Former Santa Cruz High ace and Cal State Fullerton standout pitcher Lauren Gagnier recently returned home from his first season of winter baseball in Dominican Republic, widely recognized as one of the top winter leagues.
Gagnier said he had a blast.
“Starting pitching is the way to go down there,” said Gagnier, who last season reached the Triple-A level in the Detroit Tigers’ organization. “They have 85-man rosters. Every day the roster changes, depending on who they want to activate. Days I didn’t start, I went to the beach.”
Perfect weather, white sand and aqua blue water. Sounds like a tough winter.
With the help of their agents, there are several winter-league options for minor leaguers: the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Australia, Hawaii …
Current Milwaukee Brewers star third baseman Casey McGehee [Soquel High] played in Mexcio. Relief pitcher Adam Carr, a San Lorenzo Valley High star, played in Hawaii.
Rather than take a part-time job in the offseason, Gagnier got to get his arm some work in a foreign country. And he was rewarded well for his efforts.
“Lets just put it this way, for six weeks of work, I got paid what I make in two years in the minors,” he said.
In all, Gagnier made six total starts, working 31 innings. He won a head-to-head matchup against former big-leaguer Bartolo Colon, who was recently signed to a minor-league contract by the New York Yankees. He faced St. Louis Cardinals infielder Pedro Feliz, an ex-SF Giant, and played with Baltimore Orioles outfielder Felix Pie.
The talent level was pretty good, Gagnier said, noting the level was mostly fringe major leaguers, aka “Quadruple-A,” a step above Triple-A.
Gagnier played for Estrellas de Oriente, which translates to Eastern Stars. The team played in San Pedro de Macoris, which is located in the southeast portion of the Dominican.
His team qualified for postseason, but it was swept in five games by Toros del Este, which advanced to the Caribbean World Series.
Gagnier acclimated to the food quickly. He had his fill of seafood – he raved about the $15 lobster – and had plenty of white rice, black beans and chicken.
Gagnier and teammates stayed in an Embassy Suites and said the players were treated like kings. He saw the other end of the spectrum on the rides to the ballpark.
“It’s a third-world country,” Gagnier said. “We were told, not sure on the number, but 5 percent of the people there own 90 percent of the money. To and from the ballpark to the city, you see the poverty there.”
He didn’t need to adjust too much language-wise. He says he took two years of Spanish in high school and … “playing the minors, you kind of learn all the swear words. I can understand (Spanish) better than I can speak it.”
Gagnier also had an American manager and American pitching coach.
One of the big differences Gagnier noticed in pitching was the velocity of the players coming out of the bullpen.
“Everyone throws 94-(mph)-plus,” he said.