Seven Cubs Shinin' in Latin Winter Leagues

The regular seasons for the Latin Winter Leagues in Venezuela (VWL), Mexico (LMP), Puerto Rico (PWL), and the Dominican Republic (DWL) close this weekend, and the playoffs will start next month. Then the four league champions will meet in the Caribbean Series in Hermosillo, Mexico, the first week of February (just prior to the start of MLB Spring Training).

About 30 Cubs (both major leaguers and minor leaguers) are playing winter ball in Latin America, and the following are seven of the better performances:


JUNIOR LAKE (DWL) is hitting 312/382/414 in 44 GAMES... is 4th in the DWL in BA, 5th in OBP and SLG, 6th in RBI, is tied for 7th in HR, is 2nd in stolen bases, and leads the league in strikeouts...

COMMENT: Lake has made a ton of errors at 3B, plays better at SS (which is consistent with his history, although he may have outgrown the position), and he is learning to play the OF (where he will probably eventually end up). He will very likely start the 2013 season at AAA Iowa and will probably continue to be moved around in the field. He has the best arm in the organization (there has even been talk from time-to-time of converting him to a RHP) and above-average speed, so RF or CF would seem to be the positions that would best suit his skill-set. He is only 22 years old and he has two more minor league option years left, so the Cubs can afford to take their time with Lake.  

LUIS VALBUENA (VWL) is hitting 298/410/482 in 47 GAMES... is 3rd in the VWL in walks, is tied for 5th in doubles, is 6th in OBP, and is 9th in SLG...   

COMMENT: A solid MLB utility infielder who can play 2B-3B-SS, Valbuena has hit LHP as well as RHP throughout his career. He could be the Cubs starting 3B in 2013 if Ian Stewart can't claim the job in Spring Training.    

DAVE SAPPELT (VWL) is hitting 336/378/526 in 30 GAMES... is leading the VWL in hitting and is 5th in SLG... he has hit five HR and five doubles in 30 games...

COMMENT: Sappelt was one of three players acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in last off-season's Sean Marshall trade (LHP Travis Wood and 2B Ronald Torreyes were the other two), and with a strong winter league performance under his belt, Sappelt is a good candidate to be the successor to Reed Johnson as the RH half of the platoon in either CF (with David DeJesus) or RF (with Nate Schierholtz). Sappelt is a free-swinger but has always been a good hitter, and his improved HR total in the VWL bodes well for a possible upgrade in the power/slugging part of his game in 2013. 

NELSON PEREZ (DWL) is hitting 250/443/417 in 40 GAMES... is leading the DWL in OBP and is 2nd in walks, and he is tied for 10th in the league in RBI...

COMMENT: Perez is a close friend of Alfonso Soriano, and prior to signing with the Cubs, he used to throw BP to Sori in the Dominican during off season. Perez got a late start in pro ball (he was 18 when he signed) because he was sidetracked with a very serious illness in his teenage years, but the Cubs signed him after giving him a tryout after the 2006 season. He was kind of a Dominican Roy Hobbs, a raw talent with a plus-arm, plus-HR power, and above-average speed for a big guy (6'3 215), but without much background actually playing baseball. The Cubs did look at him as a RHP, but liked him better as a power-hitting RF, so when he reported to Fitch Park for Spring Training 2007 (he skipped the DSL), he was the classic Bull in a China Shop. He had to learn how to play RF from scratch, tracking fly balls, throwing to the correct base, and hitting the cut-off man, and he couldn't do any of it. He was absolutely lost in RF. He also was repeatedly thrown out on the bases, and couldn't hit a breaking ball to save his life. But the Cubs stuck with him, and in his second season in pro ball, he led the AZL in triples, home runs, and outfield assists. He also was an extreme "hacker," drawing only 14 walks in 331 PA over his first two seasons. But as he moved up through the pipeline 2009-12, he gradually developed more patience at the plate, increasing his walk total a bit  every year. And now he may be the most patient hitter in the organization! He still isn't a good hitter, but he has HR power and a strong arm, and he is a walking machine. Perez is 25 years old, has yet to see AAA, and he will be a minor league free-agent post-2013, so the Cubs really need to find out exactly what his ceiling is. And for his career to continue past next season, Perez himself needs to at least establish himself in AAA. I suspect with Soriano's connections in Japan, that Perez could end up there if he is unable to get any additional traction in the U. S.


ESMAILIN CARIDAD (LMP): 2.77 ERA with a 1.23 WHIP and .255 OppBA in 35 GAMES... is leading the league in HOLDS, and is 2nd among LMP relievers in strikeouts (45 in 39 IP).

COMMENT: Like Alfonso Soriano and Timo Perez before him, Caridad began his pro career at the Hiroshima Carp Dominican Academy. He eventually made it to Japan and pitched briefly in the NPB, before requesting (and receiving) his release following the 2007 season. He was signed by the Cubs just before Christmas 2007, and he moved quickly through the Cubs system, making his MLB debut in August 2009. He had a promising start to his MLB career in '09, making 14 appearances with the Cubs (1.40 ERA and 0.93 WHIP with 3/17 BB/K in 19.1 IP). His career was sidetracked by a sore arm in 2010-11, but he had a solid 2012 season throwing in middle-relief at AAA Iowa, Caridad is no kid (he is 29), but with his strong showing in Mexico over the past three months he should get an NRI to Spring Training, and if so he could possibly make the Cubs 2013 Opening Day 25-man roster as a RH middle-reliever.

HECTOR RONDON (VWL): 4.29 ERA with a 1.00 WHIP and .205 OppBA in 23 GAMES (21 IP)... is tied for 2nd in the VWL in HOLDS...     

COMMENT: A one-time Top 10 Prospect of the Cleveland Indians, Rondon missed most of the 2011 and 2012 seasons while rehabbing from TJS. He became a minor league free-agent post-2012, but was re-signed to a 2013 minor league contract by the Indians in November. However, the Cubs selected him in the December 2012 Rule 5 Draft, and he has already thrown more innings over the past three months in the VWL than he did over the previous two seasons combined. He looks to be 100% healthy for the first time since 2009, and if he can regain his pre-2010 form, the Cubs might have found themselves a good one. Because he is a Rule 5 Player, Rondon must remain on the Cubs 25-man roster and/or MLB 15-day or 60-day DL for the entire 2013 season, or else he must be placed on waivers (where he could be claimed by any of the other 29 MLB clubs for the $25,000 Rule 5 waiver price), and if he is not claimed off waivers, he would then have to be offered back to the Indians, who could re-claim him for $25,000 (half the Rule 5 Draft price). However, Rondon is out of minor league options, and so the Cubs would not be able to option him to the minors even if he is not claimed off waivers and even if the Indians choose not to take him back, and because he has been outrighted previously in his career, he can elect free-agency if he is outrighted to the minors. So as much as the Cubs might like to send him to AAA to get work, it's probably pretty much "Wrigley Field or Bust" for Rondon.    

MICHAEL BOWDEN (VWL): 3.62 ERA with a 1.39 WHIP and .264 OppBA in 7 GAMES (7 GS) with 33 hits allowed and a 12/17 BB/K in 32.1 IP

COMMENT: After spending the last three seasons trying to establish himself as an MLB RH middle-reliever, Bowden is returning to the starting rotation, at least in Winter Ball. However, the Cubs may need him more in the bullpen in 2013. Bowden was one of two players acquired from Boston for Marlon Byrd last April (LHP Hunter Cervenka was the other one), and he pitched pretty well for the Cubs as a RH middle-reliever after getting recalled from AAA. And even though there might not be room for Bowden in the Cubs MLB starting rotation in 2013, at least it's nice to know that he was able to stretch himself out as a starter in Venezuela, and that he could be a candidate for the Cubs starting rotation in the future should that become necessary at some point. Bowden is out of minor league options so he can't be optioned to the minors, and because he has been outrighted previously in his career he can elect free-agency if he were to get outrighted in 2013, so therefore he (like Rondon) probably has a bit of an edge when competing with others for a 2013 MLB bullpen gig.