Baseball’s back in Mexico and Central America
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When American fans cheer for their favorite Hispanic players in most major league cities, they generally stereotype these athletes as being from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. And why not? These countries are the hotbed for for baseball in Latin America. That’s where all the elite academies are located, especially in the Dominican. That’s where are the scouts go to salivate over the abundance of young talent, sort of like a kid in a candy store. So, it makes perfect sense that over 80 percent of Latino national big-leaguers were born in those two countries. That statistic, though, might need to be adjusted in the near future.
Many creative recruiters who search the region are discovering that baseball is on the upswing in Mexico and Central America. The bus rides are long and hot, and the fans are usually drunk and boisterous. The fields are sun-cracked and dusty, and a stray dog or chicken may wander into fair territory during the middle of an inning. A player really needs to love the game in order to play under these conditions. But for a scout who can endure these elements, the efforts are often rewarded.
Although Bobby Avila and Ruben Amaro Sr. were Mexican major-league pioneers in the 1950s and ’60s, it was port-side pitcher Fernando Valenzuela who put Mexico on the map in 1981. Prior to “Fernandomania,” the most notable, modern-day player was my pal Mario Mendoza, a slick-fielding, light-hitting shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Mario will tell you that the term, “Mexican hands,” alludes to his flawless glove work. And he bristles when folks correctly say that he is best known for the infamous “Mendoza line,” a batting-average gauge for players in a batting slump.
On the other hand, Oaxaca-native Vinny Castilla was a great hitter, who holds the distinction of being Mexico’s all-time home run king with 320 career jacks over 16 seasons.
Esteban Loaiza, Armando Reynoso, Vicente Palacios and Teddy Higuera were successful pitchers who would pave the way for current superstars like Yovani Gallardo, who proudly honors Higuera by wearing number 49 on the back of his jersey. Besides Gallardo, quality pitchers currently dotting the landscape include Jaime Garcia and Jorge De La Rosa.
If Valenzuela was the mound hero for all Mexicans, then the great Dennis Martinez was a similar icon for Nicaraguans, which is why he is still called “El Presidente” (with the approval of Daniel Ortega). Martinez played in the major leagues for 23 years, and never won more than 16 games because he usually threw for bad teams. He did, however, earn a World Series ring in his younger days with the Baltimore Orioles. Martinez is also the only Latino player to pitch a perfect game, accomplishing the feat against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1991 while with the Montreal Expos. His 245 career wins is tops among Hispanic hurlers. Aside from Martinez, however, the only other big leaguer of prominence from Nicaragua was David Green, a flashy outfielder whose career spanned six seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.
Panama has a much richer baseball history stateside, beginning with Pirates Manny Sanguillen and Rennie Stennett, and Omar Moreno who came a bit later. Bullpen setup specialist Ramiro Mendoza won five rings with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and the legendary Mariano Rivera has an even larger collection. It’s also a safe bet that Rivera will eventually join Rod Carew with a plaque at Cooperstown.
Worth mentioning is a spillover of baseball interest from Mexico has now spread across the border in Guatemala. Low-level A ball is played in the capital city and a training facility, the Galvez Sobral Academy, has been graduating decent players for several years. Andres Aguilar, 18, who currently plays in the Baltimore Orioles organization as an outfielder, is a case in point. And did you know that the mother of Cleveland Indians outfielder Ryan Spilborghs was born in Guatemala? Alright, I know that’s a stretch, but I’m sure you get the picture.
Now for the drum roll, here is my short list of key players to check out this season, along with each country’s best prospect:
Everth Cabrera, SS, San Diego Padres — All Cabrera is thinking about this season is getting a fresh start, like in 2008 when the Padres picked him up in the Rule 5 draft. He enjoyed instant success the following year until he broke the hamate bone in his left hand during a mid-April game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, he’s been dogged by a similar injury to his throwing hand, several groin pulls and other ailments.
Now completely healthy again, he’ll be backing up Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson in the middle infield. But with both veterans in the final year of pricey contracts, Cabrera will likely fall into a starting job more sooner than later.
A native of Nandaime near the colonial city of Granada, Cabrera, 25, is a shortstop by trade with a strong arm and above-average range. He’s also a switch-hitter and prolific base stealer. Most importantly, though, Padre manager Buddy Black loves Everth’s “Charlie Hustle” style of play.
Wilton Lopez, P, Houston Astros — Originally signed by the Yankees in 2002, Lopez was dubbed a career minor-leaguer and released five years later. Picked up by the Padres, he had his ups and downs until the Astros grabbed him off waivers in 2009. Finally, at age 26, things started to click.
The last two seasons with Houston, Lopez has compiled a record of 7-8 with a combined ERA of 2.87 in various scenarios. While Brett Myers has been named the designated closer for the Astros, health issues involving Brandon Lyons might open the door as a possible setup role for Lopez out of the bullpen. The bottom line: With the rebuilding ongoing in Houston, Wilton has made the most of shot in the big leagues.
“All I want to do is make a positive contribution and help the team,” he says.
Top Prospect: Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B, Kansas City Royals — Islas del Maiz (Corn Islands), is a Caribbean paradise most vacationers want to keep top secret. So, it’s ironic that a 19-year-old baseball player would put the place on the map. That’s why Cuthbert is such an interesting story.
A couple of scouts saw Cuthbert display his raw talent during some games on the main island, Big Corn, and he was reportedly being groomed by the Pirates. But when the Royals saw him standout in the Dominican Prospects League, they had their checkbook ready. As a result, the 6′-1″, 190-pound phenom signed a bonus package worth $1.4 million, a record sum for any Nicaraguan player.
The thing that sticks out about Cuthbert is his quick bat and tremendous power. As a third baseman, Cuthbert is a work in progress, but he’s quick with a plus arm and could possibly end up as a corner outfielder. I really like this kid and so do the Royals, who rank him as #5 on the prospect chart.
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