Major League Baseball has banned all affiliated players from participating in the Venezuela winter league this season, a response intended to comply with President Donald Trump's embargo against the country's Nicolas Maduro-led government.
"MLB has been in contact with the relevant government agencies regarding the Executive Order issued by President Trump on Venezuela," the league said in a statement. "MLB will fully adhere to the policies implemented by our government. With respect to the Venezuela Winter League, MLB will suspend its involvement in that league until it receives direction from the relevant agencies that participation by affiliated players is consistent with the Executive Order."
The potential repercussions of the prohibition, which prevents major league and minor league players from joining the 75-year-old Liga Venezolana de Beísbol Profesional (LVBP), could be significant. Multiple sources told ESPN they feared the ban would warp the heretofore strong bond between MLB and Venezuela and spawn a situation similar to that of Cuba, another embargoed country whose complicated relationship with the league has festered for decades.
Dozens of affiliated players either return home to Venezuela or travel there annually to play winter ball, as many supplement paltry minor league incomes with low- to mid-five-figure sums to play in a 63-game season. The LVBP, whose champion participates with those from the Dominican, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Cuban and Panamanian leagues in the annual Caribbean Series, is sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), the country's state-run oil company, according to sources.
The murkiness of the LVBP's link to a government-run business spurred MLB to consider the ban and consult with the Major League Baseball Players Association, according to sources. The fear, sources said, is that players agreeing to deals with a government-affiliated entity -- or agents consummating the deals -- would run afoul of the Aug. 5 executive order, which banned any such transactions.
Venezuela, once a bustling economic power in Latin America, has plunged into crisis, with widespread food and medicine shortages, millions of refugees leaving the country and toxic political infighting. The U.S. recognizes Juan Guaidó, the leader of the opposition, as president instead of Maduro, who remains in power.
One consequence of MLB's plan, sources said, could be Maduro retaliating by banning MLB teams from signing amateur players in Venezuela. The country has proved to be a hotbed of talent, with Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras and New York Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres among the 95 Venezuela-born players who have logged major league time this season.
In recent years, as the economic strife worsened, teams shut down academies in Venezuela and consolidated their Latin American operations in the Dominican Republic. Top Venezuelan prospects have begun following suit, according to sources. Some of the best 12- and 13-year-old players in the country have moved with their families to the Dominican Republic in anticipation of signing with major league teams at age 16, sources said.
While all of the concerns about the executive order could be mollified by an agreement between the United States and Venezuela -- both countries on Thursday acknowledged recent back channel discussions -- MLB's desire to abide by it comes at a moment when the league's international dealings have been under scrutiny.
The Trump administration in April scuttled a deal between MLB and the Cuban government that would have allowed Cuban players to sign directly with the league instead of taking the circuitous and dangerous paths offered by traffickers. The Justice Department continues a wide-ranging investigation into baseball's Latin American business -- including deals for Cuban defectors -- that sources said have targeted a number of teams, including the Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
MLB this week contacted the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the U.S. Treasury department that imposes economic sanctions, seeking clarity on the executive order, according to a source. Teams expect to continue to sign amateur players as long as Venezuela does not prohibit it, believing that doing so would not breach the executive order because individual teenage players are not under the Venezuelan government's purview.
Whether that legal argument holds up is unclear and part of the complications caused by the embargo. While a number of major league and minor league players planned to compete in the LVBP, contracts are not typically agreed upon until September and October. With no affiliated players allowed, Luis Amaro, the general manager of the Aguilas del Zulia, said he expected Venezuela natives playing in the Mexican and Italian leagues this summer to fill out the rosters.
Until then, MLB and the MLBPA can only wait to see the consequences of the potential action. The lockdown of the Venezuelan talent pool, while not crippling, would significantly hinder the talent base in the minor leagues, where hundreds of Venezuelans play. The lack of a winter option for young players in Venezuela concerned one agent, who said LVBP helps keep players out of trouble when they return home. Another agent, who expected multiple clients to make up for below-minimum-wage minor league salaries by playing in Venezuela, said he hopes clients still can get jobs in the Dominican, Mexican and Puerto Rican leagues.