Used to be, winter league baseball in Puerto Rico and Mexico brought out the stars and the crowds, with many of the game’s top-flight minor leaguers on display, too.
Indeed, the 1960s and into the 1990s were the good old days—a period of time that seems to get better by the year whenever old-timers sit around and reminisce.
In 2008, however, the Mexican Pacific League and the resuscitated Puerto Rican League hardly overwhelmed scouts and others with long-time ties to both circuits.The catch-phrase in discussing both leagues? It typically centered around this: The talent was more Triple-A caliber as local pros hoarded roster spots and major league clubs offered only a smattering of young prospects.
"It’s not what it used to be," said a National League scout with deep roots in the Mexican Pacific League. "You see a lot of the same players from the summer league . . . But (teams) have to win to get the crowds and make money. And I couldn’t believe some of the guys still playing."
Cutting into the talent pool likely is the Arizona Fall League and, to an extent, Hawaii Winter Baseball. The AFL has become a finishing school the past 17 years and, in essence, siphons away up-and-coming stars in an environment beneficial to development as well as scouting.
Player salaries in winter ball also play a factor, as one American League scout with ties to the Puerto Rican League noted.
The Puerto Rican League folded ahead of its 70th season last year, then returned this year under the leadership of Jose Andreu Garcia. But while several cities agreed to increase funding, some suspended stadium rent.
And crowds were not spectacular. Puerto Rican League attendance averaged 2,347 in its first 124 openings.
"At the beginning of the season, there were a lot of independent league guys," the AL scout said. "In the second half of the season, it got better. But it was only a high Triple-A league at the end of the season. Because of the financial situation, (the league) can’t pay the same and can’t attract the bigger names."
To understand the situation, know that the Mexican Pacific League was dotted by Braves top prospect Jordan Schafer, with the Puerto Rican League’s top talent being Dodgers shortstop Ivan De Jesus Jr. There were other big-name notables such as Yankees righthander Ian Kennedy in Puerto Rico.
However, the Puerto Rican League MVP was Jorge Padilla, a 29-year-old outfielder whose career has stalled in the high minors since 2004.
And not all major league clubs are participating in the two leagues. The Twins and Blue Jays did not have players in Mexico this winter. The Tigers had one. By contrast, the Braves sent five.
The Twins used to send players to Mexico when Tony Oliva managed Guasave, but that link with the MPL ended years ago. The Twins had four players in Puerto Rico this winter.
"Sometimes it’s tough to get the guys to do down there," Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. "If you look at a young big league player, the money situation isn’t enticing. And the leagues like Venezuela and the Dominican, they do their homework. The want players that have had good years."
Still . . .
"I’m surprised that all 30 teams aren’t down there," said an AL scout that spent a couple of weeks in Mexico. "Every year there are one or two names that pop up that have a chance to be major leaguers.
"They’ve got some young arms, 22- and 23-year-olds," he added. "But the position players are very old if they aren’t Americans. But there is some pitching down there. If I had to rank them, I would say it goes Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico."
MEXICAN PACIFIC LEAGUE
TRAVIS BLACKLEY, LHP, Diamondbacks
Has it really been five seasons since Blackley was the darling pitcher of the Texas League, winning 17 games and owning a 2.61 ERA?
Many loved him then, and he’s winning over admirers again after a dominating tour through the MPL.
Blackley, 26, was 2-3, 4.24 and showed good command as he struck out 55 and yielded 19 walks in 62 2/3 innings. Some think he would have dominated throughout the winter had he not stopped pitching in order to prepare for the World Baseball Classic, where he’ll pitch for Australia, and spring training.
And why not? The Diamondbacks are inviting him to big league camp.
"He’s a pretty solid guy," said Sig Monge, one of the league’s opposing pitching coaches at Mazatlan. "He knew how to pitch and seemed to know what he was doing on the mound. He was one of the best pitchers in the league."
Blackley’s fastball sat at 91-92 mph with good command. He also showed a nice curveball and changeup. All in all, it was a refreshing tour for Blackley considering arm injuries veered his career off course in recent years.
His big season in 2003 came when he was 20 and an up-and-coming force in the Mariners system. However, doctors fixed two small tears in his left labrum just ahead of the 2005 season and it’s been a slow, meandering climb back to the majors.
The Phillies gave him a look-see last year as a Rule 5 pick, but Blackley finished 5-10, 5.41 in 123 innings at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Command was an issue all year. He walked 59 and struck out 87.
In Mexico, however, he dominated, finishing a full seven innings in six of his 10 starts.
"He made a fool out of us and we were the top team in the league," Monge said. "Unfortunately for Mexicali, he left. But fortunately for him, he’s got to get his rest (for camp).
"He’s not a spring chicken by any means, and I would think he’s got a good chance of making that Diamondbacks ballclub."
JORDAN SCHAFER, OF, Braves
The MPL may have been short on young prospects that typically grace the pages of BA, but Schafer was an exception. The Braves’ top prospect entering 2008 hit .276/.369/.343 in 105 at-bats. His line included four extra-base hits and nine RBIs, but he also flashed other tools in drawing 15 walks and stealing nine bags (in 10 attempts).
"Probably the best position player I saw," said an American League scout that swung through the league twice this winter. "He just plays hard-nosed, plays with attitude. And he knows he’s a good player."
In a season most notable for his 50-game suspension related to HGH, Schafer returned from the suspension at Double-A Mississippi and hit .269/.378/.471 with 10 home runs, 18 doubles, six triples and 51 RBIs. All of it came in 297 at-bats.
Unfortunately for Schafer, his winter ball time ended in mid-November after a pitch hit his right middle finger.
MIGUEL GONZALEZ, RHP, Red Sox
The Red Sox used a Rule 5 pick on Gonzalez, a former Angels farmhand who missed all of last season after his kneecap slipped out of place.
Gonzalez, 24, combined for 184 innings at Double-A Arkansas in 2006 and 2007, striking out 119 but also issuing 59 walks.
"I don’t know if he could help this year," an AL scout said, "but there’s a lot there with his upside."
In winter ball, Gonzalez was 4-1, 1.52 in 41 1/3 innings with 36 strikeouts and nine walks. He showed an 88-92 mph fastball that he commanded well and throws a slider, curveball and changeup, with the slider his best secondary offering.
FEDERICO CASTANEDA, RHP, Royals
The Royals have had success with Mexico product Joakim Soria and hope to hit the jackpot again with Castaneda, whom they signed this offseason. The 24-year-old righthander struck out 19 and issued seven walks in 22 2/3 innings for Culiacan this winter, posting a 1.19 ERA.
His five-year career has been spent in Mexico in the summers, as Castaneda has gone 9-10, 4.35 in 236 innings. He struck out 183 and walked 111 in the Mexican League.
His fastball was 90-94, and he also throws a plus slider and plus curve.
"The ability is there, and he is a prospect," an AL scout said. "He’s a Julian Tavarez type, and he’s very aggressive with hitters."
EVAN MEEK, rhp, Pirates
The Pirates selected Meek in the 2007 Rule 5 draft from the Rays system, and he made his big league debut with the Pirates last April. He lasted all of nine appearances in the majors before being sent back to the minors after the Pirates traded cash to the Rays to keep him.
Pitching for Mazatlan, Meek converted 10 of 13 save opportunities while striking out 14 and issuing eight walks in 15 1/3 innings. His fastball topped out at 98 mph, but he still needs work on his secondary pitches. Even so . . .
"He was overpowering," Monge said. "He was 97, 98 and goodbye."
TIM LAVIGNE, RHP, Mets
Lavigne is the norm in the Mexican Pacific League this winter: Older guy, long past prospect status, but still performing.
Lavigne, 30, spent parts of four previous seasons in Triple-A, yet in 2008 he was a middle reliever at Double-A Binghamton (Mets), going 2-6, 4.91 with nine saves. A sinker-slider guy, Lavigne’s slider is 81-83 mph and appears to have improved through the winter.
"He lives at the knees, and he’s not afraid to throw a changeup either," Monge said.
It’s helped that he’s been set up by Jeremy Hill, a 31-year-old righthander who spent all of last season pitching for Norte of the Mexican League and who converted 23 of 25 saves in the league. Hill was a Royals fifth-round pick in 1996 and switched from catching to the mound in 2001, getting in 11 big league appearances with Kansas City.