The idea of an international draft for Major League Baseball has been brewing for quite a while, but in the past few days or so it really has picked up. The ramp-up is designed to try to get the international draft in place this year, by June 1. This comes on the heels of the World Baseball Classic, in which Anthony Rizzo and Team Italy was a surprise and Team Netherlands found themselves in the semi-finals. Then we have Team Puerto Rico, who dispatched the two-time defending champion Team Japan last night. We open with a couple of retweets from Satchel Price:
The funny thing is, MLB tries to promote baseball globally with the WBC, now it’s stunting its development by instituting a worldwide draft.
— Satchel Price (@SatchelPrice) March 18, 2013
If MLB wanted baseball to really get bigger globally, how do you limit the league talent pool so greatly with an international draft?
— Satchel Price (@SatchelPrice) March 18, 2013
There is little doubt right now that the WBC is a big deal and that baseball, in turn, is becoming a big deal for some countries that otherwise would not care. Price makes a good point in 140 characters or less. If you want to expand the game, why would you make it harder for the best talent to get the money they deserve? Similarly, why would you prevent teams who want to improve from spending what they can to acquire said talent? If you don’t make it worth their while, why would potential baseball players bother with baseball? Especially in Latin American and European nations, where soccer/football reigns, why would kids want to invest in baseball when they could be playing a different, more popular sport that could garner them just as many riches, if not more?
My fear is similar to Satchel Price’s; that the international draft, and the penalties that may arise if the draft isn’t implemented, will stunt baseball’s growth and will discourage the available talent from playing baseball. I don’t know for sure that a stunted talent pool will ensue from the international draft.
I must make the disclaimer that I’m hardly an expert on this. But from my layman’s point of view, restricting the amount of money that can be spent on talent may in turn restrict how many talented kids can actually be transported through the minor league pipeline to be funneled into the MLB rosters. This is a potentially big issue for all teams, from the small market clubs, to rebuilding clubs such as the Chicago Cubs, to even large market juggernauts like the Yankees.
At the same time, the way the salary system is set up now, it may take many years before a talented player can score a multi-million dollar contract. This is a particularly huge deal for poorer kids who cannot afford to play baseball or who cannot get into a subsidized baseball program. One of the objections to the MLB draft is that it prevents able-bodied adults from choosing where they wish to work, and also their ability to negotiate their wages under the current slot system. There is a method to the madness of cost control, because without the arbitration system, major league clubs would not be able to build a team affordably given how exorbitant free agent contracts have become. Baseball holds many advantages in terms of career length and potential riches. However, having to struggle and compete through several levels of the minors and amongst thousands of other talented individuals may serve as a deterrent to some players. Without the lure of better bonuses up front, teams may lose the best athletes to other sports that have fewer obstacles and less overhead. So there’s that.
I mentioned Puerto Rico because the island commonwealth has seen its baseball talent production decline precipitously over the years, due in part to being included in the MLB player’s draft. As recently as five years ago, America Jr. has wanted out of the draft.
Puerto Rico has been included in the First-Year Player Draft since 1990. Players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Colombia, Central America and Asia, as well as other countries, are not part of the Draft and can be signed as free agents.
That’s part of the issue and a big reason why Bernier believes baseball on the island has declined over the years. Last month, the Puerto Rico Winter League announced it was suspending play after 69 years because of financial problems. Bernier believes the fall of the Winter League in Puerto Rico and its inclusion in the First-Year Player Draft are related.
“Why invest in Puerto Rico if 70 miles west and 500 miles south, in Dominican Republic and Venezuela respectively, I can invest directly in the detection and development without going through the Draft process,” Bernier said.
While Carlos Correa was selected first overall just last year, a first in Puerto Rico’s baseball history, the talent production from the island hasn’t been competitive relative to its Latin American neighbors. The WBC victory over Japan may ignite a movement to revive baseball in Puerto Rico, but it seems that implementing the international draft may create a similar (though not as drastic) burden on other countries that are breeding grounds for baseball talent.
I don’t necessarily think that baseball will die a horrible death because bonuses paid to Venezuelan kids are now a million dollars less than they used to be. But I do wonder how this will affect baseball economics and the allocation of resources to countries that may not be subject to the draft. For example, I don’t know whether the international draft will affect the posting system used by the Japanese and Korean professional leagues. Can they even compete for bonuses with the random Cuban defector, like the one the Cubs just signed? I don’t know whether MLB teams will start investing in facilities in Puerto Rico or the Netherlands to cultivate new talent, or if that talent is going to get piddling bonuses in the 37th round or later because they just aren’t that good. Given a choice between staying in your native land to play soccer or basketball, or to take a $5000 bonus on the off chance that you can make it as a baseball player…what would you choose?
In short…I really hope MLB knows what it’s doing with this international draft, because the negative ramifications of such a system are instilling in me a fear for the future of baseball.