American agent drops Cuban phenom Lazarito after death threat

The story of Lazarito, a 16-year-old Cuban phenom seeking to sign with a major-league club, has taken a dramatic and chilling turn.

Charles Hairston, who has been the player’s negotiating representative in discussions with major-league clubs, told FOX Sports on Monday night that his life was threatened by the Dominican Republic-based investor who represents Lazarito. Hairston said that his agency, at least for now, no longer would represent the player.

Hairston declined to identify the Dominican Republic-based investor, or “buscon,” citing concerns for the safety of his co-workers.

Lazaro “Lazarito” Armenteros became eligible to sign with a major-league team on Feb. 10. The conflict between his agency, Culture39, and his buscon arose from the buscon’s desire for Lazarito to sign with a team as soon as possible rather than wait until July 2, when international-spending rules would allow other clubs to enter the bidding more aggressively, Hairston said.

Hairston said that he secured an invitation for Lazarito to attend a team’s spring-training camp and meet with its general manager and ownership, but that the buscon withheld the travel documents for both the player and his parents, making such a visit impossible.

Lazarito, who established residency in Haiti, currently is in the Dominican Republic. Buscones — “finders” in the literal translation — generally offer young Latin American players assistance with training, housing and clothing in exchange for 20 to 25 percent of the player’s future salary, Hairston said.

Hairston said that the tension between his agency and the buscon escalated after more than 140 scouts attended Lazarito’s showcase earlier this month at the Padres’ complex in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.

“I feel for the kid. He is truly special. We are still looking forward to working with him when he comes to the United States once his situation is resolved,” said Hairston, who is part of a family that has sent three generations of players to the majors, including his uncle, Jerry Hairston Sr., and cousins, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Scott Hairston.

“We already have several sponsorship and major endorsement deals lined up for him, not to mention his own clothing line which we are launching soon. But when his safety and ours is put in jeopardy, we had to think about what is most important in life.”

For now, Lazarito’s immediate future and representation remains unclear.

Lazarito, because of his youth and inexperience, is subject to international-spending limits; any team that signs him and already has exceeded its international budget would pay a 100-percent tax on the amount by which it surpassed its assigned bonus pool.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, sources say, are interested in Lazarito even though they are subject to such penalties, which include the inability to sign an international player for more than $300,000 in the next two signing periods.

The San Diego Padres and Atlanta Braves, two other clubs pursuing Lazarito, are among the teams that would prefer not to incur the penalties until the next signing period, which begins on July 2.

The frenzy to sign Cuban players stems in part from the clubs’ knowledge that the rules for accessing international players could change in the next collective-bargaining agreement. The current agreement expires on Dec. 1.

Hairston’s account, meanwhile, is a sobering reminder that the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has yet to meaningfully alter the perilous path for Cuban players who wish to play in the majors.

Lazarito’s present circumstance — seemingly being held against his will, along with his family, by at least one person who stands to profit from his first baseball contract — is similar to the ordeal that Cuban outfielder Leonys Martin faced before signing with the Texas Rangers five years ago.

Last week, U.S.-based player agent Bart Hernandez was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of human trafficking relating to Martin’s escape from Cuba, according to reports.

Baseball has been closely tied to the changing U.S.-Cuba relations. A goodwill trip to Cuba featuring Cuban-born major-league stars Jose Abreu and Yasiel Puig took place in December. An exhibition game in Havana could happen next month between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuban national team.

Against that backdrop, it’s conceivable that American and Cuban officials, in concert with MLB and the MLB Players Association, could agree on a method for the safe passage of Cuban players that includes a fee paid to the Cuban government.

It’s unclear if the U.S. embargo against Cuba would need to be lifted by Congress in order for such a change to occur. A Congressional vote of that magnitude would be unexpected during a presidential election year.