Major League Baseball's new rules might be partly driven by legitimate concerns over trends in the international signing process, but the changes have only created more problems than they have solved.
The new rules restrict players from going to a team's academy until either they turn 16 or until six months before they're eligible (whichever comes first), and counts any visit to a team facility as one of the 30 days the player is allowed to be at the academy, regardless of whether the player stays there overnight.
The motivation behind the changes, it seems, is MLB's desire to cut back on the extreme early agreements for players who can sign on July 2 that the industry has trended toward in the last year or so. It's long been industry practice for teams to agree to sign players in advance of July 2, but teams have become more than aggressive than ever in their early pursuit of international talent. Some teams last year agreed to deals with players at least 10 months in advance of July 2. The competition for younger players has only increased this year, with multiple teams already having agreements in place to sign players for July 2, 2015.
MLB's goal to try to curb teams from being pushed to scout 14-year-olds and reach agreements with 15-year-olds a year before they're eligible to sign is admirable and a worthwhile pursuit. Yet the way the commissioner's office has gone about trying to fix that problem has only created more issues and a more imbalanced system that leaves teams and players worse off than they were before. Here’s why:
1. Less Opportunity To Evaluate
Bringing players into a Dominican academy is the primary way most teams prefer to evaluate Latin American players. Teams can put players through game situations, work with them on different drills and get to know them as people. It also provides convenience, especially for an international scouting director coming in from the United States, to have several players from across Latin America in the academy at one time, rather than have to travel across the island to look at players individually. Teams such as the Rangers, Pirates and some others consistently earn praise from trainers who like that scouts from those organizations come to their fields to see their players rather than just ask that the trainers send their players to them. Now, especially before January, other clubs will have to adopt that practice.
The issue, though, isn't that scouts might have to travel to different places and have less job convenience. What bothers both teams and trainers is that it gives scouts fewer opportunities to evaluate players. Certainly, that seems to be part of the intention of the new rules. If scouts can't make a proper evaluation of a player in September, that should cut back on their confidence to offer him $1 million at that point.
The problem is that teams are now going to have to make decisions based on less information and less certainty in an international arena that's already filled with risk and uncertainty. Teams will draft 18-year-old high school players from the United States in June, but watching prospects at showcases and All-America games this summer is a critical part of the evaluation process. With college players, teams have three years of history, sometimes more if they were prep standouts. Taking away the academy component for teams until January reduces scouting history and reduces confidence in an evaluation, which is especially troubling in Latin America, where players don't have a high school or a college team to help scouts to gauge their abilities.
2. Shots Fired At The DPL And IPL
It's hard to not see the rule changes as an attack by the commissioner's office against the Dominican Prospect League and the International Prospect League. These trainer-organized leagues have filled a need in the marketplace both for players and teams. Prior to the DPL and the IPL, scouting Dominican prospects depended heavily on having a relationship with the trainer and seeing them individually at private showings. Now, trainers have banded together to put their players in weekly games that all 30 teams are free to attend, creating more transparency and putting players in games (something highly lacking before), making life easier for both scouts and players.
Those leagues usually play their games at a team's Dominican academy, which is no longer a viable option until Jan. 2, since the majority of top players in those leagues won't be able to enter a club's academy before then. Even after Jan. 2, if a player is in a DPL or IPL game at the Yankees' academy, it would seem that every player would have that count as one of his 30 days that he's allowed to visit the Yankees' academy, even though he's not staying there overnight. It's the same for spring training trips that the leagues often make. MLB could decide that the DPL and IPL are exempt from the new rules, but given that the commissioner's office is well aware of how central the DPL and IPL are to the fabric of scouting Dominican players, they're smart enough to have mentioned that explicitly if they were going to make those leagues exempt. MLB also runs its own amateur prospect league and holds multiple showcases, although those aren't held at team facilities and won't be affected.
The new rules hurt the DPL and the IPL, but that doesn't mean they're going away. There are plenty of fields in the Dominican Republic, though they may not be as well-maintained or have two fields to play simultaneous games that an official team complex provides. So those leagues will continue, although the IPL's trip to Tropicana Field on Aug. 28 and the DPL's plans to play on MLB fields in Jupiter, Fla., in October seem like they're going to have to be adjusted. MLB isn't eliminating the DPL or the IPL, but it certainly looks like the commissioner's office is trying to use its power to push the leagues off their territory.
3. Penalizes Younger Players
The oldest players in a class already have an advantage. In general, players who turn 16 in September are going to be more physically mature than players who turn 16 in June, so their tools and skills may be further developed than the younger players in the class. Granted, the high level of age fraud that is still rampant in Latin America skews that, but the older players in the signing class tend to have an advantage.
Now MLB has hurt the youngest players in the signing class even more. Once a player turns 16 or is six months from being eligible to sign, he can enter a team's academy. So the prospect who turns 16 in September is going to get an extra four months where he's allowed to be in a team facility compared to the kid who turns 16 in April, even though they're both eligible to sign on July 2. Why should the older player get an additional four months where he's allowed to work out in any team facility he wants while the player he's competing with for the same bonus pool money is banned from going through those same gates?
4. Double Standard For Americans Vs. Latinos
In October, hundreds of players from the United States who are eligible for the 2015 draft in June will play games in an MLB facility in Jupiter, Fla., to participate in the Perfect Game World Wood-Bat Association Championships. Yet the DPL won't be able to step on to the same field against them because the new international rules ban most of them from doing so, even though they're eligible to sign one month after the American kids. A game that was expected to be played between DPL players and the Canadian junior national team now will have to either be moved or cancelled because one group of foreign players is subject to the international rules and can’t be at an MLB facility, while the team from Canada is free to do so. This presumably means the end of international players in the Under Armour All-America game at Wrigley Field every August and any other player from being able to participate in a showcase on an MLB field even though there's no rule prohibiting American kids from doing so. How can MLB tell Latin American players who can sign in July that they're banned from MLB facilities when players from the United States who are eligible to sign just one month before them have no such restrictions?
5. Condenses Schedule For Players
Since players don't have high school teams in the Dominican Republic, scouting is heavily dependent on bringing players to team academies or other private workouts. Even before the new rules, that often means a rigorous schedule for kids who are still 15 and 16 years old. The DPL and IPL can help alleviate that, to a degree, but players spend a lot of time traveling around to the different complexes, often working around the schedule of when top American scouts are in town to see them.
Now that anything prior to Jan. 2 is off the board for most players to be evaluated in a team academy, that condenses the tryout schedule into six months. Overuse is already an issue, especially for pitchers, who can't throw every day. The previous rules allowed for more flexibility; the new rules will force trainers to push their players harder than ever before to make sure they're seen by as many teams as possible and to make up for teams' lack of history with them. That could lead to more injuries, more exhausted kids and leave them with less time for school (although many of them no longer go to school), creating a worse environment for scouts to make evaluations.
6. Less Opportunity To Develop
When players enter a team academy, coaches and scouts work with them to help them make adjustments. There's certainly self-interest involved on behalf of the teams, who want to see whether a player might be able to tweak his swing, change his footwork, alter his technique on a double play or just generally gauge his aptitude for absorbing instruction. They also do it because they just care about baseball and want to help players get better, whether they sign with them or not. Whatever the motivations are of the team, players generally get better when they're in an academy and have access to professional baseball minds and more advanced competition than they're used to facing in a program run by their trainer.
7. Who Benefits From These Rules?
This perhaps is the best question to ask about the new regulations. They certainly don't seem to give the players any advantage. And the teams now have fewer opportunities to see players, so it doesn't help them either. The only party these rules seem to help is the commissioner's office, which could potentially gain greater influence and control over the showcasing of amateur talent in Latin America.
If MLB wants to curtail 14-year-olds being showcased at team facilities, there's nothing wrong with that. While those showcases can attract more than 100 scouts, many of those scouts are there out of necessity given the overall aggression of the industry and would prefer to not have to make decisions on kids that age. The new rules will cut down on exposure for 14-year-olds, but it does so at the expense of the 16-year-old players who are eligible to sign on July 2, and creates an uneven playing field for kids who are in the same signing class.
After players turn 16, they are eligible to sign on the following July 2, or if they turn 16 by Aug. 30, they are eligible to sign on their birthday. What MLB could have done is say that, if a player is eligible to sign in 2015, the first date he is eligible to enter a team facility is Sept. 1. That would cut back on showcases for 14-year-olds, possibly reduce some of the early agreements that already are in place, and would make a kid who was born in September subject to the same rules as a player who was born in May. It would also put Latin American players on a similar evaluation timetable as their U.S. high school counterparts and allow leagues such as the DPL and IPL to continue to provide a platform for the coming year's players.
What MLB did was invent new regulations that make players and teams worse off then they were before. Instead of telling kids who want to play baseball that they're banned from a team academy that was built to help baseball players, MLB should focus on banning from the academy the trainers who sexually molest kids, give them steroids, help them falsify their ages and coordinate kickbacks with scouts. And when a team official breaks the rules, focus on penalizing that individual and his team, and bring transparency to the penalty the way there's transparency for a player who's suspended for taking steroids.
The Latin American landscape is a complex one in need of reforms, but many of the changes that would improve the arena aren't difficult to understand or to implement. The newest rules are the wrong answer.