Many of your favorite Tacoma Rainiers players are still working hard on improving their skills, even though the Pacific Coast League season ended back on Labor Day.
A few players do this in their home towns, working at their local gym and with the nearby high school or college team that they are familiar with. Others work out at specific baseball-related performance training centers – there are a few scattered around the country, typically in baseball hotbed areas like Arizona, Florida, and California.
Players who are willing to spend their off-season away from home try to land roles on various Winter League teams in the off-season. Highly competitive Winter Leagues are played around the globe, in countries such as Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and even Australia.
While I refer to these leagues often on the blog we haven’t really talked much about them. Today we’ll check out the Winter League lineup.
Triple-A players like your Tacoma Rainiers will try to land spots on Winter League teams for three reasons:
- to work on improving a specific part of their game
- to impress their own major league team, and scouts from other teams
- to earn extra off-season money
Some also like to see the world, but not all players are in it for that reason.
The Seattle Mariners currently have players assigned to teams in six different Winter Leagues. Let’s check ’em out:
Venezuelan Winter League – this league, along with the Dominican League, is played at the highest level among the foreign leagues. Most of the league is made up of native Venezuelans who play in the American major leagues or minors during the summer, and then play in their home country during the winter.
This league is known for large fan support and rowdy crowds. It’s important to note that in the eyes of Venezuelan citizens, the VWL is their major league. Winning is important here – losing managers get fired, struggling players get released, and champions are celebrated.
It can be difficult for non-Venezuelan players to crack a roster in this league. The Mariners have a long-standing relationship with one of the teams, Cardinales de Lara, which helps them place advanced prospects in the circuit. It is quite an assignment when the Mariners call an American Triple-A prospect and say, “we want you to go to Venezuela this winter.”
I’ve had many American players tell me this was a life-changing experience for them, and it has helped them achieve a better understanding of what their Latino teammates go through when they are playing in the USA.
The VWL is played at a high level – the league is full of quality Triple-A level players, and there are major leaguers sprinkled in as well. Sometimes established major leaguers from Venezuela will join their local team for the stretch run and playoffs – just a few years ago, the Mariners had to specifically request Felix Hernandez to not do this, as they didn’t want to risk injury.
Typically the Mariners send a few non-Venezuelans to the Cardinales, but this year there is only one: Rainiers reliever Danny Farquhar. The Mariners do have seven players assigned to Lara, and six of them are Venezuelans.
Dominican Winter League – much of what is true about the VWL applies to the DWL as well. The league is chock-full of Dominican professionals, and they play for keeps in a baseball-crazed nation.
The league has a long history, dating continuously back to 1951, but with several of the teams pre-dating the league and going back longer than that. One team, Tigres de Licey, has been in existence for over 100 years and is considered the Yankees of the Dominican.
Because of the league’s long history, generations of baseball men have spent time in the Dominican, either as a player or a coach. For decades major league manager prospects have been asked to run a Dominican team to help prepare them for the show.
From talking to scouts, it seems that these days the DWL is known for hard-throwing pitchers – especially relievers. DWL rosters are typically full of flame-throwing pitchers who come in for short stints, often starting early in the game.
Among others, current Rainiers Carlos Triunfel and Carlos Peguero are playing in the DWL.
Triunfel is an example of an interesting but common case in the DWL: the Tacoma everyday shortstop, and a prospect of some regard, is used mostly as a pinch-hitter down there. Why? Well, the Dominican is the land of the shortstop, and his team has Hanley Ramirez and Jurickson Profar… and on top of that, the Dodgers sent Dee Gordon down there to get some work in. Shortstop is always a stacked depth chart in the DWL.
Mexican Pacific League – that’s the name of the Mexican winter league, which is a different entity from the summer-playing Mexican League (minus the “Pacific”). This is another league that has a long history, dating back to 1957 in its current form.
Like the other foreign leagues, this one is loaded up with Mexican nationals. The Rainiers/Mariners native Mexican Oliver Perez is pitching in the circuit right now, for the Tomateros de Culiacan.
I love the team names in this league. Perez plays for the Culiacan Tomato Growers, there are the Guasave Cotton Growers, and who can resist the Los Mochis Sugar Cane Growers? Sadly, the Saltillo Serape Makers play in the summer league.
Puerto Rico Baseball League – this one has recently recovered from hard times, it actually suspended operations five years ago, only to come back. I couldn’t even find an official league website to link to!
In the past the Rainiers have had many players go to this league – longtime Rainiers pitcher Andy Baldwin played multiple seasons in the league.
This year the Mariners have one player assigned to Purto Rico: Rainiers left-hander Brian Moran is currently pitching for the Manati club.
The winners of the four above winter leagues advance to the round-robin Caribbean Series, played the first week of February. The Caribbean Series is hotly contested and watched by fans from all four countries.
There are two other leagues the Mariners sent players to this off-season:
Australian Baseball League – a relative upstart that began in 2010, this league plays at a lower level than the four leagues listed above. Many teams send a few of their Class-A level minor leaguers to participate in the Australian League.
Like all of the above leagues, the Australian League is heavily populated by natives – but there is a twist here. Because Australia is geographically closer to Asia, many major league teams send their young Korean and Taiwanese prospects to Australia to get some off-season work in.
The Mariners have sent two Americans who played in Class-A last year (Andrew Kitteredge and Nate Melendres) to the league, as well as a South Koreans Ji-Man Choi and Seon Gi Kim.
There are some cool names in this league, such as the Adelaide Bite. The championship title is known as the Claxton Shield.
Arizona Fall League – OK, this one isn’t really a Winter League, it says Fall right there in the title, but I’ve gotta include it anyway. This is the American entry, it is known for top prospects of all nationalities, and each MLB team sends 6-8 players to participate in it. The games are played in October and November, in spring training stadiums.
The AFL is already over – the Mariners affiliate Peoria Javelinas won the title, and Rainiers infielder Nick Franklin had a big season hitting .338 with a .422 OBP and 22 RBI in 20 games.
Always be weary of hitting stats when looking at the AFL numbers – this is a highly offensive league, much like the PCL.
I’ve never been to the Fall League, but from what I hear the crowds are tiny and made up mostly of scouts – which sounds great to me, if you want to get your inner baseball geek on. Someday I’ll be down there in the fall and will check out a game or two.
You can see all of the Mariners statistics from the Winter Leagues in a PDF release right here.
- The Seattle Times has a report that the Mariners wined-and-dined free agent hitter Mike Napoli, and they are using their new drawn-in fences as a selling tool.
- Greg Johns writes that the Mariners are looking for offense at next week’s Winter Meetings. I’m sure my man Greg had to contact hundreds of sources to get that story confirmed!
- Marvin Miller passed away yesterday at age 95. He had an enormous impact on the sport – here is his New York Times obituary. John McGrath wrote about Miller, too.
- In the darkest depths of the off-season, straight out of nowhere, we have a Fangraphs Q&A with Rainiers pitcher Danny Hultzen. Lots of good stuff in here, including a detailed description of how he throws his change-up. His Little League coach taught him how to throw it!
- Former Rainiers catcher… err, make that multiple-times-over ex-Rainiers catcher and possible future Rainiers catcher Guillermo Quiroz signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants are pretty set (that’s an egregious understatement) with Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez behind the plate, so it seems that Quiroz will be injury insurance at Triple-A Fresno.
- Old pal Jeff Clement signed a Triple-A deal with the Minnesota Twins. A good spot for him, in my opinion, as he can try to mash his way to big league DH at-bats.
- In the PCL, Sacramento has a new manager in Steve Scarsone, promoted from their Double-A team. Previous Sacramento manager Darren Bush was added to the major league coaching staff.
- We knew it would happen sometime: the short-season Eugene Emeralds swallowed the hook and switched to a Sasquatch logo. So far it seems that people like it.
- ESPN’s Jim Caple is going to win the $500 million Powerball lottery later today with his selection of power hitter uniform numbers. That’s his plan.
- Presented without comment: Bob Weir and Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead have nominated Giants third base coach Tim Flannery for Sportsman Of The Year.
- The Mariners announced their spring training schedule. Pitchers and catchers report on February 12th. Seems like a long way away, huh?
OK, let’s do the math here… 2+31+31+12= 76 days until spring training!