Winter League Birds

Carmen Cali, Chris Duncan and Tyler Johnson are among Cardinals prospects set to play internationally this fall and winter, with Skip Schumaker, Travis Hanson and Gabe Johnson a possibility later. Assistant GM John Mozeliak explains how they are selected.

Even as the regular seasons wind down in both the majors and minor leagues, organized baseball continues on at least three fronts from the fall into the winter months.

Every September, many of each organization's prospects report to the Instructional League, which for the Cardinals takes place in Jupiter, Florida. In addition, a half-dozen Double-A players typically participate in the Arizona Fall League.

The Instructs, as they're commonly called, ran for the last month, ending this past weekend. Look for an upcoming story here as well as eyewitness reports at our Message Board on progress shown by some of the 36 prospects from the lower levels of the system who participated there.

Here is the link to an earlier story about the Instructs.

Arizona Fall League play began on October 4, with the regular season continuing until November 10. The Cardinals prospects playing in the AFL for the Surprise Scorpions are pitchers Andy Cavazos, Cory Doyne, Chris Lambert and Rich Scalamandre, catcher Gabe Johnson, infielder Travis Hanson and outfielder Cody Haerther. I will be posting first-hand reports from Arizona late next week.

Here is the link to an earlier story about the AFL.

The third area of off-season play is the International Leagues, where four Latin American countries have four-to-six week seasons that culminate in a four-team round-robin Caribbean Series in January.

While the teams in these leagues always foster a large number of home-country players, both high-profile and obscure, they also provide a place for a number of major league organizational prospects to compete at a level that many equate to Triple-A.

In recent past seasons, such Cardinals as Rick Ankiel, Julian Tavarez, Hector Luna, Yadier Molina have participated in winter ball in either the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.

This week, as he was preparing to leave for a trip to the AFL, I spoke with Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak about how he selects players and who this year's crop will be. "Mo" has been working on the process for months and is still not done, even as play has begun in Mexico and Venezuela.

Starting early

Mozeliak times his visits to the Cardinals Double-A and Triple-A affiliates late in the summer purposely, so he can have winter ball discussions face-to-face with the players while the regular season is still underway.

"What I do in canvass all our players in late July or early August that have interest in playing winter ball. It doesn't do me a lot of good to go out and find players jobs if they have no interest in doing it," Mozeliak explained.

Makes sense. There are a number of players who the Cardinals would really like to see playing in the fall and proactively try to encourage them.

"If there are some players that we think it is in their best interest to play, before I ask them, I will talk to them and go over the pros and cons of why we think that is a benefit to them," said Mozeliak.

Making a list, then making a match

The team decides who they want to play and makes the initial arrangement based on an intersection of the needs of the player, the Cardinals and the local team.

"Based on the players that show interest and the players that we want to try to find jobs for, we put together a priority list. And then, what I do is contact all four leagues – Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico – and try to find a good situation for each player.

"It's no different than almost acting like an agent in a sense, in that I want to find the player an opportunity for where they are going to get at-bats or innings and not just put them someplace to sit," explained Mo.

While he has ongoing relationships and connections with certain clubs in each country, Mozeliak most interested in finding the right fit for the player and both teams. "Clearly it is about opportunity and where players feel most comfortable," he said.

Setting limits

Mozeliak confirmed that sometimes players approach him with interest in playing winter ball, but they don't all get to go, and the ones that do play may not stay the entire time.

"I don't turn them down unless there is a fatigue factor, in terms of gross innings pitched or something of that nature where we see them as they need a medical relief." In other cases, the team may set a pre-defined level of work such that once it is reached - the player's winter ball time for that year is done.

Compensation

"They are paid a monthly salary. It's usually much higher – for first-time eligible winter ball players, if you will. Usually, guys who are in first year Double-A or Triple-A in pro ball aren't making a lot of money. So, going to winter ball is a nice way to subsidize their income," said Mozeliak.

The process

Mozeliak arranges the match, but it is up to the players and their representation to seal the deal.

"Once I give approval to a winter league club, it's their job to negotiate the contract with the player and the agent. Once that's done, they may have an agreement that you don't come to the second half, you only come out for the first half...

The players

Chris Duncan – Mazatlan Deer – Mexico

Cardinals who have played for the Deer in recent years include John Gall and Scott Seabol.

"Chris Duncan, I know, is playing at Mazatlan. He is committed to play the whole year. So, I am hoping it is going well. They have been under way for about a week. All reports I've gotten out of there have been very positive," said Mo.

Duncan, who has been a first baseman as a professional, will be getting work there and at the corner outfield positions. Being able to play the latter effectively may the difference-maker in whether Duncan will have a continued career with the organization.

Mozeliak continued, "He's going to do both. When I tried to get him placed this winter, it was to find a place where he could get the majority of his opportunities in the outfield."

Duncan played in the AFL in 2004.

Carmen Cali – Licey Tigers – Dominican Republic

Left-handed reliever Carmen Cali will be pitching with Licey, the Yankees of the Dominican Republic. One year ago at this time, Cali was competing in the Arizona Fall League for the Mesa Solar Sox. He had come off a favorable initial impression with the big club at the end of the 2004 campaign and was sent to Arizona to sharpen up his game.

However, during 2005, Cali regressed. After allowing seven runs in six innings with the Cardinals, Cali then spent the rest of the season with Memphis, registering a 5.40 ERA. He fanned 45 in 58-1/3 innings, but also walked 28.

Yet, with the uncertainty surrounding the left side of the Cardinals bullpen, it is easy to understand why Cali is getting the extra work this fall.

Skip Schumaker – Aragua Tigers - Venezuela

"Jared Schumaker – depending on how his knee is – he has a little bit of a knee issue – and depending on how that goes, he may play the second half in Venezuela. Unfortunately, that is where he banged up his knee (last year) and this year, we're trying to get that 100%, so his decision will solely be based on how he feels in about a month," explained Mo.

Schumaker was a fan favorite for Aragua last fall due to his fast start and strong play. He was named the league's Player of the Week for the week ending last October 31 as he was hitting .361, tied for seventh best in the league, with two home runs and ten RBI in his first 22 games there.

Tyler Johnson – Mazatlan Deer – Mexico

The lefty reliever, selected by the Oakland A's in last December's Rule 5 draft, but returned to the Cardinals during the spring, spent the 2005 campaign primarily at Memphis. However, he received his first taste of the major leagues this September. With that uncertainty surrounding the left side of the Cardinals bullpen, Johnson is being given every opportunity to emerge in 2006.

Johnson will be joining the Deer for the second half of their campaign this fall.

Established major leaguers

It is a different situation when considering current major leaguers, such as Yadier Molina, who played with Ankiel for Carolina of the Puerto Rican League and Julian Tavarez and Hector Luna, who each played for Las Aguilas of the Dominican League last off-season.

"Yadi will probably not play this year. Now again, those decisions, taking guys from their country and wanting to play – we never really tell them "no" unless there is a major fatigue factor as far as pitchers. In Yadi's case, if he wanted to play, we would let him. But, I think he is going to lead toward not playing this year," explained Mozeliak.

I did not receive a direct reply when I questioned Tavarez' decision to play winter ball despite his broken hand suffered in the playoffs and his subsequent claim of fatigue during spring training this season. Could all that work have been a factor in his second-half dropoff? No one knows for sure.

"A lot of these local guys get pushed and persuaded into playing whether they want to or not. Then there are others like Tejada in Baltimore, who find it an honor to play. He doesn't take an income. It is how he likes to spend his off-season," observed Mo.

In a point of background, Luna lost his playing time when former American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada of the Orioles joined Las Aguilas late in the Dominican season last year.

Other additions coming

Mozeliak continued. "There are other players I am trying to find jobs for and I am still working on that. I hate to bring their names up in case I fail. (laughs) It is tough to find middle infielders jobs, because they usually go with the local flavor down there.

"The other pool that you are pulling from is the Arizona Fall League group. I may try to place a couple of those guys after their Fall League ends should they want to play. There is interest in a couple of those players like (Gabe) Johnson and (Travis) Hanson," he said.

Six-year minor league update

Finally, check back here soon for the latest information on the Cardinals' signing of six-year minor league free agents. Both Cavazos and Johnson inked deals early as part of getting them ready for the Arizona Fall League. Others who have resigned include left-hander Randy Leek, 2004 Triple-A Rule 5 pick-up, right-hander Jose Garcia, outfielder Brian Martin, shortstop Milko Jaramillo and first baseman Juan Diaz.

Now that the signing period opened on Saturday, expect more moves to come to light soon.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.


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