Thoughts on Winter League Baseball

I’ve been following the Caribbean Winter Leagues more this off-season than I ever have in the past.

The one big surprise for me is that more Independent-A League pitchers play in the Winter Leagues than I expected.  The other groups I expected — not quite major leaguers from the countries (Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela) where the leagues are located; aspiring minor leaguers and North American minor leaguers trying to get better; Latino players who have recently left the MLB-system but still have something left; Mexican League (Summer) players (the most favored summer location to play for post-MLB system Latino players); and injured players trying to make a come-back.

The Caribbean Winter Leagues pay better than the minor league salaries without at least one game of major league service and a lot better than the Independent-A Leagues.  The best veteran players in the Winter Leagues can make $10K to $15K per month (for a two or 2.5 month season) compared to the maximum of $3,000/month paid by the Atlantic League.

The Indy-A players can play for well less than this max and still make more than their summer wages.  Even the Mexican League only pays $8K per month max to foreign players.  Also, the more you play (as long as you’re healthy), the better your baseball skills should get.

The Indy-A pitchers are pitching pretty good, or at least there are a significant number that have pitched well in this year’s Winter Leagues.  Reinier Roibal, Bryan Evans, Logan Darnell, Tyler Alexander, Ryan Kussmaul and Zack Dodson to name more than a few.

The Mexican Pacific League appears to have some kind of working relationship with the American Association, because the last three listed players all played in the AA this past summer.  The Venezuelan and Dominican Winter Leagues draw primarily from the better playing Atlantic League.  However, the Can-Am League. which has a designed Cuban League team and other Cubans playing on regular Canadian and American teams, has generated Cuban players who are playing in the Winter Leagues this season.

That brings us to the Cuba Serie Nacional.  Cuba’s Winter League plays a 90-game split-season.  The league has 16 teams in a country of only 11 million, but produces players like Aroldis Chapman and Jose Abreu.  In other words, the talent distribution in Cuba is perhaps similar to the old Negro Leagues which fielded players of wildly different abilities.

In the first half of the Serie Nacional season, veteran star Frederich Cepeda (he likely has a German somewhere in his not too distant ancestry) batted a ridiculous .480 in the season’s first half. By way of comparison, World Series semi-hero Yuli Gurriel batted .500 with an OPS proportionately better than Cepeda’s this season, in Gurriel’s last season in the Serie Nacional before defecting.

Few people outside of Cuba and greater Tokyo have heard of Cepeda; he couldn’t cut it in Japan’s NPB at ages 34 and 35; but he has been a truly great player in Cuba both before and after.  The now 37 year old is batting a more modest .340 with an OPB just barely over 1.000 in the Cuban League’s ongoing second half.

The top pitcher in the Serie Nacional this year is Yoanni Yera, a small left-hander (5’7″, 187 lbs) who is electric in Cuba, but was erratic/ineffective in 39.1 Can-Am League innings over last two seasons.  Some players are creatures of the county and league that developed them.  Cepeda and Yera probably haven’t defected for this reason.

It sure does seem like the Cuban player that haven’t defected are the ones who haven’t convinced anyone (even themselves) that they can play outside of Cuba.  Even Alfredo Despaigne, who has become a super star in Japan’s NPB, seems like a player who is playing where his value is absolutely maximized.  Another triumph for capitalism?

As a final note, Jung-ho Kang is currently the worst hitting qualifier in the Dominican Winter League.  He’s slashing a brutal .137/.224/.205.  He’s got one year left on his MLB contract, so he won’t be leaving MLB just yet, but it may well be time for him to return to South Korea’s KBO for everyone’s sake.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball Abroad, Independent-A Leagues, KBO, NPB, Pittsburg Pirates

One Comment on “Thoughts on Winter League Baseball”

  1. Burly Says:

    Puerto Rico’s Winter League, named after Roberto Clemente, still hasn’t started play this year following Hurricane Maria. The Hurricane was worse than we hear about in most U.S. media.


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