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Caribbean Series facing a youth movement

Caribbean Series facing a youth movement

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MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela -- Mets outfielder prospect Fernando Martinez is among the new faces of the Caribbean Series.

In two or three years, though, his image will be replaced.

Welcome to the present-day Caribbean Series. The tournament that was once the stomping ground of such Hall of Famers as Reggie Jackson, Juan Marichal and Willie Mays, and veteran stars David Ortiz and Miguel Tejada, is facing a youth movement.

How the tournament will survive with a focus on such prospects as Martinez, Danny Valencia (Twins), Juan Francisco (Reds), Jose Ortega (Braves) and Alex Valdez (Athletics) remains to be seen. What's certain is that the tournament leaders are not waiting on veterans like Francisco Rodriguez, Adrian Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu or Ivan Rodriguez to rescue them.

"Forget about big names. They are not coming for many reasons," Caribbean Confederation commissioner Juan Francisco Puello said. "Don't characterize our success or failure by the names we have here, because our stars are the young players here. This is the future of baseball, the future of the Caribbean."

Puello could be on to something. Led by Martinez, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, the Dominican Republic's Escogido squad won the 2010 title with a 5-1 record. Martinez hit .364 in the tournament.

"I'm just really happy I was able to participate here," Martinez said. "To bring the trophy back to my country is unbelievable."

It seems necessary for Puello and the confederation -- made up of the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela -- to focus on youth. The Major League stars are often prohibited by their teams from participating in the Caribbean Series and a full Winter League season, because the big league clubs want to protect their investment. In addition, the new Winter League agreement between Major League Baseball and the Caribbean Confederation adds restrictions to players to protect them from being overworked, and it could reduce the pool of players in the future.

Here's something else to consider: Sometimes star players do not want to play. The winter is vacation time for some established players, and some players want to work out on their own.

Caribbean Series 2010 All-Tournament Team
Mets OF prospect Fernando Martinez won MVP of the Caribbean Series for the Dominican Republic, who went 5-1 to take the title. Puerto Rico's Max Oliveras was named top manager.
Player, position, team
Kevin Barker, 1B, Dominican Republic
Pablo Ozuna, 2B, Dominican Republic
Vinny Castilla, 3B, Mexico
Angel Sanchez, SS, Puerto Rico
Armando Rios, RF, Puerto Rico
Jesus Feliciano, CF, Puerto Rico
Fernando Martinez, LF, Dominican Republic
Edwards Guzman, C, Puerto Rico
Raul Padron, DH, Venezuela
Raul Valdes, LHP, Dominican Republic
Nelson Figueroa, RHP, Dominican Republic
Efrain Nieves, LH reliever, Puerto Rico
Peter Parise, RH reliever, Puerto Rico

That's their right, and nobody blames them for wanting a little R&R.

This is what has changed: In the past it was normal for stars to suit up for the Winter Leagues and Caribbean Series because they needed the money to supplement their baseball salary. That hasn't been the case in a long time.

From the Caribbean Confederation's point of view, a Winter League team can't always afford to pay the $20,000 or $30,000 a month it takes to score a star, thus it makes sense and saves cents to go without a ringer.

Yes, patriotism remains a big reason to play in the Caribbean Series, but top players are now asked to make the difficult choice between the love of country and the love of money.

What would the average person choose in that situation?

Money matters, amigos. There will come a time when Martinez won't suit up for the Dominican Republic because his value to the Mets will prevent him from playing. It's the Caribbean Series' cycle of life, and Puello knows it well.

"We all understand the economics of the game and how each side is impacted," Puello said. "We can spend all day talking about who is not here, and the obvious reasons why not, or we can focus on who is. Let's double the promotion for these young men and their stats."

"Let's be honest. The star figures that do show up for the Caribbean Series are not always ready," he added. "It's near the start of Spring Training, and the men are not close to being what they will be at midseason. It's not about star power, it's about baseball."

That said, he has not completely given up on participation by Major League Baseball's stars. One of his ideas is to move the Caribbean Series from the first week of February to the last week of January to give Major Leaguers more downtime between the end of the Caribbean Series and the start of Spring Training if they decide to participate.

The biggest argument against such a proposal would come from the leagues and teams in the Caribbean Confederation, because they would be forced to cut their regular-season and playoff schedules.

Puello said that the addition of leagues into the confederation would add talent to the annual tournament, but progress on that front has been slow. The stadiums in Cartagena and Barranquilla, Colombia, need to be improved before he will consider adding that country, and he said that the leagues in Nicaragua and Panama are not up to confederation standards yet.

Cuba, an original member of the Caribbean Confederation along with Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela when it was formed in 1949, has an open invitation to rejoin but has declined.

"Cuba is welcome, and we've done all we can to get Cuba in the confederation again," Puello said. "At this point it is their call. They have other priorities, like their tournaments, their league and their national team, so we'll wait, but we're here if they want in."

In some ways the Caribbean Series needs Cuba. The country hasn't participated in the tournament since Fidel Castro took over the country in 1959, and its presence would add intrigue -- not to mention Major League scouts -- to the games.

Puello also said that he will not consider changing the original double round-robin format to an elimination tournament until at least one more team is added.

The commissioner also wants to make sure he doesn't lose a team, either. He and the rest of the Caribbean Confederation will meet twice in Puerto Rico during the upcoming months to address the problems that have plagued the Puerto Rican Professional Baseball League during the past few seasons.

"The idea is that Puerto Rico's league returns to the prominence it had in the area," he said. "That is priority No. 1 for the confederation."

To alleviate issues with the international media, Puello hired a Dominican Republic journalist as a confederation adviser.

"I think you can see how important it is to them by what they are trying to do," said Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations. "This is their World Series, and it brings a lot of fans together from each country. It's their baseball. You can see that it's growing simply from the fact that it is televised now by MLB Network."

The 2011 Caribbean Series will be held in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, and it is tentatively scheduled for the first or second day of February next year. Puello expects the usual crop of journeyman veterans and prospects to participate, and he's fine that mix.

The Caribbean Series must go on, with or without the marquee names.

"We have 28 teams in the Caribbean playing for the Serie del Caribe title," said Sadi Antonmattei, president of Puerto Rico Professional Baseball League. "That's why it's important. That's why, when you hear people translate it into English, they call it the Caribbean World Series. It's a big deal."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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