What if ... Smiley Gonzalez hadn’t turned out to be Carlos Alvarez?

When baseball wags talk about a “player to be named later” - and really, shouldn’t it be “player to be named,” since you’re already talking about something that will happen in the future? - they mean an asset in a trade that’s yet to be determined. In Washington, that nomenclature has a totally different meaning, since the Nationals have had to deal with the subterfuge and deception that actually caused them not to know the name of a Dominican teenager to whom they gave a $1.4 million signing bonus in July 2006.

Of course, we’re referring to Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, who is the subject of this week’s edition of “What If?” Wednesday, where we interrupt the national pastime’s space/time continuum and wonder how things might have turned out for the Nationals if things had somehow gone differently. Gonzalez, as it turns out, wasn’t Gonzalez at all; he was Carlos Alvarez. He wasn’t born on Sept. 21, 1989, as the Nationals believed, which would have made him 16 when he inked his deal; instead, he was born on Nov. 25, 1985, making him four years older at the time he signed. Those years made a huge difference in how Alvarez was viewed in terms of prospect status, and the ensuring imbroglio caused the Nationals untold embarrassment, led to the resignation of Jim Bowden as the team’s general manager, forced Jose Rijo out of the organization, caused the team’s Dominican baseball academy to be closed and then moved, and facilitated sweeping changes in the way that baseball oversaw international signings.

But what if Smiley Gonzalez had turned out to be what he was supposed to be - a pure hitter with skills so advanced that they belied his age? What if Smiley had been Smiley and not Carlos Alvarez (or, if you choose to believe some references, Carlos Alvarez Lugo)?

Let’s start with the player. Alvarez (we’ll refer to him that way from now on) followed up a pedestrian 2007 season with the Rookie League Gulf Coast Nationals, where he hit .245 with no homers and 11 RBIs in 33 games, with a breakout 2008, where he raked GCL pitching for a .343 average. He still showed little power, hitting two homers and driving in 33 runs in 51 games, but his 12 doubles were a precursor that he was growing into a power stroke. The Nationals were convinced they had a prospect, one they had outworked at least two other teams who inquired to Major League Baseball to confirm his age. Little did they know Alvarez was really 21 and 22 during his first two pro seasons, considerably older than the youthful pitchers he was dominating.

Had he been what he was advertised, and had he ascended quickly through the Washington farm system, Alvarez would now be 21 and perhaps forcing his way into consideration for a September call-up. He might have been mentioned in the same breath as the rest of the Nationals’ emerging stars, or maybe he’d have had a high enough profile to have been included in a trade like the deal general manager Mike Rizzo pulled off for Gio Gonzalez of the A’s. Instead, he’s a 25-year-old who finally reached the short-season Single-A New York/Penn League last summer, where he hit .306 against staffs full of just-signed college draft picks. In five seasons, he’s got a career .302 minor league average, but is nothing more than an afterthought. It’s a wonder the Nats haven’t cut ties with him just to rid themselves of the constant reminder of the chaos he caused. He remains in the organization.

Shortly after he was signed, the Nationals asked Major League Baseball - which had already incorrectly verified his age - to check into some concerns that all was not what it appeared to be. By the time then-Nats president Stan Kasten spoke at a February 2009 press conference to expose the chicanery, rumors that Gonzalez wasn’t as young as he had claimed to be were running rampant - and were eventually proven to be true. The Nationals got lumped with the Chicago White Sox, who were fending off speculation that their Latin American scouts and officials were skimming the bonuses of foreign players. Bowden was investigated by the FBI and Kasten refused opportunities to publicly back his GM. To say it was an uncomfortable situation would be an understatement.

Kasten spoke in the strongest of terms when he admitted the Nationals had been hoodwinked, calling it an “elaborate, premeditated scheme that no teenager concocted. No teenager executed this fraud.”

“I am going to let all conclusions be reached. I want it pursued to the very end,” Kasten said at the time. “The chips will fall where they may. I just want to uncover everything I can possibly uncover, and that’s what I have asked baseball’s help in.”

By the time the dust settled, Bowden resigned, issuing a surprising announcement on March 1, 2009, early in the morning before the Nats hosted the Orioles in a Grapefruit League game, and saying that he no longer wanted to be a distraction. A few days later, Rizzo was appointed by Kasten to assume most of Bowden’s duties. Had Gonzalez not perpetrated fraud, Bowden might have lasted longer, Rizzo’s ascension to a key front office post might have been delayed and there’s no telling whether the Nationals would be contenders heading into 2012 or still trying to escape their public humiliation several years after the fact. Kasten stepped down from his role after the 2010 season, but he might have stayed around longer had the Nationals needed his steady hand.

Naturally, baseball has overhauled how it checks and verifies ages of players in Latin America (though they could use a little work on making sure of identities, as the Leo Nunez and Fausto Carmona cases clearly show). The Nationals shut down their Domincan Baseball academy and severed ties with Jose Rijo, the ex-major leaguer who had been involved in scouting Alvarez and was still running the academy in San Cristobal, D.R. The academy moved to Boca Chica, with Rizzo taking the lead in facilitating a smooth transition. Last month, Rijo was declared a fugitive from justice in his homeland, and last week, he was again questioned by authorities for his ties to a businessman alleged to have murdered a Dominican journalist.

If anything, Alvarez was part of the impetus for change. Without him, there’s no telling where baseball would be on proper identification, age verification and the still unresolved bonus skimming scandal that has cost several long-time employees of various clubs their jobs and livelihoods. The Nationals, cast as an unwitting participant, helped spark some of the new rules and procedures. But they came at great cost - money spent on a player who wasn’t who he purported to be, the loss of jobs for Rijo and Bowden, blunted efforts to make inroads in the lucrative Dominican market and the shame surrounding being at the center of the complex entanglement.

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