Blue Jays' catching prospect continues to rake in Puerto Rico
By Teddy Cahill
The regular season in the Dominican Republic concluded a week ago, but the rest of the major Latin American winter leagues continued play last week with playoff spots on the line. Teams in Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela are down to their final few games and many prospects continue to play key roles for them.
Below is a look at how some of the top prospects playing in winter leagues are fared.
• Playing for Cangrejeros de Santurce in Puerto Rico, catcher A.J. Jimenez has been in the heart of the batting race all winter. Last week he also showed he also has some pop in his bat. Jimenez, the Blue Jays' No. 14 prospect, hit his first home run of the season Friday in Santurce's 3-2 victory against Caguas. In 32 games this winter, the Puerto Rico native is hitting .311/.372/.437 with nine walks and nine strikeouts. He ranks fourth in batting average and his .809 OPS is the seventh best in the league.
• As the regular season winds down in Venezuela, three teams are separated by a half game in the race for the final playoff spot. Sunday, catcher Carlos Perez, the Angels' No. 11 prospect, gave Leones del Caracas a big lift in their final game of the season and the last in Venezuela for two-time Major League All-Star Bobby Abreu. Perez hit a single in the eighth inning, scoring Abreu from second for what proved to be the winning run against Bravos de Margarita. Perez, a native of Venezuela, finished the regular season hitting .331/.368/.507 with 23 runs and 23 RBIs in 40 games. He and the rest of Leones will now wait to see if they can hang on to the final playoff spot as the rest of the league completes its season over the next two days.
• Since returning to his native Venezuela after the Arizona Fall League, Breyvic Valera has been a consistent force in the lineup for Margarita. He continued his strong play last week, collecting at least one hit in all three games he appeared in to extend his on-base streak to 16 games. Valera, the Cardinals' No. 19 prospect, is hitting .337/.396/.402 with 18 runs in 22 games this winter. The versatile 22-year-old continues to play both second base and center field.
• Just 18 years old, Alexis Pantoja is one of the youngest players in Puerto Rico this winter. He was selected by the Indians in the ninth round of the 2014 First-Year Player Draft and spent the rest of the summer playing in the Arizona League. Now, the native Puerto Rican is back on the island playing for Senadores de San Juan. Though he hasn't gotten on the field much (appearing in only seven games), he hit leadoff and played second base Sunday, and went 2-for-4 to collect his first hits of the winter. Known as a slick-fielding middle infielder, Pantoja was ranked No. 176 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 200 Draft Prospects list and was the lone Puerto Rican high schooler to make the rankings.
• Entering last week, Christian Villanueva, the Cubs' No. 17 prospect, was mired in a 3-for-40 slump during his last 10 games for Yaquis de Obregon in Mexico. He soon snapped out of it, thanks to three consecutive two-hit games to end the week. He capped off his week with a game-winning sacrifice fly in the 11th inning Sunday, one of his three RBIs in Obregon's 7-6 victory at Hermosillo. Overall this winter, Villanueva, a native of Mexico, is hitting .229/.311/.434 and ranks fifth in the league with 10 home runs in 48 games. Primarily a third baseman, he also played a game of left field last week.
Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.