Recently, our very own Steve Benko penned an article discussing the mole hill-turned-mountain of Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Drew Smyly tweeting his thoughts on 19-year-old Cuban Yoan Moncada receiving a $30 million contract while American players are bound by the whims of the MLB draft and the subsequent contract structure.
This salvo by Smyly has the potential to open an entirely unsavory can of worms for Major League Baseball, and this is probably an issue that has been overlooked by most casual sports observers. American sports’ largest draft spectacle is the NFL draft, which transpires in primetime on a grand stage and features players who cut their teeth on Saturdays in the college game. They are known entities, and due to football’s supremacy in American sports the draft is big business.
But football is essentially an American game that has yet to arrive on the world stage. Baseball, however, is as global as McDonald’s restaurants, and its draft receives nary a blip on the radar of the average sports fan. And why shouldn’t it? Most baseball players get drafted and are not heard from for years outside of minor league towns like Toledo and Durham.
By this time, in 2015, everyone is well aware of Major League Baseball’s diversity, and it is to be lauded and commended. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian—all are represented in the current game and there is no bias toward a player if they can get the job done on the field. However, one must dig deeper and ask why so many Latin players are receiving contracts and tryouts in their mid and late teens, whereas the American born players of comparable age are held at the gate, needing to pass through the MLB draft process before receiving a contract.
An outlet such as Baseball Essential is probably not the ideal forum to discuss the topic, but one has to question the ethics of the fact that so many of these players are essentially bred in baseball academies in their native lands in South and Central America.
For instance, two of the larger exporters of baseball players from the region, Venezuela and Cuba, are ranked only ahead of North Korea in the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation. In truth, only Mexico and Colombia fare well in this index, in the moderately and mostly free categories, respectively. This index has charted “advancement in economic freedom, prosperity, and opportunity” for the past two decades and is a widely respected resource. That being the case, the rankings for many Latin countries speaks to why so many young men are looking for a way out of the squalor and governmental dysfunction of their homelands.
For years, and still today, players from throughout the region swarmed to academies that were run privately by teams, and most times they were in deplorable, sweatshop-like conditions. Only in recent years have MLB teams invested in and upgraded these facilities, which have been described as a sort of “baseball Ellis Island,” filtering and sorting players according to their aptitudes and skills. Many of these institutions resembled military barracks until investigations in the early 2000’s gave MLB a black eye.
Why mention the socio-economic situation of Latin American countries and MLB academies in the region? It is obvious that baseball is looking for cheap labor, and to develop young, impressionable minds, and this area is a goldmine due to the confluence of interests. In a sense, you can’t blame the teams for taking such a tact; it is a great investment, and being able to develop players from such a young age is something any organization, regardless of industry or market, would kill for. Just because this is baseball doesn’t mean that analogies cannot be made—the New York Times would probably love to get their hands on a promising and talented journalist when they are sixteen years old and able to be molded and developed to certain specifications.
Now, getting back to the initial issue—Drew Smyly and his take on the Cuban defector being awarded a $30 million contract. Moncada has been playing at a pro level for some time, allegedly, as so many of these young players seem to be. Naturally, these players hold an advantage over the American players, not just due to the draft structure, but also because American players attend school and are pushed toward academics. In America, baseball is a great option to have, but an education is more considered more desirous and important to have in case the athletic endeavor does not transpire. In Latin America, baseball is the only, the most likely, and the most promising way out for a young man lost within an impoverished and corrupt country.
Unfortunately, as regrettable as it is, this piece will end without an idea or solution that will satisfy everyone, and, undoubtedly, not all will be happy. However, it is time that Major League Baseball instituted a worldwide draft, rather than a draft process that only applies to Americans. Scouting budgets will inevitably soar, owners, GM’s and players will gripe, and there are probably a million other variables being discarded here, but it’s hard to imagine a more equitable process for Major League Baseball.