Sometimes lying does pay off, and in the peculiar case of Juan Paniagua, he stands to collect a fortune.
Two years ago Paniagua called himself Juan Collado and the 17-year-old pitcher impressed the Arizona Diamondbacks enough with his fastball, clocked in the upper 80s, that the team signed him for a $17,000 bonus.
Paniagua pitched parts of two seasons for the Diamondbacks’ Dominican Summer League team, but last summer an investigation by Major League Baseball uncovered the identity fraud and Paniagua’s contract was voided, he was forced to serve a one-year suspension, and the Diamondbacks lost the rights to their prospect. He then trained at an independent academy in the Dominican Republic where his velocity improved into the 90s. Recently, when his suspension ended, the New York Yankees signed the budding star for $1.1 million.
“It’s like a soap opera,” said Jerry Dipoto, the Diamondbacks senior vice president of scouting and player development. “We lost out on a player we liked because the system allows it.” Many are now questioning how a player can actually benefit from a fib. The odd thing is that it remains unclear why Paniagua lied about his name, but not his age; his birthday – April 4 – never changed, and hiding age is the main reason Dominican prospects change their identity.
Hopefully, baseball will take steps to close this loophole and prevent a player – and a team – from benefitting from deceit. With age and identity fraud already a major issue in the Dominican Republic, I can see someone pulling a Paniagua and deliberately lying about their age and/or identity, hoping to be discovered (or revealing the truth) later in order to sign a more lucrative contract.
Think it won’t happen? When I was on a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2000 to inspect several academies, I was approached by a man whose son had been signed by a team and was a rapidly developing prospect. The man said his son had lied about his age and was only 15 when signed, and now he wanted the deal voided so a better deal could be cut with another team.
Paniagua’s deal still needs to be rubber stamped by the commissioner’s office; under new rules he cannot play in any games until the deal is approved.