After years of rumbling and threatening, Major League Baseball is finally prepared to insist on an international draft, according to ESPN’s Buster Olney. “Under the terms of MLB’s initial concept, the new international draft system would start in March of 2018, with a 10-round draft held over two days.” The move, which would inherently drive down the salaries paid to foreign-born amateur players, has the potential to strangle international baseball in the cradle over the long term and make baseball an “American” game more than ever. Which, to be clear, is not a good thing.
There is no doubt that baseball is better in 2016 because of its popularity on the international stage. Because young players in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Japan, Venezuela, South Korea, Mexico, Aruba, and other countries grow up playing the game, Major League Baseball reaps massive benefits by employing many of the world’s greatest athletes. Indeed, these youngsters supplement the rosters of the league in a country where, increasingly, the best athletes have turned away from the game. Also, the popularity of the sport in other countries, and the popularity of those players in their home countries, provides Major League Baseball with markets to promote and sell the game.
It’s in the game’s best interest, then, to keep the pipeline of talent flowing. Of course, it shouldn’t do this at all costs, and it’s undeniably true that the current international system has massive problems.
First and foremost is that buscones continue to dominate and corrupt the signing process from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Human smugglers and gangsters have also wormed their way into the Cuban international market. It would also reduce the potential for “prospect bundling” that several teams participate in (wherein one top prospect gets a massive signing bonus, and that bonus is then also parceled out to other players who are signed for money that does not count against the similarly odious international spending caps.
And, without a doubt, Rob Manfred’s proposal addresses this. According to Olney, high-school age players would be invited to MLB-operated academies in the Dominican Republic. Ostensibly, they would receive coaching and some kind of an education. And the minimimum age of draftees would eventually be set at 18. All of this, and the fact that players would be required to negotiate only with one club, would limit the influence of buscones and prevent clubs from bundling prospects. But these moves could be implemented without imposing a draft, if baseball was really interested in stamping out the problems.
But they’re not. They’re interested in limiting costs. And, over time, this would limit the player pool teams are choosing from. First, this move is designed to limit the amount of money foreign-born players sign for. I mean, that’s fundamental to it, given that Buster says that “it’s a change that would be embraced by a lot of small-market and mid-market teams.” Less money means less incentive for ballplayers to risk missing out on a real education to pursue the relative pipe dream that is Major League Baseball. Waiting an extra two years for that signing bonus may also make the difference for a struggling family in a poorer country that needs its kids to work rather than play ball in order to get by.
When Major League Baseball expanded its amateur draft to Puerto Rico in 1990, it had a catastrophic effects on the island’s baseball community. In 2007, the island’s Secretary of Sport, David Bernier, told Jesse Sanchez, “The investment in Puerto Rico is not a cost-effective one for Major League teams and has lost charm for the recruiter. This reality is substantiated by the decrease in numbers of players selected through the Draft and active in the Major Leagues…. This creates a domino effect, less players at the top, less enthusiasm at the base.” “What’s the difference between 1980 and 2011?” Bernier asks in a separate interview with Jorge Castillo of The New York Times, The draft. Nothing has changed but the draft. Everything else is the same.”
Regardless of the other disastrous outcomes for amateur baseball writ large, when that draft is expanded and imposed on young players without their consent, limiting their economic freedom at what may be their one chance to truly exercise it? When billionaires take from the pockets of Latinos to avoid having to pay the going rate for their talents, and drive those markets out of existence? That’s not just immoral and unethical, it’s reprehensible. And it’s un-American.