Our winter league coverage will begin soon, giving you a chance to follow players in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system over the off-season. We will include any player in the system, which usually comes out to about 25-30 each off-season. If a player finished the year in the Pirates’ system, then he will be covered over the winter. That will include some minor league free agents, who we will mention until they sign elsewhere. As we saw last year with a couple players, they could end up signing back with the Pirates. As you will see below, there are some interesting names this year, spread throughout the leagues.
We cover the leagues in the Dominican, Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico, which are considered the top four winter leagues. There are also leagues in Australia, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua and another one in Mexico, which is for younger/lower level players. With nine leagues to cover, there is almost always something going on each night, so you can expect a lot of articles to hold you over until Spring Training. Last year, we had 80 articles covering winter ball over a four-month span. They usually start slow, and we will combine a couple days into one article, until all the leagues are in action. Then you can expect daily articles.
Below is a short preview of each league, with the starting dates and the players you might see. Just for reference, a player could be on a roster, but never show up, or new players could show up on the roster later. In the Dominican and Venezuela, the level of competition is very high, to the point that some of the lower level players see very little time(possibly none), but they still play games against the other lower level players to stay game-ready in case they are needed. There are also players who are reserved to rosters, yet they have no intention of playing. It’s sort of like a 40-man roster spot in the majors, in that their winter league rights remain with that team. An example of this was Pedro Alvarez getting traded for Johnny Cueto last September, yet neither played winter ball and Alvarez has never played.
Venezuela is the first league to start. All eight teams play this Wednesday night while you’re watching the wild card game. Elias Diaz will be the big name in the league this year, but he is scheduled to join his team two weeks after the playoffs end for the Pirates, so hopefully he isn’t around Venezuela for awhile. Keon Broxton signed to play, but he may not now. That was before he was added to the 40-man roster, so his plans may have changed. According to Broxton last week, he still hasn’t made a decision. Gorkys Hernandez usually plays winter ball, but at last check, his status was unsure. Deolis Guerra also plays here, though he was still injured at the end of the season, so he might not play, or he could use winter ball as rehab.
Other players scheduled to play so far are Jose Osuna, A.J. Morris, Wilfedo Boscan, Jhondaniel Medina, Julio Vivas, Andy Otamendi, Junior Sosa, Zack Dodson, Francisco Diaz and Elvis Escobar. Osuna and Escobar are the players to watch, as both should see more time than in the past. Escobar’s winter team has talked about him being their fourth outfielder after he put up solid numbers for West Virginia this season. In the past he has been mostly used off the bench, sometimes only as a pinch-runner or late-game defensive substitution. Osuna went 3-for-26 in 11 games last year for Bravos de Margarita, but this season he is coming off a strong showing in AA, so he too should see more playing time.
In Mexico, the first game takes place on October 9th. The rest of the teams start their season the next night and Venados de Mazatlan will be the team to follow closely for a second year in a row. The players in the Pirates system scheduled to play this year are Harold Ramirez, Luis Heredia, Carlos Munoz and Felipe Gonzalez. Sebastian Valle usually plays for Caneros de los Mochis, although I haven’t seen his name mentioned as a definite yet. Gerardo Navarro(Mazatlan) usually plays winter ball as well, but as a GCL pitcher, he won’t see much time if he does play. Eduardo Vera is also on the roster of Mazatlan, but he is recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Ramirez, Heredia and Munoz on the same team makes it a very interesting group, especially since those are the three players in the system who had the biggest issues with conditioning. Ramirez usually plays winter ball in his native Colombia, but he moved up in competition. The league in Mexico is closer to AAA caliber play, while Colombia is a lot closer to High-A ball. It will be a good test to see if Ramirez can hold his own against the older pitchers in Mexico, a league that goes heavy with breaking balls. Munoz was over-matched last winter, but that’s not a surprise because he played in the GCL last year. By a small margin, he is the oldest of this group and has some experience in the league, so he should see more playing time than last year.
Heredia will be interesting because he is Rule 5 eligible this off-season. If his struggles continue in Mexico, then the Pirates are unlikely to protect him. If he has some sort of breakout against older competition though, then you’re talking about someone who is still only 21 years old, having success against better/experienced players. With the Rule 5 draft taking place the second week of December, he should be able to get in a nice sample size of action this winter before the Pirates have to decide on his roster spot. He only threw 86 innings this year after 89 last season, so his workload shouldn’t be limited this winter.
In the Dominican, the league opens up on October 15th with one game, then the other teams begin play the following night. This league is usually the most interesting and we should see Alen Hanson and Willy Garcia get significant playing time. In the past, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco have been the big names in the league. Both are on rosters this year, but they are unlikely to play. Polanco was there briefly last year, taking batting practice with his team and playing one minor league game, but the Pirates wanted him to get rest after playing almost straight through from March 2013 until October 2014, so he was shutdown.
Mel Rojas Jr. will play for Licey, trying to bounce back from a very tough season which saw him get demoted to Altoona for half the year. Indianapolis skipper Dean Treanor manages down in the Dominican and the Pirates have been able to sign some players in the off-season based on his recommendation. He usually gets some players already in the Pirates’ system on his team as well.
The Dominican League held a draft last month, in which Yeudy Garcia, Pablo Reyes, Jose Regalado, Junior Lopez and Miguel Rosario were all taken. Players usually don’t see much playing time the year they are drafted due to the level of competition in the Dominican. So these players may not be heard from this year, but we could see some of the players drafted last year. Edwin Espinal got into six games last season and hit .444(8-for-18), so he could see more time. Chris Diaz, Maximo Rivera and Isaac Sanchez were also drafted last year, but never played at the top level. Sanchez had a nice mid-season run in Bradenton’s bullpen, so it’s possible that translates to some playing time this winter.
The Australian Baseball League starts play on October 23rd. The rosters haven’t been released yet, so not much to talk about here. Sam Kennelly was the only Pirates’ player last year. Nick Hutchings has played in the past, but he was injured last winter and has indicated that he probably won’t play this year.
In Puerto Rico, the official league name is Liga de Beisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, which is a nice tribute by his home country for the all-time great. So far, no Pirates are in the league, but they don’t begin play until October 30th, so there is time. As with the other leagues, you could see a free agent signed by the Pirates from the league and then he will of course be added to our coverage.
The other leagues all begin later in the year and when their time gets closer, we will have a mini preview. Tito Polo could be the biggest name among the group of leagues that compete for the Latin American Series. Nicaragua and Panama are low competition leagues, probably equal to what you see in the Appalachian League.
As mentioned above, Colombia is better competition than these other lower leagues, as you will see the occasional former Major League player mixed in with the lower level players. The second league in Mexico is also probably around rookie ball caliber, but if any Pirates’ players are in these leagues, it gives them a chance to get playing time against equal competition, where as in the other leagues, they wouldn’t see much time.