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Baseball Mexico

by Bruce Baskin
January 1, 2020 - Mexican League (ML)

YAQUIS SWEEP BOTH HALVES, ARE #1 LMP PLAYOFF SEED

When Obregon's Nathanael Santiago tossed eight pitches (seven for strikes) in a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close out a 4-0 Yaquis road shutout over Hermosillo on December 30 in front of 16,604 fans at a packed Estadio Sonora, it culminated a standout regular season for manager Sergio Gastelum's team in which they won both halves en route to a 44-22 record and a maximum 20 playoff points heading into January's postseason. Centerfielder Aneury Tavarez went 4-for-5 with an RBI double and shortstop Isaac Paredes singled twice, doubled and scored two runs to give starter Alex Delgado and four relievers who combined on a three-hitter all the offensive support they'd need. Obregon's 44 wins set a new record for single-season victories.

Despite being blanked by the Yaquis, Hermosillo (38-27) finished in a three-way tie with Jalisco and Culiacan for second in cumulative points with 15 apiece. The Charros ended their schedule with an overall record of 39-28 after losing to the 37-29 Tomateros, 7-2, in Estadio Culiacan (attendance 19.357). Joey Meneses clubbed a two-run homer off Jalisco starter Octavio Acosta in the bottom of the second to help stake the Tomateros to an early 5-0 lead that was never threatened.

Elsewhere on closing night in the Mex Pac, Mexicali (34-33) held off Navojoa (25-41) by a 3-2 score as Alex Valdez singled and homered for the Aguilas to finish all alone with 13 points and the fifth playoff seed while the Mayos came in tied with expansion Guasave for last in points with 8.5 each as both will miss the postseason. The Algodoneros (27-39) ended their first season on a high note with a 3-2 win over fellow expansionists Monterrey (26-41) when Moises Gutierrez' walkoff single off Sultanes reliever Salvador Valdez with two out in the bottom of the ninth drove in Bryant Aragon.

Finally, Los Mochis' Josuan Hernandez came in from third base on a wild pitch by Mazatlan's Ryan Newell in the top of the 16th inning followed by a 1-2-3 bottom of the frame from reliever Irving Machuca as the Caneros (32-36) snuck past the 31-37 Venados, 3-2, in a game that lasted 5 hours, 18 minutes. Los Mochis was their own worst enemy as the Caneros only batted 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position while leaving 19 men stranded on base.

The first round of playoffs will feature an eight-team field instead of six and no "lucky loser" format this year, a result of the LMP expansion to ten teams this season. As usual, each series will be a best-of-7 set with the higher seed hosting Games 1 and 2 with the lower seed hosting Games 3, 4 and 5 before returning to the higher seed's home park for games 6 and 7, if needed. Here are the matchups for the quarterfinals:

#1 Obregon Yaquis vs. #8 Monterrey Sultanes

#2 Hermosillo Naranjeros vs. #7 Mazatlan Venados

#3 Jalisco Charros vs. #6 Los Mochis Caneros

#4 Culiacan Tomateros vs. #5 Mexicali Aguilas

Los Mochis second baseman Isaac Rodriguez won the batting title with a .340 average, four points ahead of Hermosillo's Yadiel Hernandez at .336. Jalisco outfielder Dariel Alvarez homered twice over his final ten games to finish with an LMP-best 16 homers, ahead of the 12 each by Los Mochis' Leandro Castro and Michael Choice of Monterrey. Alvarez' 55 RBIs were also most in the circuit, outdistancing the 47 of Monterrey's Felix Perez. Alvarez also hit .301 to sneak in to the top 10 in that category and is a potential MVP choice. Rico Noel led in stolen bases for weeks and the Culiacan outfielder finished with 30 to easily beat the 21 from teammate Sebastian Elizalde.

If the MVP award goes to a pitcher, the odds-on favorite among that group has to be Los Mochis' Yoanys Quiala. The 6'3" Cuban righthander led the LMP in wins with a 9-2 record, his 2.57 ERA was second only to Mexicali veteran Javier Solano's 2.23 mark (somehow Solano won only two of his 13 starts) and Quiala registered 71 strikeouts to tie with Andre Rienzo of Obregon for second behind the 76 of Hermosillo starter Juan Pablo Oramas. There was a three-way tie for the saves title between Brandon Cunniff (Navojoa), Jose Rosario (Guasave) and Mario Meza (Mexicali) with 12 apiece. Among the trio, Meza's 1.99 ERA was the best. Veteran lefty middleman Arturo Barradas, who struggled in the summer with Monclova (12.10) and Tijuana (16.20) before hitting stride in Puebla (2.95 in 31 appearances), led the Mex Pac with 16 holds for Mazatlan.

HARRIS, VALDEZ TOP 2019 MEXICAN LEAGUE AWARDS LIST

To the surprise of few, if any, observers, Oaxaca outfielder Alonzo Harris and Yucatan pitcher Cesar Valdez headed the list of award winners for the 2019 Mexican League season announced last month.

Harris, who was signed as a free agent by the Guerreros at the beginning of the season after spending 2018 with Quintana Roo prior to a two-week training camp stint with Mexico City, was named the Liga's Most Valuable Player after the 2007 Mets draft pick hit .343 and led the circuit in runs (131) and total bases (324), was second in steals (45), RBIs (117) and slugging percentage (.691), finished third in homers (39) and came in fourth with 161 hits, a 1.122 OPS and 34 doubles (tying with three other players). A 30-year-old native of McComb, Mississippi, Harris just missed becoming the LMB's first 40-40 Club member but still joined James Steels and Luis Terrero as the only Mexican Leaguers to reach 30 homers and 30 swipes in the same season. Harris spent all or part of seven seasons in the Mets system before going into independent ball in 2014. He was the Atlantic League Player of the Year in 2017 after 315 with 23 homers and 73 RBIs for York that season.

Valdez was the easy choice for Pitcher of the Year after the Dominican topped the loop in wins with a 15-2 record and ERA at 2.26. The Leones righty allowed nearly a full run per nine innings less than teammate Yoanner Negrin, who turned in a 3.22 mark (the 2016 POY, Negrin's 13 wins were also second in the LMB). Valdez also led the Liga with a 1.06 WHIP and finished fifth in strikeouts with 122 while allowing just 17 walks over 147.2 innings pitched. The 34-year-old Santo Domingo product began his professional career with Yakima of the Northwest League in 2006 (where he was a teammate of current LMB outfielder Cyle Hankerd) after signing a free agent contract with Arizona and went on to play parts of three MLB seasons with the Diamondbacks, Oakland and Toronto before making his Maxican League debut with Tabasco in the Spring 2018 season. The Olmecas actually released Valdez in May of that year and he spent three months out of work before Yucatan signed him in early August, after which he was 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA (proving there's a reason the Leones are the Leones and the Olmecas are...well...you know).

Other Mexican League award winners for 2019 included Manager of the Year Roberto Vizcarra, who led Saltillo to a 66-53 record and their first playoff appearance in four years. Reliever of the Year went to Carlos Bustamante, who was third in the LMB with 27 saves and a 2.57 ERA for champions Monclova. Quintana Roo outfielder Erick Migueles was Rookie of the Year after the 23-year-old Tucson native hit .252 with eight homers for the Tigres. Veteran Durango outfielder Santiago Gonzalez was named Comeback Player of the Year by batting .306 for the Generales, the seventh time he's topped .300 in his 14-year career, after missing both 2018 LMB seasons. Executive of the Year went to Monclova owner Gerardo Benavides, who brought (some say "bought") the first Mexican League pennant to his hometown team, which was founded by his grandfather in 1974.

OMAR VIZQUEL NAMED TIJUANA MANAGER FOR 2020

Former MLB shortstop great Omar Vizquel has been picked to manage the Tijuana Toros during the 2020 Mexican League season, replacing Oscar Robles. The Venezuelan was introduced at a press conference during the Baseball Winter Meetings last month across the border in San Diego.

Vizquel earned his playing reputation with his glove over a 24-year career in the majors, earning 11 Gold Gloves (including nine in a row between 1993 and 2001) while making three All-Star Game appearances. His career .985 fielding percentage ranks highest among shortstops with more than 1,000 MLB games played (leading his league six times in that category) while Vizquel also ranks first all-time among shortstops with 1,734 double plays over 2,709 games (also first), is third in assists with 7,676 and 11th in putouts with 4,102.

What is often overlooked is that the 52-year-old from Caracas also developed from a bottom-of-the-order hitter into a batsman who was pesky enough to do some damage at the plate. His 2,877 career hits ranks 47th on the all-time list and is first among Venezuelan players, including 2,264 singles (17th). Vizquel accrued a total of 456 doubles, 404 stolen bases and scored 1,445 runs en route to a career batting average of .272 with an on-base percentage of .336. The man nicknamed "Little O" during his playing days is on the Hall of Fame ballot for a third time this winter after appearing on 37% of ballots his first year and 42.8% last year. While he's got ground to cover in reaching the 75% required for election, Vizquel has at least a puncher's chance of entry into Cooperstown.

After retiring following the 2012 season, Vizquel was an infield coach with the Los Angeles Angels in 2013, before serving as first-base coach with Detroit between 2014 and 2017 under manager Brad Ausmus. He interviewed for the Tigers managerial post after Ausmus was fired but passed over for another ex-MLB infielder, Ron Gardenhire. Vizquel has spent the past two summers managing in the White Sox system, in Class A Winston-Salem in 2018 and Class AA Birmingham in 2019, before the front office in Chicago decided to cut ties with him in November.

Tijuana marks Vizquel's first experience of any kind in Mexican baseball and it comes under the microscope of the Uribe family, one of the LMB's most unforgiving ownerships who cut Robles loose after the former Padres infielder merely led the Toros to the best regular season record in the LMB last season (75-45, tied with Monclova) before falling to the Acereros in seven games for the LMB North title.

MANAGERIAL CHANGES IN MEXICO CITY, OAXACA

After showing he could manage with success in Oaxaca, former Mexican League infield star Sergio Gastelum has been elevated to dugout boss with the Guerreros' "big brother," the Mexico City Diablos Rojos. In turn, longtime catcher Erick Rodriguez will he handed the reins in Oaxaca with his first managerial post. Both teams are owned by billionaire Alfredo Harp Helu.

Gastelum had a solid 22-year Mexican League playing career, during which he batted .314 between 1995 and 2016 before retiring and going into coaching. He took over as Guerreros manager midway through the shortened Fall 2018 LMB schedule and took them to a playoff berth despite a 12-14 regular season record before two playoff series wins catapulted Oaxaca into the Serie del Rey, where they lost to Monterrey.

Gastelum followed that up in winterball by leading his hometown Obregon Yaquis to the best record in the Mexican Pacific League and a playoff berth while earning Manager of the Year honors. Oaxaca fared much better in 2019 by going 68-51 over both halves (fifth-best in the 16-team circuit), but fell to Yucatan in the first round of the postseason. This winter, he has led Obregon to first place in both halves of the MexPac season as the Yaquis will enter the playoffs as the LMP's top seed. That apparently was enough to please Harp, Diablos team president Dr. Othon Diaz, deputy president Miguel Ojeda and general manager Francisco Minjarez, who is apparently immune from his league suspension following his role at both ends of the Rookiegate scandal.

Gastelum will replace Victor Bojorquez at the helm after the former Diablos star outfielder led Mexico City to an LMB South-best 67-49 record last summer but failed to bring a pennant to the capital city. Bojorquez went 134-92 over two years with the Red Devils after being brought up from their Ensenada affiliate in the Liga Norte and it's impossible to imagine him without a new job in Mexican baseball for long.

In turn, Oaxaca team president Guillermo Spindola Morales introduced Rodriguez as manager to fill the dugout void created by Gastelum's departure. Long regarded more highly for his work behind the plate than while swinging a bat astride it, the Monterrey native (who just turned 40 on November 27) nonetheless has hit a creditable .293 over his 19-year Liga playing career, all with the Guerreros. In fact, Rodriguez led Oaxaca batters with a .356 average in 2019, adding a career-high 12 homers and 47 RBIs over 87 regular season contests. For some reason, he attempted to steal a base but was caught, making him 15-for-33 in lifetime stolen base attempts. Rodriguez faltered during the playoffs, batting just .176 (3-for-17) in the Guerreros' five-game loss to Yucatan in the first round.

Rodriguez will continue catching for the Guerreros in 2020 in an attempt to emulate the late Nelson Barrera, who led Oaxaca to their lone LMB title as a player-manager in The seven-time All-Star (and MVP of the 2015 Juego de Estrellas) is expected to convert his calm demeanor and vast experience as a player into success as a manager, and he'll have the good fortune of making that conversion in an environment where expectations are historically no higher than they used to be in Kansas City six decades ago when the Athletics served as a de facto intramural farm team of the New York Yankees.

AMLO CALLS FOR LMB, LMP TO COMBINE INTO ONE LEAGUE

Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has never hidden the fact that he is passionate about baseball, often interjecting himself into both Mexican League and Mexican Pacific League affairs since ascending to the nation's highest office in December 2018. While it's generally going to be a plus when your country's highest-ranking politician gives your sport preferential treatment, AMLO's involvement has often carried with it a two-edged sword.

Although AMLO personally kept four Mexican League franchises from going dark last year while making sure the Mex Pac expanded two more teams this winter, only Puebla appears to be a popular retention among the four saved LMB teams, the jury is still out in Monterrey on hosting year-round pro baseball and there's no assurance that Guasave will be any more successful this time than the Algodoneros were prior to that team's 2014 sale and move to Guadalajara (where the Jalisco Charros have been an unqualified success).

Lopez Obrador has now apparently called for the LMB and LMP to merge into one league. According to Mexico City's Reforma, AMLO requested that the two loops form a single 26-team entity to begin play in 2021. A December 17 meeting was convened in Mexico City by AMLO and attended by representatives from all existing franchises, who were urged to take part in a letter from Probeis director Edgar Gonzalez, as well as billionaires Carlos Slim and Carlos Bremer along with National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport head Ana Gabriela Guevara. According to the Reforma story, a source said the 16 Mexican League teams approved a merger but only three of the LMP's ten clubs (Jalisco, Guasave and Monterrey) were in favor of the proposal.

Ultimately, the merger was at least put on hold at the meeting while Lopez Obrador has repainted the picture somewhat. Proceso's Beatriz Pereyra quotes the president as saying, "Now they are in a good moment because there is unity in the leagues, but if there is only one League, that will depend on the owners. That is not resolved by presidential decree. It has to be an agreement and, if it is convenient, if it works, let it be done, but they have to do that." Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros owner Alfredo Harp Helu claimed that a merger was not discussed at all, but rather an agreement was worked out in which the Mexican League would unconditionally make players available to play for the National Team at the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

GENERALES SOLD, WILL REMAIN IN DURANGO

After months of speculation, the Mexican League's Durango Generales have been sold. Ever since Durango re-entered the LMB when then-owner Virgilio Ruiz moved the Carmen Delfines to the central Mexico city in November 2016, the Generales have been plagued by problems both on and off the field, including renovations to Estadio Francisco Villa that ran so late that the team had to play a month of road games during their inaugural 2017 schedule before they could play their home opener. From that point, the situation devolved into a proverbial dog's breakfast marked by missed payrolls, players walking off the team until they were traded (usually for cash), low attendance and other maladies that beset problem teams.

Former MLB catcher Miguel Ojeda and local businessman Fernando Espinosa de Campo bought controlling interest in the Generales in January 2018, a move approved by LMB owners, but the sale disintegrated after Ojeda (who was going to run the team) decided to drop out so he could take a front office position with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, for whom he'd once played and managed. Ultimately, entrepreneur Alfredo Aramburo bought controlling interest in the Generales but felt slighted by the rest of the Liga's executives and owners from the start (El Sol of Durango says the Assembly of Presidents refused to approve him as team president) and the writing was on the wall for Aramburo's exit from the LMB when he emerged to buy the Mexican Pacific League Guasave Algodoneros last July to end a weeks-long search for an owner after Guasave had been awarded an LMP expansion franchise. For what it's worth, Mex Pac owners readily approved Aramburo as the Algodoneros team president.

Puro Beisbol's Fernando Ballesteros reports that Aramburo agreed to sell the Generales to a group of local investors, who agreed to keep the team in Durango for at least the 2020 season. Although Ballesteros said the picture in Durango had started to improve in 2017 during their first year in the city, that sense of stability more likely didn't begin to take place until last season after Aramburo bought the Generales. Even so, the Cottoneers play in the league's smallest ballpark, although Estadio Francisco Villa's 4,983 seats were usually more than enough to accomodate the average 3,219 backsides that attended 56 home games last summer, placing Durango 12th in the 16-team attendance derby. The Generales ranked seventh in their first season by drawing 4,094 per game in 2017.

Durango was one of the four LMB franchises earmarked for shutdown last year before Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador intervened and ordered league president Javier Salinas to reverse the contraction and while they survived 2019, the new owners have a daunting task ahead of them. While new manager Juan Jose Pacho has had success leading Mex Pac teams in Mazatlan, he'll work with a roster that includes 2019 LMB batting champion Daniel Mayora, Comeback Player of the Year Santiago Gonzalez and third baseman Moises Gutierrez, who responded to his first starting job with 25 homers and 91 RBIs but little else to put on the field along with a pitching staff on which Amilcar Gaxiola (6-5) was the only hurler with more than four wins and no starter had an ERA of lower than 5.00.

FORMER CATCHER, MANAGER PAQUIN ESTRADA DIES AT 71

Former catcher and manager Francisco "Paquin" Estrada, whose Mexican baseball career spanned five decades, passed away December 9 in Obregon after a long illness. A member of the Salon de la Fama since 2000, Estrada was 71.

Born on February 12, 1948 in Navojoa, Estrada's playing career began in 1964 when the then 16-year-old receiver debuted with San Luis Potosi of the Class A Mexican Center League. After two seasons with the Rojos, the stocky (5'8" and 182 pounds) backstop was brought up to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos in 1966. He spent five years with the Diablos before being sold to the New York Mets prior to the 1971 campaign. Estrada split that year between AA Memphis and AAA Tidewater before playing his first (and last) major league contest for New York on September 14 against Montreal at Shea Stadium, when he went 1-for-2 after replacing Jerry Grote in the seventh inning. Suitably impressed with Estrada's .500 batting average, the California Angels traded six-time All-Star shortstop Jim Fregosi for him in the offseason, with the Mets throwing in Leroy Stanton, Don Rose and Nolan Ryan to make Gene Autry feel better about the deal.

From that point, Estrada bounced between the Angels, Orioles and Cubs systems for two years before returning to Mexico for good in 1974 when he joined the Puebla Pericos. He would continue catching in the LMB for 21 more years (he also played 30 seasons in the Mexican Pacific League) before retiring in 1994 at age 46. In his 31-year playing career, Estrada set minor league records for most games caught (2,847) while gaining a reputation as a decent, if not great, batter with some pop who was a master at working with pitchers. However, it was as a manager that he achieved his greatest successes in baseball.

Starting in 1982 as a player-manager with the Campeche Piratas, Estrada would lead teams to Mexican League pennants in 1983 with Campeche, 1990 with Leon and 2004 with Campeche (again). In 31 seasons as a manager in the Liga, Estrada was 1,604-1,435 to rank second to Jose "Zacatillo" Guerrero's 1,971 wins on the all-time list. He also won seven winterball pennants in the Mexican Pacific League (six in Culiacan), copped Caribbean Series championships in 1996 and 2002 with the Tomateros and managed Mexico's first World Baseball Classic team in 2006.


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