Winter Leagues Head Into Playoffs

As 2007 arrives three of the four major winter leagues have moved into their playoffs as they get ready to settle on the teams for the 50th Caribbean Series. Venezuela will be looking to defend its 2006 title (the country’s first in 17 years) when play begins on Feb. 2 in Carolina, Puerto Rico.

The postseason in the Dominican has already begun, as the top four clubs have moved on to an 18-game round robin semifinal tournament. So far into the playoffs, Gigantes and Aguilas are both tied at the top of the standings with 4-1 records.

Angels first baseman Kendry Morales was leading the way for Gigantes’ offense through the first five games, hitting .375 with four RBIs. Reds third baseman Edwin Encarnacion was also off to a hot start in the postseason, hitting .444 (8-for-18) for Aguilas.

But Licey first baseman Jose Offerman leads the circuit in hitting during the tournament, hitting .538 (7-for-13). Licey currently sits two games back, while Azucareros has yet to win a game in the round robin.

In the Mexican Pacific League, first-half champion Hermosillo went 41-26 to edge 2005 Caribbean Series champs Mazatlan by two games to finish first in the overall standings.

Along with Hermosillo and Mazatlan; Obregon, Culiacan, Navojoa and Mochis all earned postseason berths. The Mexican Pacific League playoffs start Wednesday with three best-of-7 quarterfinal series.

During the regular season, 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) while posting a 2.41 ERA in 79 innings.

In Venezuela, Aragua won the West Division and Magallanes claimed the East Division crown, and will be joined in the playoffs by Zulia–who won the wild card and was also the only other club to finish with a record over .500.

The three clubs will begin play in a 16-game round robin series beginning Wednesday, then the clubs with the top two records meet in a best-of-7 for the championship.

During the regular season, Athletics infielder Marco Scutaro led the league with a .367 average while playing for Zulia, and prospects Wladimir Balentien (Mariners) and Carlos Gonzalez (Diamondbacks) finished with nine home runs apiece.

Giants righthander Chris Begg finished atop the pitching leaders with 4-1, 1.08 numbers in 50 innings. Begg, who signed with the Giants out of the independent Northern League in 2003, went 13-10, 3.40 in 175 innings last year at Double-A Connecticut.

Moving on to the host country of this year’s Serie del Caribe, the regular season wraps up Wednesday, with the playoffs beginning over the weekend.

The top four teams advance to the postseason, and currently Mayaguez is leading the league with a 19-14 record. Mickey Negron, who spent the 2006 season between the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks systems, was leading the league with a .441 average and was slugging .645.

Finally, in Nicaragua–which does not participate in Serie del Caribe–Rangers outfielder Jake Blalock is the highest-profile American player currently in the league. Blalock, a fifth-round pick of the Phillies in 2002, was hitting just .202/.358/.323 in 62 at-bats for Chinandega.

Boer outfielder Clyde Williams, who played at independent Atlantic City in 2006, was leading the league with seven homers.

The Nicaraguan League is full of Cuban players, most notably 18-year-old outfielder Ryde Rodriguez, who has yet to sign with a major league club. Rodriguez is reportedly expected to command a signing bonus in the $1 million range, but his performance hasn’t helped his cause much so far.

Sidelined by nagging hamstring injuries, Rodriguez was hitting .269/.387/.346 in just 26 at-bats.

Rodriguez’s teammate Danilo Alvarez recently signed with the Braves for $100,000 and was 0-0, 2.61 in 10 innings.