now resides in Lakeland, Florida) was quoted in a team press release as saying "I am going home to some personal things, besides attending to a health issue with my daughter, so this happens at a good time...I always say that God has a plan for everyone; there is a reason why things happen without you noticing."  The Venados expressed their gratitude to Alvarez, as is the custom in Mexican baseball, and wished him success in his personal and professional life.

Writer Tito Escobar was critical of the move in his En Terreno de Fair "In Fair Territory") column, stating that Alvarez was leaving Mazatlan in part because of a new business he had recently opened with a friend back in the USA.  "The thing about Joe Alvarez, from my point of view," said Escobar in Puro Beisbol, "it's an irresponsibility on his part since he leaves behind a project that was entrusted to him."  Escobar later allowed how Alvarez' departure from the port city is "a shame because, honestly, he is a tremendous manager."  Fellow columnist Juan Alonso Juarez noted that Alvarez, "for one reason or another, has never led a full season in Aztec baseball, summer or winter."

Venados GM Jesus "Chino" Valdez quickly named Juan Jose Pacho to replace Alvarez.  Juarez pointed out that every time Pacho has taken over in Mazatlan, the Venados have come out smelling like roses.  First, the Yucatan product replaced Dan Firova as manager during the 2004-05 season and took the Deer to an LMP pennant and a Caribbean Series title at home in Estadio Teodoro Mariscal.  Then, after succeeding Miguel Olivo during the 2015-16 campaign, the former shortstop did the same thing by winning the MexPac playoffs prior to running the Serie del Caribe table in Santo Domingo.  Pacho, who also copped a title in 2005-06, is one of six managers to win three MexPac pennants in the circuit's history (Francisco "Paquin" Estrada holds the record with seven flags, six with Culiacan).


CHARROS PRESIDENT QUIRARTE WINS NATIONAL SPORTS AWARD


Jalisco Charros team president Salvador Quirarte
Considered by many to literally be the "silent" partner of Armando Navarro in the Jalisco Charros ownership group, board of directors president Salvador Quirarte has garnered enough notice even in the presence of the flamboyant Navarro to earn Mexico's 2018 National Sports Merit Award for Promotion.  The honor was handed out by the National Commission of Physical Culture and Sport, or CONADE.  Quirarte was one of 14 candidates for the prize.

A Guadalajara native who turned 50 last January, Quirarte earned a degree in Public Accounting from the Technological and Higher Studies Institute of the West (ITESO) and has since been an executive in the energy, financial and technical agriculture fields.  He was instrumental in bringing professional baseball back to his hometown of four million people (and considered by many as Mexico's "second city") after a 20-year absence when the Guasave Algodoneros were bought in 2014 by a group led by Navarro and Quirarte and moved to Guadalajara.

Prior to the 2014-15 Mexican Pacific League season, the team also purchased an 11,000-seat ballpark built for US$28 million and used during the 2012 Pan-American Games.  The relocated team was named the Jalisco Charros after Guadalajara's previous Mexican League entry, which won pennants in 1967 and 1971 (Navarro was team VP the latter year) but slunk out of town after going 30-82 and finishing 42.5 games out of first in 1994.  A team ERA of 6.08 will do that, even in a batter's paradise like the Liga.  An earlier Guadalajara team spent three winters in the MexPac during the early 1950's but baseball had never enjoyed a strong presence in the soccer-mad city, home of Chivas, arguably Mexico's most beloved soccer team.  The new ownership was bucking against history when they opened the gates.

The revitalized franchise has since become one of Mexico's strongest pro baseball operations.  The Horsemen are still seeking their first LMP pennant and Caribbean Series appearance, but the team reached the MexPac finals their first season before falling to Culiacan in five games.  Jalisco annually ranks among the league attendance leaders while Estadio Charros has hosted both the 2018 Caribbean Series and 2017 World Baseball Classic D Pool games.  Quirarte, Navarro and company are hoping to host Olympic qualifiers prior to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo while trying to lure a Major League Baseball regular season series to the ballpark, which now seats 16,000 but can be expanded to hold thousands more.  Although Guadalajara is in central Mexico, away from the Pacific coast, the LMP moved their league offices there over the summer and the city is a potential beachhead for making the MexPac a nationwide winter circuit, something nobody would've dreamed of before 2014.

Monday, November 5, 2018

THE AXEMAN COMETH: THREE LMP SKIPPERS FIRED

Former Obregon manager Oscar Robles
Baseball Mexico readers for any length of time will be familiar with what we lovingly call the Mexican Managerial Merry-Go-Round, in which baseball managers south of the border are hired and fired with almost alarming frequency.  It’s something that didn’t happen as much last summer in the Mexican League, where most firings happened in early July between that league’s two seasons, but the Mexican Pacific League appears bent on making up for it.  No less than three LMP skippers had already been dismissed before three weeks of the regular season schedule had been completed.



The first to go was Obregon’s first-year manager Oscar Robles, who was given his walking papers on October 24 just nine games into the 2018-19 season (during which the Yaquis went 3-6).  Obregon was in last place at the time of the former MLB infielder’s dismissal, a little early for the panic button to be pressed but the Yaquis’ board of directors proved themselves up to the task.  Robles was a late arrival in Obregon due to his managerial duties with the Tijuana Toros during the LMB’s Fall season in which his team stretched eventual champion Monterrey to a seventh game in their first-round playoff series before a season-ending 4-3 loss on September 17.  Robles has been replaced on an interim basis in Obregon by Sergio Gastelum, a longtime former infielder who managed Oaxaca to a surprising Serie del Rey appearance in October after he replaced Joe Alvarez (who is managing in Mazatlan...for now) at the Guerreros’ helm in August.


Next to feel the axe was another ex-MLB infielder, Luis Sojo, who was jettisoned as manager in Mexicali on Friday after his Aguilas were swept in a three-game series at Hermosillo to fall to 7-9 on the young season.  Sojo managed Los Mochis to an unexpected appearance in the MexPac finals in 2016-17 before losing to Mexicali but was fired by the Caneros during the season last winter. He had been tabbed during the offseason to replace Pedro Mere in Mexicali when Mere failed to lead the Aguilas to a second straight pennant in 2017-18 after taking over for the fired Roberto Vizcarra.  In one of those ironic twists seemingly only seen in Mexican baseball, Mere had led Tijuana to the Mexican League pennant in 2017 after replacing none other than one Luis Sojo. Mere lasted with the Toros through the Spring 2018 schedule before being canned in Tijuana and eventually replaced by Robles. Back to Mexicali: Sojo will be replaced in the Aguilas dugout by yet another former Major League infielder, Juan Castro (a former Los Angeles Dodgers coach whose misadventures earlier this year with the Toros have rated their own stories here).

One day after Sojo’s exit from Mexicali, Lorenzo Bundy was handed his walking papers in Culiacan after the defending champion Tomateros started the season with an 8-10 record.  Bundy has managed almost every MexPac team in several winters as a bench boss and it was thought his hiring in Culiacan would bring a calmer presence to the Tomateros dugout after replacing the successful but volatile Benji Gil (one more former MLB infielder...see a trend developing?) when Gil took the season off to devote more attention to his son Mateo’s first year in the St. Louis minor league system after the Cardinals took the 18-year-old in the third round of the June draft.  Instead, the Culiacan front office decided that three weeks was enough to warrant another change. In a break with this story’s tradition, the Tomateros hired a former MLB catcher, Robinson Cancel, to replace Bundy at the helm. The team also let go bench coach Noe Munoz, who spent 24 seasons as a catcher in the LMB (mostly with Saltillo), along with Bundy. Munoz’ replacement in Culiacan? Luis Sojo.


ARIZONAN WADE LEADS FIRST-PLACE VENADOS MOUND STAFF

Mazatlan pitcher Konner Wade
Although the Mazatlan Venados have the Mexican Pacific League's highest team batting average at .285, eleven points ahead of Jalisco's .274 mark, the port city franchise's reputation over the years has been built on pitching and this winter appears to be no different.  The Venados, who have shown little offensive power thus far in the 2018-19 campaign (their six homers over 19 games are tied with Obregon for last in the MexPac), also top the pitching stats with a sparkling 2.57 ERA, well ahead of Culiacan's 3.30 mark.

One of the biggest reasons Mazatlan was tied with Jalisco for first in the MexPac with identical 11-9 records has been newcomer Konner Wade, who has moved to the head of manager Joe Alvarez' mound staff.  The former University of Arizona ace led the Wildcats to a 2012 NCAA championship before signing with Colorado as a seventh-round draft pick one year later.   A 6'3" right-hander, Wade went 29-35 with a 4.03 ERA over five seasons in the Rockies system before pitching with Sugar Land, Texas of the independent Atlantic League this summer, turning in an 8-6 record and a 3.10 ERA in 27 outings (including 21 starts) for the Skeeters.  Wade was brought to Mazatlan this winter along with a Skeeters teammate, second baseman Anthony Giansanti, as one of the team's import players and the Scottsdale native has definitely had an impact thus far.

Wade tossed six scoreless innings in Saturday night's 6-0 Venados win in Mexicali, scattering three hits and walking one Aguilas batter while throwing 54 strikes in a tidy 77-pitch performance.  He earned the win to go to 3-0 in four starts, tying relievers Dalton Rodriguez of Mexicali and Jesus Anguamea of Obregon for the LMP lead in wins while lowering his MexPac best ERA to 1.31, ahead of Navojoa's Jaime Lugo (1.57) and Jalisco's Elian Leyva (1.93).  Frankie De La Cruz, who took Saturday's loss for the Aguilas, is tied with Wade's Mazatlan moundmate Jose Hernandez and James Russell of Culiacan for the lead in strikeouts with 22 each. Three relievers have six saves apiece for most in that category: Andres Avila (Los Mochis), Casey Coleman (Culiacan) and Grant Sides (Jalisco).  Avila, who was named the LMP Reliever of the Year in 2016-17 after tying a league record with 23 saves for the Caneros, is coming off a forgettable season last winter in which he only earned one save in 26 trips from the Los Mochis bullpen.

Navojoa second baseman Alonzo Harris is continuing his breakout winterball season with the Mayos by leading the league in several offensive categories, including batting (.418), on-base percentage (.488), on-base+slugging (1.114), hits (28), runs scored (24) and stolen bases (8 in 9 attempts).  Jalisco first baseman/DH Japhet Amador is tops in both homers (5) and RBIs (19) in his first action since last summer's suspension in Japan for the use of banned substances, a suspension that was appealed but upheld by Nippon Professional Baseball and carried over by the Mexican League after his return home from Sendai.

Los Mochis first baseman Saul Soto
Among  the four players trailing Amador with four roundtrippers each is venerable Los Mochis slugger Saul Soto, who played in his 16th Mexican League All-Star Game over the summer.  The 6'4" Soto, a 245-pounder who turned 40 in August, belted a pair of homers in a 6-1 Caneros win against Hermosillo Saturday to tie and pass Ronnie Camacho for sixth-place in LMP career homers with 140.  A Los Mochis native, Soto socked 14 homers over two Mexican League seasons this year to bring his LMB career total to 266 over 21 seasons for an overall number of 406 between the two leagues. He is just 42 hits away from 2,000 in Liga play en route to his potential selection to the Salon de la Fama, although the still-not-enshrined Matias Carrillo (an LMB career .336 average with 2,531 hits, including 330 homers) might caution Soto to not hold his breath.


MEXICO CITY'S NEW BALLPARK INCHES TOWARDS 2019 DEBUT

Mexico City owner Alfredo Harp Helu
The ongoing drama that has been the construction of Mexico City's new 15,746-seat ballpark may actually be nearing its conclusion.  The facility has been plagued by difficulties almost since ground was broken for it in late 2015, some of it brought about by last year's tragic earthquake in the region.  The countless delays have pushed back the Mexico City Diablos Rojos' relocation from tiny Parque Fray Nano several times from an original opening target of May 2017. However, it appears that there may finally be light at the end of the proverbial tunnel and the Red Devils could in fact begin play at the start of the 2019 season.

Diablos owner Alfredo Harp Helu, who is privately financing the ballpark (which he is modestly naming after himself), recently toured the facility and was reportedly pleased by the progress he saw.  Harp was joined by team president Othon Diaz and a number of team board members as he traversed the stadium's exterior, including the stands, press and luxury boxes plus concessions areas. The group also went inside to take a look at the clubhouses, team offices and even the restrooms to gauge progress on the project.

The richest owner in Mexican baseball, with a fortune said to be worth over a billion dollars, Harp has come under fire for a number of things that have involved both his Diablos Rojos and their sister franchise, the Oaxaca Guerreros, with the Rookiegate imbroglio with the Quintana Roo Tigres being perhaps the most notable.  However, the cousin of tech magnate Carlos Slim (who Forbes magazine rated the world's wealthiest man between 2010 and 2013) has also been at the forefront of building a new Salon de la Fama for Mexican baseball in Monterrey after the former facility was shut down in 2012, leading to its treasures being boxed and placed in a storage unit until the new building opens next year.  

As well, the 74-year-old Harp has opened a baseball academy in Oaxaca and met with incoming Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (himself a huge baseball fan) in September to discuss creating more academies across the country for developing young ballplayers.  Harp is in a somewhat unique position in that while the LMB office reportedly supported Lopez Obrador's opponents in last summer's election, Harp was solidly behind the so-called AMLO and has the ear of Mexico's new president. Lopez Obrador was quoted on Mexico City's ADNpolitico's website as saying about Harp, "His foundation supports communities and promotes education, culture and sports; he likes baseball and is building a stadium in Mexico City.  He invited me to the inauguration and I accepted."

It’s not clear whether even a tentative date for that opener has been set.