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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
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           After weeks of speculation among Mexican baseball media that Guadalajara's new Mexican League team would hire former MLB infielder Benji Gil as their first manager, the Mariachis finally confirmed last week that Gil would indeed be the expansion team's dugout boss for the 2021 season. He is the last manager named for the upcoming Liga season. One day before that announcement, the team verified the signing of former MLB all-star first baseman Adrian “El Titan” Gonzalez to a playing contract.


           Gil, who was born in Tijuana in 1972, went to high school in Chula Vista, California and was the Rangers' first round draft pick in 1991. After only two years in the minors, Gil was Texas' Opening Day shortstop in 1993, going 0-for-3 with a walk in a 7-4 win at Baltimore on April 5 that year. Though the 20-year-old was sent down to the minors for more seasoning after batting .123 in 22 games, he returned in 1995 and was a Rangers' starter that year, batting .219 with nine homers in 130 games. Gil was eventually traded away and spent time in the White Sox and Marlins systems before landing in Anaheim in 2010. He was a top reserve and part-time starter for the Angels for the next four years, playing for the Halos in their 2002 World Series win over San Francisco (batting 4-for-5 with a double in three games).


           Following his 2003 release from the Angels, Gil spent time with five MLB organizations over the next two years but never appeared in a big league game again. He then played in the Mexican League between 2006 and 2011, suiting up for Monterrey, Chihuahua and Oaxaca (winning the 2007 pennant with the Sultanes and representing the Dorados in the 2008 and 2009 LMB All-Star Games).  After going 1-for-3 in one game for independent Fort Worth in 2012, Gil retired as a player at age 39.


           The Mariachis will mark Gil's first shot as an LMB helmsman, but he is no stranger to running a professional team in Guadalajara. The 48-year-old has spent three winterball seasons managing the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros. Although his teams have won four LMP titles in his six years, the volatile Gil's reign has rarely been quiet and he's had run-ins with the LMP office, the Charros' front office and even his own players, nearly getting into a fistfight with Jalisco centerfielder Rico Noel in the middle of a game. He's come under some criticism for failing to win a Caribbean Series title in his last three tries, but you still have to win your league pennant to get that far and he DID lead Mexico to the 2015 Serie del Caribe crown.



           Northern Division: Aguascalientes-Luis Carlos Rivera, Durango-Felix Fermin, Guadalajara-Benji Gil, Union Laguna-Omar Malaves, Dos Laredos-Pablo Ortega, Monclova-Pat Listach, Monterrey-Homar Rojas, Saltillo-Roberto Vizcarra, Tijuana-Omar Vizquel.

           Southern Division: Campeche-Francisco Campos, Leon-Tim Johnson, Mexico City-Miguel Ojeda, Oaxaca-Erick Rodriguez, Puebla-Carlos Gastelum, Quintana Roo-Adan Munoz, Tabasco-Pedro Mere, Veracruz-Leo Rodriguez III, Yucatan-Geronimo Gil.


           One of Gil's main men in Guadalajara will be the aforementioned Gonzalez, a Tijuana-raised player who likewise attended high school in Chula Vista before becoming a first-round draft pick. “El Titan” has played for Mexico in every World Baseball Classic since its 2006 inception and is hoping his time with the Mariachis will be a springboard to a roster spot with the Verdes Grande in this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.


           His resume as a major leaguer (317 homers and 1,220 RBIs over 15 seasons) after being the first pick of the 2001 MLB draft is probably more impressive than any player vying for a berth on manager Juan Gabriel Castro's team. Gonzalez has also spent several Mexican Pacific League seasons playing alongside older brother Edgar with the Mazatlan Venados, though his last foray into winterball was more than a decade ago.


           However, the five-time All-Star will turn 39 next month and has not played in a competitive game since his release from the New York Mets during the 2018 season. Castro himself has opined that he already has plenty of qualified candidates at first base and designated hitter for the six-team baseball Olympiad, and that “El Titan” should not look at a place on the team as a given.


           With a scheduled May 20 opening date for the Mexican League this year and a July 28 first game in Olympic competition, Gonzalez will not have much time to shake off nearly three years of inactivity. Since Guadalajara also signed another veteran first baseman, Saul Soto, last month, Gil will likely alternate the two between duties at DH and the initial hassock because both are expected to bring potent bats with power to the fledgling team's lineup this summer.





           The defending Mexican League champion Monclova Acereros have strengthened their infield with the signing of former Chicago Cubs all-star shortstop Addison Russell to a one-year contract for the 2021 season. The Steelers are hoping Russell will help fill the void in their batting order created when catcher Bruce Maxwell signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets last year.


           Now 27, Russell was taken out of Pace High School in Floriday by Oakland with the 11th overall pick of the 2012 draft. He was the 2013 Rookie of the Year in the Class A California League and that year's Arizona Fall League All-Prospects team while considered one of the top prospects in the A's system. However, with Oakland fighting for a playoff berth down the stretch of the 2014 campaign, GM Billy Beane included the rights to Russell in a multiplayer trade to the Cubs for pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.


           Prior the 2015 season, Baseball America listed Russell as the third-best prospect in MLB. He made his big league debut with Chicago on April 21 of that year and went on to play 142 games at shortstop and second base for the Cubs, batting .242 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs. He also appeared in the postseason, breaking up a no-hitter by St. Louis' John Lackey with a sixth-inning single in Chicago's NLDS series with the Cardinals.


           Russell then stepped up the following season by cracking 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as the Cubs won their first pennant since 1945 and first World Series since 1908. Russell blasted a third-inning grand slam off Cleveland's Dan Otero during Chicago's 9-3 Game Six win on the road after slashing a two-run double in the top of the first. He also started at shortstop for the National League in that year's All-Star Game, going 0-for-2.


           The 2016 season proved to be Russell's highwater mark in the majors. He missed six weeks of the 2017 schedule with a strained right foot and finished with a .239 average, hitting 12 homers and 43 RBIs over 110 games. He had another disappointing year in 2018, turning in a .250 average with five roundtrippers and 38 RBIs before being placed on administrative leave September 19 due to an an investigation into domestic abuse allegations.


           Russell's last season with the Cubs in 2019 got off to a late start due to MLB's determination that he had abused his wife. After completing a 40-game suspension that began the previous season, he played for AAA Iowa before a May 8 callup to Chicago. Switched to second base, he went 0-for-3 against Miami and was mostly booed by the Wrigley Field faithful. He had another three-week stint at Iowa that summer and finished the season with a .237 average, nine homers and 23 ribbies over 82 games. He was non-tendered by the Cubs that December, becoming a free agent.


           Russell then signed with the Kiwoom Heroes of the Korea Baseball Organization on June 19 of last year. After a quarantine period, he debuted on July 28 against the Doosan Bears and went on to play 65 games for the Heroes, registering a .254 average with a pair of homers and 31 RBIs. The team decided not to bring Russell back for 2021, leaving him a free agent until last week's signing with Monclova.


           Where Acereros manager Pat Listach puts Russell in the field is a question. Second baseman Noah Perio, a 29-year-old former Marlins prospect, was MVP of the 2019 Serie del Rey and later played that winter for Mexico's Premier12 team that qualified for the Olympics. At shortstop, Erick Aybar is a 12-year MLB veteran who hit .319 and played in the 2019 Mexican League All-Star game, but Aybar is ten years older than Russell and spent time on both the Injured and Reserve lists for the Acereros in 2019. Then there's middle infielder Oscar Sanay, a 5'7” former Cal State-Bakersfield star who topped .300 four times between 2016 and 2018 and hit .395 in 16 games for the Steelers in 2019 after coming over from Union Laguna that July.





            The Mexico City Diablos Rojos are bringing in the current Cuban National Series Most Valuable Player for the 2021 Mexican League season. First baseman Lisban Correa has agree to terms with the capital city club and will play for manager Miguel Ojeda this summer.


            Reportedly 32 years of age, Correa had a breakout year for the Havana Industriales in 2020-21, batting .320 and leading the CNS with 28 homers, 82 RBIs and a .692 slugging percentage. He struck out just 34 times while drawing 63 walks. Correa finished nine homers ahead of Las Tunas' Rafael Vinales in setting a CNS longball record for a 75-game season.


            According to Diablos sports manager Jorge del Valle, Correa's profile fits perfectly with what was being sought to reinforce a team built around the Mexican talent forged in the Red Devils' organization. “We were looking for a bat of power and experience, and that is Lisbán Correa,” said del Valle. “He comes from a strong baseball league that is played at sea level and that interests us, considering that we are going to play in the South Zone. Today, Lisbán Correa is a benchmark in Cuban baseball and we see him with a great opportunity to mark a great story in the ranks of the Red Devils."


            Correa's journey to Mexico is an interesting one, to say the least. The 6'2” 192-pounder debuted in the CNS as a 16-year-old catcher with the Havana Metropolitanos in 2005-06, batting .281 in 55 games. He went on to spend ten years in the league, topping the .300 mark three times and reaching double figures in homers three times as well.


            Correa was caught up in controversy during the 2009-10 season by chasing Sancti Spiritus pitcher Yanier Sosa into center field after Sosa had intentionally thrown at him during a game. The chase precipitated a bench-clearing brawl that eventually involved police in what a writer for terms “as one of the three most violent of Cuban baseball.” While Sosa was suspended for three games, Correa was handed a six-month sanction and had to watch his teammates win the pennant that season from a distance.


            Then, in 2015, Correa (whose father Ivan had been a slugger in the CNS years before) had defected from Cuba for Haiti, where he hoped to make contact and sign with an MLB organization. Before leaving his homeland, he was told by smugglers that a big league team was ready to sign him, which proved a lie after he spoke to a lawyer at the Dominican consulate in Port-au-Prince.


            Correa then made a rugged trip across the island into the Dominican Republic, where an alleged “investor” asked him to sign a contract in which the player would have to pay for his own rent, food and gym privileges. Correa refused to sign and as an undocumented alien without money or a place to live, he was in a tough spot. He was able to cobble together the equivalent of US$100, which he used to travel much of the Dominican Republic over two weeks searching for someone who would help him sign a playing contract, but failed.


            Correa didn't want to return to Cuba and be seen as a failure, the Cubalite writer says, but he did go back as a “visitor” for the 2019-20 season in the fading hope that returning to the Industralies team he played for since 2009-10 after a trade with the Metropolitanos would earn him notice from an MLB organization or another foreign team.


            Now, after a banner season that earned him an MVP award, Correa will be crossing the Caribbean again, this time to Mexico. While it's highly unlikely he'll be able to make the jump to MLB from Mexico City, he'll be earning a far higher salary with the well-playing Diablos Rojos than he would ever make in Cuba, where the best players in the CNS might make US$300 a month during the season. As an import, Correa might make at least ten times that amount in the LMB.


            More to the point, Lisban Correa has a new lease on life in Mexico, something that can't always be quantified in dollars or pesos.


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