One the more interesting aspects of the collective bargaining agreement that was reached this spring between the Major League Baseball owners and the MLBPA was the deferral of a decision on a potential international draft. The deal on the table is this: If the players accede to the owners' request for an international draft before an arbitrary summertime deadline this season, the much-maligned draft pick compensation system (where a team forfeits a draft pick for signing a high-priced free agent) goes away. Given that the draft pick compensation system has been widely blamed for the destruction of the so-called middle-class of baseball players — the borderline all-stars that are worth max-level contracts and are teetering close to where aging curves predict a precipitous drop in performance — it is a fair bet that the players association will concede on the international draft concept in order to eliminate draft pick compensation.
The idea has been heralded as a good one: an international draft will supposedly eliminate or at least reduce the amount of predatory grooming of young athletes by "buscones" in Latin American countries (buscones are the "finders" of youthful talent and have been reported to engage in such abuses as distribution of performance-enhancing drugs, human trafficking, and downright theft from these players once they get their initial contracts). But does subjecting international players to a forced draft actually address these issues or will it have unintentional consequences?
The stakes on this were drastically understated as footnotes to most articles on the CBA, and it seems like this is the least covered aspect of the new deal, despite it being a major shift for free agent veteran players and for the thousands of humans that make up the talent pipeline that supplies almost half of the talent that we see on the field.
It May Not Address Predatory Behavior
Consider the sports agent. Or the personal manager. Both are roles that exist as trusted advisors to domestic baseball prospects. Both have long documented predatory behavior where agents and managers engage in nefarious behavior in order to ingratiate themselves with young baseball prospects and their families. They skirt rules, pay bribes, and one doubts anyone would be surprised if distribution of performance-enhancing drugs was a common occurrence among all but the most scrutinized would-be prospects.
Consider how often PEDs happened with major league players before widespread drug testing was implemented: how often do you suppose it happens with less scrutinized amateur players? And drugs aside, how many young players have managers, family members, and agents draining their coffers?
It can be very well argued that the current amateur system in Latin America parallels this system in the United States, only with less scrutiny and more corruption. So, if we were to layer a draft on it as a feel-good measure to address the underlying corruption, would it really address the corruption, or would it simply morph more into the familiar agent/manager structure that we are all familiar with? Busonces would cede way to agents and managers, a different nomenclature, but a similar parasitical relationship.
Baseball academies. Scouting systems. Some franchises are more involved in Latin America than others, and the best at playing the amateur game in these countries have robust scouting systems, baseball academies that cater to talented youngsters, and personal relationships in all of these communities.
That is not to say that these baseball academies are beyond reproach or even the best possible system — one only has to engage in a few minutes of googling to find a long and sordid history of exploitation of even pre-teen Latin American players through these so-called "academies." Most notorious were the tales of exploitation by the Chicago Cubs' facility - blown wide open by reporting and a 1997 book, Stealing Lives, yet continued through at least another two decades before new ownership of the team opened a multimillion-dollar training facility. Some of the abuses documented included 19 boys sharing a single bathroom with no running water, 10 boys sharing a room meant for two, infestations in the rooms, meager prisonlike food, and abusive coaches, including one that reportedly threatened his players with a gun while inebriated. That's not to mention a lack of proper healthcare and significantly lower signing bonuses for those who actually make it to the minor leagues (not to mention the majority of those players who stick it out in these baseball "camps" and who are never paid a dime). Whether the new facility was a result of the widespread backlash against the "prison -like" facilities they previously employed, an opportunity for a competitive advantage by treating prospects like human beings, or simply because it was the right thing to do is a matter of debate — probably it was a combination of all three.
At least for the teams who have invested in quality facilities, the system has significant advantages: baseball teams invest in extremely young amateurs, but in exchange they provide developmental skills, housing, food, and presumably at least some level of education. What is the motivation to make these investments if all players are subject to a draft? If there is no financial competitive advantage, will these teams continue to pour money into facilities that make the dream even possible? Consider how the Kansas City Royals once had an urban baseball academy in the 1980s — dropped it for decades – and are only now reestablishing as a charitable endeavor. That academy produced the likes of Willie Wilson, but presumably as scouting and the domestic draft became more robust, and in today's world, every single amateur player has a film clip on YouTube highlighting their strengths and weaknesses, there is no financial advantage to produce domestic academies. There probably would be no such advantage to do so in Latin America under a draft system there as well.
Of course, the league could establish a fund to continue these developmental efforts in Latin American countries. This would continue to provide the resources and development needed for these young humans to both develop on the field, and off the field. It would also be neutral in terms of competitive advantage to any particular franchise. One might even go so far as to say that such a fund and development academy plan should be a mandatory part of any international draft – a way to continue producing the talent pipeline without providing any competitive advantage to an individual franchise. (Author's note: I phrase in terms of profit and loss, margins, and economy, but most of us not involved in baseball would likely agree that the most important aspect here is the human one — impoverished countries have few opportunities, and baseball academies have likely helped the lives of countless young men, not just the ones who actually make it. It is likely that the presence of these academies, the minor league teams in the area, and the continued investment by teams and the league are a net positive for the communities.)
What's The Real Reason for The Draft?
42 percent. That's one recent estimate of the percent of minor league players that come from Latin America. Add in international players from other areas of the world, and you are probably nearing half.
Half of all minor leaguers are assigned through middlemen, posting systems, buscones, and not through a draft. From a business perspective, this is a problem for the league: while domestic talent is both cost-controlled and distributed "fairly" through a draft system that gives teams with worse records and lower budgets more competitive advantage in selecting talent, the international system is essentially free agency. And while the league has implemented some half measures to get this half of the talent pipeline under control — a limit on the amounts teams can spend on bonuses (curtailing the practice of handing out large contracts to the most sought after international prospects, evening the playing field between teams that "bought in" to Latin talent versus those that were too cheap to sponsor proper academies, and controlling the amount teams can spend down there generally so that all teams have a chance to sign talent) was the chief measure — a draft system would ensure rigid formality and even distribution of talent across all of the franchises, with a preference for the less competitive ones.
And instead of a system where teams have academies, scouts, and middlemen rooting through these impoverished countries, recruiting teens and preteens, then using those relationships to pay meager signing bonuses that are cost controlled by the league (and totally not slipping envelopes full of cash to anyone who helps steer prospects to their academies), the system would be more comparable to the domestic one — the conduct or misconduct of the teams would be wholly irrelevant. Players do not have a choice domestically: they go to the team that drafts them. And once they are there, they are locked in for years and years of service time. From the teams’ perspective, why keep up the baseball academies, buscones, and bribes when you could have a draft and forced control over a player through all of their prime?
What Does a Successful International System Look Like?
It doesn’t seem likely that, upon the institution of an international draft, that teams will simply shutter multimillion dollar complexes in Latin America. One does have to imagine that these teams are smart enough to realize that pouring some developmental resources into these countries — at least so far as the baseball talent is concerned — will pay off with better, healthier players. Plus, with the implementation of winter leagues and other unaffiliated ball, it only makes sense to keep the academies around.
(Of course, tell that to the domestic minor leaguers who are paid less than minimum wage and fed things like fast food and cheese sandwiches. It is only now — more than a century after the game was invented — that teams are starting to grasp this concept of treating one’s potential major league players like humans in order to increase their odds of them turning into major league players.)
We should expect some changes though. For one, will the league open its own academies? With reports of even preteen players being recruited to these baseball academies, at what age will players be eligible for the draft? 16? 18? It seems doubtful that teams will invest in developing talent of younger players if there is a near certainty that some other team will draft the player once he becomes "of age."
It seems likely that the doors of the team-based academies will be shut to younger players. This could be a good thing, so long as you don’t view these baseball academies as a limited blessing to those with enough baseball talent to warrant meals, warm lodging, and presumably some education to kids from truly impoverished countries that would otherwise face food and shelter insecurity. And if teams are going to close academies to younger prospects, will the league open alternatives? Or will these younger players fall into the camps of buscones - an environment that will likely lead to more abuse, not less, though at least from the league’s perspective, the abuse would be divorced from the brands of major league franchises.
Nothing about this mess is easy to fix, but it seems like the biggest upside of an international draft is the protection of the major league brand. And without more detail and a more substantive plan, it may do more harm than good for the kids that make up the talent that the league seeks to control.