Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Major League Baseball teams have been accused of exploiting talent as young as 12 years old in Latin American countries.
Per Christian Red and Teri Thompson of USA Today, former scout Rudy Santin has told everyone from the media to United States federal agents about “the exploitation of hundreds of underage prospects who make verbal agreements with big league clubs in exchange for the promise of a lucrative signing bonus once they turn 16.”
Santin, who died May 3 due to a heart attack, previously told Red and Thompson he had two meetings with FBI agents to discuss an ongoing investigation into how MLB operates in Latin America.
Red and Thompson noted some teams have come to verbal agreements with players “as young as 12 and reach as far into the future as the 2023 signing period.”
Under official MLB rules, the international free-agent signing period runs from July 2-June 15, and only players who are 16 years old or will turn 16 by Sept. 1 of the current signing period are eligible to sign contracts.
Players who are at least 25 years old and have at least six years of professional experience in an international league aren’t subject to international bonus pool restrictions.
A specific example Santin provided to Red and Thompson involved San Diego Padres international scouting director Chris Kemp and Cristian Garcia and Luis Frias from the 2015 international free-agent period when both players were 15 years old.
The report noted Garcia and Frias had agreements with the Padres prior to July 2, but Kemp called Santin nearly two months before the signing period began to say neither player would be offered a contract.
According to Red and Thompson, Santin recorded one of his conversations with Kemp at the request of federal investigators and “things got heated” when Kemp said the Padres were “backing off the signing bonus amount the parties had agreed upon” and attempted to offer a deal worth $500,000 less.
“Be ready for a fight,” Santin said in the recording. “This is what happens when you (expletive) sign these 12- or 13-year-olds. You got four years to second guess yourself. When you (expletive) sign a guy, you sign him. You made a mistake, the mistake is made.”
Jon Wertheim and Carl Prine of Sports Illustrated reported in October 2018 that the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into the way MLB recruits international talent. The FBI obtained evidence dating back to 2015 and 2016, including “videotapes, photographs, confidential legal briefs, receipts, copies of player visas and passport documents, internal club emails and private communications.”
Some of the documents include information on how smugglers from the Caribbean get Cuban refugees into America and interactions between teams and “buscones, the unregulated street-level agents who often take a financial stake in Latin American players.”
Red and Thompson noted that federal authorities face the difficult challenge of being able to prove “whether U.S. laws have been violated by clubs who have made the verbal deals.”
Santin specifically cited MLB’s decision to change international signing rules in December 2016, which put a cap on how much money teams had to spend, as the reason clubs began making agreements with players at younger ages:
“I’ve given them several (pieces) of information as to who signed for what amount and who signed them. They’re signing 12- and 13-year-olds. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the kids and the trainers and even the scouts here in the Dominican Republic—when you’re 12 and 13 years old you’re supposed to be playing in the Little League field. You’re not supposed to be trying out for major league clubs.”
MLB’s international signing rules have long been the subject of scrutiny and criticism.
Players who expected to sign this summer will have to wait, as MLB delayed the start of the international free-agent period until Jan. 15, 2021, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Former MLB scout Gordon Blakeley told Red and Thompson that some team executives could use the delayed signing period as an excuse to back out of verbal deals they have already made with players.