Wilbur Miller and I have differing opinions on the viability of an international draft. Here’s my thoughts on how to lay out the draft:
The draft would be held on July 2nd, which is the same date that Latin Americans can sign as 16 year olds currently. This date would be the date for a separate stand-alone draft from the current North American draft held in early June.
It would consist of 50 rounds and be open to all players from countries not eligible for the North American Draft — all Latin American countries, European players, Asian players, and Australian players.
Only players whose ages have been verified prior to the draft will be eligible to be drafted. These ages will be verified through academies set up in various regions of the world. Most of these academies are already in existence, such as the European Academy, the Australian Academy, and the Dominican Prospect League.
Each round of the draft would have hard slot amounts. A short deadline would be set for agreements to be reached with the players and their agents, such as 45 days. If an agreement is not reached, that player would not be eligible to be drafted again until July 2nd of the following year. If a player is not drafted in the 50 rounds of the draft by any team, they would become a free agent in the same fashion as an undrafted player in the North American version of the draft.
The only way to clean up the seedy world of internationally drafted players is to establish fixed rules and take the Wild West nature out of the equation. Each year, a bonus is reduced or a player’s contract is completely rescinded because of some age discrepancies or other falsehood. A draft with known and verified players is the only way to ensure a fair and legal system.
MLB certainly needs to get a better handle on the international prospect front. It’s just hard to see how a draft can do that. Players will still lie about their ages and identities, unless MLB can catch them through investigations. It’s doing that now and has nullified dozens of contracts. A draft won’t change anything beyond slowing down the rate of growth in bonus spending, which–and make no mistake about this–is the one and only reason Bud Selig wants one.
One of the numerous problems with a draft is that, in places like the Dominican Republic, there isn’t a meaningful secondary educational system and, hence, no high school games for scouts to attend to get a handle on the talent. Teams have to rely on the buscones to bring players to their attention. The buscones are violently opposed to an international draft, with or without slotting, because it would reduce their leverage. They would no doubt look for ways to circumvent the draft. If there was slotting—which, according to Jim Callis is unlikely due to unyielding opposition from the union, and which might also run afoul of local laws in the various countries—the buscones would probably seek to hide players from the draft so they could later sign as free agents. If there was no slotting, the buscones would probably seek to auction players to certain teams and then hide them from the other teams to make evaluation impossible.
Requiring players to go into academies isn’t a practical solution. To begin with, adequate institutions don’t exist. To stick with the Dominican for now, there are some academies operated by buscones, and there is a Dominican Prospect League. Of course, these institutions, including the prospect league, are run by people who don’t want a draft and won’t cooperate with MLB to create a structure to support a draft. In addition, only a few prospects play in the prospect league and not all of the others are in buscone-run academies. The existing institutions would have to be expanded dramatically. In effect, MLB would have to take it upon itself to create the equivalent of a high school system in the Dominican.
And it’s not just the Dominican. The second biggest supplier of talent outside the U.S. is Venezuela. The political and law enforcement issues there are way beyond the scope of this discussion. The situation is so bad there, though—including at least one threat to confiscate a team—that MLB teams are pulling their own academies out, as the Pirates recently did. There’s zero chance that Hugo Chavez is going to allow an American business to start setting up institutions to train young Venezuelans. And then there are countries like Panama, Nicaragua, Colombia and Honduras, among others, that produce ballplayers in much smaller numbers. Does MLB have to operate academies in those countries, too? Some, such as Honduras, probably don’t have enough promising ballplayers now to fill one.
Even if you get academies set up, how do you get the players into them? If you don’t get the players into them, the system fails. If you allow players not in the academies to become free agents, the buscones will just keep their charges out. Even if you don’t allow a 16-year-old who’s not in an academy to be signed, at some point you have to allow it. It’s not fair, and maybe even illegal in some countries, to refuse to allow a player ever to sign just because he’s not in an institution of MLB’s choice. What about players whose talent doesn’t become apparent at age 14 or earlier? That’s when these kids would need to get into the academies, since they’re eligible to sign at age 16. What about somebody like Diego Moreno, who’s discovered at age 19 or 20 throwing 97 mph? Does he have to go into an academy for a couple years before he can sign? (Keep in mind that age investigations can take many months.) What if a young player doesn’t live near an academy and his family doesn’t want to send him away? Do you prohibit teams from signing him? I don’t think MLB can put itself in this position, both because it means possibly passing up talented athletes and because it could seriously worsen the league’s relations with countries with which it tries, and needs, to stay on good terms.
The drafts in the major American sports work because there are existing institutions, mainly scholastic, that effectively feed players into the draft. Baseball is different because a sizeable percentage of its talent is found in places that lack the necessary institutions. It needs to craft a system that fits the conditions it finds in countries like the Dominican and Venezuela, rather than trying to shoehorn those countries into an existing structure that those conditions won’t support.