Latin America Reacts To “Smiley”

Many of you have e-mailed me in the last couple of weeks asking for reaction on the Nationals’ situation regarding Esmailyn Gonzalez, who used a false identity and is really 23 years old, not 19 as he had claimed.

I’m not much for knee-jerk reactions for anything regarding Latin America, particularly when it comes to a situation with as many layers as this one. It’s a nuanced subject, and the fallout could extend to teams beyond the Nationals and to other prominent prospects.

"There were a number of people involved in it," Nationals president Stan Kasten said. "When you guys learn . . . the lengths these participants went to perpetrate this fraud, you’re gonna be amazed. Falsified hospital documents. Falsified school documents. Other family members changing their identities. Bribes were paid. Really elaborate stuff. And I have to give MLB’s department of investigations a lot of credit. They really do deserve a lot of credit for finally cracking through this."

Through conversations with scouts in Latin America over the last two weeks, two reactions have been prevalent:

1. Lack of surprise
After signing Gonzalez for a club-record $1.4 million bonus on July 2, 2006, the Nationals trumpeted not just the player but the signing bonus in a press release, announcing that they would become a major player in Latin America. The immediate reaction from international scouts went something along the lines of, "You’re kidding, right?" International scouts were floored by the amount of money the Nationals gave Gonzalez to sign, calling the bonus exorbitant for a player of his caliber. One international scouting director said his team really liked Gonzalez—if he was willing to sign for $200,000 or so.

But that there was a large disparity between the international scouting consensus on Gonzalez’s value compared to what the Nationals gave him isn’t itself all that rare. In the vast majority of cases, the team that signs a player is the one that values him the most and, arguably, overvalues the player; the team that signs the player has valued him at a higher price than all 29 other teams were willing to pay. So, aside from teams constrained by their budgets, the other 29 teams will see almost any significant signing as an overpay.

Evaluating 15- and 16-year-old baseball players anywhere isn’t easy. That challenge combined with the additional uncertainty of information that scouts have when evaluating Latin American amateurs can lead to wildly divergent player evaluations.

But the Gonzalez signing elicited more raised eyebrows than usual, and there have been questions about Gonzalez’s age since 2006. Since then, the Nationals have been one of the clubs rumored to be involved in investigations concerning bonus skimming and other improprieties in international scouting. Despite the team’s profession that it would become an international heavyweight, Washington has been relatively dormant in Latin America, signing only one player to a six-figure bonus since the beginning of 2008. And that one player, Elvin Cuello ($150,000), turned out to be using a false identity himself.

"The funny thing is everyone knows about it now, but I’ve been hearing about this stuff (with Gonzalez) for two years," said one international scouting director. "In the industry, we know. The ones of us that are working Latin America, we know."

2. Disappointment
While we don’t know for certain the facts in the Gonzalez case, shady dealings have gone on in Latin America for decades. Many scouts in Latin America are operating on the level, but scouts from the White Sox, Red Sox and Yankees have been fired within the last 12 months with allegations of bonus skimming, either outright taking money from the player or working in conjunction with the player to forge documents and artificially inflate his value. Now Jose Rijo, who ran Dominican operations for the Nationals, and general manager Jim Bowden are no longer with the organization.

"They’re doing stuff about it," said one international scouting director. "These kind of things have been existing in Latin America for a lot of time, and they happen more than a lot of people believe."

Furthermore, the Gonzalez case reinforces that scouting Latin America is a completely different animal from scouting amateur talent in the United States. Scouts would prefer to simply do what they are passionate about—evaluate young baseball talent—but the Gonzalez saga only serves as a reminder that talent evaluation is only part of the job. Being able to accurately identify a player’s true age and identity is a frustratingly important task, and Major League Baseball’s department of investigations and even the U.S. consulate can’t provide an infallible safety net to catch every player using a false identity.

Are there other Latin American prospects lying about their ages? Undoubtedly, yes. There are players in the Dominican Summer League and in the higher levels of the minor leagues who teams privately acknowledge are older than their listed age, while other players have questions about their ages from people throughout the industry.

We reported one year ago at this time that MLB had fired three of its investigators working in the Dominican Republic, though MLB did not acknowledge why those investigators were fired. Now Melissa Segura of is reporting that MLB fired at least one of the investigators for accepting a bribe to fix an investigation, confirming rumors we at BA have heard for some time. Money has a powerful influence anywhere, and especially so in Latin America.

In the last few months, MLB has caught several players using false identities who had agreed to six-figure bonus terms with teams and placed those players on the suspended list. The investigations process seems to be getting better, but some players will always slip through the cracks. It took MLB nearly two and a half years to determine that Gonzalez was lying about his age. And, if Kasten’s opening remarks from his press conference are accurate—that he was persistently pushing MLB to investigate the signing after it had already been made official—then give Kasten credit. The Nationals could have ignored or tried to sweep the problem under the rug while still parting ways with Bowden and Rijo, avoiding much of the negative publicity they have received in recent weeks.

Whether MLB will continue to investigate other minor league prospects remains to be seen, but Gonzalez was only one high-profile player who happened to get caught.