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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
Monday, November 22, 2021

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             Tijuana Toros outfielder Leandro Castro received 65% of the votes en route to winning the Mexican League's 2021 Most Valuable Player award last week. The 32-year-old Dominican easily beat out Henry Urrutia (Saltillo), Niko Vasquez (Guadalajara), Leo Heras (Guadalajara) and Alex Liddi (Yucatan) for top honors.

            Castro missed only one of the Toros' 65 regular season games and led the LMB with 93 hits and 72 runs batted in, finished second with 159 total bases, third with 36 extra-base hits and a .646 slugging percentage, sixth in batting (.378), tenth with a .433 on-base percentage and twelfth with 14 homers.

            Castro has a .311 Mexican League career batting average and has cranked it up a notch since coming to Tijuana from Saltillo in 2019. He batted .361 that summer, which was his Liga best before this year's .378 after the 2020 campaign was called off due to the pandemic.

            The 5'11” 175-pounder has an overall .288 average with 202 homers and 231 stolen bases over 1,612 games after 15 years of summer and winter action. Castro signed with Philadelphia in 2007 as an 18-year-old free agent and spent that summer with the Phillies' Dominican Summer League team, batting .278 with six homers in 59 games. He went on to play eight seasons in the Phils' system, reaching AAA Lehigh Valley in 2013 and 2014, where he hit a combined .257 with 14 homers, 27 steals and 105 RBIs over two years with the IronPigs. Castro played independent ball in the Canadian-American Association and American Association in 2015 and 2016 before signing with Leon of the LMB for the 2017 season.

            Castro bounced between the Bravos, Dos Laredos and Saltillo before coming to Tijuana in the middle of a 2019 season during which he hit .361 with 27 homers for the Saraperos and Toros in 111 total games. He's currently in his sixth winterball season in the Mexican Pacific League, where he played five seasons with Los Mochis before being sent to Obregon last year and traded to Mexicali prior the current schedule (the Aguilas returned him to the Yaquis after three weeks). Castro was consistently a top batter for the Caneros but after 30 games in 2021-22, he's only hitting .193 with one homer and seven RBIs.

            In other Mexican League awards for 2021, Guadalajara's Benji Gil was named Manager of the Year, Mariachis hurler Masaru Nakamura was voted Pitcher of the Year, Fernando Rodney of Tijuana topped balloting for Reliever of the Year, Veracruz outfielder Yasiel Puig won the new Defensive Player of the Year award, Jesse Castillo of Guadalajara was named Comeback Player of the Year and Oaxaca catcher Juan Carlos Camacho won Rookie of the Year honors.


             After a tepid first half in which they went 16-16 to finish seventh in the Mexican Pacific League standings, the Hermosillo Naranjeros are off to a fast start in the second half of the regular season schedule. The Orangemen have won six of their first nine games to take the lead in the LMP standings, one game ahead of five teams who share identical 5-4 records: Mexicali, Monterrey, Mazatlan, Obregon and first-half champion Navojoa.


            The Naranjeros are led by manager Juan Navarrete, a Salon de la Fama second baseman who defied the odds to reach a second season under impatient Hermosillo owners who've gone through dugout bosses like Elizabeth Taylor went through spouses in search of the team's first pennant since 2013-14. Navarrete has enjoyed having one of the Mex Pac's best pitching staffs this season, including starters Elian Leyva, Wilmer Rios, Ryan Verdugo and Juan Pablo Oramas along with closer Fernando Salas and middleman Heriberto Ruelas. Hermosillo is allowing a league-low 3.60 runs per nine innings (compared to an LMP average of 4.30 R/9 average). Leyva, Rios and Oramas have combined for 12 of Hermosillo's 22 wins on the season.


           Offensively, the Naranjeros have been a middle of the pack team (.266 average with 26 homers and 4.46 runs per game), but they've had some batters who've stood out. Outfielder Nick Torres is sixth in the circuit with a .329 average and is tied for second with seven homers, veteran third baseman Luis Alfonso Cruz is tenth in the batting race at .312 and is tied for sixth in RBIs with 28 and centerfielder Jose Cardona leads the LMP with 34 runs scored amid a well-rounded season during which he's hitting .291 with five homers and nine steals.  At this point of the campaign, Navarrete has Hermosillo looking good enough at the plate and on the mound to be a factor in the postseason if they play to their capabilities.


            Leaguewide, Navojoa's Tirso Ornelas (.386) has a clear lead over teammate Samar Leyva (.353) and Yadir Drake of Guasave (.351) in the batting derby. Another Mayos batter, Kyle Martin, isn't hitting homers at the same pace he started out at, but he socked a longball on Sunday to raise his season total to 10 over 29 games, three ahead of four other LMP batsmen. One of those four, Jalisco's Julian Ornelas, leads with 34 RBIs while four competitors are tied for second at 31 ribbies apiece. Dairon Blanco of Culiacan has reached 20 stolen bases after playing 29 games, eight more than Tomateros teammate Sebastian Elizalde and Ramon Rios of Mazatlan.


            Hermosillo's Leyva won his fifth game to tie Carlos De Leon of Hermosillo for the wins lead while ten other hurlers are tied for third with four wins each. Leyva's 1.17 ERA is tops for pitchers, ahead of moundmate Rios at 2.08 and Obregon's Arturo Lopez (2.11). There's a three-way deadlock for the strikeouts lead at 40 apiece between Obregon's Lopez and Luis Escobar along with Octavio Acosta of Navojoa. Mexicali's poor first half didn't appear to affect closer Jake Sanchez, whose 15 saves leads the LMP to augment his 1.93 ERA while Hermosillo's Salas is second with 11 and Carlos Bustamante of Navojoa has 10.


          Attendance is up across the Mex Pac after a disastrous pandemic-fueled season in 2020-21. While the numbers aren't at their usual pre-Covid levels, a total of 1,155,655 fans have clicked the turnstiles through 205 games thus far for an average of 5,637 per opening. That would be enough to lead every minor league north of the border in 2021 but is well below the typical 9-10,000 average in previous LMP seasons. Hermosillo leads the ten-team loop with 187,323 fans over 22 home games for an average of 8,515 per game while Culiacan is right behind at 175,456 over 22 openings, or 7,975 per game. Guasave ranks last at 44,044 in attendance for a 2,318 average while Mazatlan (usually one of the better draws in the Mex Pac) has only had 54,375 visitors at Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, an average of 2,862.



MEX PAC ROAD TRIP (Stop #8): Culiacan, Sinaloa

            This week, we pay a visit to Culiacan, the eighth Mexican Pacific League site on our virtual ten-city road trip. Culiacan is a two-hour drive lasting just over 100 miles south from Guasave (our last stop) on Highway 15 and is set a few miles inland from the Gulf of California. While Mazatlan is better-known among North Americans, Culiacan is a thriving city and the state capital of Sinaloa.  The name “Culican” is an old native word which means “place where they adore the God Coltzin.”

            A municipality of just over a million residents, Culiacan was a small village when Spanish conquistador Nuno Beltran de Guzman founded the villa of San Miguel de Culiacan on September 29, 1531. From the end of the sixteenth century and throughout much of the 1700’s, San Miguel de Culiacan served as an important staging area for the Spanish conquest of the Mexican West.  However, independence from Spain was eventually won for Mexico in the early 1820’s, and Culiacan was granted the status of “city” in 1823. At that time, Sinaloa’s state capital was in Mazatlan, but was eventually shifted to Culiacan in 1873.

          As with most of the Mex Pac cities, Culiacan is an agricultural center, surrounded by some of the most arable land in Mexico of which the major crop is tomatoes. While Culiacan has a reputation as a tough town, it is also, in fact, a thriving and busy place with a fine State university in the city center, a lovely 19th Century cathedral sitting three blocks away from the ubiquitous Mexican mercado, there are beaches on the Gulf a few miles away in Atlata and El Tambor, and Ernesto Millan Escalante Park features gardens, pools, an open-air Hellenic theater and the longest water slide in northern Mexico. The Centro Cultural Genaro Estrada contains two theaters, several museums and a café, and is a centerpiece for the arts.

             Something else worth a try is catching an LMP game at Estadio Tomateros, which cost an estimated 305 million pesos (about US$20.8 million during construction) before opening in time for the 2015-16 season. At 20,000 seats, Estadio Tomateros is one of the largest ballparks in minor league baseball and rates among the best in Mexico. Culiacan has been a baseball hotbed for decades and the Tomateros are annually among the leaders in Mex Pac attendance, drawing 16,000 per game during pre-pandemic seasons. Unlike most baseball stadiums in Mexico, Estadio Tomateros is not owned by the government but by the team itself.


            The Tomateros have given their fans a lot to cheer about over the years, with 13 Mex Pac pennants since their 1965 formation: Six of those under manager Francisco “Paquin” Estrada, who also brought home two Caribbean Series titles, while ex-MLB infielder Benji Gil has managed the Guindas to four more titles since 2014-15, including the last two. Players who've wintered in Culiacan include Salome Barojas, Esteban Loaiza, Aurelio Lopez, Oliver Perez and Vicente Romo (all Major League Baseball pitchers).


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