I like to imagine Kevin Pucetas butters bread while gripping the knife handle with the fingertips of his right hand. He's learned to open the mail using only the knuckle of his pinkie finger. He spent his few precious bow-hunting days this October, entirely with his fingers clenched and bent at the joints. He shakes hands by digging his fingernails into the palm of his counterpart. Absolutely none of that is true. I don't think. Texas recently re-signed the apprentice knuckleballer from Spartanburg, South Carolina to a contract for another year in the minors, his 9th, but this year promises to be different. In previous seasons, he threw like a normal person. You know, overhand and hard, and most notably, with his fingers extended and wrapped around the baseball. No mo. Kevin has joined the pantheon of strange-o's and quirkbots who throw dancing 68mph jobbers at feast or famine hitters. I've had a chance to chat with Kevin on a couple of occasions and he's more than up for the challenge. It's not going to be easy and the soon-to-be 29 year-old is fully committed to learning the craft. A kind link between Rangers pitching coordinator Mark Connor and noted knuckler R.A. Dickey brought Kevin into contact with the Cy Young award winner and now Kevin's full bore, telling me recently that he's going to be 90% dance-balls going forward. He's headed back to the Dominican Winter League, where play begins this Friday, a place he's pitched before, but this time promises to be different. Might seem strange to be 29 and attempting to rewrite your career, but it can happen. It has happened, and most of you have seen it through Dickey's transformation. It takes work and patience. Given that Kevin has been known to wait for hours in a tree stand for a simple glance, and possible shot, at a winter's worth of meat, I'm assuming patience is something he has in spades. He's headed to the DR with his patience...and his fingertips.
The 6-team Dominican Winter League begins play on Friday and it is juicy (many say it's the preeminent winter league) for offseason action. The stadiums are often packed, the fans are nuts, and the story lines are always salacious. The rosters are huge and players are constantly coming and going throughout the 50-game regular season that wraps up at the end of December. 4 teams then make the playoffs that last through January. Personally, my favorite part is a draft that occurs before the playoffs in which the playoff teams are allowed to snap up players from the teams that didn't make it. My mind races at the thought of the Dodgers having picked up Mike Trout to help them win the Series, while Oakland added Yu Darvish to their rotation. Anyway, there are tons of players who will float through the league throughout the season and while I expect fewer of the established big leaguers than last year (most simply wanted to stay sharp for the WBC), we'll still see many cameos from native Dominicans who get a huge kick out of playing in their home country. In addition to the established ball players, it's also a great opportunity for young bucks who didn't get as many reps as they would have liked to during the regular season. Unfortunately due to the transient nature of the players and the unofficial press releases, your best bet is to follow my lead through Twitter (even if you don't have a Twitter account-- you can still read my tweets). I know where some of the Texas guys will be playing, but sometimes guys just seem to pop up on a team and get into a game(s). Here's what we know now:
Engel Beltre, Jurickson Profar, and LEONYS!!! will suit up for big money fellas, Licey. They have tons of history and have won the league 20 times, but they finished in dead last place last season. This off season Tigres hoped to fix it up, making a big splash by hiring Manny Acta to be their manager, remembering the title he steered them to in 2003-04. I expect Engel and Profar to feature heavily, but LEONYS played 147 big league games in '13, so he and the Rangers are likely to limit his tenure with Licey. Speaking of that, I've always been told that the parameters of winter league activity are always discussed between the big league team and the player, and that it's then communicated, with hopes of respect and goodwill, to the winter league team. Having said that, these teams play to win. It's not an exhibition for them--it's their season. If a player can't help a team win, he's not going to see the field simply because he needs the reps. They're respectful, but also solely focused on winning the league. Young Nomar Mazara is a new member of Licey, but that outfield is crowded and guys like Astros 2013 AA stud Domingo Santana, Padres uberprospect Rymer Liriano (recovering from TJ) and even Engel Beltre might block Nomar's playing time. There's just no way to tell until the games get going and we see who Acta rolls with.
Kevin Pucetas will be on the mound for Gigantes along with his Frisco and Myrtle Beach teammate (it was an up and down year for both of them) Hanser Alberto. I'd love to see Hanser get more action at 3B in hopes of filling out his potential utility profile, but again, we'll just have to see. Nelson Cruz played for Gigantes for a couple weeks last winter and he could certainly use some hacks too. Personal fave, 2013 Hickory Crawdad Jose Leclerc, was drafted by Gigantes this offseason so hopefully he'll bring his mid-upper 90's fire into a game as well. Gigantes also have a very weird ownership situation and may be changing their name to Indios. Stay tuned.
Condor Guzman was Toros' first pick in the recent draft and since he only played 49 games this season, I'd love to see him in the lineup at 1B for them everyday, but they also have Giants 1B prospect Angel Villalona on their roster, so who knows. They also might not be so keen on having an 19 year-old regular. Roman Mendez and Neftali Feliz are on the Toros' roster, but Alexi Ogando was on their roster all winter last season and worked out with them, but never appeared in a game. See, this stuff is pretty nebulous.
Victor Payano is a member of Aguilas and awwwwww screw this. Look, it's a moving target right now, people. Seriously, you just gotta learn to go with the flow during winter league season. A guy might show up and play for 2 weeks, or 2 days, or not at all, or the whole damn season. I've learned to embrace the uncertainty. I look at the box scores and tune into really crappy webcasts in hopes of getting a glimpse of a Texas farmhand or any other exciting prospect. Sometimes you get Rymer Liriano, sometimes you get Francisco Liriano, and sometimes you get Nelson Liriano. Just roll with it...it's winter ball.
The official league site: LIDOM Official
Toros: Toros Official site
Licey: Licey Official site
Estrellas: Estrellas Official site
Aguilas: Aguilas Official site
Escogido: Escogido Official site
I joke about the fluid nature of the league and the rosters, but it truly is an absolute blast to watch. *WARNING* IF YOU REALLY, REALLY HATE THE WAY YASIEL PUIG PLAYS, YOU PROBABLY SHOULDN'T WATCH MUCH WINTER BALL. It's a passionate game played in front of very passionate fans. Many of the official team websites listed above will have direct links to live webcasts of the games. Sometimes the feed is fantastic, sometimes not so much. But it's always fun and it's always decent-to-really good baseball. Again, if you'd like to follow on a more daily basis use Twitter. I'll send out some tweets nearly everyday and there are plenty of really good writers in the Dominican who comprehensively cover the league. In addition, many of the teams have gotten pretty adept at using Twitter to update the rosters and game stats, plus they occasionally post pics of the scantily clad dancers that gallivant across the roofs of the dugouts between innings. So there's that.
Hope this helps and you check out a bit of Dominican ball over the next couple of months. It's a real kick.
As always, enjoy beisbol! Love Ya!