If you assumed a year ago that Albert Pujols was on his last legs and headed for retirement, washed up after a good-but-not-great 2021 game between the Angels and Dodgers, you could be forgiven. He was 41 that year and 21 years into his MLB career. But you missed some signs to the contrary.
On Halloween night, Pujols made his debut for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, his first appearance in his home country. And in his first game, Pujols singled to knock off Tigres del Lice in the 10th inning at Estadio Quisqueya Juan Marichal in Santo Domingo.
“It was a special day, something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time,” Pujols said afterwards. “I felt so many emotions. It was a historic moment for me and my career.”
But it wasn’t a farewell tour. A little over a month later, Pujols smashed a home run Brewers draft pick Tyler Alexander cleared the boards in left field. This was a signal that perhaps Pujols had more in the tank; “I don’t think it’s time for me to retire.”
And sure enough, he played another year with the Cardinals, a historic season that put him in the record books with 703 career home runs.
Winter leagues can tell us a lot if we look. Pujols is no longer playing this winter, but many players are trying to gain steam for next season, just like him. Here are six who improved their MLB chances in the winter leagues this season.
OF/1B Jerar Encarnación, Miami Marlins
Águilas Cibaeñas, Dominican Professional Baseball League
Once among the Marlins’ top prospects, Encarnación graduated from the majors last season and made an immediate mark. In his July debut, he hit a game-winning grand slam in the seventh inning that beat the Mets. But in 23 games, he struggled to a .182 batting average. He needed more at-bats. So the Dominican native landed with Aguilas.
And he crushes the ball. His .950 OPS led the league among regular-season batters with at least 50 plate appearances. In November, in the cleanup, Encarnacíon tagged a game-winning home run off Brewers right-hander JC Mejía to beat Tigres del Licey. Águilas and Licey are historically two of LIDOM’s best teams and one of the strongest clubs this winter. And Encarnación, 25, is leading the way for Aguilas.
QUE-PA-LO 💥 ¡HOMERUN de Jerar Encarnación y las @aguilascibaenas se llevan el partido de manera dramatica! 🦅🔥#LIDOM: #CopaBanreservas ⚾️🏆 pic.twitter.com/6sNL8VJkDO
— LIDOM (@LIDOMRD) November 7, 2022
CF Ceddanne Rafaela, Boston Red Sox
Criollos de Caguas, Puerto Rico Winter League
Rafaela, whose full prep baseball name is Ceddanne Chipper Nicasio Marte Rafaela, ranks among the Red Sox’s top prospects, as high as No. 3 on some lists. Boston moved the natural shortstop to center field last season when he worked his way up from Low-A Greenville of the Sally League to Double-A Portland in the much tougher Eastern League, where he continued to produce with an .824 OPS over 71 games. .
He joined the Puerto Rican Winter League with a special program. tighten strike zone awareness. “Sometimes it’s a bad pitch and I know I can hit it,” Raffaella said. The Athletic last month “That’s why I’m going to Puerto Rico.”
In 76 games with the Criollos, he had 16 strikeouts with nine walks. And at 22, he is among the best, youngest players in the league. His .738 OPS ranks 16th. The Red Sox are keeping a close eye on Rafaela. Their manager, Alex Cora, grew up in Caguas. And the Criollos are managed by Red Sox first base coach Ramon Vasquez.
SS Elly De La Cruz, Cincinnati Reds
Tigres Del Licey, Dominican Professional Baseball League
De La Cruz, who won’t turn 21 until January, is now considered the Reds’ top prospect and one of the best prospects in baseball. He is on a superstar arc with seemingly elite speed, arm strength and bat speed. Last season at Double-A Chattanooga, De La Cruz offered something incredible almost every day.
And, playing in the championship chase in the top winter leagues, even as a 20-year-old, De La Cruz is going up against far more experienced players. His .813 OPS is fourth in the LIDOM in the regular season, making him one of the best young players in the league. He stole nine bases in 24 games and is one of six players with multiple triples.
In one sequence against Estrellas Orientales last month, De La Cruz singled in a run, then stole second base, then stole third. He can fly around the bases.
AY MII MADRE ‼️‼️ Triple de Elly de la Cruz + un error en tiro y #Licey se pone en la pizarra con la primera carrera azul del partido. #BandaAzul #Lidom #PorLa23 pic.twitter.com/ByhCJQuYr9
— Banda_azul_Liceista (@BandaAzulTL) November 1, 2022
OF/1B Pavin Smith, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tigres del Licey, Dominican professional baseball league
A poor 2022 season saw Smith demoted to Triple A, where he broke his hand diving for a ball in the infield. While he was in Reno, he was rocking the ball with a four-digit OPS. In Arizona, less so, although Smith hit .313 with three doubles in 10 games last season in a comeback. The Diamondbacks have an outfield full of promising young players. Smith is among them. But they should know better what he might be.
“When it’s right,” Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo said last season, “he can take over and control the lineup, and the people around him are better.”
At LIDOM, Smith does just that. His .920 regular season OPS ranks behind only Encarnacion and Michael Perez among hitters. And he had more walks (15) than hits (13). His .462 on-base percentage was the best in the league. And, as Lovullo said, he seems to be showering Lisi with good things. Collectively, they are the Dominican team with the highest points, taking first place in the regular season.
The Diamondbacks recently traded one of their young players, Dalton Warshaw, to the Blue Jays. Whether they make Smith part of their long-term plan or flip him to fill other gaps, he shows potential.
UTIL Jermaine Palacios, Detroit Tigers
Cardenales de Lara, Venezuelan professional baseball league
The 26-year-old utility man returned to his native Venezuela to play for the Cardenales de Lara this winter and appears to be back on track with a 1.104 OPS that trails only Osvaldo Arcia in LVBP.
The Tigers claimed Palacios off waivers from the Twins in November. As a multi-level defender, he’s the kind of depth piece that teams rely on throughout the season. They just need to know that those players can swing the bat, even when they get cold on the bench, and remain competitive in tough situations. And while the Tigers cut Palacios from their roster, they quickly re-signed him to a minor league deal.
To get back to the bigs, Palacios needed to find a groove at the plate. And his .471 slugging percentage, sixth best in the league, is a good sign. He walked (16 times) almost as often as he struck out (19).
RHP Bowden Francis, Toronto Blue Jays
Criollos de Caguas, Puerto Rico Winter League
Francis arrived in Toronto last year with the Brewers as part of the Rowdy Tellez trade. And he made his debut last season with one intense performance. But Francis needed more spice. He’s been working on a relatively new slider, which he throws with similar velocity to his fastball. It’s his fourth active pitch, but it was perhaps his most productive. He ranks in the top 10 for the Blue Jays on some prospect lists.
And in the Puerto Rico Winter League, Francis is rolling. In seven starts and 27 1/3 innings, he has 36 strikeouts against just five walks with a 1.98 ERA. No matter what game mix he’s working with on any given night, it’s working. Francisco has helped Criollos to the top of the league.
(Jerar Encarnación photo by Wendell Cruz/USA Today)