by Bruce Baskin, Baseball Mexico, http://baseballmexico.blogspot.com/
TOMATEROS FALL SHORT IN CARIBBEAN SERIES SEMIS
After arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico on the heels of their seven-game Mexican Pacific League championship series win over Mazatlan, the Culiacan Tomateros hoped to keep their momentum going entering the first round of the 2020 Caribbean Series. After narrowly dropping a 2-1 decision to the Dominican champion Este Toros in their February 1 opening game, the Tomateros reeled off four consecutive wins to advance to the semifinals before losing a 1-0 knucklebiter to Venezuela’s Lara Cardenales on February 6 despite outhitting the Cardenales by a 9-2 margin.
The following is a recap of each Tomateros CS game at Estadio Hiram Bithorn:
February 1: Este (DR) 2, Culiacan 1
The Toros got on the scoreboard when Abraham Almonte doubled off Culiacan’s Manny Banuelos to bring Peter O’Brien and Diego Goris home, giving Este starter Yunesky Maya and two relievers all the support they’d need. The Tomateros averted the shutout in the ninth when Joey Meneses doubled and scored from second on a Juan Carlos Gamboa single before Este’s Wirfin Obispo closed the door for the save. Maya tossed five innings of two-hit ball for the win while Banuelos took the loss after allowing two runs on four hits and four walks over 3.2 frames.
February 2: Culiacan 4, Santurce (PR) 2
Another Tomateros pitcher named Manny (Barreda) had a strong start and Sebastian Elizalde cranked a homer as Culiacan bounced back from their opening day defeat to top host Santuce, 4-2. Barreda served up a Jan Hernandez homer in the second for the only run he allowed over five four-hit innings while Elizalde’s three-run bomb off Cangrejeros starter Giovanni Soto in the fifth broke open a 1-1 contest. From that point, five relievers held Santurce to one run the rest of the way for the win, with Alberto Baldonado earning the save for manager Benji Gil’s team.
February 3: Culiacan 6, Chiriqui (PAN) 1
The LMP’s Pitcher of the Year for 2019-20, Yoanys Quiala, showed how he earned the hardware by giving up just one run to the Panamanian titlists over seven innings in Culiacan’s 6-1 win over the Astronautas. Joey Meneses led off the bottom of the second with a double, followed by Dariel Alvarez’ RBI single up the middle. Two outs later, Jose Guadalupe Chavez tripled in both Alvarez and Ramon Rios (who’d singled) for all the scoring the MexPac champs would need. Meneses, who also singled Ramiro Pena home in the fifth, finished with three hits while Chavez had three ribbies.
February 4: Culiacan 7, Lara (VZ) 6
Joey Meneses drove in four runs in Culiacan’s third consecutive win as the Tomateros built a 7-0 lead, then hung on for a one-run win over Lara to clinch a berth in the Caribbean Series semifinals. Meneses went 2-for-4 with a homer while Rico “Nitroman” Noel contributed a pair of hits, including a two-run double. Anthony Vasquez got the win despite dishing up a three-run homer to the Cardenales’ Carlos Rivero. Alberto Baldonado came in from the bullpen with a runner on second in the ninth and struck out the last Lara batter to save the victory.
February 5: Culiacan 4, Monteria (COL) 0
The Tomateros closed out the first round with their fourth straight triumph in a 4-0 win over Colombian CS debutant Monteria. Culiacan starter Edgar Torres put in 7.2 shutout innings on the mound, with a Brallan Perez single in the first being the Vaqueros’ lone hit off the lefty. Torres didn’t have a win or save as a middleman in 55 appearances for Durango in the Mexican League last summer. Ramiro Pena, who didn’t play in the Tomateros’ first game after missing his flight to San Juan, swatted a two-run homer for the winners while Rico Noel and Juan Carlos Gamboa each had two hits.
February 6: Lara (VZ) 1, Culiacan 0 (semifinal)
The Cardenales earned revenge while punching their ticket to the title game by squeaking out a 1-0 win to knock Culiacan out. The only run of the contest came in the bottom of the third when Lara’s Welington Dotel, who has peviously played in both the LMP and LMB, stroked a double off lefthander Zack Dodson to drive in Gorkys Hernandez with what eventually proved to be the game-winner. Dodson otherwise had a great six-inning performance but the Tomateros left 16 baserunners stranded while being whitewashed. Lara went on to lose to Este, 9-3, in the final game.
Despite falling short of winning the team’s third Serie del Caribe championship (Culiacan won in 1996 and 2002, both times under late manager Francisco “Paquin” Estrada), the Tomateros placed five players on this year’s Dream Team: Starting pitcher Edgar Torres, catcher Ali Solis, first baseman Joey Meneses, second baseman Ramiro Pena and centerfielder Rico Noel. Rounding out the Dream team were third baseman Emmanuel Rivera (Santurce), shortstop Ali Castillo (Lara), leftfielder Ruben Sosa (Este), rightfielder Henry Sosa (Santurce), designated hitter Jordany Valdespin (Este), relief pitcher Ramon Ramirez (Este) and manager Lino Rivera (Este). Culiacan has the most players named to the Dream Team but both Chiriqui and Monteria were shut out.
The 2021 Caribbean Series will be held in Mazatlan and the refurbished Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, which now seats 16,000 spectators. National champions from both Colombia and Panama will return to the competition on a provisional basis but, according to the Hitazo website, Caribbean Professional Baseball Confederation president Juan Francisco Puello has issued a statement that Cuba is not being invited to Mazatlan next year. The first-time Cuban National Series champion Matanzas Cocodrilos had been scheduled to participate in San Juan last week before backing out of the event in early January, citing “pressure” from the U.S. government and an inability to obtain visas for the trip to Puerto Rico.
MENESES SIGNS WITH BOSOX, ELIZALDE INKS PACT WITH METS
Although the Caribbean Series is still considered the Crown Jewel of Latin Baseball, its focus among players has shifted from being an opportunity for some Major League Baseball stars to play winterball representing their home nations into a showcase for younger players hoping to exhibit their talent to prospective MLB employers. The tournament has lost some of its luster among baseball fans no longer likely to see legends like David Ortiz, Roberto Alomar, Miguel Cabrera or Juan Marichal, but a number of current players filling the void will catch the eye of big league scouts every February and sometimes that’s enough to create a chance to move up in the baseball world.
In that vein, no fewer than three members of the Culiacan Tomateros signed free agent contracts with MLB organizations last week while the Serie del Caribe was ongoing. Perhaps the most prominent among them was first baseman Joey Meneses, who signed a minor league contract with the Boston Red Sox. The 27-year-old Meneses spent seven years in the Atlanta system before signing a minor league deal with Phladelphia prior to the 2018 season. The 6’3″ Culiacan native was assigned to the Phillies’ AAA Lehigh Valley affiliate and proceeded to tear up International League pitchers to the tune of a ..311 batting average with 23 homers and 82 RBIs over 130 games, being named the IL’s Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player for his effort. That led to a contract with Japan’s Orix Buffaloes, for whom Meneses struggled mightily in a 2019 that ended with a .206 average and four homers in just 29 NPB games. The Red Sox are expected to assign Meneses to their AAA Pawtucket. His Mexican rights are currently held by the Monclova Acereros.
Another Tomateros player who made the most of his time in the Mexican Pacific League and Caribbean Series this winter is outfielder Sebastian Elizalde, who parlayed a strong regular season for the Tomateros (.308 with 10 homers and 21 stolen bases in 60 games) and appearance at the Caribbean Series into a minor league contract with the New York Mets. The Guaymas-born Elizalde spent four years as a Monterey Sultanes prospect prior to being sold to the Cincinnati Reds in 2012 as a 21-year-old. He went on to spend five years in the Reds organization, earning a berth in the 2015 Florida State League All-Star Game, before being returned to the Sultanes in 2018. Elizalde batted .319 in limited action for Monterrey last summer and may be ticketed for the Mets’ AAA Syracuse team in the International League, although his rights in Mexico still belong to Monterrey.
Despite an often-rocky regular season and losing the first game of the Caribbean Series to eventual champion Este, pitcher Manny Banuelos did well enough to earn a minor league contract with the Seattle Mariners for 2020 and will report to the team’s Arizona training camp ths week. Unlike either Meneses or Elizalde, the 5’10” lefty from Gomez Palacios has appeared in the majors for Atlanta in 2015 and the Chicago White Sox in 2019. Banuelos went 3-4 with a 6.93 ERA for the Chisox, including an April 22, 2019 start at Baltimore during which he held the Orioles scoreless with four strikeouts over four innings of a 12-2 win. A free agent signee with the Yankees at age 17 in 2008, Banuelos was a 2018 postseason All-Star in the AAA Pacific Coast League after pitching for the Dodgers’ Oklahoma City affiliate that year, and is perhaps bound for the Mariners’ AAA Tacoma farm team. He was 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in four starts for Culiacan during the regular season. He has never pitched in the Mexican League over 12 professional seasons, including a 2013 campaign he took off after having Tommy John surgery.
LAGUNA TABS LONGTIME JAYS MiLB SKIPPER MALAVE AS MANAGER
During the 2020 season, the Union Laguna Algodoneros will celebrate the 80th anniversary of the region’s debut in the Mexican League. The original Union Laguna team needed just two years to cop their first LMB pennant under Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo in 1942. A second Liga flag was won in 1950 with Memo Garibay at the helm and, seventy years later, it’s the last pennant to have been raised at Estadio Revolucion, the team’s 87-year-old home ballpark. Laguna has been in and out of the LMB since that initial 1940 season, with the current incarnation of the Cottoneers (established in 1985) representing the fifth LMB go-round for Torreon, Coahuila and Gomez Palacio, Nuevo Leon, the two cities at the center of the agriculuture-based Laguna region of 1.3 million residents.
Into this scenario steps new Algodoneros manager Omar Malave, who spent nearly 40 consecutive years in the Toronto Blue Jays organization as a player, manager, coach and administrator before making his first foray into Mexican baseball. The 57-year-old Malave will replace former Union Laguna manager Jonathan Aceves, who piloted the team to an LMB-worst 37-79 record in 2019 for his managerial debut after spending 22 seasons as a catcher on both sides of the border.
A native of Cumana, Venezuela, Malave made his professional baseball debut as a utility infielder for the Blue Jays’ Gulf Coast League team in 1981 along with his older brother Benito, a pitcher (younger brother Jose spent time as an outfielder for Boston in 1996-97 and also had a stint in Japan with Yokohama). Omar went on to spend the rest of the Eighties playing in the Toronto system, mostly at the Class A level, although he did play eight games with AAA Syracuse in 1989, his last season as an active player. By 1991 he was back in the GCL, this time as manager the Jays’ rookie league team.
Malave worked his way up the minor league managerial ladder until he reached Syracuse in 2000, beginning a four-year run with the Chiefs. Malave’s teams posted winning records in each of his first ten years as a manager and while his on-field fortunes waxed and waned for most of the next 15 years, he had an overall record of 1,455-1,352 over 22 years as an MiLB skipper after spending the 2015 season as helmsman with Dunedin of the Class A Florida State League. He was named to the FSL Hall of Fame that year. In addition to his long career as a minor league manager, Malave coached in Toronto with the MLB club under Clarence “Cito” Gaston in 2010 and served as the franchise’s minor league coordinator in 2013.
Malave will have a handful of decent everyday players at his disposal with the Algodoneros. Outfielder Michael Choice .(398 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs in just 51 games) may be the best of them, along with ex-MLB and Dutch National Team outfielder Roger Bernardina (.336 in 34 games) and another outfielder, Francisco Ferreira (.307), who appeared in the 2019 LMB All-Star Game. Pitching is another story, however, as Union Laguna had only two regular hurlers with an ERA under 5.00 last year: Middleman Roman Pena (3-2/4.03 in 70 trips from the bullpen) and starter Frankie De La Cruz (6-6, 4.91), who started strongly and was picked for the All-Star Game before fading at the end of the long season. With a Liga-worst 8.05 team ERA, it’s little wonder how the Cottoneers finished more than 40 games below .500 in a 120-game season.
While the Algodoneros will play in the Mexican League’s oldest ballpark (and one of the most ancient in all of the minors), Estadio Revolucion is getting a makeover prior to the 2020 season. The 9,935-seat venue was first opened in 1932 and underwent a renovation in 2002. Noted for its art deco facade and the widest foul territory in Mexican baseball, thanks to a since-removed running track, Estadio Revolucion has hosted LMB All-Star games in 1995 and 2004.