Cleveland Indians catcher Francisco Mejia, one of baseball's top prospects, is suing a company that he claims used "unconscionable" tactics to get him to surrender a substantial stake of his future big-league earnings in exchange for an up-front payment in 2016.
Mejia's suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Delaware on Feb. 21, recounts how Big League Advance, a company run by former Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Michael Schwimer, loaned him $360,000 in exchange for a 10 percent stake in his future earnings.
Mejia signed three separate contracts with the company over a three-month span in 2016.
The suit contends Mejia is projected to earn $100 million over the course of his career -- which means BLA could receive $10 million in exchange for its $360,000 investment. Mejia's suit asks that the contract be declared unenforceable and the payment voided, and that he receive unspecified compensatory damages.
In a counterclaim filed Thursday, Big League Advance asked that Mejia's claim be dismissed, the contract be upheld, damages be assessed and the court issue a permanent injunction against Mejia prohibiting him from disclosing any information about his dealings with the company.
Mejia, 22, is a .291 hitter in 405 minor league games with the Indians. In 2016, while playing for Cleveland's Class A Lynchburg club in the Carolina League, he hit safely in 50 straight games -- the longest minor league streak in 62 years.
Before this season, ESPN's Keith Law ranked Mejia as the No. 7 prospect in Major League Baseball for 2018.
According to the claim, Mejia reached agreement with Big League Advance at a time when his mother was very ill and the family needed money to pay for her medical treatment. The suit contends BLA engaged in "wrongful and unconscionable conduct, including breaches of the duty of good faith and fair dealing."
"Defendant BLA's business plan involves utilizing various 'runners' who approach up and coming baseball players in areas such as the Dominican Republic," the suit says. "These runners [usually former baseball players] advise prospects that Defendant BLA will advance them considerable sums of money, to be repaid by a percentage of the player's future earnings. The prospects are generally young, uneducated and unsophisticated. Few speak English. Most, if not all, come from very modest families who are struggling financially."
Schwimer told ESPN in a phone interview Friday night that Big League Advance does not give out loans or use "runners" to recruit players. The company refers to itself on its website as "an investment fund that provides minor league baseball players with the resources they need to help make their dream a reality. Players receive capital -- not loans -- and a player keeps the funds whether or not he ever makes it to the major leagues. For players who make it to the major leagues, we share in their success."
Paul DePodesta, chief strategy officer for the NFL's Cleveland Browns and former big-league executive with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics and several other clubs, is listed as a board member and partner in the company.
Mejia completed the U.S. equivalent of ninth grade in the Dominican Republic, and his lawyers claim that he speaks no English. According to the suit, he had no legal counsel present when he signed his third and final contract with Big League Advance (which superseded the first two agreements) in December 2016.
In its court filing Thursday, Big League Advance denied it engages in "unconscionable practices" or that Mejia was under duress when he consented to his agreement with the company.
Schwimer said Mejia's representatives at the ISE agency were fully aware of the first agreement, which took two weeks to complete, and that the group's legal team reviewed the contract before Mejia signed it. He said Big League Advance asked Mejia questions on video, with his agent listening in by phone, to make sure the player understood all the ramifications of the deal.
"We asked Francisco if he understood that if he made $500 million in his MLB career, he would owe us $50 million throughout his career," Schwimer said. "We also asked if he understood that if he does not make it to the major leagues, he would not have to pay us anything back. He responded in the affirmative on both questions."
Schwimer said Mejia initiated contact with Big League Advance for the second and third installments of his agreement and approached the company for a fourth time before filing his lawsuit.
Mejia made a cameo appearance with the Indians in September, hitting .154 (2-for-13) in 11 games. His suit alleges that representatives from Big League Advance showed up at his house in the Dominican Republic in early December seeking a payment of $9,063 -- equivalent to 10 percent of his salary during his late-season stint with the Indians.
Mejia claims BLA representatives threatened to sue him and prevent him from playing baseball if he did not pay.
"BLA representatives also attempted to have [Mejia] give up even more of his earnings for more money, but he refused," the suit alleges. "However, under duress, [Mejia] agreed to pay this one installment under the contract."
Schwimer denied that Big League Advance reps showed up at Mejia's house to collect payment.
"In fact, we do not know where Francisco lives," he said.
After hitting .421 (8-for-19) in spring training, Mejia began this season with Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate in Columbus. He is hitting .192 (5-for-26) in his first six games with the Clippers.