Wagner Mateo was the crown jewel of the Cardinals’ international signing efforts. The Cardinals celebrated the signing of the 16-year-old outfielder for $3.1 million with a press conference in the Dominican Republic when the international signing period began on July 2.
But now Mateo is a free agent, as the Cardinals voided his contract today (and thus do not have to pay him his bonus). The club issued a press release that cited "pre-existing injuries and physical defects," which both the Cardinals and Mateo’s camp acknowledge are related to his vision.
"Our doctors did not sign off on his physical," said Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals’ vice president of amateur scouting and player development. "There was a lot of focus on the eye, and that was a big issue. For us to sign a player, a player has to pass his physical, and our doctors would not pass him."
Edgar Mercedes, who runs the Born To Play Baseball academy where Mateo trained and represented him in negotiations, said that Mateo has 20/30 vision in his right eye, but that the eye has no nerve damage and there is no degenerative condition.
"What they say is a pre-existing injury is his eyesight," Mercedes said. "He had an eye infection from a contact lens, but he had that all year long. All year long he’s had that.
"The kid always played with that. When they saw him (in Florida at their spring training complex) in Jupiter, he was killing the ball. When they came to the Dominican Republic, he was killing the ball. He’s worn contacts all along. His vision hasn’t gotten any worse than when he was crushing everyone."
Luhnow, citing privacy laws, declined to get into specifics regarding Mateo’s physical, other than to say that the process of conducting a full physical on Mateo began in late July when Mateo came to St. Louis and took batting practice at Busch Stadium.
"We had a lot of experts take a look at Wagner and weigh in on him," Luhnow said. "What we were focused (on) more than anything is what’s the future like as far as him being able to see the baseball and play the game with vision comparable to players that are out there today."
Mercedes, who said he did not know about the Cardinals voiding the deal until contacted by Baseball America, said that teams have seen Mateo play with 20/30 vision in his right eye since he went to Arizona and Florida in March to work out for teams during spring training. Mercedes said he will now regroup with Mateo’s parents to decide how to proceed.
"I’ve got doctors who say he does things better with his eye vision than normal players," Mercedes said. "What he makes up for with having 20/30 vision is above-normal depth perception. So it’s going to be a legal issue."
While issues with Latin American players’ ages and identities have come under greater scrutiny this year and delayed the signing of several high-profile prospects, Luhnow said the contract being voided had nothing to do with any problems with Mateo’s age or identity.
"Wagner probably had the cleanest investigation that we’ve ever come across," Luhnow said. "There’s a lot of good feelings on this player. We still believe he’s a very talented young man and has a bright future in this game ahead of him if these medical issues can be resolved."
Mercedes is holding a tryout for his Born To Play Baseball academy players on Oct. 17 in the Dominican Republic at the La Academia complex, where Mateo will be in attendance. Luis Jolie, a speedy 16-year-old Dominican center fielder who became eligible to sign on July 2, will also be in attendance, as will Edward Salcedo (more on him later).
Mateo’s $3.1 million bonus would have been the highest this year for a 16-year-old international amateur player, topping the $3 million the Yankees gave to Dominican catcher Gary Sanchez. The bonus also would have been the highest in franchise history, edging the $3 million the organization gave J.D. Drew in 1998.
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