The Viability of an International Draft
Last summer, Pirates Prospects had a point-counterpoint piece regarding the possibility of a truly international draft. Since that time, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement installed a $2.9M cap on international signing bonuses for each of the 30 teams. Considering that the Pirates spent $2.6M on just Luis Heredia in 2010, you can see how this will greatly crimp the international signing period. Many teams, such as the Yankees and Rangers, have laid out extravagent expenditures yearly on multiple 16-year olds, so this will definitely change those spending habits.
It is possible that MLB is using the aforementioned $2.9M international spending cap as a precursor to an international draft. This interim step will allow teams to grow accustomed to working with a budget for the international draft, which will then allow the slotting bonuses to take effect. As we will see next month in the Rule IV draft, MLB is seeking to clamp down on bonus spending in the domestic draft and they have already instituted restrictions on international spending starting this July.
This past week, Ben Badler at Baseball America had an excellent article outlining the new changes for the 2012 July 2nd signing period. This past Tuesday, May 1st, was the deadline for players to register to be eligible for this year’s July 2nd signing period. If a player has not registered, or been registered by a team that has been tracking his progress, he will not be eligible to be signed until July 2nd, 2013. MLB has set up registration stations in the Dominican Republic, Europe, and Asia in order to facilitate the registration process fully.
As you can see from the Baseball America piece, this registration process is similar to what I was proposing last year in the Pirates Prospects piece about an international draft. What MLB has set up for this July 2nd international signing period is just a possible precursor to a slightly more structured international draft.
But should there be an international draft, one that is separate from the current Rule IV draft in which only players from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico are eligible, or a worldwide draft in which all players from around the world are blended into the same draft pool?
“I would not make any exceptions, for players from Japan, Cuba or otherwise. I would only have one draft in which all players are eligible and treated in the same manner,” said Pirates President, Frank Coonelly, in an interview with Pirates Prospects on the subject. “I would not segregate the international players from the players currently eligible for the Rule 4 draft, which, of course, includes some international players.” I wonder how the Nippon Baseball League and the Cuban Industrial League would feel about their own leagues being potentially diluted of talent by this worldwide draft by MLB. There is also the thorny issue of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba to consider.
Both the NHL and NBA have had worldwide drafts for many years, noted Mr. Coonelly, and neither of those leagues have encountered any significant issues with the setup, although there have been times when it has been difficult to extract hockey players from the Soviet Union and/or Russia. However, neither of those leagues have players of any measurable quantity that come from such poor countries as the Dominican Republic and the rest of Latin America. Age fraud is practically a national hobby in many Latin American countries, as birth certificates are not very prevalent and the ones that are can be routinely forged. There have been instances of players using deceased siblings birth cards as their own identification.
Although many players are typically signed during the initial signing period starting July 2nd, many Latin American players are signed later on in the year, perhaps not even until they are 17 years old. This is due to their bodies still developing and their games being refined further.
“MLB would need to explore operating prospect academies/leagues in areas where there is little or no organized baseball played so players have a real chance to develop in the years leading up to their eligibility age,” said Mr. Coonelly. These academies would help ensure a more level playing field for the potential draftees that could otherwise be late bloomers and be overlooked in the process, thus losing a valuable year of development.
Frank Coonelly leans towards a blended worldwide draft and he feels that with the registration procedures that MLB has instituted this year that “while there is a lot of ground to cover, I do not see why all of it could not be accomplished in time to expand the 2013 draft to a single worldwide draft.” To me that seems very aggressive, especially in light of the fact that MLB is probably going to want to wait and see how teams adjust to the newly implemented international signing bonus cap.
Mr. Coonelly and I agree that the key issue is the registration of the players. If a player is not registered in time and fully age verified by a deadline (this year’s May 1st, for example), then that player would have to wait out a full year. This would eliminate the temptation by a player’s representatives to hide a player so that he can be steered to a certain team because as per Mr. Coonelly “the size of the player’s bonus will likely be tied to where he is selected in the draft and representatives will have an incentive to make their players well known so they are drafted as high as possible.”
If there were to be a worldwide, blended draft, the number of draft rounds would have to be expanded from its current number of 50. What would be the correct number of rounds to incorporate the talent from all the various countries? As it stands now, a typical team will draft 50 players and sign 30 of them. Some players drafted in the Rule IV draft are backup plans in case their top picks don’t sign; others are longshot picks of high school players that teams feel will probably not sign, but they may contact and start a relationship. With the new slotting system in place this year, it seems as if the draft will skew more towards college players, since high school players may not like their slot amount and choose to try and improve their stock by going to college. Will this year’s draft and the potential worldwide draft minimize the need for “organizational soldiers” to fill slots at lower levels?
The age discrepancy issue is intriguing as well. Current Rule IV players are typically 18 out of high school and 21 out of college. The international players will typically be 16 or 17 and judged more on their potential, rather than their production. Most internationals, due to the projection of their tools from sometimes pedestrian present-day stuff, are viewed as lottery tickets. Will there be a challenge, whether through MLB’s main office by agents or through the court system by players themselves, for “North American” players to be eligible at age 16 as well? Think of Bryce Harper’s situation, for instance.
It seems as if we are on the bleeding edge of changes to the way Major League teams procure talent through the draft process. An international draft, or a blended worldwide draft, seems like a question of “when” and not “if” at this point.