Winter League Notebook: Nov. 2

Playing winter ball anywhere in Latin America for a U.S.-born player is a difficult adjustment.

And even though playing in the Mexican Pacific League is arguably the most Americanized winter league experience outside the States, Pirates third baseman Neil Walker couldn’t wait until his club, Mazatlan, visited Mexicali on a recent road trip.

Mexicali, which is located near the border close to Southern California, offers something a little different than a lot of other stops on the typical Mexican Pacific League road trip.

“It was nice because a few of us really needed to hit a Wal-Mart, so we walked across the border to pick up some things,” Walker said. “It’s a little different being here. And that goes from the daily stuff of where to go and what to eat, to the ballparks, the fans and the way the game is played.”

That includes the way the various infields play in the MPL, which aren’t exactly as nicely groomed as they are in anywhere Walker has become accustomed to playing.

Not that he’s spent much time at third base in the States anyway.

“I’m still pretty new at being a third baseman, but you can tell right away the differences between having an infield that plays true and an infield that . . . well, is a little bit tricky with the hops.”

The Pirates’ 2004 first-rounder played his entire amateur career as a catcher, was drafted as a catcher and spent his first three pro seasons behind the plate.

But after going through a wrist injury that cost him six weeks in 2006, Walker’s bat had advanced further than his catching skills and the Pittsburgh brass decided a position change was in order. Walker started taking ground balls at third base full time last spring and the 22-year-old spent his first full season at third, playing at Double-A Altoona for the majority of the year before earning a late-season promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis.

Walker held his own over the course of the season, playing 116 games at the new position while committing 25 errors. And despite learning to play third base on the fly, the switch-hitter still delivered at the plate--finishing with .288/.362/.462 numbers with 13 homers and 30 doubles.

The organization views Walker as its third baseman of the future, so the Pirates jumped at the chance for him to go to Mexico to get more experience--not only defensively, but in facing more offspeed pitches as well.

“In making that transition from catcher to third base, we felt this was a great opportunity for Neil to continue to play the same position in a totally different environment,” Pirates field coordinator Jeff Banister said. “He did a very nice job with the transition, but still has a ways to go. He hasn’t given up anything athletically at third base--he’s still a tremendous athlete who fields the position well. This just gives him the chance to better his defense while continuing to work on his offense.”

Especially from the right side of the plate. A natural lefthanded hitter, Walker only got 130 at-bats at Altoona against lefties from the right side. Three weeks into the winter season, half his at-bats with Mazatlan have come as a righthanded hitter.

“That’s definitely been a huge benefit,” Walker said. “And not just seeing more lefthanded pitching, but lefthanded offspeed stuff. You see that like crazy. It’s really taught me to stay back, allow balls to get deeper in the zone and just drive them to the opposite field.”

Walker is only expected to stay with Mazatlan until just before Thanksgiving, when he’ll return home to suburban Pittsburgh and continue to hit in the cage and work out before reporting for spring training in late February.

“My whole deal with coming here was to get more games under my belt defensively and continue to grow as a hitter. I think it’s paying off on both sides.

“It’s also been a huge learning experience from a cultural standpoint, just being in a different country, learning the language and trying to fit in to a clubhouse for the first time. I guess I never knew how easy that was before and I think you kind of take that for granted--growing up in the States and always being one of the guys. It makes you think how hard it is for Latin guys to play at home and just deal with the stuff outside actually playing the game. It’s been a learning experience in every aspect, but it’s also been one that’s been extremely rewarding every day.”

Here’s Johnny!

Reds righthander Johnny Cueto had a fascinating season in 2007. Beginning at high Class A Sarasota, Cueto was promoted to Double-A Chattanooga and then on to Triple-A Louisville.

But the 21-year-old was sent back to the Lookouts in mid-August when righthander Matt Belisle returned to Louisville from the big league club. The move had nothing to do with Cueto’s performance for the Bats. In four Triple-A starts, Cueto went 2-1, 2.05 with a 21-2 strikeout-walk ratio in 22 innings.

During his 2007 season, Cueto’s fastball sat in the 93-94 mph range and topped out at 97. He also features a plus slider and average changeup that made strides during the year.

“We were extremely pleased with what Johnny did in Triple-A,” Reds farm director Terry Reynolds said. “But of all the guys in Triple-A at that time, it made the most sense to send him back to Chattanooga, and that had nothing to do with his performance.”

Overall, Cueto went 12-9, 3.07 in 161 innings and Cincinnati then sent him to the Dominican Winter League to get more experience--more for the level of competition to prepare him for a possible big league rotation spot than anything else.

“He played in (low Class A) Dayton where they draw 9,000 people every night, so he’s been through that,” Reynolds said. “And even though it’s early in the (Dominican) season, it’s still an intense situation and a good atmosphere for him to go out, keep the ball down, change speeds and face more advanced hitters.”

Signed out of the Dominican in 2004 by Johnny Almaraz (now the international scouting director with the Braves), the Reds will monitor Cueto’s situation closely. In two starts for Aguilas, Cueto is 2-0, 1.64 through 11 innings of work.

Playing for Aguilas, who claimed the 2007 Caribbean Series for the Dominican Republic, is a prestigious honor for the Reds’ righthander. Based in Santiago, Aguilas has won the Dominican Winter League in five of the last eight seasons.

“This is an experience for him unlike any other,” Reynolds said. “Based on his starts or his innings, we’ll either slow him down or shut him down altogether. But it’s an outstanding experience for a young guy like him and a good way to prepare for a season. We just have to make sure he doesn’t overdo it.”


• Braves righthander Jeff Bennett continues to deal this winter, posting 1-1, 1.20 numbers for La Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League. Bennett, 27, finished the season as a major piece in Triple-A Richmond’s International League title run, going 2-0, 1.04 in 17 postseason innings. A 19th-round pick of the Pirates in 1998, Bennett went to Milwaukee in the Rule 5 draft after the 2004 season before signing with the Braves as a six-year free agent in 2006. “He’s got a big, sinking fastball that can sit at 93 (mph) and he topped out at 96 a few times (in Triple-A),” a scout from a National League organization said. “He mixes in an above-average changeup and average slider. He’s a good command/control guy who won’t wow you with his numbers and he doesn’t miss enough bats because of the secondary stuff. But that sinker will get you an awful lot of ground balls.”

• Tampa Bay outfielder Elijah Dukes, who spent the bulk of the 2007 season on the restricted list due to off-field problems, re-surfaced in the Dominican Winter League. And based on his bat, the long layoff had little effect. Through 21 at-bats, Dukes was hitting .381/.500/.762. The Devil Rays did not immediately return comment on Dukes' assignment in the DWL.

• Indians righthander J.D. Martin was back pitching in the Nicaraguan Winter League after being shut down in late May. Martin, a supplemental first-rounder of the Indians in 2001 who underwent Tommy John surgery last year, was 1-0, 1.80 through his first 10 innings for Leon. He is expected to only remain in Nicaragua until Thanksgiving.