The international signing process has become messier than ever. Not that it's ever been a clean, straightforward puzzle to put together before, but the combination of aggressive scouting, major league rules and external factors beyond baseball has pushed the arena to a new level.
Talk to an international scout about a top 2016 player who will be eligible to sign on July 2 and the response usually starts with some variation of, "Yeah, I saw him, but the last look I had on him was last summer, then he disappeared." Several of the top players who will be officially eligible to sign on July 2 have had oral agreements in place since before July 2 last year. There are already around 10 players with deals in place for 2017, even though the new Collective Bargaining Agreement won't come out until Dec. 1 and could dramatically change the international signing system.
Even in February when high-level scouts and executives were in the Dominican Republic for Major League Baseball's annual international showcase, trainers were more eager to show their 2017 players than their 2016s, with 2016 players already referred to as "passed over" or "left over" players, even though they wouldn't become eligible to sign for another five months.
"Someone at a showcase the other day was showing a 2020 kid," said one international director. "I'm watching a 12-year-old taking batting practice. What am I going to get out of that?"
Since players who are 15 and 16 can change quickly, a report from a player in September could change quite a bit by this time. Several players have broken through and will end up as bargains, while others who reached oral agreements last summer have either regressed or not taken the steps forward those teams were hoping to see.
The influx of Cuban talent has had an impact on the market. So has the economic crisis in Venezuela, where scouts say the talent is strong this year but club officials are wary to visit because of the danger, with some scouts now traveling the country with armed bodyguards wherever they go.