July 13, 2011

A highly-touted Cuban pitching prospect allegedly used fraudulent paperwork to dodge last month's amateur draft and gain international free agency, a government official tells SI.com.

Dr. Carlos Reyes Sarmiento, Nicaragua's Commissioner of the National Commission on Superior Baseball says the Nicaraguan residency papers Cuban lefthander Onelki Garcia submitted just moments before Major League Baseball's Rule IV amateur draft was scheduled to begin were fake. (Garcia's representatives deny the charge.)

Major League Baseball deemed the 6-foot-3, 220-pound pitcher with a 95-mph-fastball draft eligible less than 48 hours before the amateur draft began after finding what league sources say was ample evidence the pitcher lived in the United States. Teams scrambled to collect more information on Garcia and prepared to alter their draft strategies since the Cuban -- in the opinion of several talent evaluators contacted by SI.com -- projected as a first-round draft pick. Meanwhile, Garcia's agents sent paperwork to MLB claiming Garcia was a resident of Nicaragua and thus not eligible for the draft.

MLB's rules mandate Cuban players who reside in the United States are subject to the Rule IV draft, meaning that selected players can only negotiate with the team that picked them. The majority of Cuban defectors prefer to establish residency in another country, become free agents and negotiate with several teams. Having teams vie against one another, combined with the mystery and mystic of Cuban baseball, has routinely led to an inflated market for Cubans. Garcia's agents, Top Ten Sports International, are asking for $15 million to sign the lefthander, according to employees of two teams who've inquired about the pitcher. By comparison, the Washington Nationals set a draft record in 2009 when they signed No. 1 draft pick Stephen Strasburg for $15.1 million.

Gus Dominguez, a consultant to Top Ten Sports International who is working with Garcia, says Garcia's camp is unaware of any problems with the pitcher's papers. "Everything is on the up and up," Dominguez says. "Nothing is out of whack."

The consultant says the pitcher has used the documents through immigration checkpoints while toggling between the United States and Nicaragua for workouts without any problems. Dominguez says he's spoken with MLB executives who haven't mentioned any issues and suggests that those who dispute the validity of Garcia's papers are "trying to keep the kid from his dream."

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney says the league cannot comment because the matter is still under investigation. It's unclear what -- if any -- penalties Garcia would face from the league if it agrees with the Nicaraguan government that the documents are fraudulent. International free agents from other countries, like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, are typically subject to a one-year suspension from signing if they use fake papers.

Reyes Sarmiento doesn't want his country to face the same age and identity issues plaguing players from places like the Dominican. He expressed concern that outsiders coming to Nicaragua for fake documents will threaten the market for a country trying to build a baseball industry. He says his country shut down an operation run by three Dominicans who peddled fake documents for baseball players. "We have to be very careful," he says. "We're asking to collaborate with Major League Baseball with this problem."

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