JUPITER, Fla. -- Imagine being a 16-year-old baseball player who's just agreed to a $3.1 million signing bonus with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pretty neat stuff, right? Maybe you'll be the next Albert Pujols, and you certainly don't have to worry about money for a while.
Now imagine being that same 16-year-old kid who's just been told by the Cardinals that he failed a mandatory physical and that his contract is null and void. No $3.1 million, no nothing, because the Cardinals don't think he's healthy enough to play for them.
Now you know what it's like to be Wagner Mateo, a 16-year-old player from the Dominican Republic who signed that sweet $3.1 million deal with the Cardinals on July 2 this past summer, only to be informed in late September that he failed the physical and the deal is off.
Mateo is a free agent under international rules, free to sign with anyone who wants him, at any time. That's why he's competing in the WWBA World Championship this week in Florida, hoping to impress the hundreds of pro scouts who have flocked to the Roger Dean Sports Complex to watch some of the top amateur talent in the world. All 30 major league teams are represented here, including the St. Louis Cardinals, but they've dropped out of the bidding.
Mateo flashed an easy smile Thursday while playing for the Texas Scout Team Yankees. If he was depressed or unhappy, he didn't show any visible signs as his words were translated from Spanish into English by Edgar Mercedes, his agent.
"He said he doesn't feel bad, because they (the Cardinals) are one team," said Mercedes. "He knows what he can do on the field. He just wants to work hard and show everybody he can play."
It's not fair to judge a ballplayer on one game, but Mateo had a rough day Thursday during the Texas Yankees' 6-0 victory over the Upstate Mavericks. He struck out twice and went 0-for-3, but said he's looking forward to getting better pitches to hit in the next few games.
Mateo is a 6-foot-2, 205-pound outfielder who throws and bats left-handed. He turned 16 on March 30, and if he were living in the United States he'd be just a junior in high school who wouldn't be eligible for the major league draft until 2011. The rules for international players are different, however, and Mateo was eligible to sign as a free agent with the Cardinals -- or anyone else -- once he turned 16.
He was considered one of the top amateur free agents from Latin America this year, and St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak called it a "significant step" for the Cardinals when they reached agreement on that $3.1 million bonus. Mateo did not receive any of the money, because the deal was contingent on passing the physical.
It took more than two months for the Cardinals to announce he'd failed the physical and the deal was off, but Mercedes said the Cardinals had the right to take that much time. "They were inside the window that they had," he said. "I think you get 90 days, or 105 days, after the signing. They could have taken as long as they wanted. They had the right to do so."
According to a report by the Associated Press on Sept. 22, the physical revealed a pair of injuries that convinced the Cardinals to terminate the contract.
"We did our due diligence and we concluded that he had a pre-existing injury and he also is currently dealing with another injury," Mozeliak said in the AP story. "Having both those issues out there, we realized it was in the best interest of the club to void the contract."
Mercedes disputed that report, saying Mateo does not -- and did not -- have any injuries that would have caused him to fail the physical. Mercedes said it was a "vision thing," and nothing else. He said the physical exam revealed that Mateo does not have 20-20 vision in his right eye, and that's why he failed the exam.
In any case, the contract has been nullified and Mateo is a free agent again. That's why he's in Jupiter, playing in the WWBA World Championship. "We chose this stage to show people that he can see and hit," said Mercedes.
Mateo said his vision, and spirits, are good. "He's always in good spirits. He's a good kid," said Mercedes.
There have been reports that Mateo is close to signing with another team, but Mercedes said nothing is imminent. Mateo underwent his own physical exam this month, conducted by his own doctors, and those results are not ready, putting a new signing with a new team on hold.
"I don't think it's going to be that quick, because the doctors told us they'll have the results in 10 days," said Mercedes. "And then I guess we'll have to get those (results) to the teams, and every team will want to do their own evaluation. There's really no timetable, but I know there's a lot of interest. I know there's five teams that are very serious about him."
Mateo has received "strong support" from his family during the entire process with the Cardinals, according to Mercedes. He said the family is confident everything will turn out OK. "They just know it's a matter of time before he signs again," Mercedes said.