Winter leagues roundup

Rogers, Lake and Linden leading Estrellas Orientales

Led by the unlikely trio of Eddie Rogers, Junior Lake and Todd Linden, the Estrellas Orientales swept the two-time defending champion Escogido Leones over the weekend to take over first place in the Dominican Winter League.

Rogers, a former Baltimore Orioles utility player who spent the summer playing independent ball, is leading the league’s most balanced offense, batting .421. Lake, a prospect in the Chicago Cubs system, is benefitting from playing in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris, batting .361. Linden played for Triple-A Fresno in the San Francisco Giants system in 2012, and has provided 16 RBIs in 13 games with five home runs.

The Estrellas are ahead of the heavily-favored Aguilas Cibaeñas, who are hoping that the entrance of Manny Ramirez into play on Nov. 14 will add some power to a lineup that has lacked pop as of late despite productive starts from Hector Luna, Miguel Tejada and New York Mets prospect Francisco Pena.

Elsewhere in the league, Atlanta Braves infielder Juan Francisco knocked the 37th homer of his career in the Dominican League with the Licey Tigres to move into 15th place all-time. The top three posts belong to former Kansas City Royals outfielder Mendy Lopez (61), former major leaguer Felix Jose (60) and Dominican legend Rico Carty (59).

Maldonado coming alive for Magallanes

Carlos Maldonado is trying to jump start his career after being outrighted to Triple-A by the Washington Nationals in August. He has put together a powerful start to his Venezuelan League season hitting .373 with seven homers and 21 RBIs through 19 games, earning him Player of the Week honors while leading his Magallanes Navegantes to the top spot in the standings.

Maldonado had been doing most of the catching, but he was moved to the DH slot by manager Carlos Garcia to make room for Francisco Cervelli. Cervelli should compete for the backup catcher role with the New York Yankees this spring.

A third catcher with big-league experience on the Navegantes roster is Eliezer Alfonzo, fighting his way back to the majors after his 100-game suspension for PED was lifted; he has been playing first base. Alfonzo’s positive test was reversed by Major League Baseball due to circumstances similar to the Ryan Braun case, but he was released by the Colorado Rockies in May and finished the season with Aguascalientes in the Mexican Summer League. Thus far this winter, Alfonzo is batting .319 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 23 games.

Meanwhile, the La Guaira Tiburones keep hitting homers at a record-setting pace this winter having pelted 33 in their first 26 games. With nine homers through 25 games, Darin Ruf is making a run at the single-season mark of 20 set by the late Bo Diaz in 1979-80 and almost equaled by Cecil Fielder (1986-87) and Roberto Zambrano (2001-2002), each of whom hit 19.

Byrd continues to shine for Culiacan

The Mexican Pacific League season is developing into a highly competitive one as six teams are separated by only four games with almost half of the regular season completed.

Leading the way are the Culiacan Tomateros, who continue to rely on former Boston Red Sox outfielder Marlon Byrd and Yankees minor league infielder Ramiro Pena for offense. Byrd is hitting .343 with a 1.125 OPS in 26 games while Pena, not necessarily known for his offense, is batting .333 as he goes job-hunting this spring after yielding his utility job to Eduardo Nunez on the Yankees’ big-league roster.

Meanwhile, Culiacan’s starting rotation has been a key to its success thus far, especially at the front end with Amauri Sanit and Alejandro Armenta combining for a 7-1 record and yielding a combined 14 earned runs in 57 2/3 innings.

The Guasave Algodoneros have relied on a solid bullpen to stay in a second-place tie with the Hermosillo Naranjeros, the MPL’s flagship franchise which is trying to bounce back after not making the playoffs last season.

The Mexicali Aguilas are also getting great relief work. Oscar Villarreal, who has bounced around several teams since last pitching in the majors in 2008 with the Houston Astros, is 7-for-8 in save opportunities, while Mike Benacka is 1-1 with a 1.68 ERA in the Aguilas’ bullpen.

For Hermosillo, veteran Karim Garcia has been leading the offensive charge ,batting .315 while Jesse Gutierrez has driven in 21 runs in 24 games.

Mayaguez fast off the gate in Puerto Rico

The defending champion Mayaguez Indios had a perfect 3-0 opening week in the Puerto Rico Winter League, which began its season on Nov. 8 by welcoming back two franchises which had ceased operations.

The Santurce Cangrejeros, idle since the 2008-2009 season, returned to action despite not being able to land a deal to use San Juan’s Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Instead, they will play their home games in Juncos, about 40 minutes southeast of the capital. Santurce is a sector of San Juan. Former major leaguer Carlos Baerga will serve as the team’s manager and GM.

The Manati Atenienses also returned to action and will join Mayaguez, the Ponce Leones, Caguas Criollos and Carolina Gigantes in the regular season.

Mayaguez is relying on the core of its offense that won the title last season -- led by Irving Falu, Danny Gonzalez and Eddie Rosario -- and is starting the season as the favorite. However, the Caguas Criollos, armed with last year’s Most Valuable Player Jorge Padilla and imported pitchers Anthony Ranaudo and Daniel Stange, is poised to have a solid showing.

Alex Cora, who retired last season and is now Caguas’ general manager, said Ranaudo will see limited action as his innings were capped by the Boston Red Sox organization, but he is hopeful the rest of the rotation will be able to fill the void.