In an unprecedented ruling, Major League Baseball found the Red Sox guilty of circumventing the rules for signing teenage prospects from Latin America by inflating their signing bonuses behind the scenes.
The punishment was severe. Five Red Sox prospects were declared free agents Friday and the team is prohibited from signing any international amateur players until July 2, 2017. This is the first time MLB has taken players away from a team.
According to major league sources, the Red Sox engaged in the plan a year ago by overpaying marginal prospects as part of a "package deal" to land more prominent players.
A pair of promising 17-year-old center fielders, Albert Guaimaro and Simon Muzziotti, who were playing for the Red Sox in the Dominican Summer League, are the most notable players affected. They are now allowed to sign with any team as soon as Saturday, the start of the international signing period. The players were allowed to keep the bonuses they received from the Red Sox.
The Red Sox declined to comment on the penalties, citing MLB rules. Baseball America was first to report on the investigation.
The violations occurred under the stewardship of former Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington, not current president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. Cherington declined to comment Friday. Red Sox principal owner John Henry also owns the Globe.
The situation started to develop in March 2014 when the Red Sox signed Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada to a record-setting $31.5 million bonus. The team also signed righthander Anderson Espinoza out of Venezuela for $1.8 million and Dominican righthander Chris Acosta for $1.5 million.
That placed the Red Sox far over their limit for signing international amateurs. As a result, the team was prohibited from signing any player for more than $300,000 during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods.
Despite those restrictions, the Red Sox were able to sign Guaimaro and Muzziotti for that amount, considered low for prospects of their caliber.
MLB initially approved those contracts. But the commissioner's office started an investigation in May and found that the Sox paid a group of lesser prospects represented by the same trainer in Venezuela to bonuses of up to $300,000 with the understanding that some of the money would be funneled to Muzziotti, Guaimaro, and the others — infielders Antonio Pinero and Eduardo Torrealba, and righthanded pitcher Cesar Gonzalez.
MLB arranged a showcase workout for the five players this Tuesday in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to assist them in finding new teams.
Muzziotti hit .317 in the Dominican League and Guaimaro .253 with 12 extra-base hits.
Both are years away from the majors but considered good prospects.
Package deals are not unusual in the shadowy world of international amateurs. When Moncada signed, the Red Sox also agreed to sign his friend, 27-year-old outfielder Carlos Mesa, at the same time.
But using a package deal to get around bonus restrictions is expressly forbidden.
The MLB punishments will have wide-ranging effects. According to Baseball America, the Red Sox had deals in place to sign several players on Saturday, including talented 16-year-old Venezuelan outfielder Roimer Bolivar. Now those players must find new teams.
The Sox also will face a talent gap in their system with the pipeline of international talent cut off for a full calendar year. However the Red Sox will not be prohibited from signing international free agents out of professional leagues.
The international signing system is baseball's point of entry for players from outside the United States and Canada. Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts, signed out of Aruba in 2009, came into the system in that fashion. The Sox have long had one of baseball's most fruitful international programs.
Vice president of international scouting Eddie Romero oversees the team's scouting in Latin America, a position he has had since 2012. Dombrowski promoted him last fall as an incentive to stay with the Red Sox. Romero declined comment Friday night.
Vice president of amateur and international scouting Amiel Sawdaye, who oversees all amateur scouting, was promoted in January. Manny Padron, the team's coordinator of Venezuela scouting, has been with the organization since 2014.
MLB did not sanction any specific Red Sox employees. Whether the team eventually does is uncertain. Dombrowski said there have not been any changes made to the staff.