Every once in awhile ... actually, a lot more than anyone seemingly cares to admit ... you really have to wonder about the mess that is called Major League Baseball's international signing period.
In fact, it's almost enough to make you understand why Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the most part preferred to opt out -- a decision that has been reversed by his sons, John and Louis, and the club's new general manager, Mike Elias. The Orioles are now famously all in, but you have to wonder if they haven't jumped into a process that appears to be hopelessly broken, not to mention the complete opposite of the restrictive draft system that exists for young prospects in this country.
Stories are rampant about shady deals made on the streets of Latin America to steer 13- and 14-year-olds into various "academies" run by individual major league clubs hoping to gain an advantage when those players are eligible to sign at the age of 16. The same day the most recent signing period opened (July 2), signings were announced for virtually every top prospect, most of whom were said to be committed for at least one and sometimes as many as three years before becoming eligible to sign.
All MLB teams are well-versed on the process and the prospects eligible for the international signing period, but for the most part the only thing the general public knows about the latest signees is the amount of the signing bonus, which often reaches seven figures. The Dominican Summer League provides the initial professional platform for these kids, who often don't leave that country for two or three years -- if at all.
Standings and statistics are kept in the DSL, but for the most part the league operates in obscurity, except for the 30 MLB teams. The only stories that get much attention are like the one that surfaced last month, shortly after the start of the most recent international signing period. And the story wasn't exactly the kind that exudes confidence in a system that seems woefully inadequate.
In fact, it was enough to cause wonder about the process in place for approximately 25-30 percent of major league players. The fact that three players from the DSL had been suspended for using Stanozolol wasn't that startling, because each year there are more minor leaguers than major leaguers who are suspended for dipping into the steroid jar.
The fact that two of those players were 17 years old is what sent up a red flag, or at least it should have. When Elias said the Orioles would become players in the international marketplace, he also acknowledged that they would be way behind most of the other 29 individual major league teams, especially when it came to prospects from Latin American countries.
Baseball America covers this facet of baseball like no other publication, and its July issue pinpointed exactly why the Orioles may be too far behind to ever catch up before the inevitable happens -- an international draft similar to the one conducted in the United States.
"The gloves are completely off now," BA quoted one team's international scouting director. "It's go scout everybody."
Under current guidelines (it seems there really aren't any hard rules), prospects are not eligible to sign until they are 16 years old, but the recruiting process appears to be right out of the college sports recruiting manual, with players getting lined up two and three years ahead of their eligibility date. Those commitments are made with "trainers" (aka agents) -- not MLB teams -- so the recruiting process is twofold.
Here is a BA quote from a trainer in Latin America who once opposed the idea of an international draft: "We used to get them at 13-14 years old, now you have to get them at 10-11, so you have to carry [support] them until they are 16 years old. I've got players signed for 2021, but I still have to buy that player gloves, equipment, baseballs, food. That is a tremendous amount of cost. You sign a 2021, you don't get paid until 2021 or 2022."
Does that sound like a system that's even remotely close to workable? Does it make you wonder where exactly those millions of bonus dollars actually go?
Reportedly, the top trainers carry a "roster" of 25-35 players, meaning there are a lot of out-of-pocket expenses that don't get settled until July 2 of the prospect's eligible year. It makes you wonder if MLB teams scout individual players as much as they scout the trainers/business managers/agents who run their own "showcase" events.
This year, the Yankees spent about $5 million, nearly their entire allotment of international pool money, to sign one player. How much went to the player is probably between him and his trainer, not unlike the system in place in this country. But the similarity stops there.
Technically, baseball's international signing period is an open market. That's the same system baseball used for domestic players until 1965, when the current draft was put in place. The pool of Latin American players in particular wasn't nearly as deep then as it is today, meaning there most likely was a lot of talent that went untapped.
The landscape has changed. There are very few secrets. The so-called diamonds in the rough do not escape attention -- whether from the eyes of MLB scouts or trainers on the prowl for the next meal ticket.
But the system in place is, at best, a tangled mess. Since every team has the option of contributing to that mess, it can't be said that the playing field isn't level. Whether the Orioles abstained for reasons of principle or not is perhaps a subject for another discussion, but there's no doubt their finished product suffered because of it.
Now that they are all in, the Orioles know the pool will be shallow for the next couple of years because there are 14- and 15-year-olds whose trainers have already made commitments with other MLB teams. With the possibility of an international draft on the horizon, the big question is: Are they already too late to the party?
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles
Issue 256: August 2019
Originally published Aug. 15, 2019