A handful of Nationals players and prospects spend their winters in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, playing in the leagues there to stay fresh, catch up on time lost to due to injury during the season and, frankly, because it’s so ingrained in the culture down there.
A few Nationals players have played well and garnered attention, but three stand out as the most interesting: infielder Carlos Rivero, catcher Carlos Maldonado and right-handed reliever Erik Davis. With his strong play in Venezuela, Rivero is building a case to contend for a potential backup infield role in spring training. And Maldonado, who the Nationals designated for assignment last season but re-signed to a minor league deal, has also been tearing up the Venezuela winter league with his scorching bat. Davis, if you remember, was recently protected by the Nationals from the Rule 5 draft.
Rivero, 24, a Venezuelan who the Nationals claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies last December and kept on the 40-man roster all season, is hitting .273/.333/.492 with nine home runs and 30 RBI for the Leones del Caracas. The big-bodied (6-foot-3) infielder was acquired in a relatively minor move last year but it now appears more significant given Rivero’s performance, and because he could likely have been an option for the Phillies in the majors.
One Nationals evaluator who saw him play in Venezuela spoke highly of Rivero, who he sees as a capable hitter who can play all infield positions. His strong winter is helping his case, and his performance in spring training will be important in helping determine his future. Rivero hit .303/.347/.435 with 10 home runs and 64 RBI for Class AAA Syracuse last season while mostly playing third base but seeing some time at shortstop and first.
Maldonado’s winter power surge continue to show that the Nationals have a deep cache of catchers in their system. Maldonado, 33, a long-time minor league who was one of the
fivesix catchers to see action for the Nationals this season, is hitting .287/.397/.560 with 11 home runs and 28 RBI for the Navegantes del Magallanes in Venezuela.
Davis, 26, who pitched for Class AA Harrisburg and Syracuse last season, had a phenomenal winter for the Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican, posting a 0.47 ERA in 17 appearances while striking out 19 batters. Davis believes his strong offseason performance was part of the reason he was protected from the Rule 5 draft by the Nationals and added to the 40-man roster two weeks ago. On the same winter league team, left-handed reliever Patrick McCoy, who was with Harrisburg last season, had a 2.70 ERA in 20 appearances with 12 strikeouts.
Sandy Leon is catching for the Aguilas de Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League, and hitting .236/.276/.319 in 27 games. Infielder Adrian Sanchez, who spent last season with Class A Potomac, is hitting .357/.379/.429 in 11 games on the same team as Leon.
Tanner Roark, a right-handed starter the Nationals acquired in the 2010 trade for Christian Guzman and spent last season with Class AAA Syracuse, has a 3.60 ERA in 30 innings over six starts for the Bravos de Margarita in Venezuela.
Eury Perez, who made his major league debut last season as a September call-up, is hitting .183/.210/.233 with the Leones del Escogido in his native Dominican Republic. He has seemingly struggled in the winter league, but it’s worth keeping in mind that he played a full season in the minors, then spent September with the Nationals and is playing over the offseason. The Nationals believe he still needs some more seasoning in the minor league before he ready to play in the majors.
Catcher Jhonatan Solano is also playing in the Dominican, on the Tigres del Licey. He is hitting .360/.385/.680 with two home runs in eight games.