Trainers, MLB Teams Unhappy With Current International Signing System

It doesn’t take long to see why the Dominican Republic is one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive.

Santo Domingo traffic is grinding, the roads are in rough shape and the drivers are aggressive.

Seeing people drive on the wrong side of the road is common. Your horn is your turn signal. Motorcycles weave in and out of traffic while pedestrians playing human Frogger dart across the highway.

If a driver blows through a red light past a police officer, he probably won’t get pulled over. There are traffic laws, but they’re loosely enforced—especially after dark—so the roads turn into chaos.

Major League Baseball has used a similar approach to police free agent signings in the Dominican Republic and the rest of the international market, particularly when it comes to regulating players agreeing to deals with teams years before they’re eligible to sign. Instead of scouting players at 16, when they become eligible to sign pro contracts, teams are reaching agreements to sign players when they’re 13 and 14.

Players committing before the signing period opens annually on July 2 isn’t new, but the speed of those deals has accelerated over the past two years. Those commitments used to come right before July 2. Then it stretched out to a few months before. By 2015, there were cases of players reaching agreements more than a year before they were eligible to sign. In 2017, things slowed down temporarily. Teams had been allowed to blow through international bonus pools up to that point, but until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement came through in December 2016, nobody knew whether there would be an international draft or what the rules were going to be for 2017.

Since 2017, the bonus pools have been hard capped, meaning teams have finite resources and no more future signing restriction penalties for exceeding their pools. So once teams commit all or most of their 2019 pool, they turn their attention to the 2020 class, then repeat for 2021 and 2022. It has spiraled to the point of creating widespread dissatisfaction with the current system, among both scouts and trainers, and among both those in favor of a draft and those opposed.

None of that is a secret. MLB knows what’s happening. It’s not about one team or a couple teams. It’s all 30 clubs trying to keep up with each other, and it happens systemically because MLB indirectly gives teams the green light allowing it to happen.

From MLB’s perspective, coming up with a practical way to prevent teams from early commitments is more complicated, if it’s to be implemented in a way that’s equal to all 30 clubs. MLB wants to hold all clubs to the same standard in enforcement, but making an example of one team penalizes that club for something everyone else is doing.

“The gloves are completely off now,” one international scouting director said. “It’s go scout everybody. So people are coming to deals with 2022 players, contingent upon there being no draft. So where does this end? I think we’re pretty good. I think other teams are pretty good. But nobody’s good enough to scout a 13-year-old kid.

“I can’t speak for other directors, but when I talk to them, we’re pretty much all saying, ‘Tell us what the rules are, and whatever the rules are, we’re going to compete against each other.’ ”

Youth Movement

The big showcases in Latin America the last few months haven’t been focused on 2019 or even 2020 players.

Those events now are built around 2021 and 2022 players, who are as young as 12 and 13. The acceleration of the signing process has changed the way trainers operate their programs.

“I hope they have the draft,” said one trainer previously opposed to the draft. “All the trainers, to have a player, we used to get them at 13-14 years old. Now you have to get them at 10-11 years old. So you have to carry them until they’re 16 years old. How much money have you spent on those guys?

“I’ve got players signed for 2021, but I still have to buy that player gloves, equipment, baseballs, food, trainers through 2021. And I have to continue to get new players. So as a result, all of us have 30-35 players. That is a tremendous amount of cost. You sign a 2021, you don’t get paid until 2021 or 2022. Then you have to continue buy them gloves, equipment, feed them, take them everywhere and still play them at risk of them getting hurt.

“I was so depressed this week. I went to my field and I’m looking at 10- and 11-year-olds. It’s like going to Little League tryouts. I’m going, ‘I can’t believe I’m looking at these kids.’ When kids are signing at 12, the alarm goes off to the parents that the kids have to be in an academy (of a trainer) when they’re 10 because they’re signing them when they’re 12.”

For trainers, keeping up with demand from teams is part of the reason they’re recruiting younger players. But some of it is also the increased competition among trainers throughout the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to recruit the countries’ best players. That might not change even if MLB went to a draft or started enforcing rules preventing clubs from cutting early deals.

“When I started doing this, I got the players at 14 years old,” said another trainer, who said he is against a draft. “So I worked with those guys for a year, a year and a half, and I made a deal. Now there are so many agents around, so we started to get the players at 12 years old. Right now, I have a program with kids between 8 and 10 years old.

“So we start working with those guys at 8 years old. When they’re 12 or 13, the organizations start going crazy for those guys. That’s why we’re closing the players so early. You get them in the program, improve their nutrition, their habits. I have two players for 2022, they are facing pitchers for 2017, 2018, throwing 88-92 (mph) and they can hit the ball—hard. That’s crazy. That didn’t happen 10 years ago.”

A 12-year-old hitting against a 17-year-old is like a Little Leaguer facing a high school varsity pitcher. And it’s not uncommon. It’s hard for scouts not to get excited when they’re at a showcase with 2019 to 2021 players and the 2021s are the most talented ones on the field. But if the margin for error is already high on projecting players who are 16, it’s even bigger when teams are making decisions on kids two or three years younger.

“One of my players is 5-foot-9,” said the first trainer. “They told me, ‘I have questions about his body.’ At 14, you start your growth spurt. I’m like, ‘Do you understand you’re looking at this the same way you looked at Eloy Jimenez?’ And you expect them to do the same thing—except they’re 14, 13 years old and now 12.”

Competitive Frenzy

International scouting attracts some of the game’s best scouts and most fiercely intense competitors. In the draft, everyone knows who the top picks will be in a given class. On draft day, you wait your turn, pick your player, then wait until it’s your turn to pick another player. If you pick 17th overall in a draft, there are 16 players you don’t have access to sign.

Internationally, even with a hard cap, there’s free agency, so every team has access to every player, and they can sign or agree to sign a player 365 days a year. There are big scouting events and showcases, but there’s less consensus on the top players relative to the United States, and teams that get in early and build history on a player can beat other teams to a signing.

“We’re in an aggressive market with a lot of competition, so people want to keep stretching to get the next guy,” said another international director. “The value of prospects has never been higher, and if you’re able to get the guy young, then you’re the man. You’ve got the next great thing and you beat everyone to him.”

Yet in conversations over the past year, scouts who had once been vociferously against a draft are now more receptive to the idea.

“I would have no problem with a draft,” the second director said. “I’d welcome a slowdown, to take some of the heat off the kids, let these kids grow. I wouldn’t mind doing it next year even. I have kids committed for next year—a good class, too. It wouldn’t bother me.”

“I never was for the draft,” said a third international director. “As a scout, it just helps lazy people. But the way it’s going now, it’s kind of a disaster. Whatever they come up with, I’m good. The way our lives work right now, we’re not capable of keeping this up. You’re looking at 16, 15, 14, 13—you’re looking at four years’ worth of players. It’s tough. There’s never a break. Everyone’s running.

“All we’re doing is trying to keep up with the other teams because it’s an open market. You have to know the players. And we’re all making mistakes. All of us. I think I’m a decent scout. When I see a 16-year-old kid for six, seven months, I think I’m pretty good at picking out a guy. I can’t do that with a 13-year-old.”

Nearly every scout has repeated some version of the same story. They say they don’t like what’s happening now. We shouldn’t be making signing decisions on kids who are 13 and 14. And we’re doing it, too, because MLB is quietly giving us the thumbs up to do it, and if we don’t, we’re going to fall behind, our GM and owner are going to be mad, and I’ll get fired.

“I’m all in for the draft,” said a fourth international director. “I wasn’t in favor before, because if you have contacts and abilities, you can beat other teams in the D.R. I thought if you go to a draft, it takes that skill set away. But now, it’s stupid. We’re gambling millions of dollars on kids.”

New Voices

Over the past year, the commissioner’s office has reshaped its personnel and efforts in Latin America. While MLB found itself publicly clashing with trainers in the past, the reality is that club personnel who worked in Latin America were just as fed up with the commissioner’s office.

That has changed dramatically in the past year. Several international scouts have said that the commissioner’s office has bounced ideas off them, listened to their input and implemented policy changes based on those conversations. Through the league’s Trainer Partnership Program, trainers in the program have generally seemed pleased with MLB.

But on the issue of early signings, there’s still displeasure with the status quo. MLB’s solution is an international draft. That might come before the next CBA after the 2021 season, but a draft would have to be collectively bargained with the MLB Players’ Association. On one side of the bargaining table are the MLB owners, whose want to keep labor costs down. On the other side is the MLBPA, which fights for its union members, i.e. players on 40-man rosters.

Amateur players—both foreign and domestic—don’t have a seat at the table, so their rights get negotiated away as a bargaining chip.

“I haven’t been invited to talk with the Players’ Association,” said a third trainer. “I have been from MLB. Who’s the one who’s listening to me right now? It’s MLB. But the Players’ Association doesn’t care about us. They don’t care about minor league players. You think they’re going to care about Latin American players?

“The last (MLB) administration, it was a joke. In all fairness, this group, from day one, they have been very open to conversations. They’ve listened to us. We might not agree at the end of the day, but there is an open conversation.”

Recognizing their limitations in the collective bargaining process, some trainers have had discussions with MLB officials about a draft. Other trainers are more militantly anti-draft, believing that once a draft is in place, MLB will wield even more power against international amateurs.

“You have to do a lot of adjustments because they’re not giving you enough time to prepare the kids,” said a fourth trainer. “For a guy like me, I like to develop players. I don’t think it’s the best thing, signing 13-year-olds. I think kids need more space to develop and I think the early deals are not the best thing to happen. But I prefer early deals more than a draft.”

One shared concern among trainers is the impact that players reaching deals at 13 and 14 is having on signing bonuses. If a player who might be a top five prospect in the 2021 class takes a $2 million deal, that affects the market for other top 2021 players. As more players in a class commit, there’s a cascading effect, with players becoming more eager to commit early, knowing that with the hard-capped system, the amount of pool space a team will have shrinks.

“I signed a player for over $1 million,” said the second trainer. “If I keep working with this guy until 2020, I know he’s going to be worth $2 million. But right now, I have to take the money the team is offering. Because if I wait for him to develop the tools I think he can get, I’m not going to get the money. That’s why the organizations are paying the money for those guys, because they know they’re paying $1 million for a guy whose value will be $2 million by his signing age.”

It doesn’t always work that way. Some players don’t get better the way a team anticipated, or sometimes a team realizes it just missed the mark in its early evaluation. Other times a player has gotten better and ended up changing his commitment to a new team or renegotiated a bigger bonus with the same club.

The other side of teams tying up their pools early and focusing on classes two to three years away is what happens to players in the 2019 class who don’t know where they’re going to sign yet. Those players are still 16, some even 15 years old. By the time they’re 17—and perhaps even before then—their market value shrinks because teams have limited money remaining.

With trainers already paying to carry four years or more worth of players in their program at once, what happens to the 17-year-old eligible player? “Drop them,” said a fifth trainer. “I drop them. That is so bad for a kid.”

“It’s brutal,” said the fourth international director. “I don’t like it all. It’s bad for business for everyone. There’s no winning.”

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