Venezuelan overhaul for Caribbean
Manager Bailey practically starts over with new squad
SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic -- Buddy Bailey didn't have long to take congratulations on his Aragua Tigres' fourth Venezuelan championship in five years. He had to start over, just about literally.
In the Caribbean winter leagues, it's called the reinforcements stage. Teams that win their country's league title can draft players from other clubs in the league to help fill their roster for the Caribbean Series to help fill in for players who return home to prepare for Spring Training.
What happened with Aragua this week wasn't just reinforcements. As many players as the Tigres lost, it might as well have been a new team.
"It's definitely a different team," Bailey said before Aragua lost to Dominican League runner-up Licey in the opener of the Caribbean Series on Saturday afternoon at Estadio Cibao.
The math doesn't lie, not after 15 players from the championship roster either decided not to play on or were advised by their Major League employers not to play.
What had been a potential powerhouse lineup is now more like a slap-hitting group. That wasn't a surprise after slugger Miguel Cabrera pulled out of the series, but that was just the start. The entire starting infield is gone, as is two-thirds of the outfield and two of the three catchers who had been on the roster. Among the missing are shortstop Ronny Cedeno, who supposedly pulled out Friday under advisement from the Chicago Cubs, and infielder Edgardo Alfonzo, who will prepare to report to Spring Training with the Texas Rangers.
On the pitching side, three of the four starters are gone, as is about half of the bullpen. That includes pitcher Geremi Gonzalez, who was on the roster as of Friday night but did not make the flight coming here. Hector Mercado took his place, but was not expected to arrive until Sunday.
American Andrew Lorraine spent the Venezuelan League finals competing against Aragua as a reliever for the Lara Cardinales. Now he was being fitted for an Aragua jersey for the Caribbean Series.
The result is a team that is neither the championship club nor a group of national all-stars. It's essentially what Aragua could do on short notice.
"It feels different," Lorraine said. "It's a little bit of a letdown for Venezuela in the Caribbean Series. When you're traveling and you're not in front of your home fans, it's a little different. And then it's a whole different team."
Bailey doesn't fault the players who left. With so many players either trying to make a big league roster or having changed clubs in the Majors, he said they're trying to make a good first impression. And with the success Aragua has enjoyed over the last five years, those players who have been with the club for a while have had their winter seasons extended.
"We've played [the equivalent of] about eight seasons in the last five years," Bailey said.
Nor do the few original Tigres still around seem to resent the departures. The defections, utility infielder Ramon Castro said, should not reflect on the Venezuelans' desire to win.
"Everybody's happy," Castro said, "and everybody tries to win."
How they can go about doing that is Bailey's challenge. He's not sure what his rotation will look like as the tournament goes on, though he expects to have to stretch out a reliever to start their fifth game. He hinted at being more aggressive on the basepaths to try to manufacture offense, but he doesn't have a whole lot of speed.
"The way I look at it," he said, "is the other night, when we won the [league] championship, we had nine position players with the DH. We only have three of those guys here. It's not going to be easy, but at the same time, we only put nine guys on the field. If guys play good enough, you can win, so hopefully that's what happens."
Morales out: Aragua weren't the only Tigres dealing with missing players, but Licey's losses didn't loom quite as large. First baseman Kendry Morales, who had been drafted by Licey as a reinforcement earlier this week, pulled out of consideration for the Caribbean Series.
Though rumors in Dominican papers suggested Morales did not want to play for Licey after an incident with the Tigres while playing for the rival Gigantes de Cibao earlier in the season, those reports were denied. Morales' agent, Bill Rego, said Morales -- a Cuban native but Dominican citizen dating back to his defection a few years ago -- withdrew because his mother was ill.
Grand reopening: Dominican president Leonel Fernandez visited Estadio Cibao on Friday evening as part of an unveiling of the renovated ballpark. The stadium, which seats just under 20,000 fans before standing-room only tickets are added, underwent a facelift of its exterior as well as other improvements in preparation for the Caribbean Series, which is being held in Santiago for the first time. Every previous series in the Dominican Republic had been held in Santo Domingo, the nation's capital and largest city.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.