It’s that time of year again. It’s only mid-January, and when you’re as old and impatient as I am, the start of spring training still seems like an eternity.
My only baseball “fix” is watching satellite games played in the winter Mexican Pacific League. I noticed that Cuban right-handed pitcher Amauri Sanit, 34, went a perfect 7-0 with the Culiacan Tomateros, a team that didn’t even make the playoffs. And lefty teammate Oliver Perez, still with his funky delivery, fanned 15 batters in nine innings out of the bullpen.
I wasn’t able to get a signal for any games in the Venezuela winter league, which I will conveniently blame on the new presidente, Nicolas Maduro. But friends have told me that veteran port-side slugger Bobby Abreu hit .322 for the season, legged out three triples, and went yard for his Caracas club in the first game of their post season. Rumor has it that the 39-year-old outfielder has slimmed down in search of another MLB gig.
That’s it. All of a sudden, I’m totally focused and ready to select my annual fantasy team, which always consists of unsigned Latino free agents. And as usual, I will be frugal but fair in signing all my players to one-year deals. And it’s my way or the highway, which means no hot-dogging on the field or PED use allowed in the dugout.
My star outfielder will be Nelson Cruz, and I’ll have Kendrys Morales and Abreu rotate at DH and first base to save their legs. My middle infielders will have lots of experience too, with Ronny Cedeno, Ramon Santiago and Yuniesky Betancourt competing for jobs. The hot corner will be a concern, so Luis Cruz will have to live up to his potential. The outfield will consist of Cruz, Roger Bernadina, Endy Chavez and Abreu. I know Bernadina is from Curacao, but at least he speaks Spanish.
Catching would be thin but interesting, with Yorvit Torrealba, Miguel Olivo and Humberto Quintero all in the mix. The pitching, however, will be a key to success. The starting rotation will feature Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Bruce Chen, the ex-Kansas City Royal southpaw. Other veterans like Freddy Garcia and Jonathan Sanchez will duke it out for the final two spots. The bullpen will be a cagey bunch with Luis Ayala, Oliver Perez, Carlos Marmol, Fernando Rodney and Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez holding down the fort. Hell, I’ll even give Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde a shot.
Alright, who am I kidding? Many of these guys won’t have jobs in the spring, as well as many of the camp invitees. They will be back in their home countries, playing in leagues that pay peanuts. There will be long, hot bus rides with a cooler full of cerveza that will be gone in less than an hour.
Back to reality, where will the top 10 Latino players eventually play in the 2014 season? I will mention but not speculate on the rumors, nor will I make bold predictions. It’s too late for that. Instead, I will simply match players with teams they might help the most, and see if the respective general managers will listen.
Luis Ayala — New York Yankees: The Yankees are looking for renewed bullpen help, and they know what to expect from the veteran Mexican, which would be consistency. But at age 36, the sinker-ball specialist can expect no more than a one-year major league deal.
Ronny Cedeno — New York Mets: Now that the Mets have decided to stick with under-achieving Ruben Tejada at shortstop, the youngster from Panama will need a veteran presence to guide him. What better guy than Cedeno, who proved he could still play last season in San Diego?
Nelson Cruz — Los Angeles Angels: Although there has been zero chatter from Anaheim, I can’t believe the Angels won’t make a last-minute push for Cruz. After trading away Mark Trumbo, who will replace that offensive punch? Owner Artie Moreno has the money, and his team has to hold serve with the Rangers and A’s.
Freddy Garcia — New York Mets: The boys in Queens need extra pitching help, too, and they spent a ton of money on Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon. Inking Garcia, presumably on a minor league agreement, would be a low-risk acquisition.
Ubaldo Jimenez — Toronto Blue Jays: Both the Jays and the Yankees need the Dominican star, but the Yankees now have extra cash to pursue Mr. Tanaka, who is unlikely to reside north of the border. Therefore, I would be surprised if Toronto didn’t pull the trigger and settle for Jimenez, although for probably less money than he had hoped.
Carlos Marmol — Milwaukee Brewers: Canadian Jim Henderson wasn’t exactly automatic last season as the Brew Crew’s closer. Marmol has had his problems as well, but he can at least add some depth and lively competition
Kendrys Morales — Tampa Bay Rays: The light-hitting Rays don’t have a regular DH, and Morales could be their man, provided the money is right. The Cuban slugger is still only 30 and back to good health. Rumor has it, though, the Royals have something cooking.
Oliver Perez — San Diego Padres: ESPN has reported that the Padres could be “sleepers” in the National League West this season, and pitching is the main reason for that prediction. That’s why a reunion with the Tijuana southpaw makes sense, since San Diego has not had a veteran, situational lefty since they traded away Joe Thatcher last season. Every top team needs one of these guys, and the Padres have tried to address the problem with inexperienced arms. That won’t work.
Fernando Rodney — Baltimore Orioles: Tampa Bay skipper Joe Maddon had his fill of Rodney’s crooked cap last season, and the O’s need a closer. Not a marriage made in heaven, but life is full of imperfections.
Ervin Santana — Texas Rangers: With Derek Holland on the shelf, it wouldn’t be a shocker for the Rangers to give Santana at least close to the contract that he wants. If Texas misses the playoffs again this year, it will cost Ron Washington his job.
It’s worth mentioning that seven of the listed players here are pitchers, and four are relievers. The market is saturated with arms. On the other hand, the lack of available hitters means that Cruz and Morales have an advantage, but still may not get long-term deals. That said, nothing in this game alarms me anymore. I just want the damn season to start.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?