This week, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stated that getting the groundwork of an international draft into the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations was a priority. The basics of it would be a 10-round draft starting in 2018. All prospects would have to be a minimum of 18 years old, up from the current 16 year old threshold, and be age-verified by MLB prior to consideration to be drafted.
An international draft is something that I’ve been espousing for quite some time at my various writing stops. Usually when the concept of an international draft is brought up, there’s a subset of fans that clutch their pearls and say what a logistical nightmare it would be to put it together. It’s not, especially if you don’t mind actually doing work, which is a problem for some people. It’s especially not a burden on teams or the players. In most respects it would be better for all parties.
MLB would have to set up some type of central offices in different areas of the world. There would need to be an Asian office (even if Japan, presumably, is not in this other countries will be), a European office, possibly an Australian office (this could be rolled into Asia, I suppose), a Latin America/Caribbean office, and a stand-alone Dominican office. Each brick and mortar place would be where prospects have to mail their paperwork to verify their true age and identity. For those fortunate enough to live close enough to said offices, they could register in-person with their agents. Every office would be staffed by a MLB-employee that reports out his division’s activity leading up to the draft.
We live in the age of Big Data. All of the relevant prospects would be housed in a large database that could be shared with every MLB team. Each team would be responsible for their own scouting of the players, but they would know that each team was operating on the same playing field of data regarding that player’s identity and age. There would be no more shielding of players from other teams, keeping them in shadows until August 2nd. If you are registered by a certain date, you may be drafted by any of the 30 teams. If not, you have to wait until the next draft’s registration date. If a player is registered, but not drafted, they become a free agent able to sign with any team. This is the practice in place with every other major sports league, including baseball for undrafted domestic players.
The international draft would also help protect two important entities in this equation: the players and the owners
PROTECTING THE PLAYERS
I’m not saying that every international player has a harrowing tale associated with his draft process, but there are plenty to be sure. In the Dominican Republic, players are courted from the age of 10 (and earlier, I’m sure, in some cases) by buscones, who act as part agent/part father figure/part trainer. A buscone may have a group of kids in his care that he is responsible to get proper equipment for, ensure they make tryouts, and see that they get some form of nutrition. As their part of the deal, they may get up to 30% of the player’s signing bonus; contrast that with the typical American agent getting 5%.
Buscones have been known to cut deals with teams’ international scouting departments where the team will buy a group of players, just to get the one player they truly want. Other departments have been found guilty of taking kickbacks as part of the extravagant bonuses given to these 16 year-olds. Buscones will still exist in some form or fashion, but at least the player can feel some sort of ease in knowing that the system is a little bit more on the up and up.
Some players, especially Cubans like Yasiel Puig, have found themselves to be perpetually indebted to people on the shadier side of the street. Some players are rumored to have portions of their salaries going to the mobsters or otherwise unsavory types that got them out for the remainder of their careers.
PROTECTING THE OWNERS FROM THEMSELVES
One of the first things you’ll read or hear when the concept of an international draft is brought up is that it’s just a way for owners to control costs and guarantee more profits for themselves. Umm…yeah…of course it is. This just in– this isn’t Communist China. Businesses (and again, that’s what baseball is nowadays, lose the romanticized notions of days gone by) are allowed to make money. We encourage it here in the U.S.A.
Teams love to hemorrhage money on the international markets. Cuba has been all the rage in recent years. One of the first articles we did at TPOP predicted that the Cuban bubble was getting ready to burst on prospects. If you take a look at the chart in that article, you’ll see a whole host of players that have washed out or busted since it was published in December 2014. Hector Olivera alone has been part of three organizations and has two teams paying him to NOT play baseball for them, both because he’s a wife beater and he’s not good at the actual sport. Guerrero, Arruebarruena, Tomas? All washouts or untradeable assets at this point.
The Angels decided they HAD TO HAVE Roberto Baldoquin for $8M (plus $8M in international pool draft tax overage), even though there wasn’t much competition for him, and he’s been a banjo-hitting 2B (.219/.269/.267) that probably has 1 to 2 more years before he’s done in the minors. The Diamondbacks similarly lavished $8.27M (plus the similar overage tax) on RHP Yoan Lopez and he can’t break 90 mph and has a crushing anxiety disorder. Oh, and both organizations couldn’t sign any player for more than $250,000 for the next two years, as a result of going over for these non-prospects.
Yoan Moncada was signed by the Red Sox for $31.5M (plus $31.5M in overage tax) out of Cuba. That means to just break even on their $63M sunk cost, Moncada has to produce 13 WAR like a prospect ranked #11-25 in our updated MLB Surplus Values. Considering that Moncada is viewed as a top 5 prospect, that’s great, but remember he has to produce $63M of surplus value for the Red Sox just to break even — if they choose to see it that way, of course.
Teams spray money around on 16 year-olds, primarily from the Dominican Republic, every August 2nd. These “bonus babies” have a staggeringly low success rate. On a smaller scale, the Pirates have had little success with their own forays into the deep end of the pool, by their standards. Luis Heredia was a $2.6M bonus ($650K to him, the remainder to his Mexican club) and has battled conditioning and poor performance virtually his whole career. Harold Ramirez, recently traded to the Blue Jays in the Liriano deal, was afforded $1M and looks (at best) to be a 4th OF that has a lengthy injury history. Exicardo Cayones at $400K? Jodaneli Carvajal at $350K? Elvis Escobar at $570K? Julio AND Michael de la Cruz, each at $700K? All either busts or on their way.
The Pirates have actually had more success on the shallow end with Starling Marte ($85K) and Gregory Polanco ($150K). The point is that projecting how any player will develop at 16, let alone one subjected to a completely different culture and not used to formal training methods, is foolhardy.
By setting up a draft, presumably with slot bonuses similar to how the June domestic draft is run, teams can minimize risk to themselves and manage expectations on players more realistically. It may not be the free market free-for-all espoused by some people — a fantasy world not based in modern economic reality — but it is what is best for baseball in the long term.