SBJ/December 20 - 26, 1999/No Topic Name

Hot prospect will follow Beltre

A promising baseball prospect who could command a signing bonus of up to $4 million intends to follow in the footsteps of Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Adrian Beltre this week, requesting free agency because he says the Atlanta Braves signed him when he was 15.

Winston Abreu, a highly regarded pitching prospect whom the Braves added to their 40-man roster last month, set the process into motion last week when he presented his agent, Scott Boras, with documents that show he was 15 years old when the Braves signed him on July 1, 1993, a violation of MLB rules.

Boras confirmed Thursday that a representative of his company, Fernando Arguellas, flew to Abreu's home in the Dominican Republic last week and secured a birth certificate, driver's license, passport and other government documents backing the pitcher's claim. Boras Corp. lawyers were reviewing those documents and were expected to forward them to the commissioner's office this week.

Abreu will be the third player to file such a claim in the last six weeks, following Beltre and Wilson Betemit, another Braves prospect. All are from the Dominican Republic. Beltre is the first major leaguer to make the claim. Abreu and Beltre are both clients of Boras, who said he knows of no others in his stable who make the claim.

Abreu and Betemit both would command more than $3 million on the open market and Beltre would attract bids higher than that, say baseball scouts. The Dodgers signed Beltre for $23,000 in 1994. Betemit and Abreu received less than that.

Atlanta Braves management said it was unaware of Abreu's pending claim and would not comment on it, citing the advice of attorneys.

MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is expected to announce a ruling on Beltre on Wednesday. Throughout baseball, executives are watching and waiting, wondering what the effects will be upon an international development system that has become an integral part of the game. Although the process of age verification has improved, concerns remain.

"We've gotten better about making sure clubs verify the documents," said Omar Minaya, the assistant general manager of the New York Mets and a well-traveled international scout. "But there was a time not long ago when that was not the case. What you're seeing now is players, their families and their agents taking advantage of that. I'd be surprised if we've seen the last of it."

The uncertain status of Dominican prospects has been percolating for the last two years, since the revelation of the curious case of a pitching prodigy named Ricardo Aramboles.

When Aramboles signed his first professional baseball contract with the Florida Marlins in 1995, he was a wisp of a boy, talented enough to be considered a prospect but too frail to be thought of among the elite.

He also was 14 years old.

Aramboles' story triggered warning lights for many in baseball when MLB administrators determined that the Marlins had broken baseball's rules by signing Aramboles early. He was declared a free agent — not only in spite of, but also because of, an affidavit signed by his parents saying they had forged a birth certificate so they could cash in on their son's ability.

Two years after accepting a $5,500 signing bonus from the Marlins, Aramboles, who is from an island nation of about 8 million where the average person earns less than $1,000 a year, received $1.52 million to join the New York Yankees. He was older, better developed; less of a risk. He also was represented by an inexperienced but inventive Philadelphia attorney, Rob Plummer, who made sure he was seen by evaluators from more than a dozen clubs, creating a competitive market that yielded a premium price.

There was a message in that decision and the events that followed, one not lost on the impoverished baseball dreamers of Latin America.

"It created an unbelievable market value," Minaya said. "But, more importantly, it created an incentive for the agent or the family of the player to knowingly give information that is false for the purposes of being free. And maybe for some scouts to encourage them to do it."

In the Beltre case, the stakes were high not only for the Dodgers, but also for the entire industry. The typical second-year player makes less than $300,000 a year. As a free agent, Beltre might command 10 times that. And arbitrators might then use his salary as a comparative benchmark thatwould elevate all players' salaries.

Baseball has improved its verification procedures in the last two years, mandating that scouts get age verification on players from the government, rather than accepting documents from parents. But the sport may have tightened the loophole too late.

The same way that a baseball can be made to dance in varied directions by a combination of grips, arm angles and release points, baseball's future course as a global industry will be nudged by a mosaic of diverse economies, cultures and laws.

Beltre was a symptom. The problem is in the inconsistency created by assorted locales. Sandy Alderson, executive vice president for baseball operations at MLB, has suggested that a world draft would give baseball the best chance of corraling its problems. Not only would it force clubs to operate in plain view of each other with greater frequency, it also would give them better leverage in negotiations with foreign players who now can shop their wares on the open market.

Though the idea has been discussed in concept for more than a decade, it only recently has been taken seriously by many clubs. Alderson sent all of them a clear message at the winter meetings last week in Anaheim when he told assemblies of general managers, scouting directors and farm directors that a world draft was coming — and coming soon.

While proponents of a world draft say it's needed to give organizations equal access to talent, several clubs that typically fit into the poorer half of baseball's revenue equation are said to be opposed to it. The Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the original miners of Latin American talent, think they might be better off the way things are. So do the Cincinnati Reds, who stepped up their presence in the Dominican Republic two years ago and already are seeing promising results.

Clubs that are most active in the Dominican and Venezuela, operating academies and summer league teams there, do so because it's cost efficient. Teams can run respectable programs in both countries for less than $1 million, baseball administrators said. That means a fleet of players for less than it costs to sign a first-round pick.

If those players are draft eligible, there is less incentive for a club to help develop them, since there's nothing they can do to keep another club from swooping in and selecting a 16-year-old that the cost-conscious club had been nurturing for two years.

Alderson argues that the low-budget clubs will be better off with a draft, because they'll still have access to the multitude of raw, unrecognized players who will go undrafted each year. And, he says, they'll be able to afford the occasional elite international player. Without a draft, Alderson fears the cost of international players will race ahead until low revenue clubs are boxed out both internationally and domestically.

"You have two parallel schemes: a domestic draft and a foreign free agent market," Alderson said. "And neither one is distributing talent in a balanced way."

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