Monday, January 22, 2018

Culiacan blanks Mayos twice to take 2-0 LMP finals lead

Culiacan Tomateros P Anthony Vazquez
The Culiacan Tomateros earned a pair of 4-0 shutout wins in Navojoa over the weekend to take a 2-games-to-0 lead in the 2018 Mexican Pacific League championship series, with the next three games slated to take place at Estadio Tomateros.  The winner will advance to next month's Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.

The title series opened Saturday when Anthony Vazquez tossed a beautiful one-hitter for the visitors in their 4-0 conquest over the Mayos.  Joey Meneses belted a two-run homer off Mayos starter Barry Enright in the top of the first inning to give Vazquez a 2-0 cushion to start with.  After allowing a leadoff Alejandro Gonzalez single in the bottom of the first inning and a walk to Max Ramirez in the second, Vazquez retired the final 22 Navojoa batters of the game without allowing a baserunner after Ramirez' free pass (which was erased by Fernando Flores' 4-6-3 double-play ground out to end the frame.  Andy Wilkins stroked a two-run homer of his own in the third off Enright to put the Tomateros up 4-0, but the story of the game was Vazquez.  The 31-year-old lefty, who had a combined 12-10 record last summer with AAA Toledo and AA Erie in the Tigers' system, struck out seven while throwing strikes on 67 of his 95 pitches.

Game Two was more of the same on Sunday, with Culiacan winning another 4-0 contest while recording 11 hits for the second night in a row.  The hometown Mayos batters fared a little better by putting up seven hits for the game, but none of them resulted in a run as Navojoa ended up going scoreless over 18 innings in their two home games.  Edgar Gonzalez pitched six innings for the win, allowing four hits and striking out four.  Gonzalez and Mayos knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa locked up in a scoreless pitcher's duel through the first three innings until the dam burst on Gamboa in the top of the fourth, when Issmael Salas and Ronnier Mustelier each contributed two-run doubles to give Gonzalez all the runs he'd need.  Gamboa was tagged for the loss after lasting one out into the fifth inning, allowing those four runs on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts as a second consecutive sellout crowd of 11,500 at Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria looked on.

Mayos first-year skipper Willie Romero, a prime candidate for Manager of the Year,  now has a travel day to figure out how to jump-start his offense before the series resumes Tuesday in Culiacan.  The Mayos reached the finals last Wednesday by beating Jalisco, 4-2, to knock out the Charros in six games in their semifinal set.  Ramirez socked his fourth homer of that series with a two-run bomb to aid starter Jaime Lugo, who got the win.  The 25-year-old Lugo was primarily a reliever for his five-year Mexican League career until after being shuttled from Monclova to Puebla last summer, starting all 13 of his appearance for the Pericos and 5-2 with a 3.92 ERA and helping the defending champions reach their second straight title series before falling to Tijuana.  He went 5-3 for the Mayos during the LMP regular season with a 2.53 ERA.

However, pitching isn't the Mayos' primary concern going into Tuesday's Game Three in Culiacan.  Somehow, Romero and his coaches are going to have to figure out how to wake up his batting order after last weekend's slumber party and win at least twice to bring the series back to Navojoa.  For his part, Culiacan helmsman Roberto Vizcarra is halfway to his goal of winning a second consecutive pennant after winning the title last winter with Mexicali.


Roberto Kelly named manager in Monterrey, signs three-year contract

New Monterrey Sultanes manager Roberto Kelly
Former major league outfielder Roberto Kelly is the Monterrey Sultanes' new manager.  The well-traveled Panamanian played for eight teams in his 14-year MLB career (including seven seasons with the Yankees), compiling a career .290 batting average with 124 homers and 235 stolen bases, making two All-Star Game appearances and reaching the playoffs four times.  His most productive season came in 1991 with the Yanks when he belted 20 homers, stole 32 bases and drove in 69 runs to augment a .267 average.  Kelly topped the .300 mark five times.

Kelly is no stranger to Mexican baseball.  After his MLB days were over, he spend two summers with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, batting .334 with 19 homers in 2002 and .328 with 10 homers in 2003 before retiring as a player following that season at age 38.  He went on to spend several years in the Giants system, managing their Class A Augusta team in the South Atlantic League between 2005 and 2007.  He earned Manager of the Year honors in 2006 after leading the GreenJackets to a Sally League-best 92-47 record and a berth in the championship series.  He was brought up to San Francisco in 2008 and spent nine seasons coaching under manager Bob Brenly as the Giants won three World Series titles.  He was replaced as third base coach by Phil Nevin after the 2016 season.

The Sultanes' hiring of Kelly highlights an offseason during which they thought they had ex-MLB catcher Miguel Ojeda lined up to manage the team in 2018, only to have Ojeda back out to take a similar position with a Durango club that endured endless problems during their first season in the LMB last summer.  Although it was first thought that Ojeda would manage the Generales this summer, indications are that he may instead end up working in the front office if that team's ownership situation is ever resolved.  While Monterrey doesn't have nearly the off-field issues that the Generales do, they are coming off a campaign in which they were eliminated in the playoffs by Tijuana a second straight time after finishing second to the Toros in the LMB North during the regular season with a 68-43 record under manager Felix Fermin, who was not rehired.  Kelly's deal is for three years, a remarkable figure in a league with almost manic levels of managerial turnover.

One of the Sultanes' shortcomings was on the basepaths, where they finished 14th in the Liga in stolen bases with 55 swipes.  That should change under Kelly, who gained notice while managing in Augusta for his team's aggressive baserunning tactics as the GreenJackets stole 624 bases in three years while putting together an aggregate 258-157 record.

With Kelly's hiring in Monterrey and Tim Johnson being tabbed as the new manager in Quintana Roo (more on that next week), that leaves the Saltillo Saraperos and Tabasco Olmecas as the remaining Mexican League teams in search of new pilots, although the perpetually uncertain situation in Durango regarding Ojeda (who is part of a group bidding to buy the team from owner Virgilio Ruiz) could make that three clubs.


MLB bans scouts from working for Mexican League teams

P Luis Heredia during his Pirates days
The fallout over the Pittsburgh Pirates' firing of their Latin America scouting director, Rene Gayo, after he reportedly gained a personal financial windfall in the Bucs' 2010 signing of Mazatlan teen pitching prospect Luis Heredia for a reported $2.6 million, has led to Major League Baseball issuing a decree that scouts working for MLB organizations will not be allowed to simultaneously work for Mexican League franchises. 

Beatriz Pereyra of Mexico City's Proceso writes that MLB's ruling comes at the behest of new Mexican League president Javier Salinas during last month's winter meetings in Orlando, according to a claim Salinas made in an interview.  "We told MLB that we want to prohibit LMB executives from participating as scouts because there is a conflict of interest," says Salinas.  "Those scouts would not only be able to work for teams of the LMB, but for any league in the world."  The former Liga MX soccer commercial and marketing director, who was working for MedioTiempo website when he was picked to succeed Plinio Escalante as LMB presidente last year, added that "you can't work buying and selling at the same time because there is no clarity when you are judge and party."

The Miami-born Gayo spent five years as the Cleveland Indians' Latin America scouting director before being hired by Pittsburgh in 2004 to fill a similar position that had been vacant for five years.  Among his signings over the years for both teams were Danys Baez, Jhonny Peralta, Starling Marte and Willy Taveras (who now plays for Monclova).  He was fired by the Pirates in November after an MLB investigation found that Gayo received a kickback from the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila (who owned Heredia's LMB rights, which MLB organizations officially recognize) when Heredia signed his 2010 deal with the Bucs.  Team owner Jose Antonio Mansur, who reportedly owns 16 mansions and is a close friend of imprisoned former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, moved the franchise to Nuevo Laredo last fall.  Mansur has owned Mexican League teams in Aguascalientes, Poza Rica and Cancun as well as Veracruz and now Nuevo Laredo over the years.  He was named Executive of the Year in 2012 when Veracruz won the pennant under current Tijuana manager Pedro Mere, but Mansur's teams have typically not seen success either in the standings or at the box office.

Interestingly, MLB's edict does not extend to Mexican Pacific League teams like the Mazatlan Venados, whose general manager, Jesus "Chino" Valdez, is a Heredia family friend, also works as a Pirates scout and may have been key in Heredia's signing with Pittsburgh (although there have never been rumors of kickbacks to Valdez).  Heredia, who is now 23, was released by the Pirates after last season and is once again a free agent after turning in a 26-26 record with a 3.88 ERA over seven years in the Pittsburgh organization.  It was thought he might pitch for the Venados this season, but the 6'5" righty decided to rest for the winter instead while seeking employment for the coming season after being a Baseball America Top 100 prospect as recently as 2013.  Mansur and the Tecolotes still own his LMB rights.