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Winter League Wonders

For me, spring training marks the start of spring, just like the postseason marks the start of fall. No vernal or autumnal equinoxes necessary. So, with spring only a few weeks away, now is a good time to take a look at what happened in winter leagues across the globe.

Winter league baseball does not receive much press stateside, but it is an important part of the game. In places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, winter leagues give a chance for many MLB players to go back to their homes and play in front of their compatriots. Franchises will send younger players to various winter leagues for extra development time too. Other players recently out of the league will go to winter leagues too in hopes of reviving their career.

All the Caribbean Leagues (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic) can be found here. It is nice to see the Puerto Rican winter league come back after a short hiatus. Also, new this year is the Australian Baseball League, which from a prospect development standpoint, seems to have replaced the defunct Hawai'i baseball league.

Here are some players that caught my eye over the winter:

  • Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Indians - I'm going off the board here, given that Choo is a well established player, and did not play in any of the aforementioned winter leagues. However, a unique (to baseball) situation with him was resolved this winter. Choo, as a male South Korean citizen, is required to serve two years in the South Korean military. He had not by the time broke through in the majors, leading many (including me) to wonder how the situation would be resolved. Interestingly enough, the answer came on a baseball diamond this winter. Choo participated in the Asian Games, and South Korea won the gold medal. With the title, South Korea waived Choo's military requirement.
  • James McOwen, OF, Mariners - McOwen got quite a bit of publicity in 2009 when he put together a 45-game hitting streak* at High Desert. He was hurt all of last year though, and subsequently completely fell off the radar screen. He resurfaced in Australia though, where he led the ABL in OPS, slugging a surprising 11 home runs in just 37 games. For comparison, McOwen had 10 home runs in 115 games with High Desert in 2009. This is one of those double-edged swords, where it sounds both good and bad to say that a marginal prospect like McOwen was a dominant hitter in a league. Regardless, it is good to see James healthy and making up for some lost time.
*Fun fact: McOwen attended Florida International University, where Garrett Wittels is currently in the midst of a 56-game hitting streak.

  • Andy Dirks, OF, Tigers - When I ran across this player's Dominican stats, the name rang a bell, likely because I wrote a blurb about him when he was drafted. At the time, I said that Dirks is not a star in the making, but he has some speed and power, and I could see him becoming a quality fourth outfielder. Now, two years later, I might have underestimated him just a bit. He is a smart baserunner, and his 7 triples this winter make me wonder how much pure speed he has. Dirks still is not a star, but he looks like a guy that brings a little of everything with no holes. Those type of guys tend to get overlooked. The Mariners have a player much like this too, Nate Tenbrink.
  • Fabio Castro, LHP, Mariners - 51 innings, 38 hits, 21 walks, 61 strikeouts, 3 home runs allowed. That is Castro's line in the Dominican this winter, and it is the reason the M's signed him to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training. He is still just 26 years old, and his issue all along has been command. He had enough this winter, and if he has enough in spring training, there is a very good chance we will see him in Safeco Field.
  • Travis Blackley, LHP, Athletics - Remember when Blackley was a big part of the M's future? Injuries have derailed his career, but he hasn't given up. Over the winter, he played in Mexico, and also got a few start in Australia. He is not that old at 29 years of age, and as a left-hander, is still on the radar of MLB teams. I'm not sure the A's staff has room for him, but a strong spring might make others take notice.
  • Dee Gordon, SS, Dodgers - Dee is a prospect that gets mixed reviews. He is young, has blazing speed, and plays a premium defensive position, so the potential is obvious. However, the jump to AA proved a bit troublesome for him. He hit in Puerto Rico over the winter, but did not do as well stealing bases as his speed would suggest he should. If he combines a high batting average with high stolen base totals, he will generate lots of buzz this season.
  • Luis Jimenez, 1B, Mariners - Jimenez, like Fabio Castro, is a player the Mariners signed this winter on the merits of his winter league success. Luis led the Venezuelan winter league in home runs, and also drew almost a walk a game. He was feared in the league. He is also 28 years old, and hasn't really played above AA stateside - though he hasn't played in the minors since 2008. The Mariners are going to find out if he has developed much in the past few seasons.
  • Josh Kroeger, OF, Marlins - After a rough year in AAA, Kroeger exploded in the Venezuelan winter league, showing average, power, and speed. He had a .250 BABIP in AAA last year, compared to a .454 BABIP in Venezuela, so I think it is safe to say that some of the variance in production has something to do with simply lucking out and hittin' them where they ain't. Still, if I was in charge of a team looking for cheap outfield depth, Kroeger would be a guy I'd look at.
  • Greg Holland, RHP, Royals - With the loaded Kansas City farm system, Holland will never get much publicity. However, he put together a very good year in AAA before getting some time in the big show (or at least as big as it can get in KC until the Royals get better). He got hit around a bit in the majors, but the strikeout rate and solid control followed him. In Venezuela, he was overpowering, striking out 35 batters in 19 innings. Holland could quietly emerge this year as a dependable bullpen arm while everyone looks at all the glitzy, big name prospects on the horizon in Kansas City.
Baseball really is a year-round sport, complete with games being played year-round. To be honest, winter league performances seem to rarely translate to MLB success, but the hope of a diamond in the rough is so alluring.