Mariners Keep Lara Club Stocked All Winter

LARA, Venezuela—Several organizations have strong ties with teams around the Caribbean, making it easier for them to send their players to play there. In Venezuela, the Cardenales de Lara have such a "business agreement" with the Mariners, which started more than 10 years ago when Pat Gilick was Seattle's general manager.

According to Cardenales GM Carlos Miguel Oropeza, the agreement started with Gillick and continued even since the Hall of Fame executive has left the Seattle sphere. Oropeza's club first started working with Gillick in his Blue Jays heyday in the early 1990s, with Jays farmhands such as Pat Hentgen and Rob Ducey prepped for the majors in Lara.

Oropeza said he kept working with the Jays after Gillick's 1994 departure, until they decided to "move on to something else," in 2000. When that association ended, Lara found Gillick again with Seattle, and they Cardenales have been well-stocked with Mariners farmhands ever since.

Because of the friendship Gilick and Oropeza had formed over the years, the Cardenales chose Mariners farm director Pedro Grifol to manage the 2011-2012 team. Oropeza said Grifol has an understanding of the game and works extremely hard as a manager to achieve both positive team results as well as positive results from his individual players. Grifol made it clear to the Mariners and Cardenales that he loved to manage, which played a role in their decision to name him the manager.

Grifol entered the Mariners organization in 2003 as short-season Everett's manager. He managed there until 2005 when he was named the Mariners' field coordinator, but he's expected to return to the field as a manager in 2012, with newly hired Chris Gwynn replacing him as farm director.

Oropeza said Lara's agreement with the Mariners goes beyond naming a manager and bringing stateside players from the Mariners organization to play with Cardenales. The Mariners' academy director in Venezuela, Emilio Carrasquel, is the Cardenales' sports manager, which also makes him in charge of the Mariners' new signees in Venezuela. The agreement between the Cardenales and Mariners is a verbal agreement, since there's no signed contract between the parties.

Mariners prospects come and go from Lara's weekly roster, which can range from 18 to 34 players. Players included on the roster are the only ones that can play in a specific week, and in one late October submission, 20 of the 34 Lara players were Mariners farmhands. Usually on a weekly roster from any Venezuelan team, no more than six to eight players belong to the same organization. In the Venezuelan League, every team can have up to eight non-Venezuelan players on its weekly roster. Seven of the eight Cardenales' foreign players were Mariners in that week.

The top performers had been righthander Erasmo Ramirez, who was 2-1, 1.38 in 30 innings with only one walk and 20 strikeouts, and veteran closer Scott Patterson, now a minor league free agent.

The Cardinales are open to using non-Mariners though. Patterson had brought reinforcements with him after closing for USA Baseball's World Cup/Pan Am Games team, bringing fellow Team USA members Justin Cassel (White Sox) and Joe Thurston (Marlins) to Lara.