I'll comment shortly, but for now here's the story, by Melissa Segura:
A top Washington Nationals prospect and recipient of the largest international signing bonus in team history is not who he appeared to be. Esmailyn Gonzalez, who is listed as 19 years old on the team's roster, is actually 23-year-old Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo, four sources have told SI.com.Update: So let's consider the implications of this:
The Nationals, owned by the Lerner family, gave the shortstop from the Dominican Republic a $1.4 million signing bonus on July 2, 2006, and trumpeted his arrival as a sign of their commitment to acquiring top-tier talent. (Players from Latin America are not subject to the draft and can sign with the team of their choice.) "This signing is symbolic of the Lerner family's and incoming club president Stan Kasten's pledge to become an industry leader in scouting and player development,'' Washington general manager Jim Bowden said at the time of the deal.
Gonzalez's signing, however, immediately drew suspicion from baseball insiders. There was considerable skepticism about the team's description of him as a five-tool player. "He doesn't run all that well, and has an average arm," an executive with another team said this summer.
The Texas Rangers were the next highest bidder for Gonzalez, offering only $700,000. Agent Rob Plummer negotiated with all teams on behalf of Gonzalez -- except the Nationals. Those negotiations were handled by Basilio Vizcaino, Gonzalez's buscon (a person who trains amateur youth baseball players in exchange for a percentage of future signing bonuses). Vizcaino is a childhood friend of Bowden's special assistant, Jose Rijo, and a protégé of Jose Baez, the Nationals director of operations in the Dominican Republic. The size of Gonzalez's bonus and the close relationship between Vizcaino, Baez and Rijo drew the attention of the FBI and Major League Baseball's department of investigations. (A federal investigation into allegations of skimming of bonus money given to Latin players has been going on for the past seven months.) It's unclear if anyone named Esmailyn Gonzalez exists or how the player's paperwork was falsified. Also unknown is whether Gonzalez, who is still in the Dominican Republic, will be able to obtain a visa to join the club for spring training.
The revelation of Gonzalez's true age reduces his perceived value as a player. In 2008, his second season in the Gulf Coast (rookie) League, Gonzalez was named league MVP and won the league batting title, hitting .343. He was second in the league in on-base percentage (.431) and runs (42), and third in RBIs (33) and hits (62). One scout who has seen Gonzalez play, says, "Those are great numbers, but you should be hitting that well if you're that much older than your competition."
Nationals representatives, Rijo and Vizcaino did not return calls from SI.com requesting comment. Kasten and Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney declined to comment. Bowden and Rijo have previously denied any financial improprieties in the Gonzalez case.
- Smiley/Carlos is not a prospect. Drop him from your top 10, 20, 30... Hitting .343 / .431 / .475 in the rookie league GCL (the lowest minor league level that there is) against 18 and 19-year-old pitchers is kinda promising... if you're 18 or 19 yourself. If you're 23, well, you don't belong in Rookie ball in the first place. Basically he had far more plate discipline than you usually see in the GCL... because he was 5 years older than everyone else. Nothing else really that he did there jumps out at you. He's slow, showed very little power, and really can't field that well. Next year, he was slated to move up to play at low-A Vermont. Wanna guess how many 24-year-olds played for the Lake Monsters last year? None (actually Dmitri Young was there on rehab briefly, but that's it). Unless Smiley/Carlos is secretly ready to start producing at AA Harrisburg right now, I wonder if there's even any point in keeping him in the organization.
- How is it that Jose Rijo and Jose Baez are still employed by the Nationals? Look, everything about this screams that Rijo and Baez scammed the team. Why is it that every other team negotiating with Smiley/Carlos dealt with Plummer, but only the Nationals dealt with Vizcaino? Could that be related to the fact that only the Nationals were considering such a large bonus?
- Don't we HAVE to release Smiley/Carlos immediately? If we don't, what does that say?
- NFA Brian says that there's been speculation about this for a while. If that's true, why has the team continued to handle him with kid gloves like a top teenage prospect? Why not push him up a level or two, just to see?
- OK, so if a guy falsifies his identity you can see how that might be hard to catch, I guess. But is it really? I mean, if you're going to put $1.4 million into a kid, wouldn't you want to do some digging? Wouldn't you bump into other players or coaches who would say, "oh yeah, I remember him from back when he first started playing ball around here in 2002, when he was probably about 17 or 18..."
- Does any of this stick to Jim? After all, even if he was totally hoodwinked, Rijo is his guy.
- The more I think about this, the more I think that this, the more I think that Rijo had to have known Gonzalez/Lugo's real age. The buscone surely knew. Vizcaino's whole job is to scout kids in the DR, he was supposedly tight with the family, and there's no way that this non-English-speaking poor kid from the DR cooked up this scam alone. And if Vizcaino, Rijo's childhood friend knew, then Rijo must have known. And if Rijo knew, then it's hard to imagine that Bowden didn't know. So maybe someone just betrayed an old friend, but Stan Kasten and Mark Lerner better be raking Jim over the coals. Really, for me, it just feels like the Blagojevich administration. It stinks, and it's probably rotten to the core.