Winter League Wrap-up
It seems as if the winter leagues opened just yesterday, and we are already concluded the Caribbean World Series and the Australian Baseball League playoffs. Altogether, 30 players that belonged to the Cubs system at one time or another in the 2015-16 off-season would play 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 report.
Organizational Player of the Winter
Christian Villanueva, 3B
For the first time since the CCO began its coverage of the winter leagues, a player has repeated as the Organizational Player of the Winter. Last year’s recipient, Christian Villanueva, spent the entire 2015 season at Triple-A Iowa playing third base, but also seeing extensive time at first base. For the year, Villanueva hit .259 with 23 doubles and 18 home runs, as his 88 RBI were good for sixth in the Pacific Coast League.
Villanueva joined Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League for the winter, and was one of the league’s most outstanding hitters. His .914 OPS put Villanueva third in the league, while he was tied for fifth with 38 RBI. Villanueva’s .322 batting average was sixth in the league, while his nine home runs tied for seventh. Behind Villanueva’s offensive prowess, the Yaquis finished with the league’s best regular season record.
Already considered an outstanding defensive third baseman, Villanueva took the opportunity to improve offensively, playing only at third and designated hitter. However, in addition to his work at first base, Villanueva has also played in the outfield and at second base during his career.
Entering this training camp without any more minor league options, Villanueva hopes to move his career forward as a versatile utility player with better than average power.
Organizational Pitcher of the Winter
A high profile signing by the Cubs’ front office in 2013, Armando Rivero is hoping to use his winter performance as a springboard to better things in 2016.
Coming off of a 2014 season that saw Rivero go 5-1 with 11 saves, a 2.35 ERA, and 100 strikeouts in 65 innings between Double-A Tennessee and Triple-A Iowa, a lot was expected for last year. But Rivero had what can be considered a disappointing season as he failed to demonstrate any progress. Playing exclusively for Iowa, Rivero was 2-2 with no saves in 48 appearances. While Rivero’s ERA of 3.16 can be considered decent, his 53 strikeouts in 57 innings were a letdown. Observers felt that Rivero’s velocity was down, making his fastball very hittable. Considering his 65 innings the previous year were the most in his career, Rivero can be in adjustment period to the workload he is used to receiving.
Playing for Aragua in the Venezuelan Winter League, Rivero had a less than stellar regular season. In 14 appearances, Rivero was 2-2 with two saves. Rivero had a 3.14 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, but 18 strikeouts in 14.1 innings. It was in the postseason that things began to turn around for Rivero. Pitching for the eventual league champions, Rivero was 1-1 with two saves in seven appearances with a 1.04 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and six strikeouts in 8.2 innings. When he is right, Rivero has a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with tailing action that can make him an effective late innings reliever.
Organizational Comeback Player of the Winter
Fernando Cruz, RHP
Stories of minor league players trying to restart their careers at a different position are not uncommon, but are rarely successful. But things seem to be working in the right direction for soon to be 26 year old (March 28) Fernando Cruz.
Drafted in the sixth round as a 17-year old in 2007 by the Kansas City Royals, Cruz was a position player through his first five professional seasons, primarily playing at third base. Cruz’s best season was in 2009, when he hit .277 with three home runs and 21 RBI in 51 games for Burlington in the rookie level Appalachian League. After hitting .221 at Low-A Burlington in 2010, the decision was made to move Cruz to pitcher. Cruz then went 2-3 with a 7.99 ERA in 2011 and 4-3 with a 6.88 ERA in 2012, both at the rookie level, before being released.
Cruz spent the next two seasons pitching exclusively in the Roberto Clemente League in Puerto Rico, each time getting a little better. Cruz was 1-0 with a 4.02 ERA in 13 games for Ponce in 2013, and 2-1 with a 1.52 ERA in 14 games for Santurce in 2014.
When the Cubs were hit with an acute pitching need at the High- and Double-A levels due to injuries early in 2015, the organization signed Cruz. Splitting his time with Tennessee and Myrtle Beach (along with a one game start for Triple-A Iowa), Cruz was a combined 3-4 with a 5.64 ERA and three saves. However, Cruz’s numbers with the Pelicans, where he pitched 33.1 of his 68.2 innings, were 1-2 with a 3.78 ERA and two saves.
Returning to the LBPRC this winter, Cruz was a stalwart in the bullpen for league champion Santurce. In 21 regular season appearances, Cruz had a 1.01 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 26.2 innings. Cruz continued his dominance in the postseason, not allowing an earned run in 10.2 innings.
Player to Watch
Carlos Penalver, SS
One of the things that the winter baseball provides for young players is the opportunity to learn alongside seasoned professionals. These opportunities have led to prospects such as Marwin Gonzalez, Junior Lake, Arismendy Alcantara, and Willson Contreras leveraging their experience in the winter to further improve their game. To that end, the six games and .158 batting average Penalver had for Leones del Caracas in the VWL is a little deceiving. Considered the best defensive infielder in the organization, the 21-year old batted only .197 in 114 games with High-A Myrtle Beach last season. Penalver got to work with many players with Major League experience, including former Cubs catcher Yorvit Torrealba and present Cubs minor leaguer Jesus Guzman, among others. Whether his exposure to these pros will have the same effect on Penalver’s offense that it had on others remains to be seen.
Next Favorite Team
Tigres de Aragua
It was a tale of two season for Aragua, as they tied with La Guaira for the best first half record, losing the crown on head-to-head record. The Tigers then had the second worst record in the second half, finishing 31-32 overall and eeking into the playoffs. Once in the post-season, Aragua reverted back to form, upsetting powerhouse Magallanes in the VWL finals. Los Tigres acquitted themselves well in the Caribbean World Series, going 3-1 in round-robin play. Cubs’ prospects that were a part of the Tigers this season were relief pitcher Armando Rivero and INF/C Gioskar Amaya.
Caribbean World Series
The Caribbean World Series opened on Monday with the national teams of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela competing in a round-robin format. As previews promised, the tournament was a wide open affair with some stunning twists.
Monday’s action was marked by close contests, as Venezuela edged Puerto Rico 2-1 in the opener, while Mexico was one better than the Dominican Republic, 3-2. One of the biggest surprises had to be a seasoned Cuban national team getting blown out in successive games, 9-3 by Mexico and 12-1 by Puerto Rico. The other shock was the home team Dominican Republic failing to win a ballgame, losing three one-run decisions.
In the end, the freshest and most cohesive team, Mexico, went through the round-robin phase undefeated. Venezuela and Puerto Rico, two of the hottest teams entering the series, remained relatively hot, going 3-1 and 2-2 respectively. On the virtue of a 4-2 win over the Dominican Republic on Friday, Cuba backed into the semis with a 1-3 record.
In the semis on Saturday, Puerto Rico jumped out to an early lead before being crushed by Venezuela 13-3. The Tigres got outstanding starting pitching from Marcus Walden (Minnesota), who scattered seven hits while allowing an earned run and striking out three in 5.1 innings. Outfielder Jose Martinez (Kansas City) punctuated the rout in the eighth inning with a three-run blast. It was all Mexico in the nightcap, as their 7-2 victory over Cuba was not as close as the score indicates. The Venados’ left-hander Hector Daniel Rodriguez was efficient as he allowed an earned run on four hits and three walks, striking out four in six innings. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt paced the offense, as he was 3-for-4 with a double and four RBI.
Sunday saw an exciting end to the winter baseball season, as Mexico won in walk-off style, defeating Venezuela 5-4 to win the Caribbean World Series. The Venados started off scoring in the third inning, getting two earned runs against Major League veteran Freddy Garcia. In the fifth inning, the Tigres tied the game as second baseman Hernan Perez ripped a two-run home run. Venezuela looked like it was taking control in the top of the seventh, as a single by outfielder Teodoro Martinez and a sacrifice fly from outfielder Alex Romero put them up 4-1. But Mexico wasn’t done, with a two out single from catcher Sebastian Valle driving in two to tie the score in the bottom of the inning. In the bottom of the ninth Mexico’s DH Jorge Vasquez took the first pitch he saw over the fence in left center to give the Stags the game, and the championship.
Australian Baseball League
In a season which the Brisbane Bandits dominated the Australian Baseball League, they exited in grand style with a sweep of the Adelaide Bite to win the Claxton Shield, the league’s championship. The Bandits were loaded with minor league prospects, particularly from the Tampa Bay Rays organization. Some of the Rays’ farmhands include second baseman Riley Unroe, outfielders Justin Williams and Bralin Jackson, along with catchers Nick Ciuffo and Maxx Tissenbaum. In the first game of the series, Brisbane got solo home runs from Jackson and former Schaumburg Boomer T.J. Bennett to take pitcher Jason Jarvis off the hook, as the bullpen shut down Adelaide the rest of the way in a 7-4 win. Former Cubs prospect and ABL save leader Ryan Searle picked up the save. The celebrating started early on in Game 2 of the series, as the Bandits bashed the Bite 7-1. Reds prospect David Lutz blasted a three-run homer to support former Brewer Travis Blackley, Matt Timms, and Searle.
This wraps up the CCO’s coverage of winter baseball for the 2015-16 season. Down on the Farm will return with several of our popular features as we work our way to the opening of the 2016 baseball season.
Attention CCO Readers
The Chicago Cubs Online preliminary reader’s poll is now beginning. This season, the CCO will be posting the Top Prospect Watch in a separate article on Tuesdays. Please post the names of the minor league players you would like the CCO to follow next season. The CCO will then take the top 20 names to run in a special poll for the final month of Spring Training. The CCO will then track the progress of top 10 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 10 will eventually be chosen. So from Aramis Ademan to Rob Zastryzny, all nominations will be accepted and given equal weight.