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MLB bans playing in Venezuela amid Trump order

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Major League Baseball has banned all affiliated players from participating in the Venezuela winter league this year, 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 to The Wall Street Journal. “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 similar situation to 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 MLB Players Association, according to sources. The fear, sources said, is that players agreeing to deals, or agents consummating them, with a government-affiliated entity 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 the league from signing amateur players in Venezuela. The country has proved to be a hotbed of talent, with Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña 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 Thursday acknowledged recent backchannel 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 Department of Justice 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 play in the LVBP, contracts are not typically agreed upon until September and October. With no affiliated players allowed, Luis Amaro, the general manager for 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 only can 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 or Puerto Rican leagues.

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CC to bullpen; Yanks envision 'significant role'

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Yankees manager Aaron Boone envisions CC Sabathia playing a “significant role” out of the bullpen in the postseason, he said before Friday night’s game against Toronto.

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Yanks’ Sabathia to be used in relief in final week

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NEW YORK — Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia is getting set to close his career as a reliever.

New York manager Aaron Boone said before Friday night’s game against Toronto that Sabathia will work out of the bullpen next week as the AL East champions prepare for the playoffs.

The 39-year-old lefty has pitched in relief just once in his 19-season career, going 1⅓ innings in a deciding Game 5 loss to Detroit in the 2011 AL Division Series.

Sabathia’s other 583 appearances have all come as a starter. He is 5-8 in 22 starts with a 4.99 ERA this season and has dealt with knee trouble.

Sabathia has said this will be his last year playing in the majors.

The Yankees are still figuring out their rotation for the postseason, which begins Oct. 4 with the best-of-five Division Series. Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ and Luis Severino are among the candidates to start.

Severino came back from a lat injury and made his season debut with four shutout innings in a start Tuesday. Domingo Germán, the team’s top winner at 18-4, was put on administrative leave Thursday under Major League Baseball’s domestic violence policy and his status for the postseason is uncertain.

Boone said he anticipates using Sabathia in a controlled setting next week at Tampa Bay. If that goes well, Boone said he would try it “a little more on the fly” next weekend at Texas. Boone envisions a “significant role” for Sabathia in the postseason.

“That’s why we want to do this a couple of times. He’s certainly on board with it and wants to do it,” Boone said.

“I feel like for obviously as much as he has to deal with the knee, I feel like he’s in at least a pretty good place right now to be able to do it,” Boone said.

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Nationals manager Martinez returning to dugout

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Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez will be back in the dugout Friday after missing three games following a heart procedure on Monday, the team announced.

Martinez, 54, had a minor cardiac catheterization in Washington after experiencing chest pains during Sunday’s home game against the Atlanta Braves. He left in the sixth inning and was taken to a hospital.

Bench coach Chip Hale managed the team during Martinez’s absence, with the Nationals winning one of three games in a series with the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Nationals have a 1-game lead over the Milwaukee Brewers for the top wild-card spot in the National League.

The Nationals open a three-series with the Marlins in Miami on Friday.

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