Winter ball, still very valuable for MLB organizations

SAN DIEGO – The relative proximity of the Dominican Republic to the United States and the presence of academies for each of the 30 Major League teams in that country facilitate monitoring and the benefit that teams can get from the presence of their players in the Dominican League. In that vein, several Major League managers expressed their satisfaction this week at the Winter Meetings with that facet of winter development.

The Pirates, for example, have seen with their own eyes the progress of O’Neil Cruz, their prized prospect who debuted in the big team in 2022 and who is now trying to fine-tune his game with the Licey Tigers. Pittsburgh bench coach Don Kelly said he was present in the Dominican to see Cruz work on positioning his feet at shortstop and fine-tuning his at-bats, among other things.

“That was very important to us,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “Donnie was texting me during the games about some of the things he was doing ONeil. The reports have been pretty good.”

The 24-year-old Cruz set Statcast records as a rookie with Pittsburgh, both with his rocket shots off the bat and the force of his shots from shortstop. But in addition to the aforementioned lack of defense, he also struck out 126 times in 361 plate appearances for the Pirates, a clear sign that he still has work to do.

In his first eight games with Licey, Cruz had eight hits in 26 at-bats (.308), with two home runs.

“The reports have been quite positive,” Shelton said. “Not only are we getting good reports, but we were also able to have one of our coaches there to see it.”

Another youngster who made himself felt at the Licey this season is prospect Elly de la Cruz, of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds’ No. 1 prospect and the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year caused a sensation with the Tigers, producing an .813 OPS in 25 games. The 20-year-old finished 2022 at Double-A in the Reds system, and could even compete for a big-team spot in spring training next year.

“I know Elly played great,” Reds manager David Bell said of De la Cruz’s performance for his country this winter. “The reports are as good as they could be. There is a lot of enthusiasm around Elly. I think Elly is approaching things the right way.”

The rebuilding Diamondbacks brought up prospect Geraldo Perdomo earlier than they would have liked in 2022, giving the 22-year-old (now 23) a chance to play every day. The defense wasn’t too bad, or that outstanding—with 0 outs above average at shortstop—but the offense was what looked off.

Perdomo hit .195/.285/.262 (.547 OPS) with an OPS+ of just 58. Last month, Arizona foreman Torey Lovullo visited him (and Ketel Marte) in the Dominican Republic, where Perdomo just recently start a stay with the Águilas Cibaeñas.

“It was an enriching experience for me,” said Lovullo, who saw his pupils Sergio Alcántara and Luis Frías play in the Dominican Republic, among others.

One of the Latino leaders in the Major Leagues, the Puerto Rican Dave Martínez, advocates for participation in winter leagues in his capacity as manager.

Martínez, from a Puerto Rican family and raised in the United States, says that when he was a prospect for the Cubs in the 1980s, his general manager Dallas Green urged him to play winter ball. Martínez did it, participating in the Puerto Rican League with the San Juan Metros.

“He really helped me,” said Martinez, a foreman for the Washington Nationals. “It helped me learn a lot about myself. I prepared much better.

“I encourage guys to play winter ball, especially young guys, because it definitely helps them. It helps them understand how to hit breaking pitches better, because they throw a lot of breaking pitches there. The more baseball you play, the more you understand who you are and what you can be.”

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Winter ball, still very valuable for MLB organizations