Dominican Winter Spotlight

Sift through the pile of stats coming out of the Dominican League, and it’s almost too good to be true.

Pablo Ozuna, a 34-year-old third baseman, must have found the fountain of youth. What else to make of his time there? When the playoffs got under way, he was the regular-season batting champ and led in on-base percentage and was third in slugging in finishing .390/.467/.568.

But on the website BA uses to check the Dominican League’s official stats, the names of the ERA leaders are, well, absent. And maybe that’s to protect the innocent.

The Dominican League’s runs per game came in at a whopping 5.9 this year. That was a full two runs more than a year ago, and 1.7 runs more than in 2006. More surprising, consider hits from last year (2,355) compared to this year (2,963), and consider home runs from last year (126) to home runs this year (289).

So what gives?

"The pitching was down, and the umpires were awful," one National League scout said. "The pitchers were kind of forced to lay it in there. And there were comments like, ‘We’ve never seen this before.’"

Other front-office personnel echoed those comments.

"The pitching looked very suspect to what I’ve seen in the past," Rangers farm director Scott Servais acknowledged.

And from Cubs farm director Oneri Fleita came this nugget, "All I can tell you is I’ve had a lot of calls, guys asking for pitching," Fleita said. "It’s hard. Guys aren’t pitching as much this winter."

To compare, consider the high Class A California League and the Arizona Fall League, two circuits long known as hitters’ havens.

The Cal League’s runs per game last season were 5.2, while the AFL checked in with a chart-topping 6.9 runs per game.

In other words, in this Dominican League notebook, use the stats as somewhat of a guide but proceed with caution.

Fernando Martinez, of, Mets: He’s already got the hype from signing a  $1.3 million bonus as a 17-year-old and a notable spot atop BA’s Mets prospects for the last two seasons. Now Martinez can add this to his ever-expanding resume: YouTube sensation.

The footage is somewhat dark and misty, yet get a load of where the home run lands at the end of the video.

Martinez’s handywork came while playing for the playoff-bound Caracas Leones in the Venezuelan League—yes, his second winter league team, in his second offseason country. He was released by Caracas during the playoffs, but don’t think of that as a strike against Martinez–teams like to get veteran into the lineup come playoff time, so the Lions dropped him for veteran Armando Rios

The Mets dispatched Martinez to the Dominican League in hopes that their young outfielder—he turned 20 in October—would steal a few extra at-bats after missing time this past summer because of a hamstring issue.

And?

"He’s doing real well," Mets assistant general manager Tony Bernazard said. "And he’s going to be in spring training as a major league invite. He went to major league camp last year and hit .340."

Martinez’s Venezuelan time resulted in just four hits in his first 22 at-bats. Counting his regular-season and winter ball escapades, Martinez will enter camp with 541 at-bats from the beginning of last spring.

He hit .314/.376/.542 in the Dominican, his power numbers including six home runs, seven doubles and five triples. He also drove in 26 runs. .

Bernazard also was pleased with Martinez’s approach off the field. On top of his hamstring issue in 2008, the Mets discovered that the outfielder was slow to replenish himself during the heat of the season, relying on sodas. An emphasis on drinking water apparently has struck a chord. Overall, his focus has been a huge improvement.

"He’s staying in there against righties and lefties and using the whole field," Bernazard said. "This kid is going to be a hitter. He has the desire not only to be good but to be great."

Kendry Morales, 1b, Angels: With Mark Teixeira gone to the Yankees and Casey Kotchman traded to the Braves, Morales may never have a better chance finally to lock down Los Angeles’ first base job.

The Cuban has hit a meager .229/.302/.408 in 377 major league at-bats compared to .332/.373/.528 in the past four seasons in the minors. And, of course, the Angels have been patiently waiting, having developed Kotchman until they orchestrated the Teixeira trade with the Braves at the deadline last July. Fortunately for Morales, who in 2004 signed a six-year major league contract that included a $3 million bonus, he showed scouts a lot this winter. He hit .404/.450/.778 with eight home runs, 11 doubles and 29 RBIs.

"Maybe he’s putting it together," an NL scout said.

Adam Miller, rhp, Indians: While pitching may be down in the Dominican, it wasn’t when Miller was on the mound apparently.

The oft-injured righthander, the top pitching prospect in the Indians’ chain the past four seasons and again this year, sizzled with a fastball that an NL scout said roamed in the 96-98 mph range.

"I mean, he was carving these guys up," the scout said. "A nasty slider, too. Attacked hitters. Threw strikes. If he stays healthy, he’s going to be something to reckon with down the road."

Miller strained his elbow in 2005 and has suffered elbow and finger injuries in 2007, then missed most of 2008. But he was 3-1, 4.34 in 29 innings in the Dominican. Even better, the separation in his strikeout-to-walk ratio ought to be music to the Indians’ ears — 27 to 6, suggesting his command came back in a hurry despite missing so much time. He also held batters to a .268 average and yielded only one home run.

Miller is expected to be used in a relief role in 2009, though he did make five starts for Aguilas this winter.

Diory Hernandez, 2b/ss, Braves
. Hernandez, 24, wheeled into the finish line with the league’s ninth-best batting average as part of .329/.403/.516 line. Among the highlights were seven home runs, eight doubles and 27 RBIs. That came on the heels of an impressive season that resulted in an addition to the Braves’ 40-man roster. He’s versatile, having played shortstop all winter, and gives the Braves a versatile middle infield option with offensive upside.

"He’s really made a lot of improvement over the last year and a half," Braves farm director Kurt Kemp said. "He had a very good year at Triple-A and just played at a high level."

Hernandez compiled 510 Double-A at-bats, including 77 in 2008, before he reached Triple-A Richmond last season. He then hit .288/.317/.383 in the International League in 459 at-bats. However, he also struck out 73 times against 20 walks and also grounded into 16 double plays.

Victor Diaz, of, Mariners: You can’t start any conversation about Diaz without talking about the strikeouts. He whiffed 168 times in 485 Triple-A at-bats last season, and then struck out 71 times in 195 at-bats this winter. But he also led the Dominican League in RBIs (50) and home runs (17).

An NL scout, however, is passionately politicking for him as if Diaz, 26, was his man to win the next open Senate seat, noting Diaz’s 24 home runs, 25 doubles and 73 RBIs in 446 big league at-bats. Diaz has whiffed 135 times against 32 walks, by the way.

"Bottom line, if you have runners at first and third with one out, would you rather him strike out or hit into a double play?" the scout said. "He hits home runs. He hits for average. He scores runs."

Diaz, by the way, was originally drafted in the 37th round in 2000, by the Dodgers. He last played in the majors in 2007, when the Rangers offered him 37 games.

Other Dominican Leaguers worth noting: 

Reds third baseman Juan Francisco was leading the DWL with five postseason home runs after ranking second behind Diaz with 12 in the regular season . . . Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon, a Dominican native who played college ball in the U.S. at Tennessee, is playing for Aguilas, which is just 2-12 in the postseason round-robin. Combining his regular-season and postseason numbers, Borbon is hitting .325 wtih nine extra-base hits in 114 at-bats . . . Fellow Ranger Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit nine homers, ranking third in the league. 

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