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Update from the Caribbean Winter Leagues as well as a look around the minor league affiliates and Cubs news

Javier Baez is playing in the Puerto Rican WInter League and shortstop prospect Carlos Penalver is seeing action in Venezuela. Also updates on Armando Rivero, Christian Villanueva and P.J. Francescon.

Cubs in Winter League

Cubs infielder Javier Baez made his season debut for Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter league on Dec. 1, going 1-for-3 with a single and walk in four trips to the plate. He homered in his second game and is batting .174/.321/.305 in seven games (23 at-bats, 5 BB, 4 K). While reports had Baez playing some outfield during winter ball, that hasn’t happened yet as he’s made five starts at second and two at short. Baez hit .289/.325/.408 with 1 HR and 4 RBI in 28 games (80 plate appearances) for Chicago after being called up on Sept. 1 and smacked a three-run homer in the Cubs series clinching win over the Cardinals in the NLDS. 

Another Cubs infielder getting some playing time is shortstop  Carlos Penalver, considered one of the best defenders in the organization. Penalver went 3-for-19 in six games for Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League, not playing his first game until Nov. 24. The 21-year-old hit .197/.278/.260 in 114 games for Myrtle Beach and earned a late season promotion to AA, where he’s likely to start 2016. He improved his walk and strikeout rates last year but continues to struggle to hit for average.

Reliever Armando Rivero was impressive in 14 games for Aragua in the VWL. The Cuban native worked 14.1 frames, fanned 18, only walked two, and recorded a save while going 2-2 with a 3.14 ERA. The 27-year-old will likely earn an invite to spring training and if he continues the success he had this winter (hasn’t pitched since Nov. 29) could challenge for a bullpen spot out of spring training and at the very least provides the Cubs bullpen depth.

Once considered the Cubs third baseman of the future, the acquisition of Mike Olt and the drafting of Kris Bryant have blocked Christian Villanueva's path to the big leagues. Throw in a step back in 2014 when he was returned to AA, and the Mexican native has dropped off some Cubs prospects lists. Villanueva hit .259/.313/.437 in his return to AAA Iowa in 123 games and also lowered his strikeout rate. The 24-year-old is having a great season for Obregon, batting .337/.445/.524 with 9 HR and 31 RBI in 53 games in the Mexican Winter League. He’s also walked 33 times while striking out 21. Villanueva provides the Cubs depth at third and if he continues to up numbers in AAA in 2016, may have another team come calling for a trade.

P.J. Francescon recorded six saves for Margarita in the VWL, appearing in 14 games, the last on Nov. 21. Francescon didn’t raise his stock enough to get selected in the Rule 5 draft. The 26-year-old posted a 2.84 ERA but sported a BAA of .370 with 6 BB and 11 K in 12.2 innings. The Cubs 40th round pick in 2010, Francescon notched 22 saves and a 1.69 ERA in 42 games for Tennessee in 2015 and earned a late season promotion to AAA.

Hot Stove Mania

The Cubs front office has stuffed fans stockings for the holiday season with the additions of OF Jason Heyward, utility man Ben Zobrist and right-handed pitcher John Lackey. The North Siders also dealt middle infielder Starlin Castro to the Yankees for right-handed pitcher Adam Warren and a player to be named later. While these moves grabbed most of the headlines, the Cubs were doing yeoman’s work re-crafting their bullpen, adding Andury Acevedo, Rex Brothers, Trevor Cahill, and Spencer Patton. The Cubs have a full 40-man roster—22 pitchers, 3 catchers, 10 infielders, and 5 outfielders. 

Cubs affiliates honored

South Bend and Myrtle Beach were honored at the recent Winter Meetings for their accomplishments during the 2015 season. Both new to the Cubs organization, South Bend earned the John H. Johnson award, the top award for a minor league franchise and based on financial stability, contributions to league stability, contributions to baseball in the community and promotion of the baseball industry. South Bend set records for total season attendance (347,678) and average attendance (5,039). Not only did Myrtle Beach win the Carolina League championship, they also were named the Bob Freitas Class A award winner for the best overall operation. Myrtle Beach set an attendance record with 3,877 fans per game and had the third all-time highest overall attendance despite having eight gates canceled.

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