Source: MLB didn't send a message

When the San Diego Padres hired A.J. Preller as their general manager earlier this month, ESPN's initial reporting and every subsequent story from other outlets referenced a suspension Preller had served in 2009 while the director of international scouting for the Texas Rangers.

That year, a source told ESPN.com, a Major League Baseball investigation revealed Preller joined Rangers scouts Rodolfo Rosario and Jesus "Chu" Halabi to meet with four men: Kuki Acevedo, the proprietor of a cafeteria where the meeting took place; his son Hector, who worked with his father as buscones, or independent agents; a young Dominican pitcher of considerable promise named Rafael De Paula Jr.; and his father, Rafael De Paula Sr. Kuki and Hector were De Paula's buscones.

Previously, the younger De Paula had lied about his identity and age and had been suspended for a year by MLB. The Rangers were interested in signing him; a figure of $600,000 was discussed at the meeting. Kuki owed people money, including another buscone, Bacilio Vizcaino, also known as Cuchasa. The Rangers discussed an offer with the Acevedos, not only for De Paula, who was ineligible to sign because he was suspended, but one that would satisfy Kuki's debt obligation as well. No deal was struck. As Preller was leaving, Kuki told him he had recorded the meeting, according to the source.

Five years later, however, Preller is now in a much more prominent role, and the meeting highlights one of baseball's lingering issues -- its relationship with young, usually poor players in the Caribbean and Latin America.

In 2009, MLB's Department of Investigations launched a probe into Preller's dealings with De Paula. Since its formation at the start of 2008, the DOI had made rampant corruption in the Dominican Republic a prime target of its work. The MLB's office in the Dominican Republic had been gutted, and its director fired, because of corruption uncovered by DOI; scouts and assistant general managers had been fired; dozens of schemes had been uncovered in which U.S. scouts and Dominican buscones were skimming money from the signing bonuses of Latin American kids; and dozens more cases of identity and age fraud, as well as abuse of steroids, were addressed.

The problems, long baseball's dirty little secret, were so endemic that commissioner Bud Selig appointed Sandy Alderson, the longtime baseball executive, to act as his emissary in the Dominican Republic.

After MLB investigators had listened to Kuki Acevedo's tape of his 2009 meeting with Preller and the other Rangers scouts and conducted follow-up interviews with all the principals involved, they were confident that they had unraveled another scheme, one in apparent violation of MLB rules governing negotiations with suspended players and one that included what they viewed as a proposed illegal payoff to satisfy a debt.

They hoped, according to a source close to the investigation, this one would send the message that such conduct would no longer fall under the heading of business as usual and result in a statement-making punishment.

Instead, amid a series of claims and counterclaims, the Rangers ultimately were successful in persuading Major League Baseball that their actions not only were not egregious but also constituted minor violations, the type committed regularly by MLB clubs. And the Rangers ultimately did not sign De Paula, who wound up signing with the New York Yankees for $500,000.

The fact that MLB administered any discipline to Preller -- ultimately a 30-day suspension after a hearing in New York conducted by John McHale Jr., MLB executive vice president of administration -- surfaced only five years later, after Preller, 37, was named general manager of the Padres on Aug. 6.

When contacted last week by ESPN.com, the Rangers, Padres, MLB and Preller all said they were satisfied that the issue had been properly addressed.

"More has been made about the discipline for A.J. Preller than has been warranted," said Dan Halem, MLB executive vice president of labor relations. "Consistent with such matters, we won't discuss details except to say circumstances of a complex international matter were examined and addressed.

"In our communication with the Padres, we told them it did not preclude the hiring of A.J. Preller as general manager."

Mike Dee, the president of the Padres, said the team had reached out to MLB in the course of vetting Preller during its GM search.

"This was not an issue for us," Dee said. "A whole lot of to-do over very little.

"We can assure you we talked to the highest levels of the commissioner's office about A.J. and have absolutely no concerns. He has high integrity. His track record before and since the alleged incident has been perfect.

"Once we got a clean bill of health, we moved on."

Jon Daniels, the Rangers' general manager, went to college with Preller at Cornell. Daniels was present at the hearing conducted by MLB in New York.

"We acknowledged the situation," Daniels said. "We worked with MLB at the time of the investigation. While I did not ultimately agree with their conclusions, we accepted the discipline and moved on. I find it unfortunate that people who don't have all the information would be passing judgment on A.J. at a point in his career he's thriving.

"There are far worse issues that would be a higher priority to address than this. I said it before and I'll say it again, the Padres made a tremendous hire in A.J. He's talented, he treats people well, his work ethic is second to none, and he has great integrity. I stand by that."

Preller said that, in the end, the Rangers and MLB "agreed to disagree" on whether he had violated a rule against negotiating with a suspended player.

"We viewed the rule that you couldn't sign a player on the suspended list," he said. "That was part of the disagreement.

"The way we went about it, we tried to be clear about the situation and cooperate the whole way. We told them the way we saw the situation then left it in their boat to make what they had to make of the situation. The way we looked at the situation, we felt we didn't violate any rules.

"Ultimately it was in MLB's hands to make the call, but that's the way the Rangers felt, that was the way Jon Daniels felt. I've mentioned a few times I'm very proud of the way the Rangers' international group handled itself over the years. We worked tirelessly, we cared for the kids, we develop them into big league-caliber players and people. We take a lot of pride in that."

As for the investigators who first brought the Preller case to MLB's attention, one source close to the investigation said they remain disappointed nothing more happened five years ago.

"We have the opportunity to send an industry-wide message," the source said. "And they just slapped him on the wrist."

And what of De Paula? He signed with the Yankees in November 2010 but didn't make his pro debut in 2012 because of ongoing identity, age and visa issues. He was ranked as the Yankees' 15th top prospect after the 2013 season by Baseball America and, in an odd twist, now is with the Padres. He was acquired by San Diego in a trade for third baseman Chase Headley just a couple of weeks before Preller became Padres GM.