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Familiar names dot winter league rosters

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

These are tough times for Pirates fans.

I’m not just talking about the state of the franchise, although I am more optimistic than most that Ben Cherington and his team will turn the club around if given time and resources. I believe he’ll get the former but I’m not sure on the latter.

No, I’m talking about this time of year. The Winter Meetings are over – in fact, it seemed like they didn’t even exist this year, although technically teams did conduct business virtually and the Rule 5 draft was held as always. But now we’re in the dark days, with precious little to carry us through the last part of December and the month of January. Yes, I realize spring training – if a normal spring training indeed does take place this year, and there’s no guarantee of that happening – is only about two months away, but it’s traditionally been a long two months.

So what’s a fan to do? There’s only so much time you can spend combing other organizations’ rosters for potential sleeper catching prospects or talking about the July amateur draft. What else can one do to get through the darkest of offseason hours?

Well, one thing you can do to kill a little time is to peruse the rosters of the Dominican Winter League clubs. Not necessarily to glean any important information, but perhaps to see if anyone might be a sleeper candidate worthy of signing to a minor league contract. Or, at the very least, to see how many familiar – and forgotten – names you might run across.

For example, while examining the Gigantes del Cibao roster the other day to check on Pirates prospect Oneil Cruz’s progress, I ran into old friend Jake Elmore, who had a forgettable 20-game stretch with the Pirates in 2019. Another name that jumped out at me was Steven Souza Jr., a productive major leaguer as recently as three seasons ago who has since fallen off the baseball map.

Souza, a third-round pick of the Washington Nationals in the 2007 amateur draft, slammed 30 home runs and drove in 78 for an .810 OPS and a 119 OPS+ for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2017. But the Rays dealt Souza to Arizona during spring training in 2018, and his transition to the National League did not go well, in large part due to injury. He played in only 72 games with Arizona after injuring his shoulder, and the following year he suffered a major knee injury in a spring training game and missed the entire season.

His tenure with the Diamondbacks came to an end when he was nontendered a year ago this month, and he signed a free-agent deal with the Cubs in late January. But Souza appeared in just 11 games during the 2020 season and hit just .148 with a puny .591 OPS in 27 at-bats. He was designated for assignment on Sept. 6 between games of a doubleheader with the Cardinals, and his future as a big leaguer is up in the air. Hence his Dominican Winter League fling, which – by the way – hasn’t gone well. Through 34 at-bats, Souza was batting just .147 with a .422 OPS.

Another name that jumped out belonged to Junior Lake, currently toiling for Estrellas Orientales. Lake, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound right-handed hitter, once was a highly regarded prospect in the Cubs organization who actually won the starting left field job in 2014. But Lake, who played well during the second half of the 2013 season, was optioned to the minors in August of 2014 and never sniffed a regular job again in the big leagues, getting dealt to Baltimore at the trade deadline in 2015 and then getting claimed off waivers by Toronto in the winter of 2015. He later hooked on with the Red Sox and Mariners, but never established himself and spent the 2018-19 seasons in the Mexican League. He put up solid numbers in that league in 2019, hitting .306 with 21 homers, 85 RBIs and an .938 OPS in 428 at-bats. So far this season, Lake is batting .256 with a .789 OPS in 78 at-bats.

Other familiar names who have found their way into Dominican Winter League games this season include former Pirates prospects Alen Hanson and Montana DuRapau, current Pirates reclamation project Gregory Polanco and one-time phenom Yasiel Puig, who had appeared in five games for Toros del Este as of Sunday. Aguilas Cibaenas’ roster features ol’ Melky Cabrera, who apparently hasn’t forgotten how to hit, at least based on his .304 batting average and a .779 OPS. Aguilas Cibaenas also has a pitcher named Joan Baez. You could look it up.

As we know, the Pirates could use some outfield depth. Would you be willing to take a shot at a guy like Souza or Lake or Puig, the latter of whom has trouble written all over him but carries a big bat and could be worth a flier – someone you could flip at the trade deadline? One of the benefits of putting together a team that has virtually no expectations is the opportunity to take a chance on a complete wild card, just to see what happens. No one is likely to remember such an experiment if it fails, but if it succeeds, it could land the Pirates a prospect in late summer that could pay future dividends.