by Bruce Baskin
August 12, 2019 - Mexican League (ML)
SALTILLO, TIGRES STILL TOP LMB DIVISIONS
With 15 games remaining in the Mexican League's second half schedule, the Saltillo Saraperos and Quintana Roo Tigres continue to lead the North and South divisions, respectively, as the September playoff picture begins to take shape.
The Saraperos had Sunday off after sweeping a doubleheader over Union Laguna Saturday in Torreon, 15-6 and 7-5. Rainel Rosario cracked two homers and drove in five runs in Saltillo's opening win, then he stroked two doubles and a single in the nightcap to finish the twinbill 5-for-6 at the plate with seven RBIs and four runs scored. Saltillo is now 28-16 for the half, leading Tijuana and Monclova (both 26-18) by two games while 22-22 Dos Laredos and 21-21 Monterrey are tied for fourth, six games out of first. Aguascalientes (17-27), Durango (16-28) and Union Laguna (15-29) are all well behind and out of the playoff picture.
In the LMB South, Quintana Roo has the best record in the league at 30-14 but Yucatan is hot on the Tigres' tail with a 29-16 mark, 1.5 games out. Mexico City won both ends of a doubleheader in Puebla Saturday for the Diablos' eighth win in ten outings, including their last four games, to go to 27-18 and trail the Tigres by 3.5 games. Campeche is holding fourth with a 21-21 record, ahead of Oaxaca (20-24), Puebla (18-23), Tabasco (17-26) and Leon (16-28).
The Tigres won their fifth straight Sunday by crushing Tabasco, 8-0, in Cancun as Jorge Castillo tossed three-hit ball over the first six innings and striking out seven to go to 10-8 on the season. Although he's pitched in three All-Star Games and is a decent 73-60 over his LMB career, the 37-year-old Castillo reached double figures in wins for the first time since debuting in 2003. It was a 1-0 game until Quintana Roo exploded for six runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, highlighted by Manuel Orduna's three-run homer off reliever Antonio Guzman.
Although the Mexican League is using points to determine playoff seedings, a la the Mexican Pacific League, the numbering system is different, with 8.0 points for first (like the LMP) but awarding one less point per standings placement down to 1.0 point for eighth place. Monclova, Monterrey and Tijuana are all but assured three of the four LMB North postseason berths but the final slot will be a battle between Saltillo and Dos Laredos. The Saraperos got 4.0 points in the first half, one fewer than the Tecos' 5.0, so it's imperative to manager Roberto Vizcarra's team to finish two places above Dos Laredos for that last slot in September.
While the LMB North is fairly clear-cut, it's a little more muddled in the LMB South. Oaxaca got 8.0 points for finishing on top in the first half and while the Guerreros are struggling in fifth place for the second half, the 4.0 they'd receive should be enough to punch a playoff ticket. Quintana Roo, on the other hand, got only 3.0 first-half points after finishing sixth so the Tigres really need those 8.0 points they'd get for winning the second half. Likewise, Yucatan got just 4.0 points in the first half so finishing second and picking up 7.0 points might not be enough. Mexico City is in a position to burnish their 7.0 first-half points with another 6.0 if they don't move up or down and that would be enough for the top division seed. If the season ended today, Puebla would be the fourth seed, following a 6.0 first half with a sixth-place finish and 3.0 points for a total of 9.0.
Leon's Felix Pie still leads the batting race but the ex-Oriole has dropped to .399, falling below the .400 mark since May 12. Pie also has 22 homers and 78 RBIs. Chris Carter of Monclova continues his monster season, leading the LMB with 43 homers and 104 RBIs. Carter is redefining "risk/reward" by leading the Liga with 137 strikeouts but trailing only Pie (.483) in on-base percentage at .460. Johnny Davis continues to lead the loop with 53 stolen bases, but the Compton Comet is doing it for Oaxaca now after the Guerreros received him on loan from Dos Laredos on July 29. It's a hard move to figure out because the Tecos are fighting for the playoffs without many outfielders, but the Guerreros ARE owned by Alfredo Harp Helu and Tecos owner Jose Antonio Mansur can ALWAYS use any cash considerations a loan might bring.
At this point, the Pitcher of the Year award is Cesar Valdez' to lose. The Yucatan righty has won five of his seven starts after losing at Durango on June 28 to go to 14-1 with a 2.42 ERA on the campaign and now leads the LMB in wins, ERA and WHIP (1.09). In 126.2 innings, Valdez has walked just 14 batters while striking out 104. He stand sixth among Liga pitchers in whiffs, where Leon's Yasutomo Kubo is now tied for the lead with Juan Pablo Oramas of Tabasco at 138 each. Roman Mendoza continues to lead the league in saves with 29 (in 31 opportunities). Mendoza has lost three games in his last ten trips from the bullpen to fall to 0-6 on the season, but the Dominican is a big reason the Tecos are in the playoff picture. Another is rookie Luke Heimlich, the former NCAA Pitcher of the Year from Oregon State who is 8-7 for Dos Laredos and ranks fifth in strikeouts with 109 over 118 innings pitched. Heimlich's season ERA is an unimposing 4.58, but that's still just outside the top ten in that category and he gave up just one run over 19.2 combined innings in three of his last four starts.
The biggest upcoming midweek series will be a crossover matchup when Tijuana visits Mexico City while the most important weekend set may be when Dos Laredos travels to Monclova hoping to keep their postseason hopes stoked with Saltillo heavily favored in a home set against Union Laguna.
IS SALINAS ON HIS LAST LEGS AS MEXICAN LEAGUE PRESIDENT?
After serving several months as a de facto leader-in-waiting, Javier Salinas took the reins from Plinio Escalante as Mexican League president after the 2017 season on the heels of a schism among team owners that had threatened to split the LMB into two separate eight-team loops or cancel the 2017 schedule altogether. Although neither fate came to pass, Salinas (a former marketing executive for Mexico's popular top-tier Liga MX soccer league) inherited a mess and events of the past two-plus years have not made his job any easier. Now Salinas is staring down the barrel of another in-house insurrection that may cost him his job. Although Salinas has had his difficulties, he's also had successes to point to.
Under his watch, the LMB has been more proactive about putting its product on the internet, with games streamed nightly during the regular season and playoffs. Also, the popular Quien es Quien annual yearbook with statistics and records (think of something The Sporting News might've published during its heyday) has been digitized the past two years and made available free online under Salinas' watch. Although many of the Liga's 16 teams have been financial basket cases, Salinas has been able to find new owners to keep the teams alive on the field, if not necessarily at the ticket office. Even after new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador rescinded the decision last winter to have four of those LMB franchises take 2019 off, Salinas managed to find investors (for better or worse) for all the teams to continue this season. He even managed to pull off a league-wide tribute to pitching legend Fernando Valenzuela that the former Dodgers star took part in this summer, two years after a number of Quintana Roo prospects were surreptitiously transferred to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos roster while Valenzuela and his wife were in the process of buying the Tigres franchise, a move that embittered the most popular figure in modern Mexican baseball history.
However, there've been some low points during Salinas' two-year reign, too. He pushed through last year's two-season schedule, which turned out to be a disaster (especially at the gate in the Fall season). His leagues Monterrey franchise now owns a team in the rival Mexican Pacific League while Mexico City owner Alfredo Harp Helu is paying for ballpark renovations in Guasave, the Mex Pac's other new team (conveniently owned by Durango's LMB owner Alfredo Aramburo. Among several franchise shifts and sales since 2017, only last winter's resurrection of the Puebla Pericos appear to be working out artistically and financially and while attendance has risen from the Fall 2018 season, nine of the Liga's 16 teams are drawing fewer than 4,000 fans per opening (with four of them below the 3,000 mark). However, the deal Salinas signed that broke a Major League Baseball ban on signing Mexican prospects may be the final straw.
After some shady player sales between LMB and MLB teams over the years, things came to a head when it was discovered that the Pittsburgh Pirates, Latin American scouting director, Rene Gayo, received illegal payments from more than one Mexican League team as part of player sales involving players whose rights were owned by LMB teams. Gayo was subsequently fired, but MLB commissioner Rob Manfred placed a signing ban on Mexican prospects in June of last year. While the new deal brokered in part by Salinas and signed in March meant the ban was lifted, it came at a price that was not discovered until after the fine print was looked at closer.
While Mexican League teams can indeed recoup 35 percent of the bonus one of their players is given, as was touted when the new agreement was announced, the player has to have been on an LMB roster for one season, a condition that does not apply to prospects developing at the numerous baseball academies in the country. Since the ban was lifted, none of the players signed by MLB teams has reportedly had to give up any of their bonus money. That latter point is what may get Salinas fired, since the sale of prospects in the past has meant the difference between a profit or loss for the year with LMB teams.
A league meeting has been scheduled for this Thursday that will likely bring things into the open, although Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros believes Salinas will not be let go at that meeting. Still, there are deep divisions that nearly split the Liga down the middle. According to Ballesteros, seven team owners seek to either replace Salinas or form their own league: Mexico City, Monterrey, Oaxaca, Puebla, Leon, Union Laguna and Durango. Eight of the remaining nine LMB teams do not seek to fire Salinas while, perhaps surprisingly, the Tigres are somewhat on the fence. Ballesteros says that while the Valenzuelas are not against letting their embattled league president walk, they do not want to break up the league if Salinas survives.
It should be noted that Ballesteros is admittedly not a Salinas fan (considering Monclova owner Gerardo Benavides the puppet-master), but he's also one of Mexico's best-sourced baseball scribes and, as such, should be taken seriously.
SAN LUIS TOPS CABORCA IN FIVE GAMES FOR LIGA NORTE PENNANT
The San Luis Algodoneros defeated Caborca, 8-3, on July 28 to top the Rojos in five games to win the Northern Mexico League championship series, four games to one. The pennant is the third for the Cottoneers in the present-day Liga Norte's 12-year history and their first since 2014. Ensenada won consecutive flags in 2017 and 2018 but the Marineros were eliminated in this year's playoff first round by Caborca. San Luis, whose players are supplied by Monterrey and Leon of the Mexican League, knocked out San Quintin in the opening round after going a combined 33-27 over two halves during the regular season.
In the deciding Game Five, held in Caborca, San Luis left-hander Alsis Herrera tossed the first five innings and gave up three Rojos runs while striking out six before the Algodoneros bullpen held Caborca scoreless over the final four innings. Herrera, who earned the win, was named the Finals MVP. Bryan Sosa went 2-for-4 with two RBIs for San Luis in Game Five while Caborca's Jorge Sesma led both teams with three hits in four at-bats.
The Algodoneros were led offensively this season by Danry Vasquez, who led the team in all three Triple Crown categories by batting .380 with nine homers and 46 RBIs in 53 games. Vasquez was an Astros farmhand until he was caught on video assaulting his then-girlfriend while playing for Corpus Christi in the AA Texas League, leading to his 2016 release. Vasquez is now batting .340 with three homers after 11 games for Aguascalientes in the Mexican League. Longtime indyball figure Jermy Acey hit .324 with five homers and 35 RBIs in 30 contests after signing with San Luis in midseason. The 38-year-old Acey played three years (2003-05) in the Jays organization and spent parts of three seasons in the Mexican League between 2010 and 2014 with Minatitlan, Tabasco and Veracruz and hit .295 and belted seven homers in 53 total games.
Although Herrera was named Finals MVP, he was not San Luis' most effective pitcher this season. That distinction goes to Gabriel Arias, who went 6-1 in seven starts with a 1.71 ERA. Arias, who spent ten years in MiLB (including seven years in the Phillies system), struck out 49 batters in 42 innings for Cottoneers manager Hector Garcia. His summer in San Luis Rio Colorado was bookended by stints with Yucatan and Puebla in the LMB, where he's gone 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA in eight appearances since the Pericos picked him up in late June.
The Algodoneros' playoff pennant run capped a most interesting season in the Liga Norte, considered a AA loop in the country's pro baseball structure. The LNM welcomed an expansion team in La Paz to mark pro baseball's debut in Baja California Sur but also was marked by the loss of formal affiliation and subsidies with the Mexican League (although Liga teams were able to cobble their own deals with LNM franchises) after losing existing teams Tecate and Puerto Penasco due to financial problems.
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