Winter Wonders: Jan. 24

Gonzales shines in Venezuelan League




CARACAS, Venezuela --Under an afternoon Caribbean sun in Estadio Universitario, an unassuming ballplayer steps out of the visitors dugout representing the Western all-stars of 2006-07 in the Venezuelan League.

Not yet a star in his own country like Bob Abreu or Johan Santana, shortstop Alberto Gonzalez is quietly moving on up.

It didn't matter that he wasn't a starter for his all-star team--that honor went to Luís Bolívar--or even that he didn't play in the game. Simply being there and being recognized as one of the best in the competitive winter league was enough for the 23-year-old from Maracaibo.

Gonzalez was scheduled to begin this spring in major league camp with the Diamondbacks, but was included in the January trade that sent Yankees lefthander Randy Johnson back to Arizona. Now a trip to big league camp seems uncertain.

"I'm excited about the trade, but you don't know what to expect," Gonzalez said. "I've never played for another team before, but I am excited to be a Yankee."

A plus defender, Gonzalez' glove is ready for the major leagues, though he obviously won't be unseating Derek Jeter anytime soon. What's been holding Gonzalez back has been his struggle to find consistent production with the bat.

In 2004 Gonzalez batted .238/.296/.342 in 319 at-bats at low Class A South Bend. He repeated that level the following season and showed marked improvement with .318/.359/.426 numbers in 352 at-bats. After a slow start last year, Gonzalez continued to come into his own at Double-A Tennessee, where he hit .290/.356/.392 in 434 at-bats.

After hitting just four home runs in his first three seasons as a pro, Gonzalez also showed a little pop, hitting six for the Smokies.

"Alberto's a great kid, defensively he's one of the best that I've ever seen," said Tony Dello, who coached Gonzalez in the States the past two seasons. "I think he just needs to do the little things with the bat and he's proving it at every level, I think he's an unbelievable prospect.

"He needs to learn how to make adjustments at each level as the pitching gets better and better. He has to handle the bat and do the things that he's going to be called upon to do at the big league level--hit the ball to the right side and bunt. He's doing that and he's proving that he's capable every year."

Playing for Pastora, Gonzalez managed to secure the starting job at shortstop and did not relinquish it after Angels infielder Maicer Izturis arrived to help the club. According to Gonzalez, Izturis has been the veteran who has helped him the most this season with tips on turning double plays and carrying himself as a professional.

This winter, Gonzalez batted just .253/.285/.335 with a home run, but as he points out, Venezuela is not Tennessee.

"The minor leagues in the U.S. are good," Gonzalez said, "but this league has helped me a lot. It's a difficult brand of baseball here. Here you play with Triple-A players and big league veterans--it's much faster and more competitive."

Pastora third-base coach Cesar Heredia worked with Gonzalez for four years in Venezuela and is impressed by his soft hands, which he said allow him to make the most difficult plays look routine.

"This guy can really play (defense)," Heredia said. "He's got great range to either side and plus arm strength. He makes it look easy."

--DANIEL CANCEL

Tighten Up

CARACAS, Venezuela--In the land of shortstops, it would be easy to get overwhelmed by the competition.

But Athletics prospect Gregorio Petit is not one to get discouraged. Barely 22, Petit knows he has time on his side and that baseball is a game of chance.

When Alejandro Machado, recently taken by the Twins in the Rule 5 draft, bowed out of the Venezuelan League because of injury, Petit took over at shortstop.

In his stint with Caracas, Petit hit .260/.289/.384 in 73 at-bats. At high Class A Stockton last season, he hit .256/.310/.378 with eight home runs and 63 RBIs.

Petit admits being a little disappointed with his 2006 numbers. Aside from the low average, he had 96 strikeouts and walked 38 times. He recognizes that he needs to work on his patience at the plate.

"The A's are known for hitters that take pitches," Petit said. "I'm known for swinging early in counts."

Former Red Sox slugger and Caracas hitting coach Tony Armas said that Petit needs to improve his discipline at the plate and learn to better identify offspeed pitches.

"That's why he hasn't played every day," Armas said. "He needs to cut down on the strikeouts. But he's going to be a good ball player."

Caracas manager and Padres catching instructor Carlos Hernandez said that Petit's talent simply needs more honing.

"He will improve those things by playing every day," he said. "He's got all the tools and the talent. We don't know yet who he is going to be."

Like Venezuelan shortstops Omar Vizquel and Alex Gonzalez, defense remains Petit's calling card. "He's a tremendous defender," Hernandez said. "He has a good arm and he is an intelligent player."

Most observers praise Petit's defense unreservedly. They suggest his play at shortstop makes him attractive to big league teams. And Petit takes great pride in his defensive acumen.

"Some guys depend on their speed or the bat," Petit said. "God blessed me with the gift of defense. If it were up to me, I'd love for every ball to be hit to me."

That confidence reflects his reliability at shortstop. A little pop in his bat has inspired some scouts in Venezuela to compare him with Miguel Tejada.

"There is some surprising power at times, he just needs to be more consistent in his approach," an American League scout said. "If he can learn to lay off breaking balls out of the zone and improve his pitch recognition, you'll see it more often. He makes solid contact and there's a lot to like--especially with the glove."

Petit's coaches rave about his makeup, and Armas thinks the key to his success lies in studying opposing pitchers.

"You must watch the pitcher from the bench," he said. "It helped me a lot, and that's something we've been trying to impress on him."

Hernandez and Armas don't doubt Petit's skills, but they have been around long enough to know that the right attitude makes the difference.

"This is a game of opportunities," Hernandez said. "You need to seize them when they come. If you aren't patient, you won't get anywhere. For his age, Petit is on the right track."

--JOSE OROZCO

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• Heading into the final games of the 16-game Dominican League round-robin tournament, it was clear that the Azucareros were ready for it to end. The club had not won more than 10 games into the tournament, and was 0-11 at press time. Dismal performances by Rangers righthander Edinson Volquez (0-1, 12.26) and Diamondbacks lefthander Bill Murphy (0-2, 15.64) added to the disappointment. Even Athletics first baseman Daric Barton (.182) and Royals first baseman Justin Huber (.167) couldn't jump-start the offense, which scored just 21 runs through 11 games.

• Mets second baseman Anderson Hernandez, who always seems to turn it up a notch in winter ball (he starred for the Dominican in last year's Caribbean Series, hitting .333), was the hottest hitter in the Dominican playoffs, hitting .429 through 11 games for Licey. Angels first baseman Kendry Morales was right behind Hernandez, batting .421 for the Gigantes, while Twins infielder Alexi Casilla ranked third with a .392 average.

• In the Venezuela League playoffs, Magallanes righthander Jeremi Gonzalez was the top pitcher eight games into the 18-game round-robin tournament. Gonzalez went 2-0, 0.00 with a 13-2 strikeout-walk ratio through 15 innings. The 31-year-old righthander was Venezuela's hero last season when he pitched eight solid innings against the Dominicans to seal his country's first Caribbean Series' title since 1989.

• In the Mexican Pacific League, 42-year-old infielder Ramon Orantes led the league in hitting with a .365 average while anchoring the Mochis infield at third base. Former big leaguer Ruben Rivera led the league in home runs (21) and RBIs (58), while lefthander Oscar Rivera finished first in ERA (1.51), but was upstaged by Royals Rule 5 pick Joakim Soria, who led the circuit in wins (9) and strikeouts (79) with a 2.41 ERA in 79 innings.