For the past few seasons, the end of the regular season mean the end of Cubs baseball for the year as well. Though the postseason is great and shows the game’s stars in the biggest of moments, I couldn’t help but feel detached by the lack of Cubs. Usually, that would lead to excitement for winter leagues and the Cubs players I could follow scattered throughout the tropical world.
I was given the opportunity to attend the first of a four-game set and cover the Cubs for Baseball Prospectus, and though it did get postponed due to rain, Cubs manager Joe Maddon made it all better by sharing some thoughts on winter league baseball.
“I think winter ball should be utilized more,” said Maddon. “It’s unbelievable. I think we worry way too much about guys getting hurt. I don’t think that should be as much of a concern as just developing a player, learning his craft.”
Earlier this month, the Dominican Winter League drafted two Cubs players. South Bend Cubs right-handed pitcher Alex Santana and outfielder Kevin Encarnacion were taken in the 10th round by the Leones del Escogido and 14th round by the Gigantes del Cibao, respectively.
Santana stands at 6-foot-1, 170 pounds and has pitched exclusively in relief in 2015. His fastball has been clocked at 95 mph, which led to the 21-year-old striking out 23 percent of the batters he faced this year.
Encarnacion, who was involved in a devastating accident that almost claimed his and other Cubs players’ lives in the Dominican Republic a few years ago, hit .276/.345/.376 from both sides of the plate. He shows a patient approach from the left side with some power and in 2013, at age 21, Encarnacion won the Northwest League batting title hitting .355 for the Boise Hawks.
It’s almost hard to blame a team for not sending their young stars to play baseball overseas after logging six months (including spring training) of work over the minor-league season. After all, not only are these players multi-million dollar investments, they’re also the key, more often than not, to a team’s future.
“I think we worry way too much. Sure, somebody’s gonna get hurt. Absolutely someone’s gonna get hurt. Of course. Walking down the street, driving in your car, whatever. Just go play. Go play baseball,“ added Maddon.
Of course, there are other ways for a player to get some work in during the offseason. Beginning in mid-October, the Arizona Fall League opens play. The rosters are usually filled with prospects on the cusp of getting to the bigs, so the competition is fairly advanced. However, Maddon believes winter league baseball offers something more.
“You can talk about Arizona Fall League and all that stuff; listen, go play in a foreign country, learn a different language, eat different cuisine, struggle there, learn how to cope with all this there,” Maddon said. “There’s always a big concern about pitchers, too. Although there’s always that pitcher with all this potential and never quite develops in the minor leagues. Go play. Go play. Go play. I’m all for it. And I think if you did that, the level of play would rise at the major-league level.”
Last offseason, after struggling mightily at the MLB level, Javier Baez headed to Puerto Rico and played with Santurce’s Cangrejeros team to hone his craft. He knew he had some adjustments to make, and although he struggled there too with a line of .233/.306/.442, he learned a lot from his 11-game stay.
“I tell you what, I noticed some things when I went down to Puerto Rico to see Javier Baez play,” Maddon shared. “It’s like a vacation. It’s like playing summer ball when I was in Boulder, Colorado or when you go to the Cape Cod League. It’s no different. You don’t play every day. You lay on a beach when you’re not playing. You go to a nice restaurant. It’s crazy.”
Santurce’s general manager, Frankie Higginbotham, confirmed earlier this month that Baez will once again play in Puerto Rico, though he will show up earlier in the season this year. The young Cubs slugger will also participate in a series of exhibition games in Orlando this November, writes Joel Ortiz Rivera for El Nuevo Dia.
Maddon says that playing a few times a week in another country is better than the alternative of “going to gyms [and hiring] a personal fitness trainer. Go play baseball. Go play, go play, go play, go play. And that’s better than spending three days a week in a gym in Scottsdale, AZ.”
Perhaps the best example for this is catcher Willson Contreras, who just finished a season in which he won the Southern League batting title hitting .333/.413/.478 at Double-A. Contreras played in his native Venezuela over the 2014-15 season. You can read a translated interview of his experiences here.
Sadly, Contreras will not be returning to the Tigres de Aragua this season according to Entorno Inteligente. The team’s general manager Illich Salazar held a press conference last Friday, indicating that the Cubs felt it is best for Contreras to rest and head out to the Arizona Fall League later on next month. According to Salazar:
Willson wasn’t a prospect, but he learned to decipher pitches here in the Venezuelan Winter League and ended up having a great season this year, A catcher who is also a batting champion is rarely seen in baseball. I’ve spoken multiple times with [the Cubs] and they want him to rest.
In his absence, the Araguan team will receive the help of Cubs number one prospect Gleyber Torres, though probably in limited duty as veterans usually have priority in playing time. Torres is just finishing his first full season, playing across both Low- and High-A, hitting .287/.346/.379 with 32 extra-base hits across the two levels. And the kicker: the shortstop is just 18 years old.
“I think it’d be fabulous for more of our young players to go play in winter ball,” Maddon said.
With at least on young, potential star, Maddon will get his wish.
Lead photo courtesy of Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports