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As players and teams exercise caution, winter leagues lose stars

Ask José Cruz Jr. to reminisce about his experiences in winter league ball in the Caribbean, and he'll start to rattle off the bold-face baseball names he played with or against: Pedro Martinez, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Bernie Williams, Carlos Delgado, Adrian Beltre, Magglio Ordoñez, and Miguel Tejada, among others.

Cruz's highlight of his seven years of winter ball was leading Puerto Rico's Cangrejeros de Santurce to the Caribbean Series title held prior to 2000 major-league season and capturing Series MVP honors. The first three hitters in that team's lineup were all switch-hitting Josés in or entering the primes of their major-league careers: Valentin, Cruz and Vidro.

In the ensuing major-league season Cruz played all 162 games for the Blue Jays and smacked 31 home runs and 32 doubles; Vidro batted .330 with 24 home runs and 97 RBIs for the Expos; and Valentin hit 25 homers with 92 RBIs while scoring 107 runs for the White Sox.

"It was a great experience," Cruz said by telephone from Puerto Rico. "Something I treasure."

Such big-league talent, however, has been largely absent in recent editions of the Caribbean Series, the annual early-February event played by the championship teams from the winter leagues in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Mexico's Yaquis de Obregón won this year's title Monday night.

There were no stars playing this year and only a handful of players who were everyday starters or played even half their team's games last year: Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro, new Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon, Angels centerfielder Peter Bourjos, Blue Jays third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, Orioles outfielder Felix Pie, Indians infielders Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena, Pirates Ronny Cedeño and Jose Tabata, Oakland infielder Andy LaRoche, Marlins utility player Emilio Bonifacio and new Mets catcher Ronny Paulino.

Cruz has been watching this year's Caribbean Series games on local television and reflected on the change.

"After 2001, '02, '03 or so, it started to dwindle," he said. "You play for big money in the States, and the intensity isn't what it was. [My family and I] were having this conversation yesterday. We're watching young guys who are probably going to be studs, maybe in the next year or two, but there are not that many high-profile names."

Bernie Williams, a native of Puerto Rico, played winter ball every year from 1985, when he was a junior in high school, to 1996, when he was entering his fourth season as the Yankees starting centerfielder. He returned to winter ball in Puerto Rico in Dec. 2008 as he prepared for that spring's World Baseball Classic and found the difference in the game striking.

"The big league talent [now] is basically non-existent," said Williams. "When they started making more money, the investment was a little more risky for teams and [they] started denying permission for guys to play."

Williams said he's grateful that the Yankees never did that to him, but he stopped playing when New York began making the playoffs every year. He said, "It just became too much."

For many Latin players, returning home to play live games in front of friends and family is important. That's why Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays' breakout star with 54 home runs last year, said at the beginning of this offseason that he would like to play winter ball back in his native Dominican Republic this offseason even though he rose to major-league stardom and was recovering from sports hernia surgery.

"We don't play in our country very much," Bautista said this fall. "The fans follow us all year in the newspapers, TV, on the radio."

Bautista had played each previous winter but ultimately didn't return this year -- largely because, as an arbitration-eligible player, he is about to sign his first lucrative contract as a pro.

"Sometimes they want to, but right now major league baseball [teams] don't allow them to play," Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal, a native of the D.R., said this weekend. "Maybe someday I hope they will change that rule because the people in the Dominican, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and those countries want to see those players play."

While the atmosphere at winter league games in the Caribbean remain a unique, lively experience, one reporter who has covered several Series said attendance has slowly declined over the last decade.

The primary culprit keeping Latin stars from playing in the winter leagues is, of course, the escalating player salaries. According to the annual payroll study done by the Associated Press, the average player salary has risen from $579,000 in 1990 to $1.1 million in 1995 to $2.0 million in 2000 to $2.6 million in 2005 and $3.3 million in 2010.

But there are other factors:

• Gains in the development and protection of young arms have led to fewer major leaguers throwing in the winter leagues as clubs are increasingly pacing -- some call it coddling -- their pitchers.

• The addition of the wild-card round to baseball's postseason has extended the big-league calendar and cut further into the offseason.

• The introduction of the World Baseball Classic gives star players a different venue for playing in front of home fans in the offseason.

• The increased emphasis on the Arizona Fall League means that most of the bonus-baby prospects will get extra work in without leaving the continental U.S.

There, of course, remain exceptions. As recently as 2009 Padres-turned-Red Sox star slugger Adrian Gonzalez hit three home runs in one game while making a cameo in the Caribbean Series to play with his brother Edgar on Mexico's Venados de Mazatlan. Indians ace Fausto Carmona took the mound in the D.R. this winter -- but only for a 1 1/3 innings. The Dodgers' top prospect, shortstop Dee Gordon, played 33 games in Puerto Rico and batted .361, while the Phillies' No. 1 prospect and projected starting rightfielder, Domonic Brown, played nine games in the Dominican. (All stats and winter-league participation research comes from mlb.com's Offseason Leagues page.)

In looking at the major league bell curve, fewer players from the middle -- the guys in the primes of their careers either just starting or looking to earn their first free-agent contract -- are playing in the Caribbean, meaning most of the players who do go are either up-and-comers looking for extra seasoning or aging veterans hoping to impress scouts enough to get another contract. Bartolo Colon, for instance, made seven starts for Aguilas Cibaenas and had a 1.93 ERA in 37 1/3 innings to nab his minor league deal with the Yankees.

Typical participation among younger players includes such names as the Indians' Cabrera and Valbuena or the Cardinals' John Jay and Tyler Greene.

Cabrera and Valbuena, Cleveland's double-play combo for much of last season, are both 25-year-old Venezuela natives who returned to play in their home country's winter league. Cabrera is the club's established starting shortstop but only played 97 games last year because of a fractured forearm. Valbuena seemed to have a hold on second base after he started 16 of the Tribe's first 22 games there but was hitting just .182 at the time and saw his playing time reduced. He finished the year batting .193 with a .273 on-base percentage in 91 games.

"Asdrubal missed a significant amount of playing time this year due to injury, so we thought it would be beneficial for him to get the additional innings and at bats in winter ball," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti wrote in an email to SI.com. "Luis had a challenging year offensively, so we were supportive of his desire to play winter ball to try to improve and develop."

The Cardinals' Jay enjoyed a strong 2009 season in Triple-A and was set to receive his first big-league spring training invite from the parent club last spring, so he went to Venezuela and batted .323 with a .418 OBP in 130 at bats. Jeff Luhnow, St. Louis' vice president of scouting and player development, called Jay the "ideal type of guy to go" as the outfielder was on the cusp of big-league readiness and bilingual -- the latter isn't a necessity, as the Cardinals go to great lengths to vet all parts of the experience from hotel to daily transportation, but it's certainly a plus.

With the extra preparation, Jay had a breakout rookie season by batting .300 with a .359 OBP in 105 major-league games, enabling the Cardinals to trade rightfielder Ryan Ludwick for pitcher Jake Westbrook. Before Jay's promotion to the majors, however, he played Triple-A ball and raved about his winter-league experience to teammate Tyler Greene, a shortstop who this winter went to the Dominican league, then to a team in Venezuela and then a second Venezuelan team. In all Greene played 18 games and went 16-for-62.

"On spectrum of believers of winter ball," Luhnow said, "we're in the top half or top quartile in encouraging our players."

Pitchers, however, are a different entity altogether and rarely are given permission to play winter ball, unless it's a pitcher who missed time due to injury during the summer. Even then, the pitcher is sent with strict limits on pitches per appearance, innings per week and total work per season.

"Most winter ball teams try to accommodate inning and usage guidelines for our players," Antonetti wrote. "Often, a [winter ball team's] willingness to work within certain usage parameters is a condition for us to grant consent for a player to participate."

Given the rising salaries, most players seem to understand when might be a good time to go to the Caribbean and play. When there's a conflict of interests, in which a player the club would like to rest wants to participate, the two sides hope to find a compromise.

"We always try to talk through things with the individual player to understand his motivation to play and see if we can find a mutually acceptable solution," wrote the Indians' Antonetti. "In the end, if a player has met certain fatigue criteria (as specified in the winter ball agreement), then we have the ability to deny him permission to participate."

Even though the Caribbean Series has started receiving air time in the U.S. the last few years -- though often only on Spanish-language networks -- it has little traction among young baseball fans because of the few recognizable names.

Marichal and Williams appeared jointly at an event in New York City last weekend in which Time Warner Cable announced it was providing the Inwood Little League with new equipment and defraying registration costs for all the children in attendance. When one of the coaches asked the children who was playing for this year's Puerto Rican team, one child correctly answered Alex Cora -- a recent New York Met -- but no one identified any other player.

Unless there's a major change in the way winter league rosters are constructed, such results aren't likely to change.

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