The last out of the last inning of the last game of the World Series can be a bittersweet moment for baseball fans.
On the one hand, it means that you have just witnessed the pinnacle of a great sport, the moment when a champion is crowned and an entire year’s worth of hard work pays off for one select group.
On the other hand, it means that baseball is leaving us. It means that summer has officially given way to the cold of winter, and that the months of having daily baseball to look forward to have disappeared with the warmth of the sun.
But fear not. There’s always winter league ball. That’s right, winter ball. The barely covered, basically unwatched, under-the-radar version of America’s pastime that is played around the world—except of course in America.
Winter ball may not get the hype of the MLB season, but it still presents a high level of baseball to the viewing public who choose to follow it. The big names are there. The talent is there. The competitiveness is there. Occasionally, the cameras are even there.
So in order to help you transition away from the MLB season, in order to get you through the winter and into spring training as quickly as possible, here is a list of some of the talent who use winter ball leagues to keep their games sharp and their bodies (mostly) in shape.
Think of it as a list of the next best things.
Probably the biggest, most established name in all of winter baseball is Carlos Zambrano.
Unfortunately for Cubs fans and their former ace, Zambrano’s is also the name that is likely closest to irrelevance on this list.
While Big Z could certainly use his time in the Venezuelan League to work on his command and hopefully regain some of his long-lost velocity, the biggest boon from his offseason experience could be the chance to get back to his roots, get grounded, screw his head on straight and come back to Chicago in the spring as a better teammate with a new attitude.
I know, I know. Arizona Fall League does not technically count as “winter” baseball. In fact, the word “fall” is right there in the name of the league. However in terms of pure, tantalizing talent, the AFL is by far the most exciting thing going right now, and it runs through November, which gives baseball fans an extra month to scout the top prospects who will likely impact the 2012 MLB season.
And as top prospects go, it’s hard to climb much higher than the number one overall pick in the MLB draft. Big righty Garrit Cole earned this distinction when the Pirates selected the UCLA Bruin first overall in the 2011 MLB draft.
Although he clearly has a long road to travel before he reaches the big leagues, Cole has so far adjusted nicely to pro-level hitting, going 2-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his three starts for the mighty Mesa Solar Sox.
Bryce Harper has a little bit of an attitude problem, but is exceedingly good at baseball. Maybe you've read about it. It's been on the Internet.
In the AFL, Harper has continued what seems to be an emerging trend in his young career: he struggles initially at every new level he reaches, then gets comfortable and proceeds to tear the cover off the ball without mercy.
Although his slow start has resulted in a paltry .259 batting average in Arizona, Harper has jacked three homers to go along with 10 RBI’s in his last three games. It’s safe to say he is now feeling more comfortable at the plate, and is primed for a major league appearance in 2012 with the Nationals.
Seattle Mariners top draft pick Danny Hultzen has not yet recorded a win in winter ball. He also hasn’t allowed more than one earned run in any of his four starts.
Hultzen has outshined fellow top pick Gerrit Cole this offseason by absolutely dominating the AFL. His strikeout totals haven’t been overwhelming, but his control has been immaculate as he has displayed great command of his arsenal.
It will likely be at least another full season before he sees the big leagues, but Hultzen is giving the Mariners many reasons to envision a brighter future for their club. Between Hultzen’s left arm and Carlos Peguero’s bat, Seattle owns the rights to arguably the two best performers of the offseason.
Peguero may not be a household name yet, but based on his winter ball performance, he is well on his way.
In 12 winter games, Peguero is hitting a mighty .354 with five HR, 11 RBI and 38 total bases. He has been one of winter ball’s biggest stars, and is certainly providing his parent club, the Seattle Mariners, with plenty of reasons to believe in him for the future.
Poor Brandon Belt.
First, the Giants were going to let him get some more seasoning in the minors. They claimed that when they finally did bring him up, it would be for good. There would be no return train tickets to Fresno for their top offensive prospect.
In class Sabean fashion, however, Belt was mercilessly shuttled between minor league starting lineups and major league benches for the entire 2011 season.
Because of San Francisco’s poor handling of the Belt situation, some fans have wondered if his confidence has been shaken and if he will be able to bounce back and become an impact player in 2012.
Hopefully, Belt’s winter ball experience will allow him to regain whatever confidence was jumbled away by his organization, and return to spring training in 2012 with a new, more confident attitude.
Boston fans know that Lavarnway can hit. He proved that much with a late-season offensive outburst that almost put the Red Sox in the playoffs.
However, defensively Lavarnway is a man without a position. The Sox are hoping that he will be able to take the reins from Jason Varitek behind the plate, and have sent their almost-hero to the Venezuelan winter league to get more work in the squat.
Lavarnway has been hitting in Venezuela, but that’s not really the issue at hand. If he can emerge from his winter experience as a legit (or at least somewhat-competent) Major League catcher, he could be part of a changing Red Sox organization for the long-haul.
You can’t keep Jerome Williams down. Seriously, many teams have tried. You can’t do it.
He was good(ish) for the Giants, then they let him go and it seemed as if his career was over. Then he popped back up in brief stints with the Cubs and Nationals, then dropped out of baseball for three years.
And then, just when you had forgotten about him, just when you thought he was gone, J-Will emerged as a legitimate(ish) starter for the Angels last year. Now, the Jerome Williams resurrection tour has taken itself to Venezuela, where he has been straight up dominant.
Look, no one thinks that Williams will be able to continue his 3-0, 0.00 ERA winter ball performance into next season. But it’s still a great story, and it means that the long and winding career of this baseball journeyman is far from over.
Jerome Williams certainly isn’t the biggest name in winter ball. But his story might be the best.