Major League Baseball is investigating the Red Sox over their 2015 international signings, focusing on whether the team signed multiple Venezuelan players in "package deals" and whether that would be considered a circumvention of MLB's international bonus pools, according to multiple international sources.
During the process, MLB officials questioned players as young as 16 individually, according to multiple sources, and threatened to suspend them if they were not truthful. The commissioner's office acknowledged the questioning but said no players were threatened with suspension.
The Red Sox were extremely aggressive in Venezuela last year, with the majority of their top signings coming from that country. Several of those players came from the same trainers, a common practice referred to as a package deal that involves signing multiple players from the same program.
During the 2015-16 signing period, which opened on July 2, 2015, the Red Sox were not allowed to sign any player subject to the international bonus pools for more than $300,000, a penalty for exceeding their bonus pool the previous signing period.
In spite of those restrictions, the Red Sox still signed two of Baseball America's Top 30 international prospects for July 2 last year. Venezuelan outfielders Albert Guaimaro (ranked No. 15) and Simon Muzziotti (ranked No. 24) each signed for $300,000 bonuses. Guaimaro trained with Francisco Ortiz, while Muzziotti trained with Pascuale Fiorello and Pablo Leal. The Red Sox signed multiple players from those programs last year. They signed multiple players from the programs run by Felix Olivo and Jose Montero as well, most notably shortstop Antonio Pinero for $300,000 from Olivo's program and shortstop Eduardo Torrealba for $300,000 from Montero's program.
According to several sources, MLB officials—including Nelson Tejada, the league's manager of investigations—went to the Red Sox academy in the Dominican Republic last week and questioned several of those Venezuelan players individually about their signings. MLB officials asked the players whether they signed in a package deal, whether they gave part of their signing bonus to another player or received part of another player's bonus, or why they signed for more or less money than might have been expected. Some of those players, according to one source, did acknowledge that they signed as part of a package deal.
The players, most of whom are still 16 or 17 years old, did not have their parents or any representation with them. According to multiple sources, MLB officials told the players that if they lied, the commissioner's office would suspend them. They asked the players to give them their banking information and said they would investigate their bank accounts, according to those sources. Some of the players broke down in tears.
"They put a lot of pressure on them, like they were criminals," said one source. "They're trying to put pressure on the kids to talk to them."
When told about the assertions, an MLB official said players have an obligation to be truthful and cooperate with an investigation or they could be subject to discipline, which could mean a fine or a suspension. The official denied that anyone from MLB ever threatened a player with a suspension.
Aside from the particulars of how the questioning was handled, why MLB is investigating the Red Sox at all—as well as the timing of the investigation—is certainly curious. Package deals are not explicitly against MLB rules, and many teams sign multiple players from the same trainer, either at the same time or over a multi-year period. These deals took place before the bonus pools ever existed and have continued since the bonus pool era began in 2012. No team has ever been penalized for doing any type of package deal, according to the commissioner's office.
Furthermore, MLB officials knew last year that the Red Sox were signing several players from the same trainers, and the commissioner's office approved those contracts. According to one source, the Red Sox are the only team under investigation for doing package deals.
Some believe MLB might be acting in response to an April 25 story from Baseball America about how teams get around international bonus pools that described how organizations can use package deals to sign Cuban players by overpaying a Cuban player who is exempt from the bonus pools in order to get a lower price on a player who is subject to the pools. The story did not mention any Red Sox package deals, though it did detail the mechanics and commonplace nature of such arrangements. The story also revisited a Baseball America article from 2012 in which the commissioner's office said it would step in with penalties for any deals it viewed as an attempt to circumvent the bonus pools, though since then the commissioner's office has approved many package deals, including other teams that did them in 2015.