by Bruce Baskin
May 1, 2018 - Mexican League (ML)
Trades: Tigres add Manny, Solano; Drake goes to Monterrey
It's been a rather unusual April as far as the Mexican League goes. While there has yet to be a manager fired in the first month of 2018's opening season, a number of high-profile players have changed teams earlier than normal. The Quintana Roo Tigres appear to have come out much stronger as a result by netting disgruntled second baseman Manny Rodriguez from Monclova and veteran starting pitcher Javier Solano from Monterrey, while Durango has shipped 2017 LMB batting champion Yadir Drake to the Sultanes in a move that gives Monterrey's first-year manager Roberto Kelly one more good bat.
Rodriguez, you'll recall, left the Acereros three weeks ago after a series in Puebla after getting fed up with the ongoing shuttling of players between Monclova and the Pericos orchestrated by Gerardo Benavides, who owns both teams. The 35-year-old MVP of the Mexican Pacific League chose to stay with his family in Southern California rather than continue playing for a Monclova team that was severely lacking in happy ballplayers or chemistry. Rodriguez himself has been on that shuttle, playing on Puebla's 2016 Liga champions before being shipped to Monclova in February of last year as part of a lopsided deal that sent six players to the Acereros in return for relief pitcher Joaquin Lara, who only won his first LMB career game this month for the Pericos.
After sitting out since April 8, Rodriguez made his debut last weekend for the Quintana Roo Tigres, who acquired him on loan from the Acereros last week, and it wasn't long before the career .316 batter made his mark by belting a decisive two-run homer in Saturday's 3-1 win over Oaxaca at home in Cancun. Although he was in manager Tim Johnson's lineup as a designated hitter, Rodriguez is expected to take over at second for veteran Carlos "Chispa" Gastelum, a six-time All-Star who has held that job for the Tigres since 2002. For the season, Manny is batting .292 with two homers and 18 RBIs over 17 games.
Another recent addition to the Quintana Roo roster, Solano gives the Fernando Valenzuela-owned Tigres a young veteran who became a starter for Monterrey in 2015 and had gone 25-12 for the Sultanes since 2016, including a 4-1 mark this year. However, Solano's ERA was a healthy 6.59 after six starts before being shipped to Cancun for pitcher Jesus Adrian Castillo, a 33-year-old who'd been with the Tigres since 2014 and was a solid 3-2 with a 3.75 ERA after five starts this year. Although Castillo is having the better year, he has never won more than six games in seven LMB seasons and is generally not considered in Solano's class as a pitcher. One Mexican columnist says Solano was sent south to avoid legal issues in Monterrey, particularly a civil lawsuit from a former player, but BBM has not verified that story. He'll join a starting rotation featuring Barry Enright, Tyler Kane, former Marlins hurler Henderson Alvarez and ageless Pablo Ortega.
Meanwhile, Durango has loaned Drake to Monterrey even though the Cuban expat was batting .383 with four homers and 27 RBIs in 30 contests for Matias Carrillo's Generales. Money may be at the heart of the move, since the Sultanes have plenty of it while Durango (now owned by a group led by former MLB catcher and Mexico City manager Miguel Ojeda) is struggling to right their financial ship after a 2017 season under former owner Virgilio Ruiz during which a number of players, including Drake, went weeks without a paycheck. Drake hit .385 for the Generales last year to top the Liga before finishing the season in Japan by hitting just .232 in 35 games for the Nippon Ham Fighters.
Durango did pick up injury-plagued veteran slugger Jorge "Chato" Vazquez, who had retired from the Mexico City Diablos Rojos last year after once having been considered one of the New York Yankees' more intriguing prospects. Vazquez went 0-for-3 with a walk in his Generales debut Saturday night against Monclova and is hoping the back problems that derailed his LMB career are behind him. The 5'11" 250-pounder, who turned 36 this month, once played under Ojeda in the nation's capital.
Sultanes still rule LMB North, three-way battle for South supremacy
The Monterrey Sultanes continue to rule the roost in the Mexican League's North Division with a 21-10 record, three games ahead of defending champion Tijuana and surprising Aguascalientes, but the LMB South has evolved into a three-way duel between Yucatan, Mexico City and equally-surprising Quintana Roo, with only one game separating the troika as the LMB's Spring season heads into its final month prior to June's playoffs.
While it can't really be called a "surprise" that Monterrey has done well over the first month of the campaign, few expected that manager Roberto Kelly's team would be showing as much power as they have. Kelly stated at his hiring over the winter that speed and aggressive baserunning would be the hallmark of his offense. The Sultanes are one of six Liga teams batting over .300 (they're at .305), but it's the longball, not the stolen base, that's been the driver of a club averaging nearly six runs per game. Monterrey stands second in the LMB with 42 homers, behind only Leon's 44 roundtrippers. Much of that production belongs to Ricky Alvarez, who leads the loop with 11 homers, while ex-MLB outfielder Domonic Brown (who hit 27 homers for Philadelphia in 2013) has seven and third baseman Agustin Murillo has six. Although Monterrey has been successful on 25 of 36 stolen base attempts to rank fifth in that category (Chris Roberson and Leo German have six swipes apiece), that's not why the Sultanes have been winning.
Although Tijuana was expected to be in contention for a second consecutive pennant, Aguascalientes was accorded second-tier status after star first baseman Jesse Castillo was dealt to Monclova in the offseason. Instead, Rieleros manager Homar Rojas has cobbled together a very good everyday lineup with the likes of catcher Carlos Rodriguez, second baseman Michael Wing, third sacker Jose Vargas and a pair of old-timers in first baseman Saul Soto (who turns 40 in August) and outfielder Cristhian Presichi (38 in July). Wing is batting .353 with four homers, Presichi is at .345 and Soto has a .306 average with a team-high five homers. Beyond Roy Merritt (2-0 and 2.97 in six starts), the Rieleros rotation has been so-so but closer Anthony Carter (2-2/7 saves/2.29 ERA) and middleman Linder Casto (3-0/3 holds/1.69) have headed up a strong bullpen.
The LMB South has become a three-way race between Yucatan (22-10), Quintana Roo (20-10) and Mexico City (21-11). The Diablos Rojos are the most productive offensively, averaging 6.5 runs per outing playing in Mexico City's rarified air, but Yucatan's traditionally-strong pitching staff leads the Liga with a 4.02 ERA, a half-run better than the Diablos or Tigres, and it's pitching that generally wins games and pennants. A more interesting battle may be shaping up for the fourth and final playoff berth in the South as Puebla (16-14) and Leon (16-16) are only a game apart in the standings. While the Pericos have reached the Serie del Rey the past two years (winning the title in 2016), the Bravos have won five games in a row while Puebla has dropped five straight.
Tijuana's Isaac Rodriguez, the LMB Rookie of the Year in 2015, leads the league with a .409 average and his 17 stolen bases is one behind teammate Justin Greene's 18 to rank second in the Liga. Rodriguez already has a career high in steals after he swiped 14 bases last year in 74 games. Other offensive leaders include Monterrey's Alvarez with 11 homers and Luis Juarez of Yucatan with 38 RBIs. Tijuana newcomer Kyle Lobstein, a former Detroit starter, has a 1.69 ERA, Monclova's Josh Lowey is in his accustomed spot as strikeouts leader with 46 and three pitchers have five wins apiece: Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez, Mitch Lambson of Puebla and Juan Pablo Oramas has a 5-0 record for the 13-19 Tabasco Olmecas (a 1.98 ERA in seven starts might help explain why).
MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS North Division: Monterrey 21-10, Aguascalientes 18-14, Tijuana 18-14, Monclova 15-16, Durango 14-18, Los Laredos 13-19, Union Laguna 11-20, Saltillo 11-21. South Division: Yucatan 22-10, Quintana Roo 20-10, Mexico City 21-11, Puebla 16-14, Leon 16-16, Tabasco 13-19, Campeche 12-19, Oaxaca 11-21.
Padres, Dodgers to play Mexico Series in Monterrey next weekend
Major League Baseball will return to Mexico next weekend when the Monterrey Sultanes host the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres (featuring rookie star Christian Villanueva) in a three-game series at Estadio Monterrey. Tickets for all three games at the renovated 22,000-seat venue were sold out two hours after going on sale earlier this year.
The Padres will serve as the home team in Monterrey after the series was moved from Petco Park in San Diego. This will mark the team's third visit to Monterrey. San Diego took on the New York Mets in a three-game series during the 1996 season and opened the 1999 campaign against Colorado at Estadio Monterrey, marking the first time MLB opened a season outside the USA or Canada. The Padres have struggled out the gate this season and are currently last in the NL West with a 10-18 record, ten games behind division-leading Arizona. While manager Andy Green's roster contains some recognizable names like Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer and Chase Headley, their unexpected star thus far this season has been the Guadalajara-born Villanueva.
A former BBM pick as the Mexican Pacific League's Most Valuable Player in 2015-16 with the Obregon Yaquis, Villanueva was expected to fight for a roster spot with fellow third basemen Headley (a former Padres first-round pick who was reacquired from the Yankees in the offseason) and incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg. Instead, Villanueva had a three-homer night early in the schedule and has since taken over the hor corner for San Diego and is an early candidate for Rookie of the Year honors. He's hitting .348 with eight longballs and 18 RBIs to lead the Padres in all three categories despite not being in the lineup for seven games. Villanueva's batting average would be second in the National League to St. Louis's Tommy Pham with more at-bats, he's tied for second in homers behind the nine of Colorado's Charlie Blackmon and his slugging percentage of .768 would lead the NL with more plate appearances.
The Dodgers, of course, need no introduction. Skipper Dave Roberts has a star-studded everyday lineup featuring the likes of Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Chase Utley, Joc Pederson and Matt Kemp while Los Angeles' starting rotation includes Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, and Alex Wood while closer Kenley Jansen and Josh Fields anchor the bullpen. Added to the mix is outfielder Alex Verdugo, a 21-year-old Mexican American from Tucson who was called up Saturday from AAA Oklahoma City, where he was batting .276 with four homers in 19 contests. The Dodgers have gotten off to a slow start with a 12-14 record, third in the NL West heading into the week. However, this is still essentially the same team that came within one game of a World Series win against Houston last fall and they're expected to be in the thick of things when September comes.
ESPN will broadcast the third game of the Mexico Series on Sunday, May 6 at 10AM Eastern time. Eight-year ESPN veteran announcer Adnan Virk will handle play-by-play duties while former MLB first baseman Eduardo Perez, whose father Tony is a Hall of Famer, will provide commentary.
The Mexico Series was originally scheduled to be played in Mexico City at the new Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, named after the Diablos Rojos' billionaire owner, but the venue's construction has faced delay after delay and will not be ready before 2019, meaning the Mexican League's 2018 All-Star Game had to be moved to Parque Kukulkan in Merida as well.
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