Other winter leagues begin play

Last week, I discussed five things to watch for in the Arizona Fall League, which at this point is less than a week underway. The Arizona Fall League gets all of the publicity when it comes to off-season leagues, and with good reason. The collection of prospects amassed in the desert for a month of play is unmatched anywhere else on the baseball landscape.

But there are leagues in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that offer a shot for prospects to get game action in against, not just other prospects, but former major leaguers and veterans alike. The Dominican and Venezuelan Winter leagues aren’t exclusive to prospects, but many join their ranks anyway, giving us an additional look at them during baseball’s down time.

The Dominican Winter League got underway on Sunday, featuring one of the game’s top hitting prospects, Oscar Taveras, manning center field for the Aguilas Cibaenas. The St. Louis Cardinals 20-year-old is coming off one of the more impressive minor league seasons in recent memory, growing into his power potential while taking on a league filled with older players. It’s not just that Taveras hit .321/.380/.572 in Double-A, but there are two additional aspects that make it even more impressive. Taveras was not only 20 in Double-A, but he skipped the High-A Florida State League altogether, jumping up from the Midwest League where he hit .386 in 2011. Furthermore, Taveras developed his additional power without compromising his contact rates at the plate. Taveras had more extra base hits than strikeouts on the season, fanning only 56 times on the year.

Taveras is among the best prospects in the game because of his rare refinement at such a young age. Prospects like Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna match Taveras’ power potential but without the impressive contact rates. Ozuna hit 24 home runs in the Florida State League as a 21-year-old, but struck out over 100 times for the second straight season while batting .266. He’s a fine athlete with a strong outfield arm, and when he puts it all together at the plate, the results can be impressive, as they were in the DWL opener when he went 3-for-4 with two doubles and a home run.

Raw prospects often use their time in the DWL to gain experience against older competition. Such is the case for Cubs shortstop Junior Lake, who spent the year at Double-A and is now starting for the Estrellas de Oriente. Lake, like so many Cubs prospects that have come before him, displays strong tools but struggles with plate discipline. Lake walked just 35 times in 103 games in 2012, certainly a point of concern for the new, on-base conscious front office of the Cubs.

There are many other intriguing prospects in the DWL as well, but few will garner as much attention as estranged Giants prospect Angel Villalona, who was charged with murder in the Dominican after the 2009 season and hasn’t been allowed back in the United States. He settled the charges out of court, so he’s technically a free man, but because of the incident he can’t get a visa. He’s still on the Giants 40-man roster and he’s just 22-years-old, so he’s not a total lost cause yet, but there’s only so much developmental progress he can make playing 40 games a year in the Dominican Summer League and playing winter ball.

The Dominican Winter League does offer more of an opportunity to follow prospects than does its Venezuelan counterpart, but that doesn’t mean the VWL is devoid of prospect action.

The Venezuelan club Bravos de Margarita features two prospects of significance – Mets prospect Wilmer Flores and Twins outfielder Aaron Hicks. Flores will be playing third base this winter after splitting time between second and third base this season. The Mets are still unsure of his position, but they’ll get an additional look at Flores’ defense at the hot corner this winter as he has played there every day thus far. There’s no positional dispute over Hicks, who draws much of his value from his defensive abilities in center field and his ability to get on base. Hicks is coming off his best offensive season this past year, posting an .844 OPS in Double-A.

Other significant prospects in the VWL include Tigers 100-mph reliever Bruce Rondon (Navegantes del Magallanes), Philies perplexing prospect Darin Ruf (Tiburones de la Guaira), and fellow Twins outfielder Oswaldo Arcia (Tigres de Aragua).

The VWL and DWL don’t get the publicity of the Arizona Fall League, partly because they aren’t exclusive to prospects and partly because they take place in other countries, but they nonetheless offer us another opportunity to get additional information on prospects. Even if it’s just from box scores, that’s better than nothing as we head towards winter.

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