A Big League Environment

University Stadium in Caracas

The Venezuelan Winter League was home to many players from the Cubs' farm system this offseason.

Eight players who spent all or most of last season in the Cubs' farm system were present in the league, as were two players – Henry Blanco and Ronny Cedeno – who spent all of 2006 with the big league club during Dusty Baker's less than stellar Windy City Farewell Tour.

It isn't hard to figure out what makes Venezuela so attractive to players: warm temperatures, genuinely good field conditions and the opportunity to stay sharp throughout the long winter months.

In addition, many players active in the league make their offseason homes in Venezuela, and/or are natives of the land.

In terms of competition each fall and winter, the league is second to none. Baseball in Venezuela means a lot. It is not to be taken lightly and seldom is as the Venezuelan Winter League itself equates in part to the major leagues since many if not most of the players there are either top prospects or everyday big leaguers playing in the post-season.

Winning isn't everything, but in Venezuela, it's a lot.

"They have a real big fan base, and big crowds come out every night," said Cubs INF/OF Buck Coats, one of many players in the Venezuelan Winter League this past year. "There's so much of an intensity level."

So much so that the Caribes de Oriente, a team which housed Cubs prospects Chris Walker and Thomas Atlee earlier this offseason, went through three different managers prior to the month of December when many Cubs prospects began to return to the States.

How's that for job security?

"It was pretty cut-throat," described Atlee. "I'd never seen this before, but they actually fired one of those three managers after the first game of a doubleheader. It was unheard of. They're cut-throat and that's why it's like the big leagues. If you don't perform, it's adios."

Each of the Cubs players referenced above had different reasons in opting for Winter Ball.

Coats wanted to take in more at-bats and become an all-around better player, whereas Walker wanted to improve his hitting and work on things such as pitch selection and finding ways to get on base atop the lineup.

The extra work and playing time was beneficial, but none of it could stack up with the primetime atmosphere each of the players would endure.

"Probably the coolest experience I had was in Caracas, where there's 25,000 people in the stands screaming and going nuts," recalled Atlee. "They have a band of eight people banging on drums and playing on a concert stage (beyond) the outfield. They're blaring music and every team has their own chant. You're on the mound and all you can here is this music and 20,000 people screaming it."

With their stints in Venezuela all complete, each of the players who got to participate in the league and partake in its rabid fan base are open to a future return and vow to take the experience with them to the next level.

For players like Atlee, Coats and Walker, that would be Chicago.

Coats got a cup of coffee with the major league team last September after batting .282 in 124 games for Triple-A Iowa. He will be competing for one of the final spots on the Cubs' 25-man roster beginning next month when players report to Mesa, Ariz., for the start of Spring Training workouts.

Walker, a non-roster invitee that is coming off three consecutive All-Star appearances, hit .292 in his first Double-A season in the Southern League a year ago and vows to win the previous opening in center field, in spite of recent speculation that Alfonso Soriano is the man for the position.

For his part, Atlee will be 28 years old by the end of this coming season and has posted solid numbers throughout his career despite two previous arm surgeries. A hard-throwing right-hander that can top 95 mph with his fastball, he was 3-5 with a 2.71 ERA in 46 appearances with the Double-A club a season ago and made his Triple-A debut.

"The teams we were playing against, one through five in the order was usually a big leaguer," Atlee said. "Not a September call-up big leaguer, either, but an established big leaguer. It was really good competition and I learned a lot pitching there. [In the regular season], you face prospects all the time so it's good to face someone who's actually done it in the bigs."

Cubs pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Arizona Wednesday, Feb. 14. Position players will report the following Monday, Feb. 19.

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