WASHINGTON, May 30, 2012 — From the moment it became clear that Leo Nuñez was actually Juan Carlos Oviedo, it was the same old story in the spotlight once more. Oviedo was merely the 2011 version of Carlos Alvarez (formerly Esmailyn Gonzalez) and many others who have falsified their names and/or ages. The same phenomenon struck again in January of 2012, when he was swept out of the public eye by the news that Cleveland Indians ace Fausto Carmona might actually be named Roberto Hernandez and might be 31, rather than 28.
Four months later, Oviedo is on his way back to the major leagues, where he’ll be eligible to play again for the Miami Marlins on July 18, while Hernandez remains stuck in visa limbo. This year’s episodes of a long-standing trend are just further proof that the culture of international signings in baseball, especially in the Dominican Republic, is rife with issues. In a situation where one year of age can be the difference between a million-dollar signing bonus and a failure to net even a single offer, there’s ample incentive to break the law for a shot at the big leagues.
Oviedo’s case was almost exactly in line with the paradox of age spelled out above. In 2000, when he was 17, he used the identity of his fried Leo Nuñez, then 16, to punch his ticket out of the Dominican Republic, 115th in the world in terms of GDP per capita. As 16-year-old, flame throwing pitcher Leo Nuñez, Oviedo signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Hernandez’s change was more egregious but founded on the same need. In 2000, when he signed with the Indians, they believed him to be not quite 17. (He claimed a birth date of December 17, 1983). Instead, he was in fact 20, well past the desirability threshold for a Latin American prospect, no matter the talent level.
The mere reality that a 20-year-old from the Dominican Republic is considered a risk not worth taking, while American collegiate players of the same age fight for multi-million dollar deals through the MLB Draft is one glaring inconsistency in the signing system. Yes, the prospects coming out of Latin America are said to need more time in the minor leagues than the college kids, which is partially true. However, life doesn’t end for the 20-year-old entering the draft as a junior. He will find his way onto a minor league roster somehow, whether through the late rounds of the draft or as an undrafted free agent. The 20-year-old Latin American player, on the other hand, is seen as four years removed from having any chance.
Both Oviedo and Hernandez were trapped by a system that values age above all else. The former admitted as such, and will likely be headed to the majors in mid-July, having missed only three-and-half months of a seven-plus year career. The latter was caught in his home country and his prospects of returning to the majors again are slim. Together though Juan Carlos Oviedo and Roberto Hernandez are just two more reminders of how a culture has gone wrong, punishing both those who change to break free and punishing those who cannot escape.
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