Miguel Sano is still unsigned, but he’s not alone.
The international signing period began on July 2, yet several of the top 16-year-old prospects who became eligible to sign nearly three weeks ago remain unsigned.
The asking prices of some players’ agents and trainers are well beyond what teams are willing to pay. But several other top prospects have yet to agree to terms because Major League Baseball’s investigations into their ages and identities have still not been completed.
Sano, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic and the top prospect this year according to several international scouting directors, has yet to have his investigation completed as of yesterday. Yet the longer-than-usual completion times for MLB’s investigations shouldn’t imply guilt—he’s just the highest-profile prospect among many whose investigations have extended weeks beyond July 2 to complete.
“We’re devoting a lot more resources and Sano is a good example,” MLB senior vice president of investigations Dan Mullin said. “With Sano, we’re really conducting an exhaustive investigation, utilizing a lot of resources and we really want to give it the best shake that we possibly can. We’re spending more time putting more resources into all of the investigations.”
Several international scouting directors said last week that they expected the Sano case to be concluded at some point this week, but so far the case is still ongoing.
“It’s the kind of thing that runs its course,” Mullin said. “We’re working as quickly as we can, but it’s done when it’s done. I don’t want to set a timetable. When we have enough evidence to conclude either way, then that’s when it’s done.”
Mullin spent 23 years as a New York City police officer, retiring as a deputy chief responsible for more than 3,000 officers. Mullin, who had previously served as MLB’s senior director of security operations, has been in his current position since MLB created the department of investigations in January 2008 at the recommendation of the Mitchell Report.
The department of investigations was involved in uncovering some of the bonus skimming scandals in Latin America. But only in the last four to five months—essentially since the Esmailyn Gonzalez scandal became public in February—did the unit take over the investigations into the ages and identities of unsigned Latin American prospects.
Catching up for lost time, the department has hired eight new investigators, two analysts and a support staff. Six of the investigators are native Spanish speakers with backgrounds in law enforcement and a narcotics enforcement, while two of the most recent hires are working full-time in the Dominican Republic.
Mullin described a “dispersed” system before the department of investigations overhaul.
“There were contract investigators that were vetted to some degree by our Dominican office, and the clubs were free to contact those investigators directly and request an investigation.,” Mullin said. “The quality of those investigations had mixed results. In other words, a club could independently call an investigator, give them the name of a player, the investigator could then go do an investigation and report directly back to the club. That’s all been consolidated now.
“We have 10 investigators that now report through our department. They’re vetted by us, they’re interviewed by us, we give them lie-detector tests and the investigation results are now reviewed by us. So rather than clubs independently seeking to get investigations from a contractor, it goes through our department. So it’s a lot better quality control.”
While Mullin knows that the department won’t catch everyone, he said the improved process should lead to better results.
“It’s all been streamlined,” Mullin said. “An investigation comes in. It first will be reviewed by someone on my staff. They’ll give that to a contract investigator. And again these contract investigators have now been hand selected, interviewed, trained, and been submitted detector tests to verify their honesty. They’ll do the initial stages of the investigation. They’ll report back to somebody on my staff to review the findings and either accept it as complete or send them back to do some more work. For more complicated cases, we’ll use two or three investigators and have one of my full-time staff directly involved depending on the complexity of it.”
Investigators that MLB had used in the past would review players’ birth certificates, hospital records, school records and conduct field work in a player’s hometown. However it turned out that many times it was the investigators themselves who needed to be scrutinized. In a span of a little more than a year, MLB fired five investigators for reasons ranging from sloppy work to accepting bribes.
“Before we took it over, you had these independent contractors who were overseen by people who didn’t necessarily have any investigative background themselves,” Mullin said. “The quality control wasn’t as good because the clubs could go directly to an investigator without knowing how good that investigator was, and the results would be given directly to someone who had no background in doing investigations.
“For example, you might have a club’s director of player development contact an independent investigator, request an investigation be done on a player. The independent investigator reports back to the director of player development and no one’s really reviewing the quality of the investigation.
“So you would just accept at face value the fact that the player passed the investigation. Now what you have is a process that has a lot more oversight in it, where it’s an interactive process. From the time the investigation is requested, the investigator is supervised, the results are analyzed by someone from my staff who has extensive investigative background and then they’ll either accept it as adequately done or in a lot of cases they’ll say, ‘Well I’d like some additional steps taken,’ and that will be that.”
Several international scouting directors concede that while MLB’s investigations have been flawed in the past, part of the problem has to do with the countries in Latin America themselves. Identifying papers in the Dominican Republic are not warehoused and authenticated as well as they are in the United States. While record-keeping in Venezuela is more modernized, the government there isn’t quite as welcoming to foreign investigators.
“Part of the problem there is you can review school records and birth records, but when a player produces those things, it’s not like producing a birth certificate and school records here,” Mullin said. “They’re not certified, they’re not notarized—you really can’t accept them at face value. What we’ve found is in a lot of cases, those things are forged. We’ve had cases where the cover-up has been so elaborate that you’ll have forged birth documents, you’ll have school records that are altered, hospital records that are altered, so really it takes a lot of field work. It takes someone to go to the hospital, to go to the schools, interview teachers, interview people in neighborhoods. It’s a lot more than just accepting documents and reviewing documents; it’s more work-intensive.”
The tricks in Latin America range from basic Wite-Out over identifying
documents to more sophisticated schemes, often orchestrated by a
player’s trainer and occasionally in conjunction with a team’s scouts
or higher-level officials looking for a cut of the player’s signing
bonus, several international sources have said over several months of reporting.
“We’ve had cases where players have changed their names, assumed the identity of someone else who is younger,” Mullin said. “They have people play the roles of their parents, so you have a player who has assumed a different identity, has fictitious parents, fictitious relatives and in some cases has been living in the village for as long as two years so the people know them as that name when in fact they’re someone older from a different village. So some things we do in a case like that, we selectively do DNA tests, and a DNA test will just tell us if the people that purport to be a player’s parents are in fact his parents.”
Teams have various means to try to confirm that a player is the age he claims to be, such as growth plate testing or bone grafts. But many of the tests are only estimates with error bars often large enough to render the tests meaningless.
“All of those (tests) are just tools—none of them are just positive by themselves,” Mullin said. “If you take the DNA test, for example, the DNA test will tell us if the people that say they are a player’s parents are in fact his parents. But we’ve had cases where a player will assume the identity of a younger sibling. In the case where that’s done, the DNA test will come back and tell us, yes, these are in fact his parents, but if he’s assumed the identity of a younger sibling, it wouldn’t indicate that because they would pass the DNA test.”
This year, MLB has already suspended Dominican righthander Rafael DePaula and Dominican outfielder Eladio Moronta for one year for misrepresenting themselves. Some teams are still trying to find a way to sign DePaula, as his low- to mid-90s fastball is a plus pitch for any age. Shortstop Paul Carlixte, outfielder Alfredo Ramos and Junior Monteliz all had their investigations come back irregular prior to July 2, while a Sports Illustrated report last week said that Dominican shortstop Damian Arredondo, who signed with the Yankees on July 2, also misrepresented his age.
Some international scouting directors say they feel the number of players being caught misrepresenting themselves has increased from previous years, while others aren’t clear whether it’s just a problem that’s now getting more publicity.
“It’s too soon to tell because it’s been very recent where we’ve put this degree of time, effort and resources into doing these things,” Mullin said. “My sense is that in the short term, the percentage will go up just because we’re doing better investigations. Hopefully in the long term when people realize that the investigations are going to be so well-done and so exhaustive that there will be a disincentive to cheat because the likelihood of getting away with it is less than it would have been in the past.”
Just exactly how many players has the department of investigations caught?
“A lot of them are still in progress,” Mullin said. “I don’t want to give you an exact number, but there’s more than five, less than 100.”