MINNEAPOLIS — Sunday marks the last day of Major League Baseball’s regular season. For the players on teams not in the postseason, that means a bit of downtime — finally — after a long 162-game season.
Not for Chris Herrmann.
The Twins catcher/outfielder will head to the Dominican Republic early next month to report to his winter ball team, Estrellas de Oriente. That means Herrmann won’t have much of an offseason after Sunday. He’ll have just about a week to prepare for what could be another few months of baseball in the Dominican.
It might seem crazy, but for Herrmann and other players on the fringe of making major league rosters next year, it’s all about getting in extra work to possibly gain an advantage for next spring training.
“We’re in the offseason and you don’t really feel like doing anything at all, but you know you need to,” Herrmann said. “I feel like if I go out here and do this, it’s going to force me to keep everything going, just keep working on hitting, catching, my arm, everything. It’s going to help me be prepared for next season, and that’s what I care about the most. I want to try and break camp with this team and I want to show these guys that I’m a player that could stick with the team and be somebody who can help out.”
Herrmann reports to his winter ball team by Oct. 11 and says he wants to stay down there as long as he can. If Estrellas makes the playoffs, that could run the season into mid-January, which doesn’t leave a lot of time before spring training starts in early February.
While in the Dominican, Herrmann will be joined on Estrellas’ roster by a player many Twins fans may be familiar with: Miguel Sano. The 20-year-old Sano is one of Minnesota’s top prospects — and one of the top prospects in all of baseball — and is also a native of the Dominican.
“They say he’s the king out there,” Herrmann said.
Playing winter ball is not only a different experience on the baseball field but from a cultural standpoint, too. For some, there’s a language barrier to overcome if they don’t speak Spanish — which Herrmann doesn’t, but he might invest in Rosetta Stone to pick up some helpful phrases. There are different foods to try and other cultural nuances to experience while abroad.
And in some cases, safety can be an issue. A few winters ago, former Twins outfielder Joe Benson was robbed at gunpoint while playing winter ball in Venezuela. He returned home to the United States to restock his belongings after everything was taken from him, but he eventually returned to Venezuela to play more baseball. Teams often provide security for players, but sometimes that’s not enough.
Twins second baseman Brian Dozier spent three weeks last winter playing in Venezuela with the hope of getting some extra at-bats that he missed out on when he wasn’t recalled to the majors in September. After the three weeks were over, Dozier flew back home to rest up for spring training. On his flight back, however, Dozier had most of the items from his suitcase stolen after he checked his bag.
“My suitcase was locked and everything, and somehow when I got to Atlanta, on the carousel my whole suitcase was wide open and nothing was in there. They stole all my gloves, bats, everything,” said Dozier, who hit just .208 in seven games with Bravos de Margarita last winter. “Margarita did a great job of having so-called body guards that stayed with us at all times just in case. But you’ve got to be careful.”
Safety concerns aside, the competition in most winter ball leagues is actually pretty fierce. If a player doesn’t put up numbers, teams won’t hesitate to send them home.
That wasn’t the case for Twins first baseman Chris Colabello last winter when he played with Guasave in the Mexican league. Colabello was arguably the team’s best hitter; he batted .332 with 17 home runs and 44 RBI in 57 games as he built off the strong regular season he had with Double-A New Britain.
“I thought it did him a whale of good down there,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan. “He’s a star down in Guasave, I can tell you that.”
Colabello went home just before Christmas and didn’t return to help Guasave in the playoffs. While his team was hoping to have Colabello’s bat in the lineup, he had to ultimately make the move that was best for him.
He had already played 134 games at Double-A, meaning he was closing in on 200 games on the year.
“You commit so much time to something and I guess people down there were really counting on me to come back,” Colabello said. “But it was the first time in my career I think I really took a look at what was best for me physically and mentally and decided to stay home.”
Colabello’s strong performance in winter ball eventually carried into the 2013 season with Triple-A Rochester. He was named the International League Player of the Year after hitting .352 with 24 homers in 89 games and made his major league debut this season. With a combined 141 minor league and major league games under his belt this year, Colabello remains on the fence about playing winter ball again this offseason. His performance with Guasave last year has generated interest from several teams, and he’s been in talks with a few clubs in the Dominican.
Many other players have made the choice to spend time in a foreign country with the hopes of honing their craft in the offseason. For some, like Colabello, is does plenty of good.
For others, like Dozier, the return is minimal.
Ryan said he doesn’t put much stock into a player’s numbers in winter ball, but he would rarely, if ever, discourage any of the Twins players from going.
“What a guy does in winter ball is gravy,” Ryan said. “If they do well, fantastic. If they do poorly, I don’t really equate success or failure in winter ball to what they’re going to do in spring training. If they’re out playing, I’m very appreciative, is what it is. That means they’re trying.”