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Major league teams can still sign international players—they just can’t scout them.
While much of that focus centers around the big-ticket international signings that occur every year on July 2, the new rules from Major League Baseball this week will have a substantial impact on the current signing period.
The commissioner’s office informed clubs in a March 16 memo that teams are under a temporary ban on all scouting activities, both in the United States and internationally, in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. That ban prohibits club officials from going to events such as games, showcases or private workouts, but MLB’s memo also said that teams “may not conduct in-home or other in-person visits” with players.
Still, MLB hasn’t put a complete stop to signings. While a team can’t meet in person with a player, a club could still e-mail a player a contract for him to sign and return electronically. But going to the field where a player trains to scout him there or meeting with him and his agent to work out a deal is off limits.
That means that signings for the current 2019-20 signing period can continue, but teams will have to make decisions based on the information they have right now. And unlike domestic signings, with a draft from June 10-12, international signings happen 12 months a year. The current signing period opened last year on July 2 and closes on June 15, followed by a two-week closed period until the next signing period opens.
The next three months of signings through June 15 don’t typically get much publicity, but they are significant. Last year between March 17 and June 15, teams signed 219 international free agents for a combined $12.9 million. That’s 7.3 signings per team and $430,000 per club.
While so much focus is now on players for the 2021, 2022 and even 2023 classes, teams still scout eligible players, some of whom are still 16 and 17, hoping to find a player who was either previously unknown or whose development kicked into another gear later in the process. Clubs also use this time of year to fill out their rosters for the upcoming Dominican Summer League.
Just last year, the White Sox signed Panamanian outfielder Benyamin Bailey on April 27 for $35,000. After signing, Bailey led the DSL in OBP as a 17-year-old and ranked as Baseball America’s No. 9 prospect in the league. Big signings happen, too. The largest bonus in that window last year was $1 million, which the Blue Jays gave to Cuban righthander Yosver Zulueta, who had Tommy John surgery soon after signing.
What happens to those 200-plus players now? Nobody knows when the scouting ban might end, but it could carry past June 15. Even if it doesn’t, a significant window of the signing period will be wiped out for live looks.
Teams that still have money left in their bonus pools will try to spend it, since that bonus pool money has to be used or it will be lost. If a team ends June 15 with $500,000 in its bonus pool, that leftover amount doesn’t carry over to the next period.
Cubs will still try to sign some players, but there probably won’t be another 200-plus signings and $12.9 million spent between now and June 15. Even once MLB lifts the ban, players are going to need time to get ramped up again before they’re ready to be seen, since a lot of of them are going to take time off from training in the face of a global pandemic. In Latin America, where teams are constantly scouting players younger and younger, trying to keep up with four or five classes of players at once—with 18-year-old players looked at as old—that lost time is important.
So what can be done?
At this point, MLB is still trying to figure out the right questions it needs to be asking before it comes up with answers to the current crisis. But one possibility (and this idea isn’t from MLB) could be to take any unused bonus pool money from the 2019-20 signing period and apply it to the 2020-21 pools that open on July 2. A team could then roll over its own unused pool space from the 2019-20 period to its pool for the 2020-21 period. If that provides a disproportionate advantage for some clubs, MLB could take the aggregate unused 2019-20 pool money and divide it equally among all 30 clubs into their 2020-21 pools.
It’s not the top priority right now for MLB, which has some time to figure it out. At some point, though, the league should find a way to make things right for the players and the clubs affected by the changes to the final three months of the signing period.