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BARTOLO COLON, RAJAI DAVIS TO PLAY IN MONCLOVA
If there was any doubt whether Monclova Acereros owner Gerardo Bustamante was going to take a breather after his team won their first Mexican League pennant last year, the signing of four-time MLB All-Star pitcher Bartolo Colon and longtime big league outfielder Rajai Davis should erase concerns (if they ever existed) that the hard-charging Bustamante wants his club to become the first team to repeat as LMB champions since the Saltillo Saraperos won titles in 2009 and 2010. The signings were announced last week by Monclova's President of Baseball Operations, Jose Melendez.
The 46-year-old Colon, who grew up in the Dominican Republic harvesting fruit and coffee beans alongside his father, spent 21 seasons in the majors after debuting with the Cleveland Indians in 1997. The 5'11" righthander made his first All-Star Game appearance one year later en route to a 14-9 record and 3.71 ERA before tossing a four-hit complete game win over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series that October. Colon went on to pitch a no-hitter against the Yanks in 2000 and lead the AL in wins with 21 victories for the Los Angeles Angels in 2005 (winning the Cy Young Award that season) before arm miseries plagued him between 2006 and 2010, missing the latter season entirely after stem cell transplant surgery on his right shoulder that spring.
Colon reinvented himself from a hard-thrower once capable of hitting triple-digits on the radar gun into a 38-year-old finesse control pitcher with the Yankees in 2011. He was able to spend eight more MLB seasons as a starter, pitching in two more All-Star Games and his first World Series (in 2016 for the Mets after going 15-8 that year) before his most recent campaign with Texas in 2018, during which he went 7-12 with a 5.78 ERA in 24 starts. With a career MLB record of 247-188, Colon is the winningest Latin American pitcher in big league history. The well-traveled hurler, who pitched four eleven teams between 1997 and 2018, picked up 2,535 strikeouts while whiffing 100 or more batsmen 13 times. His 4.12 ERA is nothing to write home about, although he did finish in his league's Top Ten in that category six times. Colon signed a one-year contract with the Acereros and is expected to contend for a starting rotation berth under manager Pat Listach.
Listach will also have the speedy Davis patrolling the outfield in 2020 after the former American League stolen bases champion inked a one-year deal with Monclova. Davis played with eight teams for all or part of 14 MLB seasons, batting .262 with 62 homers and 415 steals. The Pirates' 38th round draft pick out of the University of Connecticut in 2001 (after borrowing gas money to drive from UConn to Pittsburgh for a pre-draft workout), the 5'10" Davis made his MLB debut with the Bucs in 2006. He was traded to San Francisco one year later but it wasn't until after he was picked up on waivers by Oakland in 2008 that he had the chance to see significant action.
Davis hit .305 with 41 steals in 2009 for the A's but was dealt to Toronto after the 2010 season and later suited up for Detroit, Cleveland, Boston and the New York Mets (for whom he hit .200 in 29 games last year). While never a power hitter, Davis was generally a solid baserunner who averaged over 34 steals a year between 2008 and 2018, leading the American League with 43 for Cleveland as a 35-year-old in 2016. He appeared in the postseason three times for as many teams, reaching the World Series in 2016 and batting .227 with three steals and a two-run homer off Aroldis Chapman in the deciding contest as the Indians lost to the Chicago Cubs in seven games. Davis is being penciled in as Monclova's starting centerfielder this season.
JESSE CASTILLO TO RETURN TO LMB WITH LEON IN 2020
Two-time Mexican League Most Valuable Player Jesse Castillo will be returning to action this year after signing a contract with the Leon Bravos for 2020. While playing for 82Monclova, Castillo blew out his left knee while stepping on first base to make a run for second during a Fall 2018 LMB North final playoff game against Monterrey. Teammates had to carry him into the locker room, from which he was taken to the hospital by an ambulance. Up to that point, Castillo had become arguably the best batter in the Mexican League but he hasn't played an LMB game since.
Of course, this story begins long before 2018. Born in Mexicali on March 3, 1983, Jesus Castillo made his Liga debut with Yucatan in 2004 and played sparingly for the Leones for the next three years, although the third baseman did bat .321 in 69 games as a part-timer for Yucatan's 2006 LMB champions under manager Lino Rivera, cracking a walkoff homer in the 14th inning of the fifth and deciding game of the Serie del Rey against Monterrey. Castillo ended up playing for the Lions through 2009, playing in the 2007 and 2008 All-Star Games, before signing as a free agent with Veracruz for 2010. He hit .293 with five homers and represented the Rojos del Aguila in his third All-Star Game before moving into free agency again, this time joining the Tabasco Olmecas. Castillo topped the .300 mark twice and played in two more All-Star Games between 2011 and 2013, when the Villahermosa team dealt him late in the season to Aguascalientes for outfielder Ricardo Gastelum. While Gastelum only hit .194 in 37 games for the Olmecas and was out of the Liga within two years, the trade turned Castillo from a respected batter into a feared one even though he only hit .182 himself over 17 games for the Rieleros over the rest of the 2013 campaign.
Castillo had never hit more than nine homers or driven in more than 64 runs n a single season before 2014, although he did bat .300 or better four times. However, his move to Aguascalientes did wonders for his power numbers after nearly a decade playing in more humid climates where the ball didn't carry as well. Playing in the dry desert air in a city over 6,000 feet above sea level, Castillo hit .335 for the Rieleros in 2014 with 17 homers and 94 RBIs, all career highs. That began a string of four seasons in Aguascalientes in which he batted between .335 and .361 while belting a total of 66 homers, bringing home 306 runs and stealing 52 bases over 440 games, playing in two more All-Star Games along the way. Castillo, who was playing mostly first base by then, earned his first MVP trophy in 2017 when he battered Liga pitchers for a .342 average with 20 homers and 82 RBIs, winning the All-Star Game MVP award that summer.
Although he was clearly the best player in Rieleros togs, the perpetually cash-strapped team traded him to Monclova after the 2017 for Tim Torres, a serviceable utilityman from California on loan from Oaxaca who'd ironically hit over .300 with 11 homers for Aguascalientes in 2016 before beginning a somewhat remarkable tour of Mexican baseball by first being returned to the Guerreros after the season and later being loaned to Tabasco, who then traded him to Monclova, all in an eight-month span. Torres had hit 307 for the Acereros in limited action during 2017 but never suited up for Aguascalientes after the trade. Instead, he was assigned to Tijuana, where he doubled and scored in one at-bat in one Spring 2018 game before being placed on reserve and has not played since.
On the other hand, Castillo won his second straight Liga MVP award in Spring 2018 with Monclova, raking for a .378 average with 13 homers and 57 RBIs over 56 games in the short season to tie Yucatan's Luis Juarez for the longball title and leading the loop in ribbies. He put in a solid Fall 2018 regular season as well by hitting .324, socking four homers and driving in 43 runs in 51 contests.
Over 15 seasons between 2005 and 2018, Castillo batted .322 with 115 homers and 732 RBIs in 1,258 LMB regular season games. He'd been a Mexican Pacific League fixture between 2006-07 and 2017-18, batting above .280 with 45 homer over 599 games and playing in two Caribbean Series. This winter, in his return after his 2018 injury, Castillo hit .301 in 35 games for Zulia in the Venezuelan League with no homers and 17 RBIs. He'll be joining a Leon team that finished sixth in the Mexican League with a .306 average and a lineup with such returnees as Matt Clark, Felix Pie and Carlos Rivero under new manager Tim Johnson, who was hired in November. The Bravos have reached the postseason three of the past four seasons, but have yet to get past the first round.
LMB DROPS FRANKLIN BASEBALLS, REVERTS TO RAWLINGS
After seeing the number of home runs jump precipitously in 2019 (while pitchers' nerves also jumped accordingly), the Mexican League has reportedly ended the use of Franklin baseballs after one season and will go back to using the Rawlings ball previously used. However, according to an interview with Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, new LMB president Horacio De La Vega said it was the increase in costs and not in roundrippers that led to the change in a deal put together by former Liga leader Javier Salinas.
De La Vega explained that Salinas worked out a deal with Franklin's representative for Mexico, Roberto Contreras, to supply the LMB with 11,000 boxes containing a dozen baseballs each for the 2019 season to be delivered to the Mexican League office in Mexico City. Previously, the Rawlings balls were imported from China and delivered to the border crossing customs office in Nuevo Laredo, from where they were distributed to each of the 16 LMB teams. In addition to the lower cost per ball, to be bought in bulk by the Liga and not by individual franchises, the article states that the LMB (as partners with Franklin) would be able to make a profit reselling them to its teams.
Instead, Contreras was detained at the customs office in Mexico City because he lacked the funds on hand to pay for a 3 million peso (about US$150,000) shipment, even though the Liga had previously sent him the money. As a result, the LMB had to pay that amount a second time to get them out of customs and is currently in litigation to recover it. De La Vega says that while the financial imbroglio actually increased the cost of baseballs in 2019, the silver lining is that Rawlings came back with a better offer this year of US$64.40 per dozen balls that includes the cost of importing them, which was not the case in the past.
The sighs of relief at the league office will no doubt be echoed on pitcher's mounds throughout the LMB. In 2017, the last full season using the Rawlings ball before 2018's two-schedule format, three teams batted over .300, five teams topped 100 homers and only two mound staffs had ERAs above 5.50 (Saltillo at 5.70 and Durango at 6.01). In 2019, using the Franklin ball, ten teams topped the .300 mark (Yucatan just missed at .299), fifteen teams hit 108 or more homers and nine pitching staffs had ERAs above 5.50, with Laguna the worst at 8.05. Ten batters in 2019 belted 30 or more home runs, with Monclova's Chris Carter knocking out 49 four-baggers. Conversely, Rainel Rosario of Saltillo led the loop with 26 longballs in 2017 as only five hitters reached 20 for the season.