Chris Kline’s Winter Wonders

The 49th Caribbean Series begins Friday as the best clubs from Mexico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico will battle it out for the 2007 title.

Puerto Rico is this year’s host nation, and all games will be played at Roberto Clemente Walker Stadium, which recently underwent a $1.8 million facelift. Two games will be played at 5 p.m. ET; and will be broadcast on ESPN Deportes.

Rewinding to each individual league champion, Hermosillo will represent Mexico, Gigantes will represent Puerto Rico, Aragua represents Venezuela, and Aguilas heads to Carolina from the Dominican.

It’s tough to say who has an advantage in the series, as Gigantes will be playing in their home ballpark, and Hermosillo had the best record during the Mexican Pacific League season and swept Mazatlan in four games during the finals.

In terms of recent momentum, look to the Dominican and, more glaringly, Venezuela.

Aguilas boasts much of the big league talent in the Series, as Edwin Encarnacion, Miguel Tejada and Melky Cabrera all were outstanding in the postseason. Righthander Jose Lima won three times in the Dominican finals, and the 34-year-old is expected to pitch the opener of the Caribbean Series against Venezuela.

While the playoff final between Aragua and Magallanes might not have been hotly contested–Aragua won the series 4-1–what turned out to be the clincher certainly was. Down 10-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, Aragua unbelievably scored eight runs–the winner coming on a double by Alex Romero–to finish off the series and clinch a berth in Puerto Rico.


• Diamondbacks outfielder Carlos Gonzalez will head into spring training with some newfound confidence–which is more than he had as the 2006 regular season closed out. After crushing it at high Class A Lancaster, Gonzalez, 21, struggled in Double-A after a two-week promotion to Tennessee.

Part of his inconsistency was physical, as Gonzalez was hit twice by pitches–once in the neck–during his final week in the California League. But he might have been a little gun shy as well.

“I think he might have been tentative to pull the trigger at times,” Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch said. “But there is no question it took some time for him to get his swing path and his swagger back.”

After a couple months off, Gonzalez regained his swagger in the Venezuela Winter League, hitting .318 while ranking among the league leaders in homers. He led the circuit with a .530 slugging percentage and nearly led Zulia into the league finals.

“He’s made the strides he needed to make,” Hinch said. “Playing there was very important for him, just to get around some of the older guys and see how they go about it. But we’re excited–we fired him into that kind of competition in that environment and he responded. The confidence factor within that is enormous.”

• Another player who dramatically improved his stock this winter was Twins infielder Alexi Casilla. After coming over to Minnesota last year from the Angels for J.C. Romero, Casilla blossomed in 2006, pushing his way first to Double-A New Britain and ultimately the big leagues where he served as a late-inning replacement.

Casilla played second base and batted leadoff for the majority of the winter for Gigantes in the Dominican Winter League. The 22-year-old ranked fourth with a .338 average, ranked second in hits, and scored 10 runs in 18 postseason games. During the regular season last year in the States, Casilla led the Twins organization with 50 steals and finished second with a .318 average.

“He puts the ball in play and it seems like he does it every time he’s up there,” Twins farm director Jim Rantz said. “He makes things happen and he’s always a threat on the bases.”

Twins second baseman Luis Castillo’s contract is up at the end of the season, and it appears likely Casilla is the second baseman of the future in the Twin Cities.

“He’s a guy who’s just sort of waiting in the wings,” Rantz said. “All I know is he performs well wherever he goes.”

• The Rockies recently held their annual winter development program, and lefthander Franklin Morales was the talk of the town. Coming off a 10-9, 3.68 season at high Class A Modesto where he was as well known for his erratic command as his 97 mph fastball, Morales appears to have harnessed his overall arsenal . . . at least in January in Denver.

“We’re talking (Johan) Santana or (Francisco) Liriano kind of stuff,” a Rockies front office official said. “(The command of the fastball) is probably better when he’s 93-95, but he topped out at 98 . . . and had an absolute hammer. He’s gotten much bigger physically and with that stuff, a hell of a lot more imposing.”

Both Morales and righthander Juan Morillo are slated to see an extended amount of time in big league camp this spring.

• In other Rockies news, the club was pleased with the development shortstop Jonathan Herrera was making in the Venezuelan Winter League, but a dislocated finger essentially ended his winter before the holidays. Herrera, 22, batted .301 and drove in 23 runs in 153 at-bats for Caribes.

• Angels shortstop Erick Aybar and Diamondbacks second baseman Alberto Callaspo might still be blocked from becoming big league regulars, but that didn’t stop either one from improving this winter.

“I think you look at both those guys and say they’re as close as they’ve ever been to ready,” Angels director of baseball operations Abe Flores said. “I can’t really talk for Alberto anymore, but Erick is coming into camp fighting for a role on the big leagues.”

Just two years ago, Flores could talk for both of them–before the middle infield tandem that was once referred to as “Hoover and Oreck,”–was broken up when Callaspo was dealt to Arizona last February.

But the Diamondbacks weren’t the only ones to see Callaspo’s value.

Callaspo, coming off a .337/.404/.478 season at Triple-A Tucson, played all over the infield, and saw a lot of time at third base in particular. Callaspo started out the offseason playing for Caribes in the Venezuelan Winter League, but was traded to Zulia in December–in a nine-for-one deal between Caribes and Aguilas.

“When I saw that I thought ‘wow,’ ” Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch said. “But then you consider the kind of player he is and the situation–heck, I would have traded for him too.”

Callaspo might have the nine-to-one deal to brag about, but Aybar had the better winter statistically, hitting .301 in the Dominican for Licey, who bowed out of the playoffs before the finals. Aybar will take reps behind Orlando Cabrera during spring training, but his overall tools could prompt the Angels to keep him as utilityman.

“I’d like to see him control the strike zone a little better,” Flores said. “And he’s got to cut down on the errors to fit into that kind of (utility) category. Most of them are on balls normal people wouldn’t get to. He’s just so fearless, he gets careless. It’s not lack of ability by no means–he’s so exciting, so dynamic . . . and needs to play a little more under control.”