By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009
VIERA, Fla., Feb. 21 -- José Rijo, the Washington Nationals' front-office member linked most closely to the fraudulent signing of a Dominican prospect, has taken a leave of absence from the team.
Rijo, who has worked for the team since 2005 as a special assistant to the general manager, remains a team employee, but there is no timetable for his return.
Earlier this week, Major League Baseball investigators determined that Washington prospect Esmailyn González had been signed by the Nationals while using a false name and age.
González, thought to be 16 at the time of the signing in July 2006, was actually four years older and named Carlos Alvarez Daniel Lugo.
Rijo, who spends most of his time running the Nationals' baseball facility in the Dominican Republic, had been with the team in Viera, Fla., during spring training workouts, spending time as an instructor.
But after he spoke with team officials Friday, Rijo and the team decided that he should depart. He is flying back to the Dominican Republic on Sunday, Rijo said. His jersey still hangs in a locker stall for Washington's coaching staff.
"I just feel like I'm too much of a distraction right now," he said. "And I want the team to be able to concentrate."
Rijo's central role in the González signing has prompted questions about his intentions when brokering the deal.
Rijo scouted González for two years before the July 2006 signing. During negotiations, Washington dealt with Dominican street agent Basilio Vizcaino, a childhood friend of Rijo's. Every other team interested in the shortstop negotiated through González's then-agent, Rob Plummer. The Nationals ended up rewarding González with a $1.4 million signing bonus, the most the team has ever paid for an international player.
Even before the revelation about the González fraud, Rijo's name surfaced last summer during the FBI's ongoing investigation into baseball's scouting practices in the Dominican. Because of the network of street agents, or buscones, the landscape for player development is rife with possibilities for money skimming and age falsification.
Rijo, speaking Saturday, denied wrongdoing, adding, "Everybody else will find out about the truth in time."
Nationals President Stan Kasten said Rijo remains an employee of the organization but with no timetable for his return to work.
"José is on a leave," Kasten said. "With all the questions swirling and all the work being done still on this matter, we felt it would be a good time to be away from here."
Once back in the Dominican, Rijo said, he will spend time at the Nationals' baseball facility, which he owns and operates. He also will spend time with his mother, who is battling liver cancer, he said, and has been told she has two months to live.
"I had better ways to make use of my time," Rijo said.