Texas Rangers pitching prospects Omar Beltre and Alexi Ogando, banned from setting foot on United States soil the last five years because of their parts in a visa fraud ring, are expected to gain admittance to the U.S. in the next few weeks.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels and assistant general manager Thad Levine, who have dealt with the saga since 2005, said the club was told that the U.S. State Department would grant both players waivers to enter the country. ESPN Deportes reported the players already have the visas to enter the United States and that both are planning to attend spring training in Surprise, Ariz.
Once there, they would have to apply for reinstatement by Major League Baseball before they can be sent to a minor league club in the U.S. for the 2010 season.
Beltre, 28, and Ogando, 26, were involved in a human trafficking ring in the Dominican Republic. ESPN Deportes reported the scandal involved close to 30 Dominican minor league players between the 2004 and 2005 seasons and that it was put together by a man only identified by the ballplayers as "Wilfredo," who has disappeared since the investigation began.
"I feel thankful to God for this new opportunity to me. Thanks to the organization, to my agent, I never lost hope that everything will be cleared," Beltre told ESPN Deportes.
Beltre and Ogando were approached by someone offering what Daniels called "a small amount" of money to marry women to get them into the United States.
"There was an organized crime group that was effectively preying on young baseball players," Daniels said Sunday night. "They had lined up a number of them to marry women that wanted to get into the U.S. A number of them agreed to do it, including Alexi and Omar. The women that were married got access in the U.S., and by the time the players went to their visa appointments to come over, the State Department realized what happened and denied access to all players involved."
The Rangers have tried every year since then to apply through the proper channels to get Beltre and Ogando to the United States. Daniels admitted that he didn't think they would ever get approval, and the club even considered sending them to Mexico or selling their rights to teams in Japan. In the mean time, the two players have competed in the Dominican Summer League and played for Toros del Este in the winter league.
Levine said it helped that the players have worked to educate others about the dangers of human trafficking. They've spoken at various academies and given public service announcements. Charisse Espinosa-Dash, the players' agent, told ESPN Deportes that the remorse Ogando and Beltre showed and the commitment to help fight against human trafficking helped them in the process to gain entry to the U.S.
"This was a great example, which has helped us to teach other kids like us," Ogando told ESPN Deportes.
The Rangers think highly enough of the right-handed pitchers that they are expected to play in Double-A or higher when the season begins. In 2000, the Rangers gave Beltre a $600,000 bonus, then the largest the club had given an international signee. His last minor league stop in the U.S. was in 2004 with Class A Stockton. Ogando was acquired in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2005 from Oakland at a cost of $12,000. Both players are on the Rangers' 40-man roster, but on the restricted list. If they are reinstated, the club would have to make corresponding moves to clear space for them.
Daniels said both pitchers possess "plus fastballs." Beltre has hit 100 mph on the radar gun, and Ogando, a converted outfielder, throws in the 92-96 range. Daniels sees Ogando as a reliever. Both have played winter ball in an effort to stay ready.
"Every time we got to the end of the line," Daniels said, "one of our other scouts would see these guys throw and say, 'We have to keep trying to get them in. They have big league ability.'"
Ogando was 0-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 18 1/3 innings with 31 strikeouts and one walk in the Dominican Summer League last season. He also pitched 12 innings in winter ball and had a 2.25 ERA with nine strikeouts and four walks. Beltre had elbow discomfort, according to ESPN Deportes, that limited him to just 3 2/3 innings in winter ball. He did pitch 7 1/3 scoreless innings in the Dominican Summer League last season, with 10 strikeouts and three walks.
Enrique Rojas of ESPNDeportes.com contributed to this story.