SI.com, citing four sources, reported late Tuesday night that the Nationals minor leaguer known as Esmailyn Gonzalez and thought to be just 19 years old is in fact 23-year-old Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo. The switch-hitting shortstop hit .343 to win the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League‘s MVP award in 2008 and was recently ranked by Baseball America as Washington’s No. 10 prospect entering the 2009 season. He signed on July 2, 2006, for a $1.4 million bonus, which remains the largest sum ever given by the Nationals to an international player.
The Nationals were much higher on Gonzalez (I’m going to keep calling him that until this story is confirmed) than any other team, giving him twice as much bonus money as his next most interested suitor, the Rangers. According to SI.com, an agent handled Gonzalez’ negotiations with most teams but the Nationals dealt directly with a man named Basilio Vizcaino. Vizcaino is a buscon, defined by SI.com as a person who trains amateur youth baseball players in exchange for a percentage of future signing bonuses. Vizcaino is a childhood friend of former Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, now a special assistant to Nats GM Jim Bowden, and a protege of Jose Baez, Washington’s director of operations in the Dominican Republic. The close relationship between the three drew the attention of the FBI and Major League Baseball’s department of investigations, which have been looking into allegations regarding the skimming of Latin American players’ bonus money, SI.com reported.
Prior to Tuesday’s revelation, the Nationals were pleased with Gonzalez’ development. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound shortstop hit just .245 in his pro debut in 2007, when he was thought to be 17, and scouts questioned his speed, throwing arm and range. While those are legitimate criticisms, Gonzalez’ 2008 showing indicated that his bat would likely make up for any defensive shortcomings. In 51 games with the Gulf Coast League Nationals, Gonzalez hit .343 with 12 doubles, three triples, two homers and 33 RBI. He got on base at a .431 clip and walked more often (23) than he struck out (19). That would be quite an impressive showing for an 18-year-old, but a talented player several years older - as Gonzalez reportedly is - would be expected to excel at that level of minor league baseball.
Gonzalez was likely ticketed for the Class A Hagerstown Suns this season, but SI.com’s report puts his future in doubt. For now, Gonzalez remains in the Dominican Republic, and it’s unknown when - or even whether - he’ll be able to obtain a visa to join the Nationals for spring training.
My take is that finding out Gonzalez isn’t actually a 19-year-old phenom is a sucker punch to the Nats’ gut, but he’s hardly the first Latin American player to lie about his age and he proved last season that he can swing the bat. The Nats should do everything they can to recover some of the bonus money they paid Gonzalez and then continue developing him. 23 is hardly too old for a player to be considered a prospect; left-handed pitcher Ross Detwiler, the Nationals’ No. 2 prospect according to Baseball America, will be 23 to begin the 2009 season, as Gonzalez reportedly will be. When both players were 22, Gonzalez excelled in the Gulf Coast League while Detwiler scuffled three rungs up the organizational ladder with the advanced Class A Potomac Nationals, going 8-8 with a 4.86 ERA. Gonzalez’ dominant performance at the lowest level of the minors suggests he may have at least held his own in advanced Class A last year, like Detwiler. Once the Nats work out finances with Gonzalez, they should try to push him aggressively through the system and see how he responds when competing against players closer to his own age.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.