The Yankees backed out of a seven-figure signing agreement with a 16-year-old Dominican shortstop, according to the player's trainer, but the team says there was never a deal in place.
Dominican shortstop Christopher Torres, according to his trainer Orlando Mazara, reached an oral agreement in October 2013 to sign with the Yankees for a $2.1 million bonus, with the understanding that Torres would officially sign when he became eligible on July 2. Instead, Mazara said the Yankees told Torres' camp in June they would not be signing him, leaving Torres unsigned with other teams having spent their budgets on other players.
"The kid was crying," Mazara said. "His family, they were upset because they broke their word. They broke everything."
Yankees vice president Mark Newman denied that the Yankees ever had a deal in place with Torres, a switch-hitter listed by MLB as 6 feet, 170 pounds.
"It’s really simple," Newman said. "We scouted the guy, we worked him out, we talked to the agent, we talked to the family. We did not make an offer. We did not sign the guy and we did not have an offer. We talked about various levels of interest on our part and their part, but there was never any offer."
Newman confirmed that Yankees officials met with Major League Baseball to discuss a complaint Torres' camp made to the commissioner's office. He declined to comment about who the officials were and whether MLB took any action in relation to the situation.
"I'm not going to get into that," Newman said. "That’s private."
MLB also declined to comment. Baseball America requested comment from other Yankees officials involved in the story, but a Yankees spokesman said Newman’s comments were the only ones the organization would have.
The first date when eligible international players can sign is July 2 each year. While it's against major league rules to agree to sign a player before July 2, it's a widespread industry practice to come to agreements well in advance, and MLB tacitly accepts it. More than ever, the industry has shifted toward teams and players reaching deals earlier than usual, with several players who signed on July 2 having deals in place since the end of 2013.
Teams particularly want to get their spending lined up as early as possible in the bonus pool era because they have a limited amount of money they can spend before being penalized. The Yankees chose to accept the maximum penalty this year by going well beyond their $2.19 million bonus pool, signing several of the top players available, including seven players for bonuses of at least $1 million.
The general industry code of conduct is that teams and players must honor their oral agreements, of course, but backing out on agreements happens every year, from both players and teams. When a team does it, it's often due to something that turned up in a physical, a positive steroid test, an issue related to a player's age or identity, or simply a team changing its mind on an evaluation.
Mazara said he has trained Torres since the player was 14. In Latin America, trainers act as much more than simply a person who physically trains the player. He often handles the player’s affairs, provides room and board, and acts as an agent to connect the player to a major league team, collecting a percentage of the bonus when the player signs.
In October, Torres played in a showcase in the Dominican Republic for the International Prospect League. The event featured a handful of players from Venezuela who eventually signed with the Yankees, including outfielders Jonathan Amundaray ($1.5 million bonus) and Antonio Arias ($800,000) and shortstop Diego Castillo ($750,000).
After the showcase, according to Mazara, the Mariners offered Torres a $1.6 million signing bonus. Mazara turned down the offer. (The Mariners, citing club policy, declined to comment.) Soon after the event, Mazara said he met with Yankees officials in a McDonald's in Santiago and reached an agreement for Torres to sign with the Yankees for $2.1 million.
Word quickly spread that Torres had an agreement with the Yankees in the neighborhood of $2 million, a figure that left other teams scratching their heads but isn't in itself uncommon. For nearly any seven-figure signing, many teams think the team that signed the player overpaid. That's the nature of international scouting. Yet Torres' rumored price tag struck teams as out of line with his talent level, as a $2.1 million deal would have made him the fifth-highest-paid player in the international market this year.
For their part, the Yankees say no deal was ever agreed to. "We had no agreement with him prior to July 2," Newman said. "That’s our position."
Mazara said after the meeting with the Yankees in October, he stopped having Torres work out for other teams, a common practice for players once they reach an agreement with a team. Torres did attend MLB's major international showcase in San Pedro de Macoris in January, as did several other players who already had deals in place.
"He did not try out at other academies," Mazara said. "The reason is because the Yankees said, $2.1 million, I’m going to give you $2.1 million on July 2, but nobody can see him between now and July 2. I said, OK, that’s good business for everybody. I don’t know what happened with that."
Major league rules state that a player who is 16 or is within six months of being eligible to sign (Feb. 2, in Torres' case) can stay overnight at a team's academy for up to 30 days within a six-month period, and then cannot stay at that team's academy for the next 60 days. Until December, Mazara said, Torres had been living at home in Santiago. Beginning in January, Torres, who turned 16 on Feb. 6, began traveling to the Yankees' academy in Boca Chica to spend his weekdays there. Torres was too young to stay overnight at the Yankees' academy, but according to Mazara, Torres would go to the Yankees' academy during the day, then at night he would sleep at the home of Edgar Mateo, an assistant Dominican area scout for the Yankees. On the weekends, Mazara said Yankees scout Jose Sabino would pick him up and drive him home to Santiago. Newman confirmed that Torres did sleep at Mateo's home and returned to his own home on weekends.
Living with a team employee is not a violation of major league rules, and international sources in the past have told Baseball America stories of other teams who had agreements to sign players and had them live with one of their scouts until they signed their contract.
Mazara said Torres' inactivity while under the Yankees' watch caused his talent to regress.
"The team, they don’t want him to work too much there," Mazara said. "They were spending more time doing nothing. I don’t know why. The tools and the skills went down because he wasn’t working hard. I don’t know why. Day after day, the tools were going down. And suddenly, all they said was they don’t want this guy because he’s not the same tools and not the same skills. I gave them one guy with all the tools and all the skills, so it’s not my fault."
Mazara said he also became concerned that Torres' conditioning had deteriorated.
"He made rapid weight gain," Mazara said. "He was up to 189 pounds. He told me he’s doing nothing. He said he spends his whole days watching TV. He says I want to play, but I’m just spending all day watching TV and eating. I started to speak to (Latin American crosschecker) Victor Mata here. I said, 'What happened? Christopher is not practicing.' He said, 'That’s OK, he doesn’t need to practice, his signing is sure, just take it easy, everything is OK.' "
Newman said Mazara's characterization of Torres' time with the Yankees was inaccurate.
"There's a limited amount of time he can spend with us, and the time he does spend with us is spent playing games and playing baseball," Newman said. "That’s counterintuitive and makes no sense."
Deal Or No Deal
Mazara said the Yankees took Torres along with a group of Latin American players to their spring training complex in Tampa in May. Several of those players, including Arias, Castillo, Dominican shortstop Dermis Garcia ($3 million), Dominican third baseman Nelson Gomez ($2.25 million) and Dominican outfielder Juan De Leon ($2 million) all ended up signing with the Yankees on (or soon after) July 2.
Mazara, who did not go on the trip, said that before Torres left for Tampa, he had felt pain in his right shoulder. Mazara said the pain became pronounced enough that it made Torres unable to throw from shortstop.
"In June, (Mata) tells me, 'Mazara, we have a little problem.' He says the boss, (general manager) Brian Cashman, (international scouting director) Donny Rowland . . . said Christopher Torres is not the same guy. They said his tools and skills are going down. I said it’s not my fault, I gave you a top guy, you can’t tell me that. If you fail, it’s not my problem. I said you call me one month before the signing now? It’s not possible. All the teams have spent their money. After that, they give me the guy with an injury in his shoulder. Nobody called me, nobody told me nothing."
At that point, Mazara said, the Yankees called off the deal completely.
"The Yankees said we don’t have $2.1 million. I said if you don’t have $2.1 million, tell me what you got," Mazara said. "I don’t want to go to other teams to find what they’ve got. I’d prefer to stay with you, but you have to tell me what you have. (Mata) said, 'I don’t have nothing.' I said come on, you have two years watching this guy. Now you don’t have nothing? He said no."
Newman confirmed that the Yankees had Torres in Tampa, and he said Torres’ inability to throw contributed to the team not signing him.
"There was no agreement," Newman said. "At that point in June, the kid couldn’t throw, so our interest in him, obviously, is affected by that. We weren’t going to sign him at that point, at their asking price. That’s basically it."
By then, most teams had already committed the majority of their international bonus pool money. Getting $2.1 million from another team wasn't going to happen. While the Mariners did like Torres, they did not have the pool space left to go back to the original offer Mazara claimed without incurring a penalty, and few other teams evaluated Torres at that level. With his conditioning diminished, his arm hurting and teams having seen little of him since October, Torres' market had dried up.
So Mazara went to the commissioner's office in June. He said Joel Araujo, MLB's manager of international talent development, spoke with him and Torres' family and they told him the entire story. Mazara said he gave MLB photos, conversations from the messaging service WhatsApp and other documents, but that MLB did not do anything.
"The family is sad. The guy is sad," Mazara said. "He lost a lot of money because too many teams wanted to see him and they couldn’t, because the Yankees said, 'Nobody’s going to steal this guy, this guy is my guy.' "
Now Torres is back home in Santiago, where he lives with his mother, his father, an older sister and two pet chickens, getting back into shape and rehabbing his shoulder. Mazara said his arm isn't back to 100 percent yet, so he's waiting until he's able to throw at full strength to start showcasing him again.
"I just want the Yankees to know, we are not simple people," Mazara said. "Someone has to do something."