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Maikel García, Dairon Blanco, and other Royals star in winter leagues

The games have continued overseas.

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Winter is not a time of year that Americans associate with baseball. Most of the country is hunkered down, watching football or basketball and waiting for the snow to melt and the weather to warm up so we can all get outside again. I’m doing the same. As I type this the temperature outside is in the single digits Fahrenheit — though my alternative sport of choice is cricket rather than the aforementioned gridiron or hoops.

Outside the United States, however, the games continue. Baseball has been in full swing for the past few months in the Caribbean. With Major League Baseball in its offseason, stars from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and other warmer nations head back home to play in their country’s league. Additionally, prospects have the chance to continue getting game reps in these foreign leagues. Don’t mistake these leagues for the Arizona Fall League though. These teams play to win, they don’t exist to facilitate development for MLB teams. If a player doesn’t perform, they will lose their roster spot.

Many Royals have taken advantage of the opportunity to play overseas this winter. These players run the gamut from full-time big league starters to guys that spent 2023 in the complex leagues. I won’t act like their results in these leagues are super predictive, but you never know. After all, Freddy Fermin was the MVP of the Venezuelan Winter League last year and ended up having a much better 2023 season than anybody expected.

Dominican Winter League (LIDOM)

The premier winter league, it’s hard to overstate how much Dominicans care about LIDOM. Over 30,000 people packed into Citi Field on a chilly Friday in November to watch an exhibition between Tigres del Licey and Águilas Cibaeñas (the Yankees-Red Sox of LIDOM). Licey’s Instagram account has more followers than 11 MLB team accounts. Águilas fired their manager 15 games into the season because the team got off to a slow start. Fernando Tatis Jr. was bummed that the Padres wouldn’t allow him to play through the entirety of the postseason for Estrellas Orientales. It’s a big deal down there and teams won’t have much patience for underperforming players.

Such was the case for Nate Eaton, who started at third base on opening day for Licey. He never really got going as he went just 1-for-13 in his first three games, and he did not collect his second extra-base hit until his tenth game. His last appearance came way back on November 7, when he punched out a couple of times as part of an 0-for-3 performance. He showcased his versatility defensively with innings at third base, second base, center field, and right field. But Eaton hit his way off the roster with a meek .177/.177/.216 batting line in 51 plate appearances.

Similarly, Steven Cruz couldn’t stick around long for Leones del Escogido as he struggled greatly with control. Facing 30 batters across six appearances, he walked six of them while also plunking another and uncorking three wild pitches. Despite seven strikeouts and a 0.00 ERA, six runs scored on his watch that were somehow all unearned. His last appearance came on November 10. Cruz will likely still factor into Kansas City’s bullpen in 2024 as he’s a power arm in a ‘pen with few proven commodities.

Cruz’s teammate for Leones Daniel Lynch IV was much better in his outings. Making five starts, he pitched to a 2.66 ERA in 20.1 innings while allowing just seven hits. He walked 13 batters but also struck out 23. He made his last appearance on December 1, so it seems like Lynch was just there to get a few more innings on the tail end of an injury-plagued 2023 season. Anne Rogers recently talked to Lynch about his time in the DR if you’d like to read about his experiences. Now 27, this upcoming season seems like something of a make-or-break year for Lynch. In 252 innings in the majors, he has scarcely resembled a viable starting pitcher, and he is due to enter arbitration after this season.

One man that did manage to stick around for a while was Diego Hernández. Hernández suited up for Gigantes del Cibao for their first game on October 19. He played a little bit in both outfield corners but mostly served as the team’s starting center fielder for a significant chunk of the season. They must have really liked his defense to stick with him for as long as they did since the left-handed hitter never got going offensively. In 98 plate appearances, he batted just .221/.245/.305. He made plenty of contact with just 17 strikeouts, but he struggled to impact the ball consistently.

On December 10, he pinch-hit and logged a couple innings in right field. That would be his last appearance with the team. Hernández was non-tendered by the Royals this offseason and re-signed on a minor league deal. He’ll likely return to Double-A, where he spent most of last season, and try to figure some things out offensively.

The biggest star among Royals in LIDOM this winter was unquestionably Dairon Blanco. Blanco got a late start as he didn’t appear in a game for Estrellas Orientales until November 10. He bounced around all three outfield positions for a while but, by mid-December, he had established himself as the primary left fielder. Blanco’s slash-and-dash offensive tendencies proved well-suited for an environment that is not very conducive to power hitting (old friend Franmil Reyes led the circuit with nine home runs and only four players managed even five homers). Blanco made plenty of contact and ran wild on the bases, finishing second in the league with 19 steals while only being caught twice. In 117 regular season plate appearances, he hit .286/.339/.352.

In part thanks to Blanco’s efforts, Estrellas finished 29-21, a half-game behind Gigantes in the regular season standings. This entered them as the #2 seed in the semifinal, an 18-game round-robin between the top four teams from the regular season. This is where Blanco shined, going yard in each of the first two games and collecting hits in all but two round-robin games. He slashed .345/.406/.517 and tacked on six stolen bases, helping propel Estrellas to the finals.

The finals saw Estrellas matched up with Licey, who went 10-8 in the round-robin to earn a spot in the finals after a .500 regular season. The series proved a thrilling back-and-forth battle that went all the way to seven games, where Licey prevailed in a 3-2 nail-biter to win their 24th LIDOM title. Blanco hit .267/.290/.267 and stole four bases in five tries in the finals.

Despite being a 30-year-old non-prospect, Blanco has acquitted himself quite well over the past seven months, impressing in a short stint in the majors before his solid winter ball performance. Though the outfield picture is somewhat crowded in Kansas City at the moment, Blanco seems like a perfect fit as the first outfielder off the bench given his skills with the glove and on the bases.

Venezuelan Winter League (LVBP)

While not quite as prestigious as LIDOM, Venezuela's Winter League is a highly competitive circuit that featured a bevy of current and former big leaguers, including stars like Ronald Acuña Jr. and Yasiel Puig. Before I get to the current Royals, I’d like to shout out a couple of former Royals that were in the organization when the offseason began. Edward Olivares played in LVBP for the first time since 2018, suiting up for Bravos de Margarita. He had a solid winter, hitting .341/.406/.495 in 23 games. Good luck to Edward with Pittsburgh! Max Castillo, pitching in his fourth season for Cardenales de Lara, was one of the very best pitchers in the league. He threw 49.2 innings across 11 appearances and twirled a 2.72 ERA. Good luck to Max with Boston!

On November 25, Leones del Caracas saw the return of their glorious hero as reigning MVP Freddy Fermin suited up for his first game of the winter. He doubled in his debut and put together a solid regular season campaign, though a far cry from his hardware-earning efforts a year ago. Due to his late start, he played just 15 regular season games, hitting .255/.367/.392 as the team’s primary catcher. Fermin helped propel Leones to a 32-24 record, placing them second in the regular season standings.

In the semifinals, Fermin remained a steady performer with a line of .255/.340/.426. Unfortunately, that proved to be one of the team’s better batting lines in the round-robin as Leones collectively posted a meager .686 OPS en route to an 8-8 performance, two games behind Cardenales for a spot in the finals.

As early as May last year, Fermin began seeing his playing time behind the dish increase as Salvador Perez played more DH. By August, Fermin was the nominal catcher with Perez frequently playing first base. Though I fear that we have already seen Fermin’s best, he’s earned the opportunity to prove he’s legit, especially given it seems the ship has sailed on MJ Melendez being a catcher.

I may have buried the lede as here we are, 1600 words into this column before I even mention the best Royal this winter. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time we discuss Maikel Jose García. I will admit, I have been the low man on García’s bat for quite some time now. I am reconsidering my position on that now.

This was not his first rodeo as he’s suited up for Tiburones de la Guaira every winter since 2020. Last winter he put up a .942 OPS in 53 games. He found a new level this year. Debuting on November 16, García ripped three hits, including two doubles. Needing no time to get acclimated, he collected multiple hits in each of his first seven starts. Discounting a pinch-hit appearance on November 22 (in which he walked), García began the season with a 12-game hit streak, 10 of which were multi-hit games. He wasn’t just dinking it around the yard either as these hits included five doubles and two homers.

Had he played the full season, García would have been in the running for MVP honors. Alas, he played just 28 games in which he hit .424/.543/.576, finishing behind only Puig and Acuña in OPS among players with at least 100 plate appearances. He led that group in BB-K ratio, with a staggering 28 walks to just nine punchouts. Tiburones finished 30-26, earning a spot in the semifinals.

García started a bit slow in the postseason as he went 0-fer in four of the first six games. He managed to pick it up, however and finished the semifinals on a nine-game hit streak. As the team’s regular leadoff hitter, García hit .328/.409/.414 with eight walks to just two strikeouts, propelling Tiburones to a 12-4 semifinal record.

The finals saw Tiburones matched up with Cardenales, who went 10-6 in the round-robin. It would prove a one-sided affair as Tiburones raced out to a 3-0 series lead before securing a gentleman’s sweep with a 3-0 victory in the fifth game. García reached base in every game of the series, but his most notable moment was a go-ahead homer in game two that sparked a benches-clearing brawl.

In the finals, García batted .333/.417/.476. Hopefully, his performance can be a springboard into the 2024 season as García underwhelmed with the bat in 2023, both in Triple-A and the majors. His winter ball season may continue tonight as Tiburones head to Miami to play in this year’s Caribbean Series.

Puerto Rican Winter League (LBPRC)

Puerto Rico’s winter league is a considerable step below LIDOM and LVBP, with teams mostly comprised of minor leaguers and past-their-prime former big leaguers. That said, it’s still a good place to get some reps in the offseason. In October, MJ Melendez and Nelson Velázquez, who both represented Puerto Rico in last year’s World Baseball Classic, committed to play in LBPRC for Criollos de Caguas.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Melendez never played a game for Criollos. Velázquez did, however. While he only played 23 regular season games, he frequently batted near the top of the order for Caguas. He was an important source of power in the lineup, hitting .281/.337/.451.

I can already hear you now: “but Greg, are you really trying to hype up a guy that produced a .788 OPS against weak competition?” Context is important. LBPRC is a very difficult league to hit in. In LIDOM, 18 players with at least 32 at-bats managed an OPS over .800. In Venezuela, 50 players cracked .800. In Puerto Rico, just six players produced such an OPS. That’s right, Velázquez’s .788 OPS was good for seventh in the league. His .451 slugging percentage was first. While his numbers aren’t impressive if taken at face value, he has an argument for being the best power bat in the league.

Aided by the bat of Velázquez, Criollos finished 21-19 and earned the last postseason spot. Rather than a round-robin, this league uses a straight semifinal model, so Criollos were matched up with the top-seeded Cangrejeros de Santurce in a best-of-seven series. As is wont to happen in this sport, Criollos dropped the first game before rattling off four straight victories to claim the series in five games. The cumulative score was 18-8, with 10 of Criollos’s runs coming in one game. They managed the victory without much from Velázquez as he went just 1-for-18 with a couple walks.

The finals pitted Criollos against Gigantes de Carolina in a best-of-nine series. They would not need all nine. After splitting the first four games, Criollos won three of four to claim a 5-3 victory, giving them their 21st title. Velázquez was more productive this time around, going 6-for-28 with a double and a homer while also walking four times.

I don’t really know what to take away from this given the wonky offensive environment, but it’s good that Velázquez produced at a high level, relatively speaking. As far as I’m concerned, he should be the everyday DH in 2024 until he proves he can’t cut it. Like Tiburones, Criollos will also be heading to the Caribbean series where Velázquez could see more action.

Australian Baseball League (ABL)

This is easily the lowest league on the totem pole here as baseball isn’t even close to being the most popular bat-and-ball sport in Australia. Generally speaking, the only guys coming to the ABL from affiliated ball are minor leaguers. Four Royals farmhands played in the ABL this winter (or summer, down under) for Brisbane Bandits and each of them spent 2023 in the lower levels of the minors. Brisbane finished the regular season at 22-18 before falling in a best-of-three semifinal series to Perth Heat.

Jack Pineda was something of the elder statesman of the group as a Day Three draft pick out of Baylor in 2022. He spent 2023 in Quad Cities putting up a roughly average batting line as a regular shortstop. He played 32 of Brisbane’s 40 games, split between shortstop and second base. Pineda batted .254/.318/.339 in 130 plate appearances while also stealing five bags in six tries. He’s 24 and pretty low on the middle infield depth chart currently, so he’ll probably really need to show something in Quad Cities or Northwest Arkansas this season if he’s going to be anything more than organizational depth.

Wesley Scott was also a collegiate pick in the 2022 draft. He spent 2023 pitching out of Columbia’s bullpen, where he produced solid strikeout and groundball rates but walked entirely too many batters. His stint in the ABL lasted just three weeks as he struggled badly with control. Out of 39 batters faced, he walked 12 and plunked one while uncorking three wild pitches along the way. Scott showed flashes in 2023 but he’s got a long way to go in terms of strike-throwing to ever have a shot of pitching in Kansas City.

Hyungchan Um was signed by the Royals in 2022 out of South Korea and spent 2023 playing in the complex. Despite having only 11 professional games behind the dish under his belt, Brisbane trusted the 19-year-old as their primary catcher. I can’t speak to his game calling or framing but base stealers went 30-for-41 against him and he had just one passed ball in 243 innings. Um scuffled badly at the plate to start the campaign but recovered somewhat down the stretch, including going yard in two of his last three games. In 122 plate appearances, he hit .248/.271/.376. Um will turn 20 in April and still has a ton of development ahead of him.

Finally, we get to Milo Rushford, who I am very interested in as a deep sleeper in the system. Drafted out of high school in 2022, Rushford raked in the complex in ‘23, showing “precocious feel for the zone and bat-to-ball feel,” per Eric Longenhagen. Unfortunately, that did not translate to the ABL as his strikeout rate ballooned to 28.1%. In 139 plate appearances, he hit .204/.348/.310. While his stint was disappointing, Rushford at least demonstrated his understanding of the strike zone with his 16.5% walk rate. He also got action at all three outfield spots, including 14 games in center field. Rushford will turn 20 in a couple weeks and should make his full season debut this spring. Being able to play a credible center field will only help his chances of climbing the minor league ladder.