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.
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.