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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
Monday, March 29, 2021

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            The Mexican League has announced that some rule changes will be implemented during the upcoming 2021 season, which will begin on May 20 and will consist of 66 regular season games for each club prior to commencing a four-tiered, 12-team playoff in August.


            One of the rule changes will be regarding the intentional walk, which will again require four pitches to the plate. According to an LMB press release detailing the rule changes, this is due to the fact that an evaluation was carried out as to whether the elimination of the four pitches reduced the duration of the games. The study determined that there was no relevant impact. Because of this, leaders of Mexico's senior circuit determined that since a traditional intentional walk involves four pitches in which the ball is alive and in play, there are many possibilities of plays that can arise from each one. Thus, it will be returned to the obligation to pitch the batter.


            Each club will be entitled to six visits to the mound without changing pitchers during a nine-inning game. Regarding any extra innings that are played, teams will be entitled to an extra visit to the mound each frame without changing pitchers.


           In another measure meant to help speed up the games for the 2021 season, pitchers will be required to face a minimum of three consecutive batters, including a batter in the midst of a plate appearance (or any pinch-hitter). The three-batter minimum will apply until said batters are put out or reach base, or until the team's offensive opportunity runs out. An exception will be granted if the starting pitcher or reliever suffers an injury that (in the judgment of the main umpire) makes them unable to continue in the game.


            Last Friday, sports managers and managers around the loop began four seminars on updating the game rules. LMB chief umpire Luis Alberto Ramírez will teach these courses in which they will also address rules regarding the infield fly, balk, obligation of pitchers to face three consecutive batters and visits of managers, coaches or player to the pitcher's mound.


            One unrelated element of the press release from the LMB head office in Mexico City was that the text referred to “16 clubs” instead  the 18 teams playing this season. A typo, perhaps, but a further look at the Mexican League's website shows only 16 teams in the directory, with neither expansion Guadalajara nor Veracruz mentioned even though the two franchises were announced by Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at a press conference in the National Palace in the capital city nearly four months ago.


            The virtual gathering included no personnel from the Liga office, including LMB president Horacio de la Vega, which suggests that de la Vega was not on board with an expansion that may have been Lopez Obrador's idea. The Mexican League Board of Presidents did approve both new teams in late January, a month after the press conference.


            Both new LMB teams WERE included in the master 2021 season schedule, although the name “Jalisco” is used instead of “Guadalajara.” While the change may have made it easier to include the Mariachis within the space allotted in the schedule, the team's name has been at least a minor issue with the mayor of Zapopan, Pedro Lemus, who said in December that in order for the Mariachis to play at Estadio Charros (owned and operated in the suburban municipality by Jalisco's Mexican Pacific League franchise), they would be required to change their name from “Guadalajara” to “Jalisco” to reflect the state's identity.


            Although Veracruz appears to be moving along towards their May opener, from the naming of manager Leo Rodriguez and the signing of players to renovations on Estadio Beto Avila, things are moving at a slower pace in Guadalajara. A deal on the use of the ballpark has still not been signed less than two months away from the start of the season while the Mariachis are the only team in the league to not have a field manager in place.





            Both Hermosillo and Mazatlan front offices have made decisions regarding their respective managers for the 2021-22 Mexican Pacific League season. The Naranjeros will open play next winter with Salon de la Fama member Juan Navarrete at the helm for the start of his second campaign, but the Venados have announced that they will be replacing interim skipper Pablo Ortega.


            Given the impatience for a pennant from ownership in Hermosillo, it may have been somewhat surprising that Navarrete will be back after a season that was somewhat similar to the one his predecessor, Vinny Castilla, turned in for 2019-20 before he was shown the door with thanks for closing it behind him after crossing the threshold. The former Rockies slugger, who was enshrined in Monterrey last winter, led the Orangemen to a 38-27 record (third-best in the LMP) before falling to Mazatlan in the first round of the playoffs in his only season as dugout boss.


            Navarrete was hired last spring after some postseason confusion regarding Castilla's job status and took Hermosillo to a 33-23 regular season mark (slightly better than the previous year and second overall in the Mex Pac) before the Naranjeros reached the championship series, where they lost in seven games to Culiacan for the LMP pennant, a playoff performance that may have been the deciding factor in the former second baseman's return for another season. However, the longtime Oakland A's minor league instructor has been around long enough to know that anything less than a pennant may not be enough to save his job under demanding team president/GM Enrique Mazon.


            In Ortega's case, he took over in Mazatlan last November with the team showing an 8-14 first-half record under Juan Jose Pacho, who was on his third tour of duty as Venados manager after previously leading the team to four pennants and two Caribbean Series titles. Ortega, a longtime star pitcher in both Mexican Leagues for 20 seasons after four years in the Tampa Bay system, was able to coax a 20-16 record out of the Deer the rest of the regular season to secure a playoff berth, but fell in six games to Hermosillo in the first round.


            A press release from the Venados front office announcing that the 44-year-old Ortega would not be back in 2021-22 said that a new manager would be named “later,” and thanked the former right-hander for his work as interim skipper.


            Ortega, who had been Pacho's pitching coach prior to his ascension to Mazatlan's field boss, will have little time to lick any wounds over his dismissal. The Nuevo Laredo native is slated for a second year as new manager for his hometown Tecolotes. Ortega had been hired for that post prior to last season and led the team during training camp before the ongoing pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020 Mexican League season. This year's late-starting camp will open next month.





            When a veteran athlete sports the nickname “El Jefe” (“The Boss”), it's logical to assume that he's gained respect as a team leader over the course of his playing career. That would certainly be the case with longtime Mexican baseball slugger Saul Soto, who'll bring his nickname with him to the expansion Guadalajara Mariachis for the 2021 Mexican League season after playing for Aguascalientes since 2015.


            The 6'4” 235-pound native of Los Mochis would carry a commanding presence regardless of his on-field bonafides, but the 42-year-old Soto has a playing resume that matches him in physical size. Since debuting in 1998 as a catcher with Reynosa, Soto has played 22 seasons in the LMB. In 1,938 career games (mostly with Mexico City, Monclova and Aguascalientes), the right-handed batter has hit .306, topping the .300 mark 13 times, including a six-season run between 2014 and 2018. He's contributed 422 doubles, 288 homers and 1,177 RBIs while scoring 1,084 runs on 2,075 hits.


            Although the Rieleros' last season in 2019 was otherwise forgettable as usual, Soto reached personal milestones of 2,000 hits, 400 doubles and 1,000 runs scored. While his batting average dipped below .300 for the first time since 2013, he socked 22 homers and added 24 doubles among his 117 hits while only missing four games, driving in 85 runs en route to a .268 average and playing in his eleventh LMB All-Star Game since 2006.


            During his time in Aguascalientes, Soto became the last Mexican League player-manager after replacing Marco Antonio Romero on July 8, 2016 (the eleventh LMB manager fired at that point) with the Railroaders showing a 38-41 record at the time. Although Soto didn't fare badly at the helm, turning in a 15-17 record the rest of the way while batting an even .300 with ten homers for the year, then-Liga president Plinio Escalante made him return to a player-only role after the season.


            Soto is coming off his 21st winterball season in the Mexican Pacific League, all with his hometown Los Mochis Caneros. He had a tough year with the last-place club, batting .153 with two homers and 11 RBIs, but has a fair career .244 average in the pitching-strong league with 146 homers and 512 RBIs over 1,132 games. Soto has not caught a game since 2016 and is now primarily a designated hitter and backup first baseman.


            Although former MLB All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has been touted by some as a future player-manager in Guadalajara while Jalisco Charros skipper Benji Gil is said to be a front-runner for the job, it would not be shocking if the Mariachis front office makes an attempt to convince the LMB and president Horacio de la Vega to allow Saul Soto to take the reins of the first-year team this summer.  After all, there's a reason he's called “The Boss.”


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