Aguilas feature top-notch infield
Furcal, Pena Jr. form dynamic duo for Dominican team
SANTIAGO, Dominican Republic -- It's not exactly the Dominican Dream Team, but the infield for the Aguilas Cibaenas could prove to be a real nightmare for the rest of the field in the 2008 Caribbean Series, and that's with Miguel Tejada on the bench.
Second baseman Rafael Furcal stars with the Dodgers, shortstop Tony Pena Jr. is the starter for the Royals, third baseman Edwin Encarnacion is a regular for the Reds and first baseman Mendy Lopez is a former Major Leaguer with eight years of experience.
"I think any team in the Major Leagues would like to have an infield like we have," Aguilas manager Felix Fermin said. "I'm just happy they are on my team and I don't have to manage against them. They have done a tremendous job this year."
Catcher Brayan Pena is a backup with the Braves. Tejada is Aguilas' designated hitter, but he might see some action at shortstop.
"For me, when you get a chance to play good baseball with good players, that just makes you a better player," Pena said. "The guys love baseball here, and they show it every day. It's a learning process for me. When something happens during the game, they tell me that it should be done this way or that way or how to play a guy. I'm getting a lot out of playing this game here."
Last season, Pena hit .267 with two home runs and 47 RBIs in 152 games during his first complete big league season with the Royals. He struck out 78 times and committed 23 errors. The son of former Major League catcher Tony Pena Sr., Pena didn't play organized baseball growing up and is often considered a late bloomer. He signed with the Braves as a free agent in 1999 and spent the next seven seasons in the organization until he was traded to the Royals last March.
He will enter Spring Training later this month as Kansas City's starting shortstop.
The Dodgers' shortstop, Furcal hit .270 with six home runs, 47 RBIs and 25 stolen bases in 138 games. Furcal has been hampered by back and ankle injuries, but he is out to prove he is healthy as he enters the final year of his three-year deal with Los Angeles.
Both are considered among the most talented infielders in winter league play.
"They have been a great combination," Fermin said. "Pena has been one of the best players in the league this winter, and Furcal is an All-Star quality player. Having a veteran like Furcal around is going to help him be a better ballplayer. All of them are big league players and frontline guys."
As for Encarnacion, he hit .228 with one home run and eight RBIs in 17 games for the Aguilas. Last season with the Reds, the three-year veteran hit .289 with 16 home runs and 76 RBIs in 139 games.
Encarnacion chose to participate in the Caribbean Series because he admitted he needed the extra work.
"This is going to help me when I get to Spring Training and in the big leagues," Encarnacion said. "I'll be in good shape, ready with my bat and ready to go. We have been waiting on this."
Lopez has not played in the Major Leagues since 2004 with the Royals, but he is a staple in the winter league circuit and also has played in Korea. He hit .242 in 190 big league games with Kansas City, Florida and Pittsburgh.
The addition of current Major League outfielder Freddy Guzman and former big league outfielder Luis Polonia to the lineup makes the Aguilas the clear-cut favorite.
The Dominican fans expect a championship from the Aguilas, and the Aguilas expect to play well.
However, there will not be any guarantees of victory coming out of the Aguilas' dugout.
"We do not feel one bit of pressure," Fermin said. "We are motivated, but we are not feeling pressure. We are proud and happy to be here in front of our fans, but we are not feeling nervous about it."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.