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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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            The schedule for the 2021 Caribbean Series in Mazatlan was released last Tuesday. Six nations will be represented at the event, in which 18 games will be played in a seven-day period beginning Sunday, January 31 and concluding with the championship game on Saturday, February 6.


            All games will be played at Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, home of the Venados. The first stage will be a round-robin series of tripleheaders for the first five days (Sunday through Thursday), followed by a semifinal doubleheader on Friday, February 4 and the title contest one day later. Tripleheaders are slated to begin with 12:00PM games and followed by contests at 4:00PM and 8:00PM, the semifinal twinbill will commence at 4:00PM and the championship game is set for 8:00PM (local time).


            Joining the Mexican Pacific League champions will be pennant-winners from traditional Serie del Caribe countries Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic along with relative newcomers Panama and Colombia, which replaced Cuba in the lineup last winter after the Cuban National Series champion Matanzas Cocodrilos pulled out weeks before the tournament, citing visa problems prevented them from entering Serie del Caribe site San Juan, Puerto Rico.


            Colombia had never been represented in the Caribbean Series before, but even though the fill-in Monteria Vaqueros lost all five of their games in San Juan, they played credibly as a first-time LCBP entrant and when Caribbean Professional Baseball Confederation president Jose Francisco Puello announced earlier this year that Cuba would not play in the 2021 CS, the Colombians were invited to send their champions a second time.


            This will mark the third consecutive season Panama has played in the event after a 48-year absence. The country was pressed into host duties in 2019 after turmoil in Venezuela (the planned site) forced the tournament to be moved from Barquisimeto to Panama City shortly before it was to convene. The Panamanian League champion Herrera Toros were awarded a sixth berth and shocked observers by going 3-1 in group play and beating Cuban champion Las Tunas, 3-1, to take the title.


            Ironically, the only winter league in the Western Hemisphere that's been playing is the one whose champion will have to stay home. The Cuban National Series got their schedule underway on September 12, have had no Wuhan virus interruptions to date and will pass the 50-game mark this week.


            Things haven't run so smoothly for the other six circuits. The Mex Pac is in the midst of an 11-day shutdown due to the virus after opening on October 15 as planned. The LMP has reduced the regular season from 68 to 59 games prior to commencing their eight-team playoffs in January. All other CS leagues have delayed their season openers: The Dominican Winter League was scheduled to open their season yesterday (November 15), the Colombian League begins play November 28 and both the Venezuelan League and Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente League start December 1. No word on if/when the Panamanian League will play.


            It may be worth keeping an eye on the Nicaraguan National League, which was scheduled to open its season last Friday. Nicaragua is currently 15th in the WBSC baseball rankings (Panama is 12th and Colombia is 14th), and LPBN organizers have wanted to take part in a Caribbean Series for a few years. In case of emergency in this virus-altered season, they may get their chance in January.





            Although the Mexican Pacific League is ostensibly wrapping up a self-imposed, 11-day shutdown that took effect Friday, November 7 after the Wuhan virus forced the cancellation of a number of games (including two entire series), things have been anything but inactive on the playing fields or in the front offices among the loop's franchises.


            By early last week, all ten teams were holding workouts in their respective home ballparks in preparation for resumption of play even though more than half had players and coaches who'd tested positive for the virus. One of those, Jalisco infield coach Fernando Elizondo (who'd tested positive on October 23), was back tossing batting practice pitches at Estadio Charros last Tuesday. On that same day, members of the Culiacan Tomateros took part in a seven-inning intrasquad game while Los Mochis manager Victor Bojorquez was overseeing workouts. Bojorquez was quoted in El Jonronero as saying, "We're going to continue working with the boys and by the weekend, we'll have intrasquad games."


            In a podcast for Puro Beisbol, longtime former catcher Adan Amezcua criticized the Mex Pac for not enforcing the shutdown. "Continuing to train will not help them much," Amezcua told Puro Beisbol's Ricardo Gonzalez. "They will not have collective immunity because this (the virus) continues to spread and will continue to spread. The league has to reach out and impose very strong sanctions for those who break the rules."


            LMP general managers were getting workouts on the phone as well, with several deals taking place during the game stoppage. The Monterrey Sultanes were involved in two transactions, including receiving former MLB outfielder Paulo Orlando on loan from Obregon to complete an earlier arrangement in which they similarly loaned holdout outfielder Felix Perez to the Yaquis. Orlando played with Kansas City between 2015 and 2018, batting .263 with 14 homers over 278 games for the Royals. the 35-year-old Brazilian was a latecomer to baseball at age 12 when a physician his mother worked for recommended he give the game a try. Orlando played soccer and was on Brazil's Junior National track team before focusing baseball. He was a member of Kansas City's 2015 World Series title team. He's due to play in the Mexican League for Dos Laredos next year.


            The Sultanes also shipped veteran reliever Jesus Pirela to Mazatlan. The 31-year-old Venezuelan, who replaces outfielder Chris Roberson on the Venados roster, is considered one of the top setup men in Mexican baseball, leading the Mexican League in holds in 2019 while also being selected to the All-Star Game. Pirela also has experience as a closer in both leagues south of the border, going 20-for-20 in save opportunities for Veracruz of the LMB in 2014 and saving 18 games for Navojoa in 2018-19. He may replace current Mazatlan closer Ryan Newell who is third in the Mex Pac with three saves but has a 10.13 ERA, which won't cut it with a team as historically reliant on pitching as the Deer. The former Phillies and Rangers farmhand was unscored upon in four appearances for Monterrey this season.


            Another struggling hurler was let go by the Jalisco Charros two years after becoming only the fifth Pitching Triple Crown winner in league history. Cuban righty Elian Leyva, who was 6-2 with a 2.02 ERA and 67 strikeouts for Jalisco in 2018-19 and was named the LMP Pitcher of the Year. Leyva, who'd been a middleman in seven Cuban National Series seasons and in 2018 as a Brave minor leaguer, struggled a bit last season and went 2-1 with a 4.33 ERA in seven starts for the Charros. He pitched a pair of games in Italy last summer before returning to Guadalajara this season but the magic failed to reappear, as Leyva was 0-3 and 13.06 at the time of his release. He's being replaced on the Jalisco roster by reliever Brennan Bernardino, an Indians minor leaguer who pitched for the Charros last winter.


            Finally, Hermosillo GM Juan Aguirre confirmed to Puro Beisbol that first baseman Roberto Ramos will join the Naranjeros the first week of December. Ramos, a native son of the Sonora state capital, has returned from South Korea after an eye-opening debut season in Asia after several years in the Colorado Rockies system. Ramos, who turns 26 on December 28, hit .278 for the LG Twins of the Korea Baseball Organization and finishing second in the KBO with 38 homers over 117 games as the Busan team finished second in the regular season with a 79-59 record. Aguirre said that Ramos, who hit two more roundtrippers during the playoffs, will likely be invited to return to Korea in 2021 after playing under a one-year contract for the Twins that paid up to $500,000.





            The Copa Juntos por Mexico (“Together for Mexico Cup), a month-long tournament featuring young players from both the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros of the Mexican League, got underway last Thursday at Mexico City's Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu. The teams will play through December 12. While the tourney is primarily a showcase for some of the top prospects from a baseball academy in Oaxaca (some of whom have already signed with Major League Baseball organizations), it's also been a chance for the up-and-comers to play with or against former MLB third baseman Jorge Cantu. Baltimore infielder Rmaon Urias and free agent pitcher Roberto Osuna have also said they'll make appearance at the Copa Juntos.


            The 38-year-old Cantu showed little rust after 19 months since his last Mexican League game. Playing for the Diablos Rojos' Jose Luis Sandoval team, he stroked an RBI double in the top of the first inning of last Tuesday's opening game to plate the first run of the tournament in a 6-2 loss to Team Daniel Fernandez. After his sacrifice fly in the top of the first drove in another veteran, Sergio Gastelum, for the first run of Friday's 9-3 loss to Team Nelson Barrera, Cantu socked a solo homer over the centerfield wall to cap a 3-for-5 game with two ribbies in Team Sandoval's 10-8 triumph over Team Barrera. Gastelum played last weekend during a break from his managerial duties with league-leading Obregon during the Mexican Pacific League's shutdown.


            Born in McAllen, Texas, Cantu grew up across the border in Reynosa before signing with Tampa Bay in 1999 at age 17. He broke in with the Rays during the 2004 season and went on to hit .271 with 104 homers in 873 MLB games for five teams. He hit 28 homers with 117 RBIs for Tampa Bay in 2005 and over a two-year stretch with the Marlins between 2008-09, he belted 45 longballs and drove in 195 runs. Since arriving in the LMB, Cantu has hit .291 with 99 homers in 535 games while playing for two pennant winners with the Tigres and one with Tijuana. The 38-year-old "El Bronco" signed with Mexico City in 2019 and batted .283 and 12 homers in 74 games that year.


            Playing in Mexico City represents a homecoming of sorts for Urias, who spent five seasons playing shortstop and second base for the Diablos and batting .323 with 35 homers in 352 games before signing a minor league contract with St. Louis following the 2017 seasons. After spending two years in the Cardinals system, mostly in Class AAA Memphis, the 26-year-old Sonoran was claimed on waivers by the Orioles in February and went on to bounce back and forth between Baltimore and the team's alternate training site during the truncated 2020 season. Urias did hit .360 in his first ten MLB games and cracked his first big league homer off Toronto's Shun Yamaguchi on September 25 in Buffalo. He'll reportedly play 11 or 12 games in the nation's capital.


            On November 4, Osuna said on Twitter that he'd pitch for a short time in Mexico City before reporting back to the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros on November 20. A Guadalajara native whose younger brothers are also in the Charros organization (outfielder Alex tested positive for the Wuhan virus earlier this month), Osuna had been working out with the team after declaring himself a free agent when it became apparent that Houston was not going to pick up the team option on his contract. The 25-year-old righthander saved 154 games and appeared in an All-Star Game and a World Series for Toronto and the Astros between 2015 and 2019, but went down with an elbow injury four games into the 2020 season and was done for the year. Tommy John surgery was feared but eventually ruled out. Osuna hopes his stint with Jalisco leads to contract offers from MLB teams.


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