Venezuelan Winter League
While the season marches on in Venezuela, two prospects with hopes of cracking the 25-man roster have returned home for the winter. Left-handed pitcher Matt Thornton and third baseman Justin Leone are back stateside, though each for different reasons.
The Mariners sent Thornton to Venezuela for the same reason most American prospects are sent there: to get more playing time. After losing the better part of the previous two seasons to elbow and back troubles, the 28-year-old finally had a healthy season, marked by a solid major league debut.
Still, Thornton hadn't fully regained his arm strength, nor his control, as was evidenced by his 88 walks against 104 strikeouts during the regular season. Thus, the Venezuelan Winter League provided a little extra playing time and Thornton flourished, posting a 1.54 ERA in a short 11.2 inning span. Over the course of that time, his stuff started to come back and his control sharpened as well, with just four walks to show for it and 14 strikeouts. With the chance that the Lara Cardenales will be playing in the Caribbean Series come January, the Mariners decided to send him home and let him rest up until spring training.
In Leone's case, the trip home did not symbolize as much accomplishment. Losing time due to a broken hand during the regular season, Leone was using Venezuelan play to get some additional at-bats and steady his defense, which had been lackluster in Seattle.
The early returns were excellent, and through the first 10 games he played, Leone was hitting .310/.429/.586, had scored 10 runs and walked six times. But the food down south was none too kind to him. Gradually he started losing weight, and with it, the quality numbers he was putting up. By the time he left, he was hitting .220/.333/.390 through 19 games, clearly not the kind of progress he would have liked to have made. For now, the 27-year-old will have to get healthy again, work out when he's able to, and wait for spring to come.
Puerto Rican Winter League
Puerto Rico kicked of its Winter League season a couple of weeks ago and already a few Mariners prospects are making their impact known.
Rene Rivera has begun play with Carolina Gigantes, as he does every winter, but this time he's off to a fast start. Recently named the top catcher in the organization by InsideThePark.com, Rivera is not typically known as being a threat with the bat. Just don't try to tell him that now, as he's batting .368/.400/.632 through his first seven games and while providing the same excellent defense he is known for.
The 21-year-old's best game thus far came on November 26th, when he led his team by going getting three hits in four at-bats and coming up a triple short of the cycle. Which is not to say that he didn't make the most of his hits; he ended up scoring two runs and driving in four.
Rivera will continue to get at-bats as one of Carolina's starting catchers, splitting time with St. Louis prospect Yadier Molina. He should have enough opportunity to prove whether or not he can keep it up.
A teammate on the Carolina staff, left-hander Miguel Martinez, is another player looking to rebound from a rough 2004 season. After posting an unbelievable 1.13 ERA in 55.2 innings with Wisconsin in 2003, the 22-year-old struggled to follow it up this year in the California League. Martinez began giving up hits with much more frequency than he had in previous seasons, and by the end of the season his ERA was 5.62.
Now playing with his hometown team, Martinez has made three appearances, including one start, and has an earned-run average of 1.00 through his first nine innings. The results aren't perfect by any means; despite giving up just five hits, he's allowed six walks. Regardless, he's been keeping the damage under control, and is among the team leaders in innings pitched.
Martinez will figure to take over as fifth starter as the schedule dictates, and hopefully these extra opportunities will give him a chance to sort through whatever was lost from his game in the regular season.
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