MLB Proposes International Draft, But Reforms Must Start At The Top

Major League Baseball has long wanted an international draft. The driving force behind implementing an international draft is for owners to control their labor costs by paying less money to international amateur players, allowing owners to keep more of that money.

MLB already created a cost-control mechanism in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement by instituting bonus pools in the draft and for international signings. While the bonus pools clearly curtail draft spending, teams aren’t afraid to exceed their international bonus pools. Since 2012, there are 18 teams that have exceeded their pools, a mix of high-revenue franchises like the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs as well as smaller ones like the Rays (twice), Padres, Athletics and Royals. MLB’s goal is not competitive balance—otherwise they could have simply given every team the same bonus pool and had them compete on an even playing field—it’s about controlling costs so owners keep more money.

On the other side of the table in the CBA negotiations, the players’ association doesn’t care about international amateur players as anything more than a bargaining chip. It’s nothing discriminatory against foreign players, it’s just that the union looks out for players on 40-man rosters. So international players, draft picks in the United States and minor leaguers who make less than $10,000 in annual salary get their rights sold out by the union, which in exchange can negotiate items like a higher major league minimum salary, adjustments to the Super 2 rules or modifying draft pick compensation attached to free agent signings.

On Monday, ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that MLB is pushing for a 10-round international draft. Per Olney’s report, instead of an international signing period opening on July 2, it would be a two-day draft in March beginning in 2018. By 2021, MLB wants to raise the signing age from 16 to 18, which is older than players subject to the current June draft have to be to sign.

As Olney reported: “As part of baseball’s proposal, MLB would operate facilities in the Dominican Republic, where international draft prospects would be invited to live to develop their skills and education before becoming eligible. This would also give MLB much greater control over a process which has often been viewed by baseball executives as a wild, wild West of player procurement.”

There are a lot of different items in play. The CBA expires on Dec. 1, so the timing is curious, with a lot of the specifics of the proposal yet to be made public. Perhaps it’s more of a negotiating tactic by MLB, but for now let’s presume the league’s requests are genuine.

An international draft could have benefits and drawbacks for both teams and players, depending on the specific rules of the draft. But this isn’t about whether the league or the players would be better or worse off with an international draft. While there is no shortage of brainpower in the commissioner’s office, MLB has shown yet again that the people who work in New York and create the rules regarding international signings are detached from the realities of what’s involved in signing and developing international players.

Let’s walk through the process of how players in the Dominican Republic get signed. MLB does not discover players. The ones who find and develop players are the trainers. They’re often called “buscones,” a term many trainers don’t like because it has a negative connotation, some of which is merited. These trainers often bring players into their program when they are 12 or 13 years old until they sign with a team, which they can do at 16.

How each trainer operates is different, but they typically find players in their area. They might identify them through local youth leagues, through players coming to them or from other tips they get. Often, a smaller-level trainer will have a player who he brings to another trainer with more resources to represent that player in exchange for a percentage his bonus.

Amateur baseball is different in the Dominican Republic different than it is in the United States. The organized youth baseball structure is lacking in the Dominican Republic, where kids don’t have high school baseball or travel teams. Once a Dominican player and his parents agree to be represented by a trainer, the trainer provides the player with coaching, with the bigger trainers often having a coaching staff they pay to help develop their players. The trainer often provides baseball equipment, travel expenses, food and sometimes housing. Some trainers have built entire fields and complexes for their players, partly in response to rules MLB implemented two years ago banning players from team academies. While some trainers run more of a bare bones operation, over the years leading up to a player’s signing, the trainers often end up paying for things like medicine, bills and other necessities for the player’s family that many can’t afford on their own. With players who stand out from an early age, the trainer will also give the player’s family cash up front—thousands of dollars in some cases—to entice the player to join his program.

The incentive for the trainer is that if the player signs with a major league team, the trainer gets a large commission, often 20-30 percent (or higher in some cases) of the player’s signing bonus. If the player doesn’t sign, the trainer gets nothing. As much as MLB attempts to continually denigrate the trainers, they serve an important role in the development of the thriving talent coming out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. There’s no question that many trainers are corrupt, just as there are corrupt scouts and corrupt MLB officials. Some of these people shouldn’t be involved in baseball or even allowed anywhere near a child. But many of them are also good people doing important work to help players and their families.

While the trainers compete with each other—first to get players to their program, then to sign players with teams—they also work collaboratively with each other and with teams to create solutions that benefit all parties. The most notable examples are the trainer-organized leagues, such as the Dominican Prospect League and International Prospect League, where trainers pool their players together so scouts can see them in game environments. Trainers in Venezuela are doing the same, and many of them are teaming with Dominican trainers to bring Venezuelan players to the Dominican Republic to get them more exposure than they would get right now in Venezuela, which has become a dangerous place for scouts to visit.

So after trainers identify players at age 12, then spend five years investing in their development, why would they relinquish control of their players to MLB? Many trainers and scouts who work in Latin America already have a fierce mistrust of MLB—and rightfully so. MLB has consistently made it more difficult and more dangerous for scouts to do their jobs, implemented rules that hurt players and are designed to limit their bonuses and engaged in a variety of ethically questionable actions. The trainers are incentivized to maximize the development of their players; MLB has no such incentives.

Or does MLB think they are going to be the ones who now identify and develop players from the time they’re 12? MLB has the scouting bureau in the Dominican Republic, but they don’t discover players. They just go to trainer-organized leagues, like the DPL or the IPL, or sometimes to the fields of the trainers, writing reports or taking videos of players who were already discovered years earlier. MLB runs an annual international amateur showcase in the Dominican Republic, an event that gets better every year and features many of the top international prospects. But again, MLB is not discovering or developing those players, and when MLB has attempted to run its own leagues, scouts have been underwhelmed with the quality of talent there.

This isn’t about whether a draft is good or bad for MLB or for the players. While most scouts seem to be opposed to an international draft, even scouts who would welcome a draft didn’t like what they heard about MLB’s proposal.

It’s about the troubling pattern that those who work on the ground in Latin America have taken issue with for years: That the people at MLB who create the rules on international signings do not understand the fundamental mechanics of how players are developed and signed in Latin America. That MLB treats the players, their trainers and even the teams in an adversarial manner rather than bringing people together to solicit their ideas and work together to create a better system for all parties.

Of course the international signing system is in need of reform. That reform needs to start at the top with how the commissioner’s office operates in Latin America.

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