I am talking about winter baseball in the Caribbean, a way for emerging prospects to get work in, while building their skills playing in Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela.
In the midst of a busy time celebrating a 2006 World Championship while preparing for 2007, Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak sat down to discuss how these players are selected and why.
"When you look at your rosters and what you are trying to accomplish in winter ball, I really see it as a two-fold. One is an opportunity for players to improve on their game and actually work on something physical or a matter of getting them more work than they got in the season whether it was due to injury or missed time and allow them to gain some experience at a very high and competitive level," explained Mozeliak.
Winter ball is not for the established major leaguers, but instead, typically it is best used for Double-A or Triple-A players for whom the organization is trying to gain some exposure.
Three pitchers at the upper levels of the minors are either playing now or will start soon.
"Cate will be down in Mexico playing for Mazatlan (Venados or Deer). He is a partial sign, which means he will go down in November and probably pitch up until Christmas," said Mozeliak.
The 26-year-old finesse lefty recently re-signed with the Cardinals organization after being eligible for six-year minor league free agency. He excelled before and after his mid-season promotion to Springfield, where he posted a 1.27 ERA while striking out over four batters for every one walked.
Mozeliak continued. "Worrell is going to pitch in the Dominican Republic for Gigantes (Giants) del Cibao and is on a very similar sign."
For Springfield in 2006, Worrell fanned 75 in 61-2/3 innings while picking up 27 saves. He held opposing hitters to a paltry .226 average, while walking 20.
"Cavazos is with Guasave in the Mexican League. He has pitched already and is going to be a first-half guy as well. The idea is to allow them time to get some rest before Spring Training.
"Last year, for example, Worrell had a full load down in winter ball (Mazatlan in Mexico), and it didn't seem to hurt him at all. Everyone is a little different in that regard. We do want to look out for their best interests and give them time to recuperate," explained Mo.
Like Cate, Cavazos was recently re-signed by the Cardinals. However, he was also added to the organization's 40-man roster following a stand-out 2006 campaign. With the Memphis Redbirds, Andy posted a 1-5 record with four saves and a 3.51 ERA, fanning 55 in 56-1/3 innings. He walked 16 and allowed just two home runs. In 16 games with Springfield, Cavazos held opposing hitters to a .094 batting average and posted a sparkling 0.45 ERA.
With the Guasave Algodoneros, Cavazos is carrying a 1.17 ERA in his first 7-2/3 innings, while holding opposing hitters to an .045 batting average. In his most recent action on Sunday, Andy pitched the ninth inning, earning his first save of the winter ball campaign.
Former Cardinals farmhands Iker Franco and John Webb are also competing in Mexico. Neither is expected to re-sign with the Cardinals.
Juan Lucena, Jose Martinez and Rayner Laya
And then, there is the Venezuelan contingent, playing two levels – some at a major league level, plus the Cardinals stock an entire minor league squad in the Liga Paralela.
"In Venezuela we have Lucena and Martinez. Laya is also playing. Down there, they have two levels so I think that Wilmer Alvarado might also get some time with the big club (Tigres)," said Mozeliak.
Rayner Laya was recently traded from LaGuaira Tiburones to Las Aguilas Cibaenas, for whom he is hitting just .111, with three singles in 27 at-bats. He also walked three times.
Juan Lucena is hitting better in a relative sense, with a 5-for-27 (.222) mark for the Aragua Tigres. All of his safeties were also singles. Jose Martinez is also with the Tigres, but is hitless in limited action (six at-bats).
Mozeliak explains that the long season for the Major League club may limit participation this winter from their ranks.
"Usually, there is opportunity for some of the guys who are on the 25-man roster, but given the year we had this year, very few are going to be interested. Most players if they hadn't been September call-ups, they have been done since August and some of the other players have been with the big club for two extra months," said Mo.
I asked Mozeliak about several prominent names from winter leagues past, starting with former pitcher, now rehabbing outfielder Rick Ankiel. It seems that his recuperation has moved a bit more slowly than expected.
Said Mo, "I think where his health status is and where he is in his rehab process will prohibit him from playing. I think if Spring Training was to start in December, he probably could do it, but there is a little bit of a risk in sending him down there. He's been someone who has definitely has missed a little time and putting him into a position where he has to compete would be a little stress on him."
Perhaps first baseman Chris Duncan wouldn't require the extra work, but Chris Duncan the outfielder is far from a finished product.
Mozeliak is unsure whether Duncan will play. "Chris is going to let me know if he wants to pursue something and if he does, I am sure I can find a job for him. That kid works his rear off. No one questions his effort. Wherever he goes this off-season, he will be taking fly balls. That much I know. He is very committed to try to improve."
Catcher Yadier Molina has played in the past for his hometown Carolina team in Puerto Rico. Mozeliak doesn't think Yadi will do so this year, but admits it isn't a done deal either way.
"I don't think Yadi is going to play. He told me that he is looking forward to taking some time off. I think now that he has gotten married… They just get so much pressure (to play winter ball) when they are at home. But, I am not stopping him from playing – I am just recommending he not, and let his body recoup. I am sure he will be contacting us soon asking for advice."
The final name I brought up was outfielder John Rodriguez, who also played in Puerto Rico last winter, continuing his surprise 2005 campaign with strong numbers in winter ball, too.
"I don't know about John Rodriguez. He is another guy I will be speaking with in the next few days and gauge him. I talked to him in September and he was interested at that time. I think that is something we should revisit," said Mozeliak in closing.
Mozeliak considers his 2006-2007 winter ball work far from over. He is still actively pursuing placing several other players as we spoke, so if something comes of that, we will let you know in our regular winter ball reports here, too.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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