- Jorge Arangure Jr.
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The Washington Nationals have decided to fire special assistant Jose Rijo and will shut down the team's academy in the Dominican Republic as part of a restructuring of the team's operations in Latin America in the wake of an age-changing scandal involving one of the team's top prospects, several baseball sources have confirmed.
The team's academy operates out of a complex owned by Rijo in San Cristobal.
Nationals assistant general manager and vice president Mike Rizzo arrived in Santo Domingo on Tuesday to look for alternative sites for the team's Dominican academy. The Nationals will at least temporarily use a facility in San Pedro owned by former major league pitcher Balvino Galvez while looking for a long-term solution, sources told ESPNdeportes.com's Enrique Rojas.
Rizzo also met with Fernando Ravelo, general manager for the Dominican Winter League Tigres de Licey, about replacing Rijo as the team's director of Dominican operations.
When asked whether he had been offered Rijo's position, Ravelo told Rojas, "maybe."
Ravelo planned on meeting with Licey executives on Wednesday night to let them know he has decided to join the Nationals.
The Nationals have already contacted people in Boca Chica about the possibility of the team moving its academy into the area for the short term and possibly constructing an academy in the area. Most team academies are located in the Boca Chica region. Another source said the team spoke with the Los Angeles Dodgers about their facility. Tampa Bay currently rents space in Los Angeles' Campo Las Palmas but it will move out of that complex by the end of March into a brand new complex.
Jose Castellanos, the Dodgers director of operations in the Dominican Republic, had no comment when asked about the Nationals' potential move.
Rijo told Rojas that he had not yet been contacted by the Nationals concerning his future with the team, but on Tuesday he admitted, "Considering the latest developments, it wouldn't surprise me if the Nats apply drastic changes to their team operations in the Dominican Republic."
The decision comes less than a week after it was discovered that prized prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez, who received a $1.4 million signing bonus in 2006, was actually Carlos Daniel Alvarez Lugo and was four years older than originally thought. The player, prior to signing with the Nationals, had trained at Rijo's academy and was represented by trainer Basilio Vizcaino, a childhood friend of Rijo's.
Vizcaino and Rijo have both denied any wrongdoing or any knowledge of the player's actions in regards to the altering of his age.
Nationals president Stan Kasten did not respond to a request for comment.
On Sunday, Rijo took a leave of absence from Nationals spring training camp in Viera, Fla. and returned home to the Dominican Republic to oversee the team's academy.
The team previously acknowledged that general manager Jim Bowden and Rijo are both the subject of a baseball investigation in the Dominican Republic concerning the skimming of bonus money from amateur signees.
This move by Nationals ownership may not be a good sign for Bowden, who hired Rijo and has known him since Bowden was the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, where Rijo played from 1988-2002. Bowden was Cincinnati's GM from 1993-2003.
Prior to joining the Nationals in 2005 Rijo owned and operated his own training academy in the Dominican, which Washington first rented from him in 2006 when the ownership group led by Theodore N. Lerner took control of the team.
The Detroit Tigers also use Rijo's complex as its academy and have a contract with Rijo to use the facility through this season.
"We'll just continue to operate as normal," Tigers assistant general manager Al Avila said. "There's really nothing to comment on."
It's uncertain at this point what this decision means for the Nationals' presence in Latin America or what will happen to the players who currently train at the team's facility near San Cristobal. The signing of Gonzalez was seen as a signal by the team that it wanted to be a player in the Dominican market. However, without an academy presence, it's unlikely the team can successfully compete for the top players.
The Nationals could also possibly move into the academy recently vacated by the New York Mets, which is only a few miles away from Rijo's complex or move into the abandoned Hiroshima Carp complex in San Pedro de Macoris. Neither facility though is seen as a long-term solution, which is why the team will continue to research options in Boca Chica.
It's not likely the Nationals will stop bidding for players in the Dominican. Sources spotted Rizzo early on Wednesday at a tryout for several Dominican prospects.
The other two teams in the San Cristobal area, the San Diego Padres and the Tigers, could be financially affected when the Nationals move out of Rijo's academy. Their Dominican Summer League teams would have to travel more than 2 hours each way to Boca Chica in order to fill out their schedule. Currently the Padres and Tigers play in a four-team division in the summer league in the San Cristobal area. The Nats have two teams in the division.
The Milwaukee Brewers are the only organization without a Dominican academy.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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