Monday, May 28, 2018

LMB Spring season ends, Pericos in Leon for play-in game

Estadio Domingo Santana in Leon

The first 57-game regular season of the Mexican League's unique two-season calendar in 2018 has concluded and the results are little different from last year's full 114-game schedule.  Of the eight teams that qualify for the playoffs (which will be a full, three-tiered affair as before), only one newcomer will be appearing in the postseason.  One other thing that hasn't changed is that a play-in game will be required to determine the fourth and final playoff berth in the South Division.

The Monterrey Sultanes had lost six of their previous seven games before pulling it together to win all three games of a weekend series at Monclova, outlasting charging Tijuana and finish first in the LMB North with a 37-20 record, three-and-a-half games ahead of the defending champion Toros.  TJ won their final four games (including a sweep at Dos Laredos) and seven of their last ten to come in second at 33-23, a half-game ahead of 33-24 Aguascalientes.  Monclova ended up in fourth with a 29-27 mark, avoiding a play-in game by coming in five games ahead of 24-32 Saltillo.  Durango, Union Laguna and Dos Laredos will join the Saraperos on the sidelines for the next month as the postseason plays out.  Monterrey will take on Monclova in one LMB North semifinal while Tijuana battles Aguascalientes in the other.

Similarly in the LMB South, Yucatan's season-long grip on first place came to its logical conclusion, with the Leones winning the final two games of a home series with Quintana Roo to wrap up the campaign with a Liga-best 40-17 record.  The Mexico City Diablos Rojos won eight of their last ten contests to finish second in the division at 36-19, three games behind Yucatan, to return to the postseason after a two-year absence as members of the North Division playing with a roster consisting entirely of Mexican players.  Despite dropping two of three in Merida, the Tigres were a solid third in the South at 33-21 and will play their ancient rivals from the capital city in the LMB South semifinals, starting later this week.

The only remaining point of contention is the matter of who will claim the LMB South's fourth and final postseason seed.  Leon stumbled a bit down the stretch, losing six of their last ten games, but still came in at 27-29 to hold fourth place.  However, Mexican League rules require a fourth-place team to finish at least three games ahead of their nearest competitor and 25-30 Puebla came within a game-and-a-half of the Bravos to force a single-game play-in contest Monday night at 8:15 ET in Leon to determine who'll play Yucatan in the opening round.  The Bravos defeated Veracruz in a similar game last August to qualify for the playoffs. 

All four divisional semis will begin Wednesday.

MEXICAN LEAGUE Spring 2018 final standings
North Division: Monterrey 37-20, Tijuana 33-23, Aguascalientes 33-24, Monclova 29-27, Saltillo 24-32, Durango 24-33, Union Laguna 23-34, Dos Laredos 18-39.
South Division: Yucatan 40-17, Mexico City 36-19, Quintana Roo 33-21, Leon 27-29, Puebla 25-30, Tabasco 24-33, Campeche 22-34, Oaxaca 22-35.


Toros' Rodriguez wins batting title, Hernandez wins pitching crowns

Tijuana Toros left-handed pitcher Carlos Hernandez
Although the defending champion Tijuana Toros ended up second in the LMB North after a sometimes-spotty regular season, they did have two individual players who shone brightly enough to finish atop multiple Liga batting and pitching categories in second baseman Isaac Rodriguez and starting pitcher Carlos Hernandez.

Let's start with the 27-year-old Rodriguez, an Hermosillo native who led all MXL batters with a .394 average after going 17-for-38 (.447) over his final ten games.  The Liga's 2016 Rookie of the Year, Rodriguez also led the loop in hits (89) while coming in second with 52 runs (trailing only Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa's 54 tallies) and a career-high 20 stolen bases (also second to the speedy Figueroa's 23 swipes).  The 5'8" 220-pound Figueroa may be more reminiscent of a bulldog than a greyhound, but the fellow Hermosillo product hit .475 with ten runs and six steals over his final ten contests to finish at .351 for the truncated campaign.

Other season champions in batting categories include Aguascalientes first baseman Felix Perez, who homered five times over his final six games to surge past the troika of Jesse Castillo (Monclova), Luis Juarez (Yucatan) and Ricky Alvarez (Monterrey) for the home run title after the troika all remained stuck at 13 homers over the final week of the regular season.  Castillo, who the Cuban-born Perez replaced at first base with the Rieleros this year, did drive in 57 runs in 56 games to top Juarez on the RBI table by three.  Durango's Daniel Nunez sliced 23 doubles to lead in that category while Puebla's Michael Crouse and Ruben Sosa of Yucatan were tied for the lead in triples with five apiece.  Pericos first sacker Daric Barton won three batting-related crowns as the former Oakland starter turned in a .552 on-base percentage, .669 slugging percentage and 1.221 OPS after riding the Puebla-to-Monclova-to Puebla shuttle since February of last year.

Now let's look at Carlos Hernandez.  The 31-year-old Californian, a two-time Texas League all-star while toiling in the Athletics system, followed up a strong 2017 Mexican League debut with Tijuana (10-2 record, 2.67 ERA over a full season) with an equally-solid second year.  Hernandez went 8-2 in eleven starts to tie Monclova's Josh Lowey for most wins in the MXL, one more than Durango's Tiago Da Silva and Raul Valdez of Saltillo.  Hernandez also came in atop the WHIP table with a 1.02 figure, just .02 ahead of Valdez.  Lowey, who has arguably been the best pitcher in the Liga over the past four years, posted 79 strikeouts in 73.1 innings to easily win that crown while tossing one of three complete-game shutouts across the LMB this season, along with Valdez and Quintana Roo's ageless Pablo Ortega. 

Monterrey's Jorge Reyes is listed with the top ERA in the Liga at 1.97 in 45.2 innings pitched over nine starts, but veteran Jonathan Castellanos of Yucatan leads all pitchers with 57 or more frames with a 2.43 ERA for his 63 entradas of work.  The saves title was one by the 17 of Josh Lueke of Monclova, a former Rangers prospect who also spent time with the Mariners and Rays and spent the past two summers with Japan's Yakult Swallows before signing with Durango in the offseason.  Lueke was shipped from the Generales to the Acereros three weeks into the schedule.


Union Laguna considers sitting out 2018 Fall season, will play instead

Although the Mexican League has trotted out a "new look" this year with the two-schedule format, a new team in Nuevo Laredo (and Laredo) and new ownership in Durango, some old problems remain and one of those appears to be reaching critical mass in Laguna. 

The cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacios have had a long history of hosting LMB teams dating to 1940 with pennants in 1942 and 1950.  However, Laguna's Liga franchises have historically been underfinanced and often run with a seat-of-the-pants approach depending on who the owner du jour is.  As a result, the teams have rarely (if ever) been considered contenders and attendance has typically been middling at best while playing in an 85-year-old ballpark considered antiquated even by LMB standards in a Laguna region that is not considered a garden spot among free agents seeking to play ball south of the border.  In short, while baseball has a long tradition in Laguna, it's always been a tough go.  With all that as a background, the current Algodoneros owners were exploring whether to sit out the LMB's upcoming Fall season before issuing a press release last week stating that Mexican League games would be played at Estadio Revolucion between July and September after all. 

The owners of the Algodoneros are brothers Jose Juan Arellano, who also own the Yucatan Leones to rank among three so-called "time share" owners in the MXL, along with Alfredo Harp Helu (Mexico City and Oaxaca) and Gerardo Benavides ((Monclova and Puebla).  While Harp has been relatively benign as owner of the Diablos and Guerreros, Benavides' constant tinkering with his two teams by constantly transferring player after player between the two teams has drawn much derision in the baseball world and making him the poster child for the perils of syndicate ownership.  The Arellanos have fallen somewhat in between Harp and Benavides as meddling owners go, but their problems in Laguna (most of them self-inflicted) have resulted in what is becoming an untenable situation.

It all seemingly started last June when star first baseman Ricky Alvarez, who was leading the LMB in RBIs as the centerpiece of the then-Vaqueros batting order, was traded from Laguna to Yucatan as part of an eight-player swap that left the Vaqueros gutted and their fans enraged.  Laguna had been drawing over 5,000 aficionados per game prior to the deal to rank among the league leaders in attendance, but the crowds plummeted afterward as fans organized a boycott of games in protest.  The franchise has never recovered since, and things were exacerbated when the Arellanos admitted that their top concern is indeed their Merida team.

The current campaign has seen a team name change from Vaqueros to Algodoneros, but that's the only apparent change.  The Cottoneers finished out of the playoffs after never showing signs of contention while the team drew a middle-of-the-pack 3,067 per opening to Estadio Revolucion as disaffected fans continued to find other things to do.  Speculation became rampant among Mexican baseball cronistas that the financially-plagued team, which has been for sale for months, sought to take the second season off for 2018 as the Arellanos tried to either right the sinking ship and make another go of it in 2019 or concentrate on finding a willing buyer.  Such a move would've created a scheduling nightmare with 15 teams necessitating someone ALWAYS having a three-day bye during a ten-week season.  Whether true or not, the Algodoneros front office saw fit to issue a press release late last week bravely announcing that the team would indeed be back on the field in July for another 57-game schedule, but doubts about the franchise's long-term viability continue unabated.

Although the fans of Laguna do not deserve to lose their team due to owners who've determined their team to be a proverbial "red-headed stepchild," the turmoil in Torreon does create an opportunity for a more-moneyed investor to purchase the franchise from the Arellanos.  MXL teams are typically worth US$3-5 million each, a bargain for a AAA franchise in which a similar team north of the border might sell for at least $20 million (Forbes magazine valued the Sacramento RiverCats at $38 million five years ago while six more International and Pacific Coast League clubs were determined to be worth over $30 million).  Remaining in Torreon and its 9,500-seat ballpark built before FDR was elected to his first term in Washington may be unworkable, however, and if potential buyers seeking to buy and move a Liga team to the USA (hello, Tucson) are thinking it might be time to make an offer, it is.