With the new CBA on its way, we’re again hearing rumblings of an international draft. I don’t know how serious these rumblings are, but I do have quite a few comments on them.
I think that in the abstract, baseball should incorporate international players into its drafting process. The purpose of the draft is to a) provide some structure to the signing and development process for young players and teams and b) to allocate the best talent to the worst teams. The current system does neither of those. In fact, the current system leads itself to pretty much the opposite of both goals – young players keep their information deliberately opaque while teams keep their interest in young players even more opaque and uncertain and the richest teams usually get the best talent. Its a bad system.
Before we get into logistics, there is an important discussion that has to happen. As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to do an international draft. First, MLB could simply incorporate international players into its normal drafting process. Any players who w ill turn 18 this year, or is draft eligible in college, can be drafted. This is how the NHL does its international draft. Second, MLB could create a new draft for international signings, where 16 year-olds become eligible that year, and the normal drafting process happens in mirror to the normal amateur one. It would probably be a shorter draft. Any players not drafted would be eligible to signed as international free agents.
Before I comment on either system, I want to comment on logistics. Many people believe, I think erroneously, that an international draft would be a logistical nightmare. For example, a lot of people think that age verification would be impossible. That’s not really true. We’ve had some age verification issues in the past, but MLB has worked with certain Latin American countries to make this much less of an issue. MLB can further solve much of the problems with a zero tolerance policy for age fraud, where players convicted face a heavy fine, suspension, or banishment from pro ball. Players would have to provide proof of age to register for the draft. Many thousands of baseball players would register each year, but this isn’t much different from the normal amateur draft, except that it spans many continents and would probably be a little costlier for teams.
Want to know where the nightmare comes in? It comes in when you start talking about the latter scenario discussed above: an international-only draft for 16 year-olds. Draft picks negotiate with teams based upon the amount of leverage they have. Top prospects line up top college commitments from high school because they have the leverage to threaten to go to that college. You know who will have a ton of leverage? A top-flight Latin American 16-year old kid. He could enter and re-enter the draft several times, and negotiate his signing bonus upwards. While I’m sure he will feel economic pressure to sign if he comes from an impoverished country, I think you could see the first 30 or so picks in the draft choose not to sign at a pretty high rate.
For that reason, I think that any international draft would have to be like a hockey draft: everyone enters at the same age. Latin American kids would have the option of not signing and reentering the draft a few years later just like high school players. The problem here is actually the opposite: Latin American players have little leverage at all. Most won’t have college commitments lined up (though colleges would be smart to get into that game), so they’ll have to find independent teams willing to play them. In Japan, Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere, this isn’t a problem. The NHL, for example, benefits from vibrant professional or de facto professional leagues in Sweden, Russia, Canadian Juniors, and other places for their draft. In Latin America, few such teams exist. MLB would be wise to lead the effort in supporting them if they went this route.
The problem lies in unequal signing bonus economics of Latin American free agents. Some Latin American players command six-figure or higher bonuses for their signing. But the other 95% of IFAs sign for little more than pennies and promises of playing baseball professionally. The system is broken for the big money guys, and a draft fixes that, but leaves behind the small money guys. The international-only draft option works for the cheap guys quite well, but is a huge mess for the big money free agents.
Here is my solution: a hybrid draft. MLB holds a 16 year-old international draft with a 50+ rounds. Players selected in these rounds are subject to a very hard slotting system, so they must sign a particular contract based upon their draft position. If they do not sign, they can reenter the draft the next year, but cannot sign with another team until they are much older. However, players have the option of exempting themselves from the draft (or alternatively, just declining to sign a contract for two years) and making themselves eligible for the traditional MLB amateur draft. If they do, they are subject to the same negotiating rules of American and Canadian amateur players, with some kind of restriction from reentering the draft immediately to mimic how we force college players to wait.
This accomplishes a lot of things. It brings transparency and predictability to the drafting process. It allows MLB teams to add huge numbers of Latin American players and train them at at a young age. It also allocates the top-level talent, who will either sign early in the hard-slotted international draft or wait for a big payday in the regular draft.
It should be noted that neither of these systems really benefits the Yankees. We leverage our money pretty well out there. Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez would not be Yankees under these system.
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