By Erin Saelzler
While baseball has pretty much settled down for its long winter’s nap here in the United States, down in Latin America, things are just starting to heat up. As promised, I will give you updates on Tigers players and prospects in the winter leagues, but today I would like to start you off with a brief primer on how the winter leagues work.
There are four major winter leagues in Latin America: The Liga de Beisbol Profesional de la Republica Dominicana (LIDOM), the Liga Mexicana del Pacifico, the Liga de Beisbol Profesional de Puerto Rico, and the Liga Venezolana de Beisbol Profesional (LVBP). The leagues have differences in terms of the numbers of teams, players, games, and playoff spots, but other than that, their formats are pretty similar. As such, in the interest of simplicity, I will mostly be referencing the LVBP in terms of specific examples because that is the league I am most familiar with. However, if there’s a difference or element of another league that crops up during the course of these updates, I’ll be sure to point it out.
The leagues in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico consist of six teams, while Mexico and Venezuela each have eight. The winter ball seasons generally begin in early to mid October (except for Puerto Rico, which starts in early November), and the regular season lasts to the end of December (and in case you’re wondering, all the leagues use the designated hitter). One difference between the winter leagues and the big leagues is that the rosters are larger. The teams in the LVBP have 34 players on their rosters instead of 25, and the LVBP even has its own minor league system, called the Liga Paralela (which includes affiliates for all the LVBP teams as well as a handful of MLB teams, including the Tigers). They need the additional roster spots because the MLB teams often put restrictions on their players in regards to how many innings they can pitch or how many games they can play in. A side effect of this is that starters generally do not pitch as deep into games as they typically would in the major leagues (Five-inning starts are pretty typical, and generally, the only times a starter pitches more than seven innings is if he’s throwing a no-hitter or he’s really efficient; you’ll almost never see a starter throw more than 100 pitches in a game). Also, there is a lot more mixing and matching with the bullpen in close games (Seriously, I’ve seen games before where there were five pitching changes in a single half-inning). Because of the frequent player turnover that occurs throughout the season, it’s not uncommon for teams to have late-season surges or big collapses, although there are some teams that are considered to be perennial contenders (For example, the Leones del Caracas are considered the equivalent of the New York Yankees in Venezuela, at least in terms of popularity and historical success, and it was a big shock when they failed to make the playoffs last year).
Playoffs begin in January (the number of teams that make the playoffs vary from league to league, but in the LVBP, it’s the top five teams). The playoff teams play a round robin for most of the month (just imagine if the major leagues did it that way), and the top two teams out of the round robin play a best-of-seven final (in the Dominican Republic, it’s a best-of-nine). I’m sure a lot of you remember that there was a lot of discussion this year as to what would happen if there was a three-way tie for the second wild card spot. While that ended up not being an issue in the major leagues, something similar did happen in the LVBP last year. After the round robin, three teams tied for the second seed into the final. They ended up having to play two one-game playoffs in one day with the seeding based on regular-season records.
One element present during the playoffs in the winter leagues that would seem downright surreal in the major leagues is the substitution draft. Before the postseason begins, the playoff teams “draft” four players each from the teams that failed to make the postseason. Again, this is because of the restrictions that MLB teams put on their players. It’s worth noting that a player (and his MLB team, if applicable) has to give his permission to be drafted, and he returns to his original team at the start of the next season. There’s another substitution draft held before the final where the two teams in the final draft two players each (there was a controversy regarding this in the LVBP last year which actually involved a Tigers player wherein his name appeared on one team’s list of eligible draftees but not the other’s), so it’s theoretically possible for one guy to play for three different teams in a season. In addition, playoff teams can select additional players from non-playoff (or non-final) teams if one of their players suffers an injury during the round robin or the final. The winner of the final is declared league champion. The reigning league champions are the Indios de Mayaguez (Puerto Rico), Leones del Escogido (Dominican Republic), Yaquis de Obregon (Mexico), and Tigres de Aragua (Venezuela).
The league champions go on to represent their countries in the Caribbean Series, which is held in early February. In years past, the Caribbean Series has been a round robin tournament. However, more often than not, this format has resulted in the tournament being rather anticlimactic (such as last year, when the Dominican Republic clinched the championship after only four games), so it’s rumored that they plan on adding a best-of-five or best-of-seven final to the end of the tournament this season. The tournament site is rotated among the four participating countries. The 2013 Caribbean Series is slated to be held in Hermosillo, Mexico.
That should be enough information to get you up to speed for now. Tune in next time when the updates begin.