Top Nats Prospect Faked Age, Name

Esmailyn "Smiley" Gonzalez, the former top prospect for the Washington Nationals, is not only not young, he is not named Esmailyn Gonzalez. Melissa Segura, of SI.com, says there has been an escalation in signing bonuses in the Dominican Republican, driven up by corrupt international scouts who skim money from the signing bonuses.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When you root for the Washington Nationals baseball team, you learn to take satisfaction from small things. That's because the last place Nats don't really offer any big things that satisfy.

So, in July, 2006, it was encouraging to see the Nats sign a 16-year-old kid from the Dominican Republic for $1.4 million. Esmailyn Gonzalez picked Washington over the nearest competing bidder, the Texas Rangers, who were offering only $700,000. Washington was investing in pricey young talent.

Well, it turns out, Esmailyn, or Smiley Gonzalez, is now a top minor league prospect for the Nationals. The only problem is he's not quite so young as we thought, and he's not really named Esmailyn Gonzalez either. This latest episode of disillusionment with what's sometimes still called the national pastime comes courtesy of staff reporter Melissa Segura of Sports Illustrated. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MELISSA SEGURA (Staff Reporter, Sports Illustrated): Thanks for your interest.

SIEGEL: If the Nats minor league shortstop is not 19-year-old Smiley Gonzalez, who is he?

Ms. SEGURA: He is actually a 23-year-old by the name of Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo.

SIEGEL: Now, we assume that a major league baseball team doesn't part with $1,400,000 lightly. How could they have been so wrong about whom they were signing?

Ms. SEGURA: What we're finding in the Dominican Republic is a huge escalation in the signing bonuses, and we think a lot of that might have been driven up fraudulently by corrupt international scouts who are looking to actually skim money from the signing bonuses doled out to international prospects.

SIEGEL: Now, in order for this young man to be presented as Esmailyn Gonzalez, he would've had to have parents who called him that. He would've needed a birth certificate. I assume there must have been, I gather, no small amount of fraud to pawn him off as somebody he wasn't.

Ms. SEGURA: No. A lot of these schemes are quite elaborate and involve everybody, sometimes from the entire community. I spoke with Esmailyn's parents, and they refer to him as Smiley. They actually changed their own names in accordance with this. Right now, the question is who knew what, when.

Whether Washington Nationals' front office executives might not have only been privy, but possibly helped to orchestrate the fraud or whether it was something done independently by operatives in the Dominican Republic.

SIEGEL: So, here's a kid who hit .343 and was the most valuable player in the Gulf Coast rookie league last year. How much does it change his value as a ballplayer if, in fact, last season he was 22 instead of being 18?

Ms. SEGURA: Tremendously. It automatically plummets his value. He was regarded as the top 100 prospect. And what it does is that we've seen identity fraud in the past, you know, a shift in age. Maybe somebody was 12 to 14 months older than originally said. And the reason that they want to be younger is because the younger prospects, of course, are more attractive and thereby, more profitable in terms of receiving their signing bonuses.

SIEGEL: He's the son, I gather, of a rice farmer in the Dominican Republic. And $1,400,000, even after all the commissions are taken, that's a lot of money. It might be worth changing everybody's name in the family and going along with a lie.

Ms. SEGURA: Right. There's a lot of skepticism whether how much of that $1.4 million Esmailyn Gonzalez actually received. It's life-changing money, even if he got $50,000. He grew up in a corrugated tin shack. And he was able to build his family a nice - what they call a concrete house - which is really the sign that you've arrived in the Dominican Republic, the moment that you can build your family a home.

SIEGEL: And it sounds to me, from what you're reporting, that for those of us who try to root for the Washington Nationals, it's not going to be easy this year.

Ms. SEGURA: No. This story is only beginning, and Stan Kasten, the team president, made that clear in his press conference yesterday when he said that the depths of this corruption are probably going to take a little while to unfurl.

SIEGEL: Melissa Segura, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SEGURA: Appreciate it.

SIEGEL: That's staff reporter Melissa Segura of Sports Illustrated, who reported the story of the man who is not Smiley Gonzalez.

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