Winter Leagues Wrap-Up
It seems as if the winter leagues opened just yesterday, and they’ve already concluded the Caribbean World Series and the Australian Baseball League playoffs. Altogether, 28 players that belonged to the Cubs system at one time or another in the 2014-15 off-season wound up playing winter ball. The notable performers, along with a recap of both the Caribbean World Series and the Australian Baseball League playoffs, are inside today’s Down on the Farm Report.
Organizational Pitcher of the Winter
This winter was revelation for the pitcher known as “El Tiburon.” Owner of 85 career saves over six minor league seasons, Frank Batista has established credentials of an effective, if somewhat unorthodox, closer. At only 5-foot-10, 170 pounds with a low 90s fastball, Batista is nowhere near the image of the flame-throwing behemoth at the back of the bullpen. But Batista pairs his fastball with a devastating change-up and pinpoint control to frustrate hitters, who in turn get themselves out. However, Batista’s career seemed to stall in 2014, as he was first loaned out to Tijuana in the Mexican League, then returned to Double-A Tennessee for his third straight season. It was also the first time since 2010 that Batista was neither first nor second in the Cubs’ minor league system in saves.
So with only 20 career starts, and none since 2010, it was quite a surprise when Cibaenas of the Dominican Winter League had Batista on the hill to begin their second game of the winter. Batista pitched 32.1 innings in eight regular season starts, and went 3-1 in 11 appearances with a 3.79 ERA and a 1.56 WHIP that included 31 strikeouts in 40.1 innings. In the playoffs, Batista moved back into a more familiar relief role. Batista added another win to his total, along with 12 strikeouts in 11 innings. The totals for Batista this winter were a record of 4-1 in 16 appearances, a 3.51 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP with 43 strikeouts in 51.1 innings. More importantly, Batista demonstrated that he could be valuable to a pitching staff by being used in several roles.
Organizational Player of the Winter
After a tough 2014 season, Christian Villanueva reinvented himself this winter and hopefully put himself in position for a big 2015 season. Coming off of his first full season with the Cubs organization in which he hit 19 home runs and 72 RBI with Double-A Tennessee, Villanueva opened last year with Triple-A Iowa. However, Villanueva struggled mightily with the promotion and could not make the proper adjustments and hit only .211 in 64 games. Villanueva was then flip-flopped with fellow third base prospect Kris Bryant and moved back down to Tennessee. But the damage had already been done, and Villanueva still scuffled along at a .248 clip. For the season, Villanueva hit .230 with 10 home runs and 58 RBI.
Joining Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League for the winter, Villanueva seemed to regain some of the form he displayed in 2013. In 49 games for the Yaquis, Villanueva batted .241/.320/.441/.761 with four doubles, 10 home runs, and 25 RBI. More importantly, Villanueva improved his walk-to-strikeout ratio. After walking only 40 times last season against 106 strikeouts, Villanueva walked 19 times this winter while striking out 27 times in 170 at bats.
Already considered an outstanding defensive third baseman, Villanueva took advantage of an opportunity to increase his versatility. Villanueva played extensively in the outfield, as well as taking a turn at first base. With some limited experience at second base, Villanueva may be capable of moving his career forward as a versatile utility player with better than average power.
Organizational Comeback Player of the Winter
Coming into the 2014 season there were high hopes for Ivan Pineyro. Acquired from the Washington Nationals for outfielder Scott Hairston in 2013, Pineyro joined the Daytona Cubs and was part of their “Gang of Four” rotation with Pierce Johnson, C.J. Edwards, and Corey Black that blitzed their way through the playoff and gave Daytona the Florida State League Championship. Pineyro was also named to The CCO’s Top 20 Prospects for 2014.
Beginning the year with Double-A Tennessee, Pineyro compiled a 2.32 ERA through his first five starts before experiencing some trouble in his next outing. Pineyro gave up six earned runs in four innings. Pineyro was shut down after that game with a forearm strain, and did not return to the Smokies until mid-July. Upon his return, Pineyro was not the same as he ended the year with a 5.55 ERA and 1.66 WHIP in 48.2 total innings.
In order to make up for some of the time lost to his injury, Pineyro was assigned to the Arizona Fall League. With the Mesa Solar Sox, Pineyro demonstrated a return to form. Pineyro appeared in seven games (four starts) and went 1-0 with a 1.98 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP that included 16 strikeouts in 13.2 innings. However, Pineyro did have to leave one game early with a minor injury. Looking to get more work in, Pineyro joined Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League. In four starts for the Eastern Stars, Pineyro was 1-0 with a 1.32 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP (14 strikeouts in 13.2 innings). After the regular winter season was concluded, Pineyro was shut down and missed the playoffs.
Player to Watch
Willson Contreras, Utility
With the recent upgrades Cubs’ management has made at the catcher position in the minor league system with Kyle Schwarber, Victor Caratini, and Mark Zagunis, it has been easy to overlook Willson Contreras. Signed as a catcher in 2009, the organization immediately began moving Contreras around the diamond, exposing him to five different positions in his first three seasons. When the Cubs’ present management came on board, Contreras was eased back in at catcher, starting only 39 times out of the 64 games he played in 2012 season. Over the next two seasons, Contreras stayed primarily at catcher and improved defensively, posting a .991 fielding average and 30 percent caught stealing rate over that period. Contreras showed a slight drop in his offensive numbers last season as he had to share time with other prospects.
For the second straight winter, Contreras has been a member of Aragua of the Venezuelan Winter League. Contreras saw his playing time increase this past winter as he batted .273/.324/.545/.870 with a double, a triple, five home runs, and 17 RBI in 27 games, while adding another home run and two RBI in six playoff games. Contreras seems to be following a path similar to other Cubs’ prospects such as Marwin Gonzalez, Junior Lake, and Arismendy Alcantara in leveraging his experience in the winter to further improve his game. While he may never be a blue chip prospect, Contreras is still young at 22 years old and can work on improving his offense while continuing to demonstrate his value as a player who can catch, play the four corners (left and right field, third and first base) and even line up at second in a pinch.
Next Favorite Team
Cangrejeros de Santurce
The Roberto Clemente League continues to struggle with finding their identity against three strong winter programs in Mexico, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic. However, the league got a big boost as the Cubs high profile prospect Javier Baez joined Santurce in the middle of the winter season. After playing only .500 ball during the regular season, the Cangrejeros turned it on in the playoffs and wound up taking the league title. Besides, how can you not like a team whose nickname translates as “The Crabbers”?
Caribbean World Series
The Caribbean World Series began last Monday with the national teams of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela competing in a round-robin format. Mexico opened the tournament by stunning the heavily favored Cubans 2-1, while Venezuela easily disposed of Puerto Rico 5-2.
With perhaps the most balanced team of the group, Venezuela blew through the round-robin portion undefeated. After winning their first two games, defending champion stumbled in their final two to finish tied for second at 2-2. The Dominican Republic looked impressive in defeating Cuba 6-1 in their first game, but then split their next two contests. With sole possession of second place on the line, the Dominicans were upset by Puerto Rico on Friday 4-2, their only win of the tournament.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment was Cuba, who looked bad in opening losses to Mexico and the Dominican Republic. Only a one-run victory over last place Puerto Rico on Wednesday kept the Cubans from being eliminated for the semi-finals.
Facing undefeated Venezuela, Cuba looked in real trouble as top pitcher Freddie Alvarez was touched for four earned runs. But 20-year old phenom Norge Ruiz bailed out the Cubans with 4.1 scoreless innings, giving them time to kick their offense in gear. Thirty-four year old DH Frederich Cepeda came up big, going 4-for-5 with two doubles, a triple, and five RBI as Cuba exploded for eight runs to defeat Venezuela 8-4 and reach the finals.
Meanwhile, Mexico avenged their Thursday loss to the Dominican Republic by eliminating the Dominicans 5-4 on Saturday. Mexico staked themselves to an early lead with a three-run second inning. With one out, Russell Branyan walked, and singles by Jose Rodriguez and Walter Ibarra loaded the bases. A throwing error by Dominican third baseman Hector Gomez scored Branyan and Rodriguez, and Ibarra scored on a sacrifice fly. Mexican starter Terance Marin gave up two earned runs in six innings, while former Cubs prospect Jay Jackson closed the game with a 1-2-3 ninth.
In the Caribbean finals on Sunday, Cuba showed why they had so much hype coming into the series, but still had to survive a late push as they beat Mexico 3-2. Cuban starter Yosvani Torres was electric, carrying a no-hitter into the fifth inning, as he struck out five and allowed an earned run in six innings. Cuba relied on their three best players as Luis La O (1-for-5) and Frederich Cepeda (2-for-4) drove in runs while Yulieski Gourriel’s (2-for-4) solo home run in the eighth inning provided the winning margin.
Australian Baseball League
For the second straight year, and the fourth time in the last five seasons, the Perth Heat are champions of the Australian Baseball League. The Heat defeated the Adelaide Bite two games to one in the best-of-three series the claimed the Claxton Shield, the trophy awarded the champs. In the decisive game on Sunday, shortstop Joey Wong (Rockies) led things off with a walk and scored as veteran Tim Kennelly smashed a two-run home run to touch off a 12-5 victory. Designated hitter Tim Smith and second baseman Luke Hughes also had home runs while outfielder Brian Pointer (Phillies) was 3-for-5 with a double, a run scored, and an RBI. The Bite tried to make a game of it and cut the margin to 9-4 in the fourth inning off of Perth starter Daniel Schmidt. But Mike McCarthy (Red Sox) came in and slammed the door, striking out seven in 3.1 scoreless innings for the victory.
This wraps up the CCO’s coverage of winter baseball for the 2014-15 season, but the Down on the Farm Report will return with several of our popular features as we work our way to the opening of the 2015 baseball season.
Attention CCO Readers
The Down on the Farm preliminary reader’s poll has begun. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the Down on the Farm Report to follow next season. The CCO will then take the top 20 names to run in a special poll for the final month of preseason. The CCO will track the progress of top ten players throughout the entire season. A representative sample of positions and levels of play is optimal. You can name as many players as you like, but remember, only ten will eventually be chosen. In our first week, readers nominated 42 players and cast 85 votes, with first baseman Dan Vogelbach, outfielders Eloy Jimenez and Billy McKinney, and pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng in the early lead. So from Tyler Alamo to Rob Zastryzny, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.