Monday, April 30, 2018

Trades: Tigres add Manny, Solano; Drake goes to Monterrey

New Quintana Roo Tigres pitcher Javier Solano
It's been a rather unusual April as far as the Mexican League goes.  While there has yet to be a manager fired in the first month of 2018's opening season, a number of high-profile players have changed teams earlier than normal.  The Quintana Roo Tigres appear to have come out much stronger as a result by netting disgruntled second baseman Manny Rodriguez from Monclova and veteran starting pitcher Javier Solano from Monterrey, while Durango has shipped 2017 LMB batting champion Yadir Drake to the Sultanes in a move that gives Monterrey's first-year manager Roberto Kelly one more good bat.

Rodriguez, you'll recall, left the Acereros three weeks ago after a series in Puebla after getting fed up with the ongoing shuttling of players between Monclova and the Pericos orchestrated by Gerardo Benavides, who owns both teams.  The 35-year-old MVP of the Mexican Pacific League chose to stay with his family in Southern California rather than continue playing for a Monclova team that was severely lacking in happy ballplayers or chemistry.  Rodriguez himself has been on that shuttle, playing on Puebla's 2016 Liga champions before being shipped to Monclova in February of last year as part of a lopsided deal that sent six players to the Acereros in return for relief pitcher Joaquin Lara, who only won his first LMB career game this month for the Pericos.

After sitting out since April 8, Rodriguez made his debut last weekend for the Quintana Roo Tigres, who acquired him on loan from the Acereros last week, and it wasn't long before the career .316 batter made his mark by belting a decisive two-run homer in Saturday's 3-1 win over Oaxaca at home in Cancun.  Although he was in manager Tim Johnson's lineup as a designated hitter, Rodriguez is expected to take over at second for veteran Carlos "Chispa" Gastelum, a six-time All-Star who has held that job for the Tigres since 2002.  For the season, Manny is batting .292 with two homers and 18 RBIs over 17 games.

Another recent addition to the Quintana Roo roster, Solano gives the Fernando Valenzuela-owned Tigres a young veteran who became a starter for Monterrey in 2015 and had gone 25-12 for the Sultanes since 2016, including a 4-1 mark this year.  However, Solano's ERA was a healthy 6.59 after six starts before being shipped to Cancun for pitcher Jesus Adrian Castillo, a 33-year-old who'd been with the Tigres since 2014 and was a solid 3-2 with a 3.75 ERA after five starts this year.  Although Castillo is having the better year, he has never won more than six games in seven LMB seasons and is generally not considered in Solano's class as a pitcher.  One Mexican columnist says Solano was sent south to avoid legal issues in Monterrey, particularly a civil lawsuit from a former player, but BBM has not verified that story.  He'll join a starting rotation featuring Barry Enright, Tyler Kane, former Marlins hurler Henderson Alvarez and ageless Pablo Ortega.

Meanwhile, Durango has loaned Drake to Monterrey even though the Cuban expat was batting .383 with four homers and 27 RBIs in 30 contests for Matias Carrillo's Generales.  Money may be at the heart of the move, since the Sultanes have plenty of it while Durango (now owned by a group led by former MLB catcher and Mexico City manager Miguel Ojeda) is struggling to right their financial ship after a 2017 season under former owner Virgilio Ruiz during which a number of players, including Drake, went weeks without a paycheck.  Drake hit .385 for the Generales last year to top the Liga before finishing the season in Japan by hitting just .232 in 35 games for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Durango did pick up injury-plagued veteran slugger Jorge "Chato" Vazquez, who had retired from the Mexico City Diablos Rojos last year after once having been considered one of the New York Yankees' more intriguing prospects.  Vazquez went 0-for-3 with a walk in his Generales debut Saturday night against Monclova and is hoping the back problems that derailed his LMB career are behind him.  The 5'11" 250-pounder, who turned 36 this month, once played under Ojeda in the nation's capital.

Sultanes still rule LMB North, three-way battle for South supremacy

Monterrey Sultanes outfielder Domonic Brown
The Monterrey Sultanes continue to rule the roost in the Mexican League's North Division with a 21-10 record, three games ahead of defending champion Tijuana and surprising Aguascalientes, but the LMB South has evolved into a three-way duel between Yucatan, Mexico City and equally-surprising Quintana Roo, with only one game separating the troika as the LMB's Spring season heads into its final month prior to June's playoffs.

Although it can't really be called a "surprise" that Monterrey has done well over the first month of the campaign, few expected that manager Roberto Kelly's team would be showing as much power as they have.  Kelly stated at his hiring over the winter that speed and aggressive baserunning would be the hallmark of his offense.  The Sultanes are one of six Liga teams batting over .300 (they're at .305), but it's the longball, not the stolen base, that's been the driver of a club averaging nearly six runs per game.  Monterrey stands second in the LMB with 42 homers, behind only Leon's 44 roundtrippers.  Much of that production belongs to Ricky Alvarez, who leads the loop with 11 homers, while ex-MLB outfielder Domonic Brown (who hit 27 homers for Philadelphia in 2013) has seven and third baseman Agustin Murillo has six.  Although Monterrey has been successful on 25 of 36 stolen base attempts to rank fifth in that category (Chris Roberson and Leo German have six swipes apiece), that's not why the Sultanes have been winning.

While Tijuana was expected to be in contention for a second consecutive pennant, Aguascalientes was accorded second-tier status after star first baseman Jesse Castillo was dealt to Monclova in the offseason.  Instead, Rieleros manager Homar Rojas has cobbled together a very good everyday lineup with the likes of catcher Carlos Rodriguez, second baseman Michael Wing, third sacker Jose Vargas and a pair of old-timers in first baseman Saul Soto (who turns 40 in August) and outfielder Cristhian Presichi (38 in July).  Wing is batting .353 with four homers, Presichi is at .345 and Soto has a .306 average with a team-high five homers.  Beyond Roy Merritt (2-0 and 2.97 in six starts), the Rieleros rotation has been so-so but closer Anthony Carter (2-2/7 saves/2.29 ERA) and middleman Linder Casto (3-0/3 holds/1.69) have headed up a strong bullpen.

The LMB South has become a three-way race between Yucatan (22-10), Quintana Roo (20-10) and Mexico City (21-11).  The Diablos Rojos are the most productive offensively, averaging 6.5 runs per outing playing in Mexico City's rarified air, but Yucatan's traditionally-strong pitching staff leads the Liga with a 4.02 ERA, a half-run better than the Diablos or Tigres, and it's pitching that generally wins games and pennants.  A more interesting battle may be shaping up for the fourth and final playoff berth in the South as Puebla (16-14) and Leon (16-16) are only a game apart in the standings.  While the Pericos have reached the Serie del Rey the past two years (winning the title in 2016), the Bravos have won five games in a row while Puebla has dropped five straight.

Tijuana's Isaac Rodriguez, the LMB Rookie of the Year in 2015, leads the league with a .409 average and his 17 stolen bases is one behind teammate Justin Greene's 18 to rank second in the Liga.  Rodriguez already has a career high in steals after he swiped 14 bases last year in 74 games.   Other offensive leaders include Monterrey's Alvarez with 11 homers and Luis Juarez of Yucatan with 38 RBIs.  Tijuana newcomer Kyle Lobstein, a former Detroit starter, has a 1.69 ERA, Monclova's Josh Lowey is in his accustomed spot as strikeouts leader with 46 and three pitchers have five wins apiece: Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez, Mitch Lambson of Puebla and Juan Pablo Oramas has a 5-0 record for the 13-19 Tabasco Olmecas (a 1.98 ERA in seven starts might help explain why).

North Division:  Monterrey 21-10, Aguascalientes 18-14, Tijuana 18-14, Monclova 15-16, Durango 14-18, Los Laredos 13-19, Union Laguna 11-20, Saltillo 11-21.
South Division: Yucatan 22-10, Quintana Roo 20-10, Mexico City 21-11, Puebla 16-14, Leon 16-16, Tabasco 13-19, Campeche 12-19, Oaxaca 11-21.

Padres, Dodgers to play Mexico Series in Monterrey next weekend

Major League Baseball will return to Mexico next weekend when the Monterrey Sultanes host the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres (featuring rookie star Christian Villanueva) in a three-game series at Estadio Monterrey.  Tickets for all three games at the renovated 22,000-seat venue were sold out two hours after going on sale earlier this year.

The Padres will serve as the home team in Monterrey after the series was moved from Petco Park in San Diego.  This will mark the team's third visit to Monterrey.  San Diego took on the New York Mets in a three-game series during the 1996 season and opened the 1999 campaign against Colorado at Estadio Monterrey, marking the first time MLB opened a season outside the USA or Canada.  The Padres have struggled out the gate this season and are currently last in the NL West with a 10-18 record, ten games behind division-leading Arizona.  While manager Andy Green's roster contains some recognizable names like Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer and Chase Headley, their unexpected star thus far this season has been the Guadalajara-born Villanueva.

A former BBM pick as the Mexican Pacific League's Most Valuable Player in 2015-16 with the Obregon Yaquis, Villanueva was expected to fight for a roster spot with fellow third basemen Headley (a former Padres first-round pick who was reacquired from the Yankees in the offseason) and incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg.  Instead, Villanueva had a three-homer night early in the schedule and has since taken over the hor corner for San Diego and is an early candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.  He's hitting .348 with eight longballs and 18 RBIs to lead the Padres in all three categories despite not being in the lineup for seven games.  Villanueva's batting average would be second in the National League to St. Louis's Tommy Pham with more at-bats, he's tied for second in homers behind the nine of Colorado's Charlie Blackmon and his slugging percentage of .768 would lead the NL with more plate appearances.

The Dodgers, of course, need no introduction.  Skipper Dave Roberts has a star-studded everyday lineup featuring the likes of Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Chase Utley, Joc Pederson and Matt Kemp while Los Angeles' starting rotation includes Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, and Alex Wood while closer Kenley Jansen and Josh Fields anchor the bullpen.  Added to the mix is outfielder Alex Verdugo, a 21-year-old Mexican American from Tucson who was called up Saturday from AAA Oklahoma City, where he was batting .276 with four homers in 19 contests. The Dodgers have gotten off to a slow start with a 12-14 record, third in the NL West heading into the week.  However, this is still essentially the same team that came within one game of a World Series win against Houston last fall and they're expected to be in the thick of things when September comes.

ESPN will broadcast the third game of the Mexico Series on Sunday, May 6 at 10AM Eastern time.  Eight-year ESPN veteran announcer Adnan Virk will handle play-by-play duties while former MLB first baseman Eduardo Perez, whose father Tony is a Hall of Famer, will provide commentary.

The Mexico Series was originally scheduled to be played in Mexico City at the new Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, named after the Diablos Rojos' billionaire owner, but the venue's construction has faced delay after delay and will not be ready before 2019, meaning the Mexican League's 2018 All-Star Game had to be moved to Parque Kukulkan in Merida as well.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dissension in Monclova: Manny Rodriguez leaves Acereros

Monclova's erstwhile second baseman Manny Rodriguez
Team chemistry.  It's something that's often overlooked by fans and media alike, especially in an era during which fantasy leagues have placed a premium on a player's statistics at the expense of his humanity, but it's hard to win championships with a roster of unhappy players.  As if to provide Exhibit A for how that works (or doesn't), we bring you the Monclova Acereros and their disaffected star second baseman Manny Rodriguez.

Coming off an MVP season of winterball in the Mexican Pacific League, Rodriguez was expected to be a linchpin on a loaded Acereros team that on paper was one of the favorites to win at least one title in the Mexican League's two seasons for 2018.  Instead, Rodriguez has left the team out of frustration from repeated player movements between Monclova and the Puebla Pericos (both owned by Gerardo Benavides) and the resulting dissension among players used like pawns in a chess game with the same person dictating moves on either side of the board.  The 35-year-old Guasave native was off to a good start for the Acereros, batting .302 with a homer and 16 RBIs over 15 games before deciding enough was enough following an April 8 game (ironically against Puebla) and leaving the club.  Rodriguez has since been placed on the Reserve list and is no doubt being shopped around in trade talks.

The problem in Monclova underscores what has been a problem in the Mexican League the past few seasons: Ownership of multiple teams, or what cronistas south of the border are calling "timeshare" franchises.  Besides Benavides, Alfredo Harp Helu owns both the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros while brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano own both the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Algodoneros (although the latter team is now for sale).  The siblings last year decided to strengthen the Leones down the stretch by "trading" slugger Ricky Alvarez from Laguna to Yucatan for lesser players, effectively killing Laguna's playoff hopes and alienating their fan base in the bargain.  Benavides has been far more hands-on with his two teams, deliberately stacking his Monclova club with stars from Puebla's 2016 LMB champions last year in attempt to create a pennant-winner for his hometown Acereros. 

Instead, the Pericos reached the title series against Tijuana while the Steelers were knocked out of the playoffs by Monterrey in the first round.  Due to Benavides' capricious moves (none of which have been resisted by LMB president Javier Salinas, who's said he's fine with timeshare teams), the Acereros are currently sixth in the LMB North with an 11-15 record and a locker room of ballplayers who would rather be somewhere else in what would serve as an object lesson for an owner who didn't already think he knows it all.  Player movement with the Acereros continues in an attempt to create some team harmony but the person who needs to be traded most is also the one signing the paychecks.

While Monclova has clearly been a disappointment during the LMB's Spring season as the halfway mark of the schedule approaches this week, the Monterrey Sultanes have looked sharp under new manager Roberto Kelly and lead the North with an 18-9 mark, two games up on 16-11 Tijuana.  The Sultanes are tied for fifth in the league with a .305 batting average and the aforementioned Alvarez (who was dealt to Monterrey from Yucatan in the offseason) leads the loop with 11 homers and is second to Tijuana's Corey Brown with 32 RBIs to augment his .353 average at the plate.  Veteran pitcher Javier Solano has definitely benefited from the support, showing a 4-1 record despite an ERA of 6.59 and proving that sometimes it is indeed better to be lucky than good.  Aguascalientes is third with a 14-13 record while Durango is fourth at 13-14.  The Generales have ensured a nightly slugfest by leading the LMB with a .331 batting average while averaging 6.7 runs per game but allowing 7.9 runs per contest, making converted starter Tiago da Silva's 3.23 ERA a much more remarkable stat than one would think at first blush (da Silva is 4-1 this year).

After fielding only two teams with winning records last season, the LMB South has four squads playing .600 or better ball this spring.  The Mexico City Diablos Rojos, who missed the playoffs the last two years with import-free rosters, have abandoned their "Mexican-only" philosophy and are now tied with Yucatan at the top of the table with am 18-9 record.  The Diablos are also seeing a rise in attendance after drawing fewer than 3,000 per game to Estadio Fray Nano in 2017, with crowds topping 5,000 all three nights last weekend for their three-game sweep of the Quintana Roo Tigres.  The Red Devils overcame a three-homer game by Tigres third baseman C.J. Retherford Sunday to wrap up the set with a 10-6 win over the visitors.  However, it seems the Diablos just can't avoid controversy.  GM Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez, ostensibly suspended by LMB president Salinas for his role in the Rookiegate scandal (which has apparently been swept under the league office rug), is reportedly still running the team and even regularly appeared in the team's box during the series against the Tigres, who came out on the short end of Minjarez' alleged double-dealing when five of their prospects were transferred to Mexico City while former Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela was in the process of buying the Tigres from Carlos Peralta.

The situations in Monclova, Torreon, Mexico City and Cancun indicate that while Salinas has been successfully proactive in raising his league's image through an increased social media presence and the LMB's innovative two-season approach, he has a long way to go before proving that he is a leader of the men who operate Mexican League franchises.  While the so-called New Breed of owners have won the battle with the Old Guard for control of the Liga's Assembly of Presidents, what has not changed is the impression that the LMB is still essentially a fiefdom for the Haves over the Have-Nots...only the names have changed and it serves neither the league nor Mexican baseball well if both are to be taken seriously and grow.

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS (as of Monday, April 23, 2018)
LMB North: Monterrey 18-9, Tijuana 16-11, Aguascalientes 14-13, Durango 13-14, Dos Laredos 12-15, Monclova 11-15, Union Laguna 9-18, Saltillo 9-18.
LMB South: Mexico City 18-9 Yucatan 18-9, Puebla 16-10, Quintana Roo 16-10, Tabasco 12-15, Campeche 11-15, Leon 11-16, Oaxaca 10-17.

LMP to allow 12 foreigners in 2018-19, but All-Star Game dropped

Some 2016 LMP All-Stars in their own right
The Mexican Pacific League held a meeting last week in Mazatlan, where team presidents had a chance to tour Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, where a massive retrofit is underway in preparation for next winter's schedule.  Renovations have been moving along at a decent pace but the possibility exists that the Venados will need to spend their first few series on the road for the 2018-19 season to ensure the ballpark is fully ready for occupancy.  Both the Durango Generales and Leon Bravos spent the first month of the 2017 Mexican League season living out of their suitcases while their respective ballparks were being brought up to standard.  The Venados are not expected to wait that long, but one never knows for sure in these instances.

Besides looking over Teodoro Mariscal's modernization effort (which leaves Navojoa as the only LMP franchise site with an outdated playing facility), the LMP governors made a couple of important decisions that point directly toward the effect the Mexican League's extension of their schedule into October with the latter's two-season format with month-long playoffs for each.  One decision was to raise the limit of foreign players allowed on a MexPac team's active roster from eight to twelve next winter.  The reason given is a practical one, since there will be so little turnaround time for players between the end of their LMB seasons and the beginning of the LMP schedule and Mexican League teams (who own the players' rights in Mexican ball) are expected to hold some players on their protected lists out of the winterball season, citing fatigue.  The result is a shortage of domestic talent for LMP clubs at the beginning of their season, which led to the increase of imports.  The LMB's no-limit policy on Mexican-American ballplayers, as mandated last year by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor, does not exist in the MexPac (which does not fall under MiLB auspices) but it may need to be considered as October draws closer and homegrown players start becoming unavailable.

Another change brought on by LMB schedule encroachment was the demise of the LMP All-Star Game, which was revived two years ago after an absence of nineteen winters.  The event has drawn well in both Obregon and Los Mochis since it was resumed, but the window for selected players and coaches to take part was already a narrow one even before the Liga extended their calendar by a month, and LMP leaders determined that holding an All-Star Game (along with the popular Home Run Derby) this winter wasn't practical from a logistical standpoint.  The MexPac regular season is presently set to open on Friday, October 12, less than a month after the Mexican League's second-season playoffs will conclude.

New Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame nearing completion, grand opening

New Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey
After being closed for several years, with its contents boxed in storage during the interim, the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame (or Salon de la Fama) is expected to reopen in a new building in Monterrey, where the museum existed in an existing facility on the Cuauhtemoc brewery ground from 1973 until 2011, when the brewery decided to shut it down.

The new Salon de la Fama is being erected on the banks of the Paseo Santa Lucia, an artificial canal running through Monterrey's Parque Fundidora, and will be a stand-alone facility.  Mexico City Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helu is bankrolling the new Hall with construction overseen by former Monterrey Sultanes team president Jose "Pepe" Maiz, an engineer by trade.  BBM has been critical of both men in the past but they deserve all the credit for reviving what should be considered a pantheon for Mexican baseball rather than just one more occupant in one more storage facility.

Puro Beisbol's Enrique Kerlegand, now arguably the dean of Mexican baseball writers following the passing of Tommy Morales, toured the new Salon last week and wrote glowingly of its progress in his Tiempo de Beisbol column.  Kerlegand says Harp is currently spending about 300 million pesos (or approximately US$17 million) to build the Salon, expected to open this summer, and will include several viewing rooms, restaurants and a dome under which a Precinct of Immortals constructed of marble, bronze and glass will highlight the nearly 200 members.  There will also be a mini-ballpark named after Hector Espino at the site, which Kerlegand says should serve well as a temple of Mexican baseball.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Four teams bunched one game apart atop LMB South

Quintana Roo Tigres infielder Brian Hernandez
While the Monterrey Sultanes were able to maintain their three-game lead in the Mexican League North Division over the past week, only one game separates the top four teams in the LMB South in what's been a very competitive start out the gate for what has been considered the weaker of the Liga's two eight-team divisions.

The Quintana Roo Tigres continued to surprise many observers by holding on to a tie for first with Yucatan in the South after a 12-6 win Sunday in Durango to lift their Spring 2018 record to 11-4.  Third baseman Brian Hernandez had five of the Tigres' 20 hits on the night, doubling twice and scoring two runs while driving in two more.  The Leones kept pace with an 8-3 victory over Union Laguna in Torreon as former MLB All-Star Freddy Garcia tossed five innings of four-hit ball for the victors, allowing one unearned run for Garcia's first LMB win in three decisions.

Sitting one game behind the leaders with identical 10-5 records are the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Puebla Pericos.  The Red Devils completed a three-game home sweep of defending champion Tijuana with a 3-1 win over the defending champs Sunday.  Ricardo Valenzuela's two-run single with the bases loaded in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie and starter Luis Niebla (4 IP, 0 R) combined with closer Jean Machi and two other relievers to make the lead stand.  Puebla stayed even with the Diablos by recording a 7-2 triumph in Monclova over their big-brother Acereros, thanks to Jesus Arredondo's three-run homer in the third and starter Rogelio Bernal's 6.2 innings of one-run pitching against his former teammates.  Oaxaca, Leon, Tabasco and Campeche are all under .500 and in danger of falling out of contention early in the shortened format, but the LMB South overall has fared better thus far in 2018 than they collectively showed last summer.

Monterrey struggled a bit on the road against South teams last week, dropping two of three games against Tabasco in Villahermosa before rebounding to win twice in Campeche, maintaining their three-game LMB North leadership with an 11-4 record after winning eight of their first nine games of the year.  The Sultanes missed their chance for a three-game sweep of the Piratas Sunday by dropping a 6-4 contest as Uriak Marquez had three hits with a run scored and another driven in for the hosts.  Even so, Monterrey is up three games on the only other North team with a winning record, the 8-7 Aguascalientes Rieleros, who rode a two-hit shutout from starter Guillermo Trujillo and four relievers.  Olmecas opener Alejandro Astorga (2 R, 4 H) pitched seven strong innings but lacked support in absorbing a tough loss.

Dos Laredos, Tijuana and Durango are all tied for third in the LMB North with 7-8 marks while Monclova sits a game behind in sixth at 6-9, but the season has gotten off to bad starts in Saltillo (5-10) and Union Laguna (3-12).  Mexican baseball has never been the most secure for managers and drumbeats in Torreon and Gomez Palacios for Algodoneros skipper Ramon Orantes' replacement only got louder after Sunday's home loss to Yucatan and Freddy Garcia.

None of the upcoming midweek series would make the menu at a five-star restaurant, but the most interesting set may be when Monclova visits Merida to take on Yucatan in a matchup between two the Liga's top teams.  Next weekend's fare looks more palatable, with longtime rivals Mexico City and Monterrey squaring off in the northern city for three games.

Ricky Alvarez off to torrid start in first year with Sultanes

Monterrey Sultanes first baseman Ricky Alvarez
It would be hard to blame first baseman Ricky Alvarez if he got off to a slow start with Monterrey this spring.  After all, the Sultanes are the Tijuana-born slugger's third Mexican League team since he was traded by Laguna to Yucatan late last June in a seven-player swap even though he was leading the LMB with 75 RBIs in 66 games and mentioned often in early MVP conversations.  Alvarez cooled off over 43 games with the Leones, playing home games in Merida's pitching-friendly Parque Kukulkan, and finished the 2017 campaign with a .311 average and 17 homers to go with his 105 RBIs to nudge out Saltillo's Rainel Rosario by one ribbie for the crown.

What ended up a solid season by any standard wasn't enough to keep Alvarez in Yucatan, however, as he was a centerpiece in a major offseason deal between the Leones and Sultanes that sent Alvarez and outfielder Francisco Lugo to Monterrey for shortstop Walter Ibarra and designated hitter Luis Juarez.  Rather than struggle to fit in with yet another new team or wonder what it takes to keep from having to change teams, the 5'11" 220-pounder is off to a torrid start for the Sultanes.  Alvarez hit three homers over the weekend in Campeche to take LMB lead with six roundtrippers in his first 15 games while his four RBIs at Estadio Nelson Barrera on Saturday and Sunday gave him 16 for Spring 2018 to put him in a five-way tie at the top in that category.   With a .410 average, the former Tigers farmhand ranks sixth on the batting derby table.   Now in his seventh Liga season after debuting with Monterrey back in 2012, Alvarez has LMB career totals of .293/82/365 over 552 games while going 50-of-69 on stolen base attempts.  In short, it doesn't appear to really matter whose uniform Ricky puts on because he's going to produce for that team.

Leading the LMB bat race through last weekend is Tijuana outfielder Maxwell Leon, a journeyman utility player who spent five years in the Detroit Tigers system before his 2011 LMB debut with Minatitlan, where he hit .341 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 57 games for the Petroleros.  While the Mexico City native didn't approached those numbers over his subsequent six seasons with four teams, Leon has proven to be a useful player who can plug a defensive hole while offering a .290 hitting average with some gap power.  Leon has taken the lead in the Mexican League batting race with a .515 average, 33 points higher than Durango's Yadir Drake and 53 points up on Drake's Generales teammate, newcomer Dustin Geiger.  Drake and Geiger are tied with Alvarez, Quintana Roo's Brian Hernandez and Monclova's Manny Rodriguez (who else?) for the RBI lead with 16 each while Tijuana's Justin Greene and Jeremias Pineda of Dos Laredos are knotted up at eight stolen bases in what is already shaping up to be a tight race for both 2018 seasons in Mexico.

Four Liga pitchers are carrying identical 3-0 records, but the hurler who's gotten the most out of the least amount of time on the mound is Yucatan middleman Jesus Barraza, who has yet to be scored upon over eight innings in seven appearances out of the Leones bullpen.  Monterrey's Marco Tovar has a 0.96 ERA in three starts (tops among LMB starters) while Puebla's Mitch Lamson's effectiveness has been an even 2.00 per nine innings.  Javier Solano of Monterrey, the fourth 3-0 hurler and a past Mexican Pacific League Pitcher of the Year, saw his ERA rise to 4.20 after being touched for four runs on ten hits in five innings at Tabasco last Wednesday.  Josh Lowey's 24 strikeouts for Monclova is one better than the 23 of Tiago Da Silva, who is in Durango's starting rotation after being one of the LMB's top closers in 2017.  Three men are tied with four saves apiece: Yucatan's Ronald Belisario, Anthony Carter of Aguascalientes and Campeche's Pedro Rodriguez.

Villanueva swats three homers in single game for Padres

San Diego Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva
Third baseman Christian Villaneuva's impressive major league debut for San Diego after a September callup last year (.344 with four homers and 7 RBIs in 12 games) wasn't enough to keep the Padres from reacquiring former first-round draft pick Chase Headley to play some third base at Petco Park in 2018 along with incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg, another onetime first round pick who hit .264 with 13 homers and 11 steals in 2017.  The crowded situation at the hot corner carried over throughout spring training, when there was some speculation that Villanueva might be sent back down to AAA El Paso (for whom the Guadalajara product was .296/20/86 over 109 contests while splitting time between third and first base).

Villanueva, who has appeared in two winterball seasons with Obregon (winning BBM's Most Valuable Player award in 2015-16 for his play with the Yaquis), ended up sticking with the parent club and has been the starter at third for most games thus far.  While he's had his ups and downs, like most rookies, Villanueva solidified his standing by belting three homers in a home game against Colorado on April 4 as the Padres topped the Rockies, 8-4.   With his trio of longballs, Villanueva became the fourth Mexican-born player to whack three homers in a single MLB game, joining Erubiel Durazo (2003, 2005), Vinny Castilla (1999, 2002) and Roberto Avila (1951).  For the record, he went deep with two homers off Colorado starter Kyle Freeland in the second and fourth innings while touching Antonio Sentazela with a three-run blast in the seventh.  All three roundtrippers were to left field at Petco Park, one of the hardest ballparks to homer at in MLB.

After the game, San Diego manager Andy Green sagely allowed as to how Villanueva's outburst would probably earn a little more playing time.  Word does travel and pitchers are now working the 26-year-old a lot more carefully than they might have and the subsequent five games have seen him go 3-for-18 at the plate with eight strikeouts to drop his batting average from .429 to .240.  Still, no matter what Villanueva does the rest of the season (or his career, for that matter), he'll have had a night that precious few of his countrymen have experienced at the highest level of the game.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Monterrey races to 8-1 start, leads LMB North by three games

Monterrey first baseman Ricky Alvarez
New manager Roberto Kelly's offseason overhaul of the Monterrey Sultanes roster appears to be panning out, if the first ten days of the Mexican League's 2018 Spring season are any indication.  Not that things were all that dire with one of the LMB's flagship franchises, as the Sultanes copped the LMB North regular season title before falling to Tijuana over six games in the division finals last summer, but the Panamanian ex-Yankee outfielder has been very direct since he was hired to replace Felix Fermin at the helm of the Sultanes that he wants a team that emphasizes speed and baserunning and went about finding players who fit that image.

So far, so good.  The Sultanes roared out the gate by winning their first six games before being mauled by Monclova, 16-3, at home Friday night as Ruben Rivera's fifth-inning grand slam off Edgar Torres highlighted an 18-hit Acereros assault on seven Monterrey hurlers.  The Sultanes then won the next two games to cop the series and raise their record to 8-1.  First baseman Ricky Alvarez, who returned to Monterrey in a December trade with Yucatan that also netted the Sultanes outfielder Francisco Lugo in exchange for DH Luis Juarez and shortstop Walter Ibarra, ranks fourth in batting in the LMB with a .432 average and is tied with five others for the lead in homers with three longballs.  Perhaps more telling, the 5'11" 220-pound Alvarez, rarely mistaken for a gazelle, has stolen two bases in two tries over his first nine games to tie rightfielder Leo German and third baseman Agustin Murillo for the club lead.  It would be wonderful to give you some team totals for an overall view of how much has changed with the Sultanes, but Minor League Baseball appears to have decided that baseball is really an individual sport and are not posting team figures this spring so your guess is as good as mine.

Lefty Marco Tovar, who only pitched in five games in 2017 and went 1-0 with a 5.06 ERA for Monterrey, has won his first two starts and is tied for second with Union Laguna's Emil Sepulveda among LMB starters with an 0.82 ERA.  Another veteran moundman, Javier Solano, is also 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA.  Surprisingly, Kelly has not gotten much support from his bullpen as closer Wirfin Obispo (who converted 28 saves in 36 opportunities last year and went 7-5 with a 2.12 ERA) has a blown save in three opportunities thus far with a 5.06 ERA.  Obispo has earned 50 saves the past two years in Monterrey with 170 strikeouts in 126.2 innings, however, so the 33-year-old Dominican has plenty of time to regain his mojo.

The Sultanes' early success on the field has also been reflected at the gate, where Monterrey leads the LMB in attendance with 141,451 fans clicking the turnstiles at renovated Estadio Monterrey for an average of 15,717.  The Sultanes will hit the road for a pair of series this week, playing three games in Tabasco Tuesday through Thursday before opening a three-game set in Campeche Friday.

Generales' Drake picks up where he left off, leads Liga in batting
Durango Generales outfielder Yadir Drake

When Cuban outfielder Yadir Drake left the Durango Generales last summer to play in Japan, he was leading the Mexican League with a .385 batting average over 71 games before heading across the Pacific to Hokkaido and the Nippon Ham Fighters.  After a slow start with the Fighters, Drake raised his Pacific League average to .232 with one homers and three RBIs in 32 games at season's end and was not brought back to the Far East for 2018.  As a result, the 27-year-old right-handed batter is back in Durango, for whom he signed as an unheralded free agent in January 2017 after being released by the Los Angeles Dodgers following two seasons in their system (topping out at AA Tulsa, where he hit .269 in 106 contests for 2015).

Drake made his LMB debut during the Generales' turbulent first season, playing on the road for the first month and waiting for his paycheck on more than one occasion as the league covered payroll for the underfunded franchise.  Despite all the on- and off-field distractions, Drake (who also swatted 14 homers and drove in 61 runs) was awarded the Liga batting title when his 300 plate appearances barely qualified him for the crown while he also performed in the All-Star Game.

There have been a number of changes in Durango since the end of the 2017 season, including new ownership, a new team president in former MLB catcher and Mexico City manager Miguel Ojeda and a new manager in Matias Carrillo.  One thing that hasn't changed is Drake's production at the plate, where he leads the LMB tables with a .515 average (17-of-33) and is tied for the top of the list with three homers while driving in 10 runs over his first nine games.  His on-base percentage of .600 is also tied for the Liga lead with Puebla first baseman Daric Barton.  There IS one change that affects Drake, however:  He married a Mexican woman during the offseason and is applying for Mexican citizenship.  It's expected that once Drake's nationalization is completed, the Generales will activate pitcher Francisley Bueno to fill one of the squad's eight slots for import players.  Bueno, another Cuba native and a former Kansas City Royals reliever, was 3-2/4.47 in eleven starts for Durango in 2017.

The Generales, who spent the entire month of April on the road last year while their ballpark was being fixed up for Durango's return to the LMB, have played all nine of their games on the road so far in 2018 (winning five of them to tie with Aguascalientes and Dos Laredos for second in the LMB North, three games behind Monterrey).  They'll open their home schedule Tuesday night when they host Yucatan for a midweek series.

Other LMB batting leaders one day into April include Durango's new first baseman Dustin Geiger (a former Cubs farmhand) with 14 RBIs, Dos Laredos centerfielder Jeremias Pineda with 12 runs scored and Tijuana centerfielder Justin Greene with seven stolen bases, setting up a dandy battle with Pineda (five swipes) for the steals title in Spring 2018.

Among pitchers, Tijuana reliever Jesus Barraza, an eighth-year LMB middleman, is 3-0 for the Toros to lead the loop in wins.  Barraza teammate Kyle Lobstein is 1-0 in two starts and has yet to give up an earned run in 9.1 frames to lead the Liga in that category, Monclova's Josh Lowey in in his accustomed position as strikeouts leader with 15 K's over 14 innings and four pitchers are tied with three saves apiece (Yucatan closer Ronald Belisario has tossed the most innings of the foursome with 6.1 entradas and has six whiffs with one walk).

Velazquez earns first win of 2018 for Bosox; 10 Mexicans in MLB
Boston Red Sox pitcher Hector Velazquez

Mexican pitcher Hector Velazquez has picked up his first win of the season by going 5.2 innings for the Boston Red Sox in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The 29-year-old righty from Obregon scattered five hits, struck out five Rays batters and walked just one in front of 14,256 onlookers at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay's lone run came via a leadoff solo homer to deep right field by first baseman Brad Miller on the first pitch of the second inning.  Velazquez struggled a bit in the second, allowing two more hits before retiring Mallex Smith on a fly out to left and inducing Adeiny Hechavarria to hit a force-out grounder to second to end the threat.  Velazquez eventually made it seven consecutive outs by Rays batters before allowing a two-out single to Joey Wendle and a walk to Wilson Ramos, then closing out the frame by dishing up a long fly by Smith that was hauled in by Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley.  He retired the side in the fifth and set down the first two Tampa Bay batters in the sixth prior to a Matt Duffy single up the middle, bringing Boston manager Alex Cora out of the dugout to wave Marcus Walden in from the bullpen and a trip to the showers for Velazquez, who had to enjoy what late pitching coach great Johnny Sain used to call "the cool of the evening," Sain's way to describe a pitcher's state of mind after turning in a strong effort on the mound.

Velazquez spent seven years pitching in Mexico prior to signing with the Bosox early last year.  He was the Mexican League's Rookie of the Year in 2010 after turning in a 6-4 record and a 2.63 ERA for the Campeche Piratas, including a complete-game shutout among 14 starts in 29 appearances.  He spent six summers in the Walled City before a trade sent him to Monclova in 2016.  Velazquez' seven-year LMB career record is 51-33 with a 3.56 ERA in 155 outings.  His winterball record wasn't quite as sparkling over eight Mexican Pacific League campaigns, going 27-22 and registering a 4.00 ERA.  However, two of those seasons (the last six with Navojoa) resulted in Pitcher of the Year awards.  He was 8-1 and 2.17 in 2013-14 but it was Velazquez' 2016-17 showing that caught the eye of Red Sox scouts when he finished 9-3 and had a 2.32 ERA, good enough for a minor league contract with Boston.

Velazquez spent most of 2017 with AAA Pawtucket, where he was one of the International League's top twirlers by going 8-4 with a 2.21 ERA in 19 starts.  He made his Major League debut for Boston on May 18 in a start at Oakland, giving up three homers in five innings to lose an 8-3 contest before being shipped back to Rhode Island.  He was brought back a month later, securing his first win on June 14 at Philadelphia, 7-3, in an interleague contest.  Velazquez won two more games for the Red Sox to finish the regular season with a 3-1 record, posting a solid 2.92 ERA.  He pitched briefly for Navojoa last winter before Boston shut him down until training camp opened in February.

The right-hander is one of 10 current Mexican-born players on MLB rosters, joined by Philadelphia pitcher Victor Arano (Cosamaloapan), Toronto pitchers Jaime Garcia (Reynosa), Roberto Osuna (Juan Jose Rios) and Marco Estrada (Sonora), Arizona pitchers Jorge de la Rosa (Guadalajara) and Fernando Salas (Huatabampo), Cincinnati pitcher Yovani Gallardo (Penjamillo), White Sox pitcher Joakim Soria (Monclova) and San Diego third baseman Christian Villanueva (Guadalajara).