Winter Wonderland

The pro baseball season may have finished, even here in Arizona, but it's been going strong in South and Central America, with a large number of Diamondbacks prospects (and some current players), both pitchers and hitters, seeing action. Leagues have been going on in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Hawaii, so with most of the seasons now over or winding-down, let's take a look and see what the results have been like so far.

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We'll start in Hawaii where, as noted elsewhere, Hawaiian Winter Ball looks unlikely to continue, having not extended its contract with MLB, meaning this could therefore be its final year. Three Diamondbacks were members of the West Oahu CaneFires this season, with Mark Hallberg perhaps the most impressive. The infielder, who turned 23 last month, had been nothing special at High-A Visalia, batting .283, but enjoyed his time in the 49th state, batting .362 with a .906 OPS. The best raw numbers went to Cyle Hankerd, however, with a line of .318/.392/.545, leading the team in HR and RBI (5 and 33 respectively, in 25 games). That's the same number of homers as he had in 125 games for Double-A Mobile. Finally, our new catcher, James 'Jack' Skelton also took part, and continued his habitual on-base tear, with an impressive .405 OBP.

The Mexican Winter League had two Arizona starting pitchers - though one, Edgar Gonzalez, may or may not make it back to the team in 2009, having been released by the club. He went 4-1 for Hermosillo in seven starts, posting a 4.46 ERA. New Australian left-hander Travis Blackley made ten starts for Mexicali, including a complete game, and went 2-3 with a decent 3.88 ERA in those games [a couple of bad bullpen outings inflated his overall figure to 4.24]. Of particular note was a good K:BB ratio of 3:1 as a starter. No Arizona hitter has appeared in more than six games so far, and the regular season is now in its last week, so we'll move rapidly on.

The Dominican League saw our players appear for Estrellas de Oriente, and was similarly pitcher-heavy. Evan MacLane pulled double duty, appearing both here and Venezuela: between the two, he had twelve starts and a 4.00 ERA. He struggled a bit more in the DWL, being winless in nine outings there, though showed excelled control, allowing eight walks in 41 innings and just nine in 63 overall, compared to 52 strikeouts. Jailen Peguero made 18 apperances out of the 'pen and had a 3.00 ERA, with three saves in five changes. However, he did walk too many people - fourteen in only eighteen innings, along with three wild pitches. On the plus side, opposing hitters batted only .190 off Peguero, but Estrellas still missed the playoffs, winning only 16 of 50 games, so their season is over.

The same issues plagued young southpaw Jordan Norberto, with 14 walks in 17.2 innings of work, but a .212 average against. He only just had his 22nd birthday on December 8th, so is still young enough. He spent both 2007 and 2008 at Class-A South Bend, and having had an ERA above five both times, needs to step things up this year. The other Diamondback to pitch a significant (ten-plus) number of innings in the DWL was Esmerling Vasquez, who made six appearances all told, totaling 13.1 IP, with a 3.38 ERA. He began as a starter, but was shifted to a relief role after walking five batters in his first six innings. That seemed to help, as his K:BB ratio was 6:2 in the remaining 7.1 frames, with only one earned run allowed. He was our minor-league Pitcher of the Year in 2007, but struggled in Tucson last season, where his ERA was 6.82 in 83 innings.

Finally, we move to the Venezuelan Winter League, with a number of fine performances by AZ players. Leading hitter is probably Jesus Merchan, shortstop for the Sidewinders last season. His success is not unexpected, since he batted .339 for Tucson, but his on-base skills were notable. Merchan has given his team a .423 OBP, and decent wheels [4 triples in 79 at-bats], help his OPS reach .980. My first thought was, move to 2B this year in Reno, with the aim to  replace Lopez in 2010. However, he'd then be 29, and his defense seems poor [21 errors in 107 games at SS last year]. Miguel Montero had an interesting winter. He started off very poorly, going just .185 (5-for-27) at the beginning of the year, with Bravos de Margarita. However, after a trade took him to Caribes, Miggy has been en fuego, giving his new team a line of .302/.358/.530, with eight homers in just 149 at-bats. Could probably do with some more walks, and he's K'd more than three times as often, worse than in the majors last season.

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Gerardo Parra (above) also impressed observers; he is only 21 but batted .329 for Aguilas de Zulia, leading the team with 124 total bases and 15 SB, on his way to a .908 OPS. He had almost as many walks as strikeouts (31:36), giving him an OBP above .400, and is seen by some as the most likely internal prospect to replace Byrnes [if EB stays his contract]. Our well-known 2008 outfielder, Alex Romero, went one better, getting more walks than strikeouts (19:18), to tack onto a .311 average. However, his familiar lack of power - five extra-base hits in 44 games - means his SLG is lower than his OBP, and the overall OPS of .754 is disappointing.

Moving on to the pitchers, we've already covered Evan MacLane, but the one who stands out was Juan Gutierrez. As noted previously, he had a one-hitter among his 13 starts, for a 5-2 record and 2.63 ERA; even that's after a bad outing last time, before which it was 2.30. His K-rate is good - 56 in 65 innings, compared to 20 walks - and he is keeping the ball in the park. Gutierrez has allowed only a pair of home-runs, one in that most recent start, to franchise-mate Javier Brito. That can't be said for Yusmeiro Petit, who continues to be plagued by the long-ball, to the tune of seven in just 39 innings. Hitters overall are enjoying the Petit Unit, to the tune of .316, and he is still winless after eight starts. His last three outings have resulted in a total of 23 hits and 11 earned runs over 13.1 innings of work. Maybe picking up another starter is a wise idea...

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