Prospects Willy Fañas, Keiderson Pavon suing Los Angeles Angels, alleging agreements pulled back by team

Two teenage baseball players are suing the Los Angeles Angels in a Dominican Republic court, alleging that the organization failed to honor verbal agreements to sign, a practice that is becoming increasingly common in a landscape of limited Major League Baseball regulation.

At an Aug. 31 hearing, attorneys continued to discuss the cases of Willy Fañas and Keiderson Pavon, who in court filings claimed they made arrangements with the angels — Fañas for $1.8 million when he was 14 and Pavon for $425,000 as a 15-year-old — but that they weren’t honored after 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, but players from hotbeds such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela regularly achieve handshake deals with teams when they are as young as 12.

Sources familiar with the verbal agreements confirmed their existence to ESPN, which viewed video of the moment Angels Pavon staff said they were planning to sign him. Instead, less than a month before the January 15, 2021 signing date, Angels Fañas and Pavon employees said they would not be offering them any formal contracts.

The Angels and MLB declined comment through a spokesman.

Despite the increasing prevalence of failed deals — players too have pulled out of agreements with teams to reap bigger 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 oral contracts and their enforceability than the United States, attorneys there say.

The potential ramifications of the civil lawsuits, filed in May 2021 and previously unreported, are enormous, beyond the millions of dollars in damages that Fañas and Pavon are seeking. Hundreds of early deals are agreed by teams and players each year, but the practice would be far less common if a judge found it legally binding, four senior team leaders told ESPN.

“If these players don’t bring that 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 that this type of agreement exists. If there are no consequences, it will continue to happen in the future. If Major League Baseball doesn’t force teams to honor their agreements, This ruling won’t necessarily stop the practice, but it will set a precedent.

“We understand the law is on our side. Our customers have committed no breach of duty and have fulfilled all their obligations. Anaheim, you unilaterally changed your position without our approval. … This change of position without justification, we think that’s the most important thing we’re going to discuss here in court.”

That offseason, MLB pushed for an international draft during collective bargaining, and after two decades of considering him a non-starter, the MLB Players Association was open to the idea. While the sides failed to reach an agreement after negotiations in July, the discussions underscored the dysfunction of a system that produces about 30% of major league players and more than half of minor league players.

“There is no general accountability to anyone, virtually none of the stakeholders in this area. MLB doesn’t force anything. They don’t hold their teams accountable. Teams do not hold their scouts accountable. Everyone throws their hands up – it’s the wild, wild west – when it’s convenient.”

Ulises Cabrera

Early deals are just one of the myriad problems in Latin America. In theory, a draft would have eliminated most early deals and perhaps discouraged coaches from giving youth performance-enhancing drugs, as some are doing to persuade teams to offer multimillion-dollar bonuses, sources said. The union resented the idea of ​​a slotted system, seeing it less as a justified effort than as a method of cost control.

Without a draft treaty, the status quo persists, despite league and union acknowledgments of an international system in which team employees receive kickbacks, coaches undercut their elite players’ bonuses by packing them with lesser talent, and loan sharks prey on impoverished families by lending them money at extortionate interest, 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 contract, when MLB and the union instituted a hard cap system where each team knows years in advance exactly how much money they can spend internationally in a given contract period. Armed with more than $175 million a year in international amateur bonuses, teams, aware that the most elite talent often reveals itself before the teenage years, forged verbal deals with increasingly younger players.

However accepted the practice was, its tenuous nature depended on the willingness of both parties to honor the agreement. The angels, say Fañas and Pavon, did not.

The case depends on whether a judge recognizes that oral agreements of this type are legally binding. At last week’s hearing, a judge postponed witness appearances until November 30, making it likely the case will drag on into next year.

“If you make a promise, and I take your promise, we have an oral contract,” said Cesar Linares, a veteran attorney in the Dominican Republic who has taught college-level law courses. “But the most important part of the oral contract is the proof. When I have the proof, I have a perfect contract and I can go to court and tell the judge. In a large percentage of cases, the judge will approve the contract.”

The cost of the angels could be significant. Fañas, who signed with the New York Mets for $1.5 million in January 2022, is seeking $17 million in damages. Pavon, who agreed $150,000 with the Texas Rangers last year, is asking for $4.25 million.

Both players told stories in interviews with ESPN that showed many similarities.

Fañas, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound switch-hitting outfielder, agreed to an agreement with the Angels after former general manager Billy Eppler and Eric Chavez, a special assistant with the Angels at the time, saw him in person in January 2019. shortly before his 15th birthday. He expected to officially sign with the team on July 2, 2020, but MLB and the MLBPA agreed to push back the international signing date for that class to January 15, 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Before COVID-19 closed facilities across the country, Fañas had trained at the Angels academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republic, for some time, which is allowed under MLB rules.

“I felt really good with them,” said Fañas. “I don’t know how they could have done that.”

Pavon, a 5-7 infielder nicknamed “Pulgita” (flea in Spanish) and “Altuvito” (little Altuve, after short stature Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve), grew up in Venezuela and moved to the Dominican Republic when he was 13 to live with a coach and aspire to a baseball career.

In the video, which Pavon said was taken by an Angels employee, Carlos Gomez, the team’s former head of international scouting, told Pavon that the team plans to sign him. Gomez and Pavon both started crying.

“It brings me a lot of joy,” said Pavon. “I was only thinking about my family.”

Fañas and Pavon have continued to train during the pandemic, and while some teams are more prone to breaking early deals because players are plateauing or out of shape, neither Fañas nor Pavon fell, according to sources who saw them after their training, in one of the two categories Deals with the Angels fell through.

Both agreed to do business with the Angels under Eppler, who the Angels fired in September 2020 and replaced with Perry Minasian. In December of that year, Minasian hired Brian Parker, a longtime head of scouting and player development, to lead the organization’s international division. Three general managers acknowledged that a takeover by a new front office could result in different player ratings and the potential for broken deals.

“Only [the Angels] know the reason. They never provided one,” said Jose Alfredo “Felo” Sanchez, a longtime coach in the Dominican Republic who brought Fañas to his academy at the age of 12. “They only called us to tell us that they would not honor the agreement. They did not come to him, did nothing. They just said they would not honor the agreement and that was it. No explanation, nothing.”

The case of Fañas illustrates the danger of early deals not materialising. Because teams work deals so far in advance, the amount of unbooked money in other teams’ bonus pools for the January 2021 signing period has been minimal. Instead of signing for a lower bonus amount, Fañas waited until that year to sign and didn’t debut for the Mets’ Dominican Summer League affiliate until he was 18.

Because of his talent, he was lucky enough to win back most of his anticipated bonus. However, many players who don’t sign at 16 are often ignored by teams as they are considered too old even at 17. Others who seek credit after reaching an agreement with teams can find themselves in a perilous financial position with significantly more money than they borrowed if deals fall through.

Despite an official contract age of 16, MLB hasn’t attempted to limit early deals, instead opting for a draft the league believes would stop them. The increase in teams pulling out of early deals prompted Ulises Cabrera, who represented Fañas and Pavon through the Dominican Prospect League he co-founded, to explore possible appeals.

“If everyone does the right thing, then it’s not a problem,” said Cabrera. “If the players stick to their end of the bargain and do what they’re supposed to do, there’s no problem. If the teams do what they are supposed to do, there is no problem. The problem becomes when one of the stakeholders in the mix, whether it’s a player who’s using steroids or using fake documents and doing something wrong – that’s an issue whether it’s a coach who’s injecting steroids into a player and doing things to distort perceptions of how good the player is, or if it’s a team using tricks to get out of deals or make side deals. Whenever someone does something that shouldn’t be done, we have a problem.

“…There is no general accountability to anyone, virtually any of the stakeholders in this area. MLB doesn’t force anything. They don’t hold their teams accountable. Teams do not hold their scouts accountable. Everyone throws their hands up – it’s the wild, wild west – when it suits. I think our hope in this is that when people do the wrong thing, there has to be some kind of consequence.” Prospects Willy Fañas, Keiderson Pavon suing Los Angeles Angels, alleging agreements pulled back by team

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