Rogers Hornsby’s famous quip about what he does in the winter may have literary and romantic appeal, but any real baseball fan knows it’s not a depiction of reality. There’s no need to stare out the window and wait for spring when our game rolls on in our neighbors to the south. Hyped prospects and seasoned veterans alike gather in Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic for offseason professional baseball, culminating in a glorious week of action in the Caribbean Series.
While many of these leagues are stocked with top-tier talent, and all exhibit the very best of baseball culture, Liga de Béisbol Profesional de la República Dominicana (LIDOM) is arguably the pinnacle of winter ball. LIDOM hosts familiar names both young and old every year, but with the loss of the minor league season in 2020, teams are more likely than ever to send younger players for reps in a high-octane, high-stakes environment. For Yankee fans with some time on their hands these days, LIDOM is the place to keep track of a wealth of prospects present and past as well as the start of what will hopefully be redemption tours for two key big leaguers. What follows is a team-by-team breakdown of what might catch the eye of the Bronx faithful in DR.
All winter league stats are from Baseball Reference. The largest of hat tips to the duo behind Cespedes Family BBQ, Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, for notifying me of the important fact that BBRef winter league stats only cover the regular season; thus, all stats below don’t cover playoff action. Consult this tweet to purchase their excellent PDF guide to this season’s edition of LIDOM. All proceeds go to charity in DR.
The second-most historically successful club in LIDOM is also the one of least interest to Yankee fans in 2020-21. Just one player with notable Bronx ties will suit up in black and yellow this season, though he is a notable one: Melky Cabrera. The 36-year-old vet hasn’t played in LIDOM since the 2008-09 season, during which he played 24 games and slashed a solid .312/.393/.409. Of course, Melky won a World Series ring in the MLB season immediately following, so one can imagine he’s delighted to return to Santiago after a 12-year absence.
Not a ton to watch in San Pedro de Macorís, either. Erstwhile bullpen Swiss Army knife Nestor Cortes will wear the green and white for the fourth consecutive season. Cortes has 15 starts under his belt in LIDOM. The most notable stretch of his winter ball career came two seasons ago, when he pitched to a 1.71 ERA and racked up 45 strikeouts in 42 innings during the team’s run to its first championship in over 50 years. Cortes struggled in a very brief cameo with Seattle this season and will look to use LIDOM to get back on track.
Gigantes del Cibao
Some old friends are set to appear in San Francisco de Macorís for a club in search of just its second LIDOM championship. Earlier this year, Boston plucked right-hander Raynel Espinal from the Yankees during the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. The 29-year-old Espinal last appeared for Gigantes during the 2018-19 season; he appeared in 11 games as a reliever and put up a 2.35 ERA with 11 strikeouts and three walks in 13 innings. The ghost of clean-shaven Andrew McCutchen will also grace the diamond in San Francisco in the form of outfielder Abiatal Avelino, who went the other way in the McCutchen trade in 2018. Avelino is a winter ball stalwart to say the very least. Gigantes is his second LIDOM team after three years with Estrellas, and he’s also appeared in the Puerto Rico winter circuit donning the uniform of its most famous franchise, Cangrejeros de Santurce. Over six winter seasons, Avelino has 514 plate appearances, 13 extra-base hits, 31 stolen bases, and 79 strikeouts.
Leones del Escogido
For fans of Santo Domingo’s second fiddle, all eyes will rightly be trained on a pair of phenoms: Tampa Bay’s Wander Franco and Seattle’s Julio Rodriguez. Yankee fans will certainly want to tune in to watch these two, but as far as implications for the pinstripes, there isn’t much to write home about. There is a pair of fun connections in the outfield: journeyman Jimmy Paredes was originally signed by, and made his professional debut with, New York before being shipped off to Houston with Mark Melancon for Lance Berkman at the 2010 trade deadline. Longtime farmhand Melky Mesa will also wear Leones red this season. Mesa spent ten years in the organization and made a brief major-league cameo in 2012 and 2013; unfortunately, that cameo will always be remembered for this disastrous baserunning gaffe. His winter career has also been less than illustrious (.633 cumulative OPS) but certainly expansive: he’s appeared in multiple campaigns with Leones along with stints in Mexico for two different teams.
Tigres del Licey
The real fun for Yankees fans begins with LIDOM’s signature franchise. They’ll want to keep an eye on 22-year-old top prospect Luis Gil, who appeared on Opening Day against crosstown rival Leones. Gil relieved Ervin Santana with a four-run lead in the bottom of the fifth and demonstrated the best and worst of his profile. He showed off his easy heat but struggled with his control throughout. In the fifth, Gil recovered from a 3-0 count to induce a popout before an error by shortstop Anderson Tejeda and a walk put runners on first and second. But he rebounded impressively, striking out mega-prospect Rodriguez looking with a fastball on the outside corner and then retiring the side on a popout to third. He worked around a two-out double to complete a scoreless sixth before running into serious trouble in the seventh. Two swinging strikeouts, one on an excellent slider and one on a fastball, bookended the inning; in between, Gil surrendered three hits and spiked a wild pitch for two runs.
We’ll have to wait just a bit longer for someone even more notable. Reports have emerged confirming that breakout star and organization darling Deivi Garcia will take to the mound for Tigres this season. The young righty isn’t on the initial roster, and his stay in Santo Domingo will likely be brief, but it’s hard to imagine a better cure to the winter blues than a Deivi Garcia start under the bright lights at Estadio Quisqueya.
Toros del Este
I’ve become something of a Licey fan the past couple seasons and can’t abandon my loyalty, but for Yankee fans following LIDOM for the first time, the most geographically far-flung franchise is definitely the one to choose. Hailing from La Romana in the easternmost corner of DR, Toros boasts a wealth of Bronx connections. As most fans will already know, Miguel Andújar will try to kick-start his return to relevance with a full season of reps in LIDOM. Miggy played 18 games for Gigantes back in 2017-18, when he was coming off his big-league debut, and hit just .185. The second Yankee looking for some success in an otherwise bleak year is much-maligned catcher Gary Sánchez, returning to Toros for the first time since 2013-14 (he also played parts of two seasons with Leones). Former top prospect Jorge Mateo also wears Toros orange, as does Peter O’Brien, the 2019-20 LIDOM MVP and second-round pick of the Yankees in 2012. O’Brien was sent to Arizona as part of the Martín Prado trade during the 2014 offseason. Lastly, though his future in the majors is uncertain in the wake of the most severe domestic violence suspension in the sport’s history, Domingo Germán will pitch for Toros and was in fact the scheduled Opening Day starter until the team’s tilt with Estrellas was postponed due to wet field conditions.