The Venezuelan League began play last night, kicking off the 2017-18 winter league coverage. There was also one game in Mexico, though action for Pittsburgh Pirates in the league begins tonight. Throughout the entire off-season, we will have coverage of the winter league action, with articles posted 5-6 times a week, depending on how many Pirates see action each night. The Caribbean World Series takes place during the first week of February and signals the end of winter ball, so unless no Pirates are involved in that final tournament, then the coverage takes you right up to the beginning of Spring Training.
We cover every player for the Pittsburgh Pirates during the winter. That includes players in Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican, Colombia and Australia this year. The league in Puerto Rico won’t start play until January 6th due to the hurricane damage to the island, but players in the league are allowed to play elsewhere until the abbreviated season starts. We have also had players in Panama and Nicaragua in the past. For any free agents who finished the 2017 season with the Pirates, we cover them until they sign elsewhere. In the past few years, we have seen at least one player each year re-sign with the Pirates.
The Dominican League begins play on Friday. This is usually the league with the most players we follow. It’s also the best league for talent in winter ball, approximately equal to Triple-A, although the games later in the season usually include numerous MLB players getting ready for the season, so you’re talking about clubs that would be equal to a very bad (100 loss) MLB team. The leagues in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela range from Double-A, to weak Triple-A each year, while Australia is similar to High-A most seasons, sometimes Double-A in a good year. Colombia is probably closer to Low-A. The leagues in Panama and Nicaragua are closer to the GCL or Bristol.
The Dominican league will have the most interesting player this off-season in Jung-Ho Kang. He will play for Aguilas Cibaenas until the regular season ends in late December. He will not take part in the playoffs. Austin Meadows was supposed to be his teammate, but as of right now, it appears that he won’t play winter ball and will concentrate on getting into shape for the upcoming season. Starling Marte has said that he would like to play winter ball this year. If he does, he will play for Leones del Escogido. Pablo Reyes should see regular playing time for Escogido after putting up a strong season for Altoona this year. Montana DuRapau will play winter ball for the first time.
The Dominican league held their annual rookie draft last month and the list of Pirates taken was quite impressive. Stephen Alemais, Adrian Valerio, Oneil Cruz and Oddy Nunez were all selected, along with three other players. The previous season, Edgar Santana was among seven Pirates selected. All of those players are eligible to play this season, but first year players rarely see action due to the strength of the league. They also need to receive permission from the Pirates to play winter ball. So just because they were drafted, it doesn’t mean they will actually play.
This winter coverage will include two players to watch closely due to the fact that they will become free agents next month. Edwin Espinal should see regular playing time in the Dominican and Luis Heredia will see plenty of action in Mexico. Espinal finished the 2017 season in Indianapolis and batted .323 over 35 games, albeit with very few walks or extra-base hits. He’s just 23 years old and coming off of his best season, so it’s possible that the Pirates would like to keep him around.
Heredia had a decent season in the Altoona bullpen and he is seven months younger than Espinal, plus the Pirates put out a lot of money to sign him. It’s possible that they could try to re-sign him, but Espinal seems like the more likely of the two to get a 40-man roster spot and I would still give him 50/50 odds at best of that happening.
As for the rest of Mexico, the Pirates there almost always play on Venados de Mazatlan. Carlos Munoz, who is also a free agent in November, should see regular time as the DH and at first base. Mikell Granberry earned a roster spot during their version of Spring Training and should see some time at catcher and first base, plus he has been playing right field a lot recently. Yoandy Fernandez, the Cuban pitcher the Pirates signed back in May, will also be on the team. He had 53 strikeouts in 36.2 innings for Morgantown this season.
Jerrick Suiter was mentioned as a possibility for Mazatlan this winter, though his spot relied on another player not being signed, so we will see if he shows up in Mexico or somewhere else. He’s currently still participating in instructs at Pirate City, where he has seen some time at third base.
The top players to follow last year in Venezuela were Elias Diaz, Jose Osuna and Elvis Escobar. Diaz and Osuna won’t play before November, as the Pirates want each of them to take a break this off-season. Diaz might not be allowed to play at all due to the amount of games he caught this season. Osuna is expected to play some third base this winter when he does join his team. Escobar will be there from the start and expect him to run a lot on the bases. The Pirates want him working on his stolen base game, which has always been a weak spot despite slightly above average speed.
No other Pirates are currently on winter rosters in Venezuela, although that could change as the season progresses and possibly when the Pirates start signing minor league free agents. Altoona catcher Tomas Morales is in the league, but not currently on an active roster. He is also an upcoming free agent.
Last year in Colombia, the big story was 16-year-old shortstop Francisco Acuna seeing regular playing time in a league well above any level of play he saw as an amateur. He has a decent season in the DSL this year and he is now taking part in the Fall Instructional League at Pirate City. There are five other Pirates in this league, though they are all 16-18 years old, so they might not see playing time this season. With the Pirates recently signing six players out of Colombia, this league should be more interesting to follow over the next few years. The league this year begins on November 4th.
Australia begins play on November 16th. Last year, Sam Street and Nick Hutchings were the only Pirates in the league. Hutchings was released this spring, but 2017 21st round pick Robbie Glendinning has said that he will play winter ball this year. We usually don’t get to follow a new draft pick that same winter, so that’s something different for this year.