* LHP Juan Pablo Oramas help opposing hitters to a .210 average pitching for the Naranjeros de Hermosillo of the Liga Mexicano del Pacifico in 15 starts. And now he’ll pitch for Mexico in the Caribbean Series in San Juan, Puerto Rico. ….
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By Andrew Hendriks
As blizzard-like conditions wreak havoc on the eastern seaboard, effectively crippling New York city, an area considered by many to be the epicenter of the baseball world, Caribbean Series action is heating up north of the equator at Estadio Hiram Bithorn in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Of course, with the Series — a grand finale to the winterball campaign — drawing to a close in a couple of weeks, spring training is officially beginning to emerge on to the foreseeable horizon.
But there is still important games to be played between now and Feb. 8.
Once thought only to have provided a means of staying in game-ready shape between the months of November and February, winter league action has grown into something much larger than an opportunity to simply stay sharp for those imports from North America.
Played in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Australia, 100s of players make the trip south to join some of the worlds top, unsigned, talent in what those countries can equate to their own personal brand of Major League Baseball.
As is often the case, MLB clubs will have a working agreement with teams in each of these leagues, supplementing both player and coaching talent in an attempt to keep a watchful eye on the next wave of promising international ball players.
These days, players look forward to having a chance to play in such a high charged environment.
“It’s tough” said Brian McRae , a veteran 1,354 games in the majors between 1985 and 1099. “If you don’t play well, they’ll send you home. It’s serious business and guys are getting paid big money by those clubs … In some cases, they get paid more than what they’re making back home”.
In addition to playing for five major league organizations over the course of his 14-year pro career, McRae also played a handful of seasons for the Licey Tigers of the Dominican League, and looked back on his experience with fond memories when asked earlier this month at the Blue Jays National Coaches Clinic.
This winter, Toronto employed 16 pitchers and 22 position players who opted to join winter-league clubs over the course of the off season. Of the 38 individuals that decided to head south and beat the cold, five had spent time with the Blue Jays in 2014 including Liam Hendriks, Jonathan Diaz and Dalton Pompey, current MLB center fielder/star of last years Arizona Fall League.
Although there were many impressive performances over the course of the last few months, a pair of current minor league farmhands truly made the most of their time spent in warmer climates.
Drafted by Toronto in the seventh round of 2007 June amateur draft, Christian Lopes made his Australian Baseball League debut last November and the 22 year-old Huntington Beach native wasted no time getting accustomed to the land down under.
Appearing in 106 games with class-A Dunedin in 2014, Lopes slashed .243/.329/.350 in 2014.
In 31 games with Canberra this winter, those numbers improved to .371/.421/.581 with eight doubles, 72 total bases and six home runs in 124 ABL at bats. Taking advantage of the opportunity to make a name for himself in the Oz, Lopes’ six big flies tied him with fellow Cavalry teammate, Jack Murphy for both the team lead and most by a Blue Jays position player this winter.
In addition to the impressive power totals, the young middle infield prospect whiffed only 10 times on the season while drawing a total of 13 free passes over the 46 game schedule, a team low for batters with more than 20 plate appearances.
On to the other side of the baseball …
As fate would have it, Brandon Morrow would (help) deliver the Jays most impressive winter league performance of the season, but not exactly the way you would have imagined it at this time last year.
When Toronto declined Morrow’s one-year, $10 million dollar option for the 2015 season, the often injured right handed hurler hit the free agent market in search of a new club to call home. A few weeks later, San Diego began to show serious interest in the 30 year-old right hander and Morrow proceeded to jump at the chance to rebuild his stock value by tossing half his games inside the pitcher friendly confines of Petco Park.
Needing to clear a spot on the 40-man roster, Padres General Manager, A.J. Preller decided to designate Juan Oramas for assignment, opening him up to rival GMs around the majors.
Without hesitation, Alex Anthopoulos promptly claimed the intriguing 24 year-old south paw with intentions of adding him to the list of potential starting depth options ahead of the 2015 season.
After accumulating an an ERA of 4.75 in just over 134 innings between double-A San Antonio and El Paso (triple-A) in 2014, Oramas suited up for Naranjeros de Hermosillo of the Liga Mexicano del Pacifico where he made 15 starts while holding opposition to a cumulative batting average of .210 on the season.
Using a deceptive delivery, in addition to a low 90’s fastball and an arsenal of quality off speed weapons, Oramas was able to strikeout 78 hitters in as many innings, good enough for most K’s by a Blue Jays farmhand this winter. That said, the 24 year-old hurler also walked a total of 31 batters, a likely byproduct of pitching as many frames on the season.
As for 2015, both Lopes and Oramas project to start the season back in the minor leagues. However, given Toronto’s need for added pitching depth and additional reinforcements up the middle, both could factor into the Jays’ plans come seasons end in a fashion similar to the way Pompey’s strong showing forced the issue in 2014.
A full listing of (regular season) winterball stats for all 38 organizational players can be found via MLB.com.
Blue Jays farmhands involved in the Caribbean Series:
Ezequiel Carrera (AAA) – Magallanes, LVBP
Juan Oramas (AAA) – Hermosillo, LMP
Jonathan Diaz (AAA) – Cibao, LIDOM
A.J. Jimenez (AAA) – Santurce, PWL
Dickie Thon (A) – Santurce, PWL
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