Cionel Perez signed with the Astros for $2 million on Friday, but a letter signed by the 20-year-old Cuban lefthander expressed frustration and disappointment over the signing process.
"I am happy to begin my professional career but I feel abused by this system," Perez said in the letter provided by his agency, Octagon, that is addressed to Major League Baseball and the MLB Players' Association.
Despite his frustrations with the process, Perez, in a separate statement to Baseball America through his agency, thanked the Astros organization.
"I am very happy and I give many thanks to the Astros for giving me the opportunity to sign again, to represent their franchise and most importantly help me achieve my dream," Perez said. "I know I have a great opportunity, and I will do my best to maximize that opportunity in hopes of winning the World Series that they deserve."
The Astros declined to answer questions, but issued the following statement: "We are happy to have Cionel join our organization. We are pleased that he chose our club as he pursues his major league dream. Throughout the process, the Astros acted within our rights and within the rules. We look forward to seeing Cionel on the mound at our new complex this spring."
Perez and the Astros originally agreed to a $5.15 million contract in October. However, during the physical, the Astros decided that there was an issue with Perez's left elbow and voided the contract. Perez re-signed with the Astros on Friday for $2 million.
The distinction that Perez is re-signing—as well as the timing of the deal—is important. Since Perez is signing with the team that previously voided his contract, the Astros will have to place him on the 40-man roster next year if they want to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Had another team signed Perez, that would not have been the case. Perez signed with the Astros the day after the 2016 Rule 5 draft. If the Astros signed him sooner, he would have been exposed to the Rule 5 draft this year and Houston almost certainly would have lost him.
Perez's camp argues that, because he is being treated as a previously signed player in this situation, he should be treated as a previously signed player under the international signing system. Per the Collective Bargaining Agreement, players are exempt from the international bonus pools if they are at least 23 and have played five or more seasons in a foreign professional league—a cutoff Perez doesn't meet—or if they "previously contracted with a Major or Minor League Club." Thus, they argue, Perez was previously contracted and should be exempt from the bonus pools, free to sign with any club without restrictions.
The language about previously contracted players is in the CBA so that international players who sign, play in the minor leagues and then get released or become minor league free agents are not subject to the bonus pools on a second contract.
MLB's stance is that these types of situations—when a contract is voided over a physical or an age/identity issue—are different. In MLB's view, a player failing his physical would not be considered a previously contracted player because in the language of the contract, the voided deal is treated as invalid from the outset. Essentially, the whole contract went away, like it never happened in the first place. The contract the player signs after his voided deal is still a first-year player contract.
Perez's case is prominent but not unique. The league has seen around two dozen similar cases of a player who failed his physical, had his contract voided and signed again subject to the bonus pools. A notable example is Venezuelan infielder Luis Castro, whose $800,000 contract with the Blue Jays in 2012 was voided due to a knee issue during the physical. When Castro later signed with the Rockies, his contract was still subject to the bonus pools. MLB, naturally, doesn't want to set a precedent of having players with a failed physical or a fraudulent age become exempt from the pools.
Similar situations have come up both in the draft and the international signing system. In the 2007 draft, the Brewers picked righthander Cody Scarpetta and initially signed him to a $325,000, but voided that deal because he needed finger surgery, re-signed him for $125,000 and put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. In the international market (and prior to the bonus pools) in 2008, the Reds signed Venezuelan lefthander Ismael Guillon, but when they found he had a torn elbow ligament, they voided his deal and re-signed him to a new contract. The Reds didn't put him on the 40-man roster—he was still just 16 at the time—and thus made him eligible for the Rule 5 draft every year until after he reached low Class A Dayton for four starts in 2012, at which point the Reds added him to the 40-man.
In his letter, Perez said the Orioles were willing to offer him a major league contract worth $10 million had he been exempt from the bonus pools. However, players subject to the international bonus pools are required to sign minor league contracts, so they are prohibited from signing major league deals.
Perez also claimed the Padres, who like the Astros also have exceeded their international bonus pool, were offering $2.4 million, but that he would have a lower probability of being put on San Diego's 40-man roster after the 2017 season due to the rules. The Astros, Perez argues, had an advantage to sign him over other teams because they will have to put him on the 40-man roster next year to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, whereas the Padres can't offer that same benefit.
The intention of the rule—especially in the draft, where the player can only negotiate with one team—is to provide an advantage to the player and a penalty to the team. By offering the player an additional protection, it's meant to discourage a club from potentially voiding a player over a physical to sign him for less money. If the team that voided the player's contract wants to sign him again, the player has a greater opportunity to be placed on the 40-man roster. The team is forced to make a decision as to whether to put him on the 40-man sooner than they would have otherwise. So while Perez has a point that the Astros can offer him something the other 29 teams can't, the rule itself is providing him a benefit that he otherwise wouldn't get from any team.
Perez also voiced his frustration with the international signing rules, pointing out that while the Astros are paying $4 million to sign him, he will only get half that money. Since the Astros have already exceeded their 2016-17 international bonus pool, they will pay Perez $2 million and pay another $2 million as a 100 percent overage tax. Had Perez been exempt from the bonus pools and signed with the Astros, the full $4 million would have gone into his bonus. Under the new international signing system, which begins on July 2, teams will be subject to a hard cap and those taxes will be eliminated.
"I hope that you understand how these rules in my case are extremely unjust and that you make every effort for the necessary adjustments and considerations to be made," Perez wrote in his letter. "Today should be the happiest day of my life, and I cannot help but feel like I've just been robbed."