Two teenage baseball players are suing the Los Angeles Angels in a Dominican Republic court, alleging that the organization reneged on verbal agreements to sign them, a practice that has grown increasingly common amid a landscape with limited regulation by Major League Baseball.
At an Aug. 31 hearing, lawyers continued to argue the cases of Willy Fañas and Keiderson Pavon, who alleged in court filings that they agreed to deals with the Angels — Fañas for $1.8 million when he was 14 years old and Pavon for $425,000 as a 15-year-old — but that they were not honored following a change in the organization’s front office.
Players from outside the United States (including Puerto Rico) and Canada are not officially allowed to sign until they are 16 years old, but those from hotbeds such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela regularly reach handshake deals with teams when they are as young as 12.
Sources familiar with the verbal agreements confirmed their existence to ESPN, which viewed a video of the moment Angels employees told Pavon they planned to sign him. Instead, less than a month before the Jan. 15, 2021, signing date, Angels employees told Fañas and Pavon they would not offer them formal contracts.
The video is posted on the DPL site on YouTube and, a source said, came from an Angels employee.
The Angels and MLB declined comment through spokesperson.
Despite the growing prevalence of broken deals — players, too, have backed out of agreements with teams to reap larger paydays elsewhere — the cases of Fañas and Pavon are the first known to have multiple hearings in the Dominican justice system, where the law gives greater weight to verbal contracts and their enforceability than the United States, according to lawyers who practice there.
The potential consequences of the civil actions, which were filed in May 2021 and have not previously been reported, are enormous beyond the millions of dollars in damages Fañas and Pavon are seeking. Hundreds of early deals are agreed to by teams and players each year but the practice would be far less prevalent if a judge deems them legally binding, four high-ranking team executives told ESPN.
“If these players don’t present this claim to a judge, it will be repeated,” said Jose Jerez, a lawyer representing Fañas and Pavon. “It’s a matter of conscience. It’s important. People need to know this kind of agreement exists. If this does not have consequences, it will continue happening in the future. If Major League Baseball doesn’t force the teams to honor their agreements, this judgment won’t necessarily stop the practice, but it’ll be a precedent. That’s what we’re pursuing: a precedent.
“We understand that the law is on our side. Our clients didn’t make any violations of their obligation, and they have completed all their obligations. Anaheim, they changed their position unilaterally without our consent. … This change of position without justification, we think this is the most important thing here that we will debate in the court.”
This offseason, MLB pushed for an international draft during collective bargaining talks, and after two decades of considering it a nonstarter, the MLB Players Association was open to the idea. While the sides did not come to an agreement following negotiations in July, the discussions underscored the dysfunction of a system that produces around 30% of major league players and more than half of minor leaguers.
“There is no accountability across the board for anybody, in effect, any of the stakeholders in this space. MLB doesn’t enforce anything. They don’t hold their teams accountable. The teams don’t hold their scouts accountable. Everybody throws their hands up — it’s the wild, wild West — when it’s convenient.”
Early deals are just one of the myriad issues in Latin America. In theory, a draft would have rid most early deals and perhaps disincentivized trainers from giving pre-teens performance-enhancing drugs, as some do to persuade teams to offer multimillion-dollar bonuses, sources said. The union chafed at the idea of a slotted system, seeing it less as a righteous effort than as a method of cost control.
Without a draft deal, the status quo remains, despite acknowledgments from the league and union of an international system in which team employees receive kickbacks, trainers undercut their elite players’ bonuses by packaging them with lesser talents and loan sharks prey on impoverished families by lending them money at usurious interest rates sometimes years before they receive their bonus payments from teams, according to sources familiar with the international market.
The early-deal problem was exacerbated during the previous collective bargaining agreement, when MLB and the union implemented a hard-capped system in which each team knows years in advance precisely how much money it can spend internationally in any given signing period. Teams, armed with more than $175 million annually for international amateur bonuses and aware that the most elite talent often reveals itself even before teenage years, entered into verbal agreements with progressively younger players.
As accepted as the practice became, its tenuous nature depended on the willingness of both parties to honor the agreement. The Angels, Fañas and Pavon say, did not.
The case hinges on whether a judge accepts that verbal agreements of this nature are legally binding. At the hearing last week, a judge postponed the appearances of witnesses until Nov. 30, making it likely the case will stretch into next year.
“When you make a promise, and I accept your promise, we have a verbal contract,” said Cesar Linares, a longtime attorney in the Dominican Republic who has taught college-level law courses. “But the most important part of the verbal contract is the proof. If I have the proof, I have a perfect contract and can go to a court and tell the judge. In a large percentage of the cases, the judge is going to approve the contract.”
The cost for the Angels could be significant. Fañas, who wound up signing with the New York Mets in January 2022 for $1.5 million, is seeking $17 million in damages. Pavon, who agreed with the Texas Rangers last year for $150,000, is asking for $4.25 million.
Both players, in interviews with ESPN, told stories that had plenty of similarities.
Fañas, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, switch-hitting outfielder, agreed to terms with the Angels after former general manager Billy Eppler and Eric Chavez, an Angels special assistant at the time, saw him in person in January 2019, right before his 15th birthday. He expected to officially sign with the team July 2, 2020, but MLB and the MLBPA agreed to push back the international signing date for that class to Jan. 15, 2021, because of the coronavirus pandemic. Prior to COVID-19 shutting down facilities across the country, Fañas had spent time training at the Angels’ academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, which was allowed under MLB rules.
“I felt really good with them,” Fañas said. “I don’t know how they could’ve done that.”
Pavon, a 5-7 infielder nicknamed “Pulgita” (flea in Spanish) and “Altuvito” (little Altuve, after diminutive Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve), grew up in Venezuela and moved to the Dominican Republic at 13 to live with a trainer and pursue a baseball career.
In the video, which Pavon said was recorded by an Angels employee, the team’s former director of international scouting, Carlos Gomez, told Pavon that the team planned to sign him. Gomez and Pavon both started to cry.
“It brings me a lot of joy,” Pavon said. “I was just thinking about my family.”
Fañas and Pavon continued to work out during the pandemic, and while some teams are more inclined to break early deals because players plateau or are out of shape, neither Fañas nor Pavon fell into either category, according to sources who saw them work out after their deals with the Angels fell apart.
Both agreed to deals with the Angels under Eppler, whom the Angels fired in September 2020, replacing him with Perry Minasian. That December, Minasian hired Brian Parker, a longtime scouting and player-development executive, to run the organization’s international department. Three general managers acknowledged that a new front office taking over can lead to different evaluations of players and the potential for broken agreements.
“Only [the Angels] know the reason. They never provided one,” said Jose Alfredo “Felo” Sanchez, a longtime trainer in the Dominican Republic who brought Fañas to his academy at 12 years old. “They just called to tell us they wouldn’t honor the agreement. They didn’t come see him, didn’t do anything. They just said they wouldn’t honor the agreement and that was it. No explanation, no anything.”
Fañas’ case illustrates the peril of early deals not coming to fruition. Because teams work out deals so far in advance, the amount of unaccounted money in other teams’ bonus pools for the January 2021 signing period was minimal. Rather than signing for a lower bonus amount, Fañas waited until this year to sign and didn’t debut for the Mets’ Dominican Summer League affiliate until he was 18.
His talent left him fortunate enough to recover most of his expected bonus. Many players who don’t sign at 16, though, are often disregarded by teams, seen as being too old, even at 17. Others, who seek loans upon coming to an agreement with teams, can find themselves in hazardous financial situations, owing significantly more money than they borrowed if deals are broken.
Despite an official signing age of 16, MLB has not sought to limit early deals, opting instead to pursue a draft that the league believes would stop them. The increase in teams backing out of early deals prompted Ulises Cabrera, who represented Fañas and Pavon through the Dominican Prospect League he helped found, to explore potential legal remedies.
“If everybody does the right thing, then none of this is an issue,” Cabrera said. “If the players hold on to their end of the bargain and do what they’re supposed to do, there’s no issue. If the teams do what they’re supposed to do, there’s no issue. The issue becomes when one of the stakeholders in the mix, whether it be a player using steroids or using false documents and does something wrong — that’s an issue. Whether it’s a trainer who’s injecting steroids into a player and doing things to fudge the perception of how good the player is, or if it’s a team doing tricks to back out of deals or to do side deals. Whenever someone is doing something that should not be done, then we have an issue.
“… There is no accountability across the board for anybody, in effect, any of the stakeholders in this space. MLB doesn’t enforce anything. They don’t hold their teams accountable. The teams don’t hold their scouts accountable. Everybody throws their hands up — it’s the wild, Wild West — when it’s convenient. I think our hope with this is that there needs to be some type of consequence for people doing the wrong thing.”