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USA Today

Play Heats Up In Winter Ball; Leagues Offer Game's Young Prospects Chance To Shine

By Chuck Johnson

February 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
USA Today. All rights reserved. 

Nutmeg and chili peppers aren't the only seasonings indigenous to Latin America.

Stiff baseball competition is another spice of life, and many of the major leagues' future stars find the seasoning they need on the sun-soaked diamonds of the winter leagues, which culminates this week in Puerto Rico with the Caribbean World Series.

In decades past, winter ball thrived as a source of off season income for established major leaguers. These days, the winter leagues serve as a crucial tool for developing young prospects.

"When you're young, the last thing you want to do after a long minor league season is play winter ball, but that's exactly what you need," says Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams. "It not only helps you advance your skills but it strengthens your mind.

"It also serves as a humbling force in terms of recognizing how good things are here in the States as opposed to other places. For a player born in the States, it's not only good for you physically, but it's good for your character."

Typically, a major league club has six to 12 players each year on winter league teams in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Mexico.

Not long ago, virtually all major leaguers played in the winter leagues at some point in their careers. That was before the advent of free agency in 1976 and the big-money contracts.

"Major league salaries had to be supplemented back then," says Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz. "Players either worked in the steel mill, the lumber yard or whatever, or they played winter ball in order to keep the income stream coming."

Attitudes about the advantages of playing year-round also have changed.

"With the advancements in training techniques and so many specialized instructors with regard to agility drills, nutrition and biomechanics, a lot of players feel more comfortable in that environment," Williams says. "They're convinced that training is what they need more than playing the game."

Williams, a former major league outfielder, figures his playing career could have benefited from having more experience than the two winter league seasons he spent in Mexico.

"The only way you're going to get better in this game is by playing against good competition," he says, "and in the Latin American countries, the intensity level and talent level is higher than most people realize. You're facing great pitching and great athletic teams every game."

An overwhelming majority of winter league players are natives of the country they represent.

Their year-round play, at least in part, is responsible for the rising percentage of Latino players, who compose about 34% of minor league rosters and 22.5% of those on major league 40-man rosters.

"In some cases, we urge guys to play in the winter leagues, but the guys we're talking about have to be fairly well developed in terms of their skill level," Schuerholz says.

"Certainly, the competition is stronger and the caliber of play is higher than most young players have experienced. But if he's ready for it and is willing to make the adjustments of being in a new environment, it prepares him for the challenge of fighting for a spot on a major league team."

Schuerholz cites Dominican shortstop Rafael Furcal, the 2000 National League Rookie of the Year, as a prime example. "When Furcal made our club, it was largely because of what he did in winter ball the year before," Schuerholz says.

Winter ball can lead to big break

This week's Caribbean World Series is the annual battle among the champions of the four leagues comprising the Caribbean Baseball Federation.

Venezuela, a traditional entry, is notably absent after political conflict forced the early cancellation of its season. As a result, host Puerto Rico has two of the four teams in the tournament, Mayaguez and Caguas.

"It's going to be a little different (without Venezuela), but it still should be great," says Mayaguez's Jose Valentin, a Chicago White Sox infielder.

"All the Caribbean Series I've been to have been awesome," adds Caguas catcher Jose Molina, fresh off his World Series victory with the Anaheim Angels. "I don't expect this year to be an exception."

Ultimately, it's the players' decision whether to compete in winter league baseball, but the decision is made in concert with their major league club.

"Usually, it's the guy knocking on the door who's about to break into the big leagues that plays in the winter leagues," says Louie Eljaua, international scouting director for the Boston Red Sox.

"Other guys are already in the big leagues and they play because maybe they didn't get enough at-bats due to injury or lack of playing time. Some guys play because they're trying to be seen and make an impression so they can get picked up and make a comeback."

There are rules for players under contract that govern their eligibility for winter ball. Under an agreement with the Caribbean Federation, major league clubs can only prohibit native-born Latin players from participation in the winter leagues based on injury, illness or extreme fatigue: 180 innings pitched the previous season in the majors or minor leagues, 60 appearances for relief pitchers and 520 at-bats for position players.

"We're less likely to send pitchers to play winter ball . . . because we've had a few injuries that happened in the past due to possible overuse," Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry says. "On the other hand, we like to send our young position-guy prospects who are on their way up because the more they play, the better."

National pride calls some players

The risk of injury is a key reason most of today's major league stars choose to skip the winter leagues.

Although stars such as Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Roberto Alomar and Juan Gonzalez played winter ball earlier in their careers, only one time recently has there been a flood of stars in the winter leagues. That was in 1994, when the major league season was cut short by a strike.

A Puerto Rican "dream team" of Alomar, Bernie Williams, Edgar Martinez, Carlos Delgado, Rey Sanchez, Carlos Baerga and Ruben Sierra won the Caribbean Series.

For the most part, established stars don't think the $5,000- $10,000 a month in the winter leagues is worth risking their multimillion dollar livelihoods.

The major league clubs have to worry, as well.

The New York Mets were relieved after learning shortstop Jose Reyes, their 2002 minor leaguer of the year, will be ready for spring training after suffering only a mild quadriceps strain playing for his Dominican team.

But with national pride being so much a part of the Latin baseball culture, there are still some stars who play winter ball despite the potential risks. One is Oakland A's shortstop Miguel Tejada, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player.

Tejada, who led Aguilas of Cibao to the Dominican Republic winter league crown last week, has returned home to play every winter since signing with the A's in 1993.

"The way I've always played in the Dominican League is why I won the MVP last year in the big leagues," Tejada says. "It's special for me to come back to my people and say 'thank you' for all the things they've done for me."

The winter leagues are filled with players hoping to follow in those footsteps. They're today's prospects and tomorrow's stars.

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