Investigations Take Focus As July 2 Looms
Before the July 2 international signing period begins, the buzz as usual is building around some of the top 16-year-old prospects eligible to sign this summer.
Only this year, the conversations in the Latin American scouting community are as much about the investigations of the players as they are about their potential on the field.
International scouts and scouting directors have described a constantly changing environment in Latin America with regards to how investigations are being conducted, the methods and outcomes of the investigations and the dissemination of information to both club officials and the players' representation.
Preparing For July 2
Major League Baseball's investigations into the ages and identities of Latin American prospects have come under more focus—from the media, the teams, the U.S. Consulate and MLB itself—in the aftermath of the case of Esmailyn Gonzalez. The Nationals signed Gonzalez out of the Dominican Republic for $1.4 million in 2006, but a Sports Illustrated report
in February revealed that Gonzalez's real name is Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo and that he is now 23 years old, not 19 as he had been listed. The Nationals soon thereafter fired general manager Jim Bowden and special assistant Jose Rijo.
"There's been a change with respect to investigations where the identity of an individual was confirmed but the age was not, we now know from the U.S. Consulate that they want both of those things confirmed," said Lou Melendez, MLB's vice president of international baseball operations. "Previously if you confirmed an individual's identity but not his age, the Consulate was willing to issue him a visa under those circumstances. Some clubs were willing to sign a player under those circumstances also if they just simply knew who he was but they weren't sure of his age.
"But now the problem is that the Consulate requires confirmation of both of those things. To the extent that you're having difficulty confirming a player's age, you're going to have to do the best you can through the investigatory process, because otherwise the Consulate probably won't give him a visa. So you have to confirm both identity and age and be sure that it's accurate and as thorough as possible because that will all determine whether or not a visa is issued for that player."
MLB's investigators go through a process of verifying a player's age and identity by examining the birth certificate presented and going into the town the player is from to conduct field work. Investigators check the records bureau in the player's town, his school records and hospital records, among other documents, and speak with people in the player's neighborhood. But in the Dominican Republic, that information is not warehoused in easily accessible databases.
"In certain cases the nature of the investigation ran its course where, for whatever reason, whether it was the inability to access certain records or for whatever other reason, you could not confirm
the player's age," Melendez said. "You believed it, he indicated he was a certain age and his birth certificate said he was a certain age, but in terms of going through the process of confirming that through the archives, through the records that exist in the country, you just couldn't be 100 percent positive, so that's where you would see an investigator render a conclusion, or a finding, of an identity confirmed, age not confirmed.
"So that happened in a good number of cases in the past, but now we know that the Consulate is requiring that both of those things be confirmed to the extent possible. The investigators have to do whatever they can to try and confirm the age where they're having a difficult time doing that."
MLB has already suspended
Dominican outfielder Eladio Moronta and righthander Rafael DePaula, both of whom were top prospects still available after becoming eligible to sign during last year's signing period.
MLB's investigations have also come back irregular for at least three other prospects—shortstops Junior Monteliz and Paul Carlixte and outfielder Alfredo Ramos—who international sources say would have likely received significant six- and possibly seven-figure bonuses this summer.
Confirming a player's age and his identity in the Dominican Republic poses challenges for investigators. Identifying papers and school records are often handwritten in the Dominican Republic, with investigators finding cases of Wite-Out on identifying documents or handwriting on official school records that doesn't match up with the original administrator's handwriting. Switching birth certificates, school records and other identifying documents with younger brothers (and sometimes sisters) pop up, as do more elaborate schemes, scouts say.
"To me, if we're paying for an investigation to sign this player, I don't want to just know that his identity is right, I want to know that his age is right," an international scouting director said. "Obviously for the country's national security the identity is important, but from a club standpoint, I'm more concerned with the age."
While some say the situation is getting better, there is still a significant economic incentive for players to shave two or three years off their ages. For many players, their signing bonus represents the biggest financial payment they will ever see in their entire lives, and they stand to substantially improve their earning power and quality of life as a 16-year-old compared to what they would make as an 18- or 19-year-old unsigned player.
"It helps, the procedures help, but there's still a huge risk in signing a player," another international scouting director said. "Until the (Dominican) government steps in and modernizes the way they record people's personal information, it's not going to get fixed. It doesn't matter what MLB does. I just don't see how MLB could fix the problem—the record keeping is beyond MLB's control. The record keeping is a government issue, and the way they choose to house information is their problem, not MLB's. Anyone that thinks there's a solution out there that just hasn't been implemented just isn't correct, in my opinion."
The Smiley Effect
Further complicating matters is that MLB has fired five investigators in a little more than a year. Melendez told Sports Illustrated in a March report
that, of the two investigators fired this year, one was let go for "sloppy" work, the other for the "mishandling of funds." Of the three investigators fired last spring
, at least one, Melendez confirmed to SI, was fired for taking a bribe—something international scouts say has gone on for years.
Veteran international scouts say that players getting caught misrepresenting their ages and identities is nothing new, noting that more media scrutiny has led to a perception that more kids are being caught.
While there is no publicly available data, other scouts say that they think more players—or at least more high-profile prospects—are being caught misrepresenting their ages than in past years.
"It's just getting more publicity than it was before, that's all it is," Melendez said. "Really, who was writing about this two years ago? It's been running at about the same percentage the last couple of years, and maybe it's more recently, I don't know until we run the numbers, but it's getting more publicity because of the stuff that's occurred down here."
One ramification of the Gonzalez case is that the U.S. Consulate has gone back to re-examine the cases of 42 to 44 players who have already began their professional careers, according to an ESPN.com report
from March 10, though at least one source indicated that the number of cases being retrospectively investigated has grown.
"What happened was in the past, those players were issued visas," Melendez said, "but because recently the Consulate turned back about 40 or 42 kids who had identities confirmed but the ages were not, they wanted us to go back and reinvestigate them. Knowing that now, which we found out three or four months ago, we now know that with respect to any of these new kids, you're going to have to go out of your way to try and make sure you confirm both the identity and the age in terms of the records."
Stuck In The Middle
A player caught misrepresenting his age or identity is subject to a one-year suspension from MLB, a rule that went into effect in May 2008. But what if MLB can't find enough evidence to confirm a player's age?
"As long as he's not misrepresenting his age or identity in order to sign, unless the evidence indicates that, he's not going to get suspended," Melendez said. "It's just a problem of hoping he's going to get a visa. That doesn't mean he's necessarily not going to get a visa, but it could be a little harder than it usually is."
While that scenario helps protect MLB, several international sources—both scouts and agents—have described MLB's policy as guilty until proven innocent.
Some agents and trainers have said that while they understand the need for MLB and the U.S. Consulate to be thorough in their investigations to catch people with malicious intent, the process leaves some kids—particularly those from extremely poor backgrounds—out of luck.
Those players, they claim, get left in a state of limbo and unable to sign because documents that would confirm their age—educational records, the birth certificates of their parents or their own birth certificates—sometimes don't exist.
In other cases, a player's parents might not have gone to get his birth certificate immediately after he was born because they never understood the need to have an official record. Once the parents realize at 13 or 14 years old that their son will need a birth certificate to sign with a major league team, that delay alone is usually enough to raise suspicion about the authenticity of that player's documentation.
"He's in a stage of limbo to the extent that, if a club signs him and goes and applies for a visa to bring him to the States, whether it's to work out or just to have a symbolic signing or what have you, he might have a problem," Melendez said. "He may or may not. It all relates to the Consulate. You simply have to comply with their standards, and they've become tougher on these issues. That doesn't mean he's not going to get that visa, but it may be a little more difficult."
The consensus among international scouting directors appears to be that MLB is improving its investigations process, but there still is work to do.
Several international scouting directors said they will know much more about how much things are changing by the end of this year's signing period.
"I do think they're doing the best they can, but each case is extremely different," an international scouting director said. "What they may let slide on one case, they may not let slide on another. I'll just say they don't have a consistent strike zone quite yet."
"It's been an imperfect system," another international scouting director said. "They've made a lot of progress since Gonzalez, but there are still errors and mistakes."