The Death of Baseball’s International Signing Period

As we have now surpassed the three week mark in the 2016 MLB international signing period, most of the top names in this year’s class have already reached agreements with various major league teams. The Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, and Oakland Athletics were among the most aggressive clubs, with each adding a number of high-profile players to their minor league ranks.

Lost in the turmoil of all the signings, however, is the price that is paid by the players, many of whom are just 16 years old. The current structure of the system leaves these kids with very little control over their fates, and if Major League Baseball truly cares about globalizing the game, it should start by empowering the amateur international players that make up such a significant portion of MiLB rosters.

There are several ways that Major League Baseball could accomplish this, but one in particular could re-shape the entire process: an international draft. To implement an international draft would be a major undertaking for Major League Baseball, and would require a great deal of planning in advance. Before delving into a plan for the draft, let’s first look at the aspects of the current system that could make change a necessity.

Let me start by saying this: The international market is vital to the success of Major League Baseball. The amount of impact talent that is produced in foreign countries is astounding, and if these players are to continue making their way into the United States, a better alternative must be implemented. Players as young as 15 are having their futures determined by a number of factors, with their own desires falling somewhere in the middle. These players have what are referred to as “handlers” who act as agents, providing services that would seemingly reward the most desirable players with contracts befitting their talent levels. Conversely, impact players are often wed to a team in advance of the signing period in what would seem to be baseball’s version of an arranged marriage. Once a “handshake agreement” is reached, handlers are deeply incentivized to uphold the agreement to allow for future business dealings to take place. This practice can cost high-profile players millions of dollars, as other teams quickly lose interest in fighting the uphill battle of breaking a player’s commitment.

In addition to the negative impact of handshake agreements, players are often hindered by the use of package deals as a means of acquiring players. A package deal essentially means that multiple players are signed for a pre-determined sum, making the handler responsible for keeping not one, but potentially 5-10 players committed to the team in question. In doing so, handlers build relationships with major league teams that could be beneficial in future signing periods. A package deal is mostly harmful to the best player involved, as having to abide by the agreement in place removes the possibility of pursuing a larger contract elsewhere, giving the team involved a distinct advantage. This issue came to light most prominently prior to this year’s signing period, as the Boston Red Sox were administered stiff penalties for their alleged use of package deals in 2015. Not only were the Red Sox forced to terminate the contracts of these players, they were also banned from signing international amateurs for one year. These restrictions should serve as a warning to other organizations who have attempted to complete similar deals in the past, and will hopefully put an end to practices of this nature.

These two issues are the most prominent within the international market, and both can be solved with the implementation of a draft. Players would be protected from the use of handshake agreements and package deals, and would instead be drafted much like a domestic player. This would not only be beneficial to the amateur players, but also small-market teams that have been unable to compete within the current market structure that has resulted in players having extremely high bonus demands. Teams would instead be given an equal chance based on scouting and draft position rather than propensity for spending, a change that would benefit baseball from a parity standpoint. The potential for an international draft is also aided by the fact that baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement, signed in 2011, will expire this December, paving the way for a potential change to the international market. This issue is expected to be addressed at length, so let’s take a look at what an international draft might look like.

Option 1: Copy the Domestic Draft

This scenario is pretty simple, as Major League Baseball would only need to make a replica of the existing domestic draft. In this scenario, I propose that the same order be used in the international draft as in the domestic draft, but with a bonus pool allotment that would be proportional to the average contract signed by international amateurs. I would also propose that the supplemental and competitive balance rounds be eliminated from the international draft, as their use would only make the implementation of an already complex process more complicated. Each pick would have a suggested slot value, much like the domestic draft, but with this structure picks after the first round could be forfeited. By forfeiting a pick, a team could then have the slot value of that pick added to the following year’s pool in either draft. So the first five picks of the second round could look something like this:

31. Player A- Slot Value- $200,000

32. Player B- Slot Value- $200,000

33. Forfeiture- Slot Value- $190,000

34. Forfeiture- Slot Value- $190,000

35. Player C- Slot Value- $185,000

In this scenario, teams forfeiting their picks would be given the option of whether to add the $190,000 slot value for each pick to either the domestic draft or the international draft for the following year. Because the talent pool in the international market can vary so greatly from year to year, the ability for teams to forfeit picks for future benefit could be an intriguing option. The lack of bonus rounds would also give every team a fair chance of acquiring amateur players regardless of free agency or competitive balance. These picks could not be traded. This scenario seems as though it would be a logical fit, though the use of a similar order to the domestic draft could be seen as too rewarding for losing teams, which may open up the possibility for tanking in baseball.

Feasibility: 3/5

Option 2: Choose a draft

This option would give teams the option of which draft to participate in with their first pick. Teams would be given a choice, beginning in reverse order of record, to have their pick be slotted into the domestic draft or the international draft. Teams would then have to use more strategy when deciding how to approach the draft process. Teams would generally choose to participate in the domestic draft because players are generally older and more developed, but if a team with a later selection saw enough value in an international prospect, the use of that pick on an international player could make sense. The draft is all about value, so gaining the value provided by the number one pick in either draft would be intriguing in almost any draft cycle. Here is a look at what the draft order may have looked like in 2016 if this option were in place:

Domestic Draft:

  1. Philadelphia Phillies- Mickey Moniak
  2. Cincinnati Reds- Nick Senzel
  3. Colorado Rockies- Riley Pint
  4. Milwaukee Brewers- Corey Ray
  5. Miami Marlins- Braxton Garrett

International Draft:

  1. Atlanta Braves- Kevin Maitan
  2. Oakland Athletics- Lazaro Armenteros
  3. San Diego Padres- Adrian Morejon
  4. Houston Astros- Freudis Nova
  5. St. Louis Cardinals- Jonathan Machado

This is obviously just an idea of how the draft may have gone in this scenario, but it provides some idea as to how the order may have changed if teams were given the option of drafting domestically or internationally with their first picks. Bonus pools could be assigned based on the value assigned to each pick, combining the value of both drafts. This scenario could make sense, but it would greatly complicate the domestic draft, which may not be in the best interest of Major League Baseball moving forward.

Feasibility: 3/5

Option 3: Winners Pick First

This option would have no ties to the domestic draft, and would have the opposite order. Rather than rewarding the teams with losing records in two drafts, the international draft would have teams with the best records choosing first. This would slot the team with the best record the previous year in at number one, giving teams yet another incentive to win. This draft would have no ties to free agency or competitive balance, meaning each team would have one pick per round. The idea of rewarding winning teams with a high-profile international prospect makes a lot of sense when considering not only the increased incentive to win, but also the time frame in which a prospect would be taken. Here’s a look at how a 2016 international draft may have looked in this scenario:

  1. St. Louis Cardinals- Kevin Maitan
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates- Adrian Morejon
  3. Chicago Cubs- Vladimir Gutierrez
  4. Kansas City Royals- Luis Almanzar
  5. Toronto Blue Jays- Lazaro Armenteros

If baseball’s best team were given the number one pick in the domestic draft, the organization would have an opportunity to select a player that could contribute very quickly if developed properly. The best team taking the best player in the domestic draft would be a detriment to the parity of the game. However, a 16-year-old prospect could potentially take five years to impact a major league team. This would give winning teams a small boost for the distant future while still allowing them to choose a domestic player in their assigned slot. Slot values would be assigned to each pick, and the picks could be forfeited and the money used in the following year’s draft, much like in option one. I think this may be the most reasonable proposal, as it rewards teams for being competitive rather than simply placing losing teams at the top.

Feasibility: 5/5

In all three of the options listed above, the most important factor is the protection provided to the amateur athletes in question. The implementation of a draft removes the corruption associated with the international signing period and gives players peace of mind with regards to the lack of handshake agreements and package deals. Elite players can be showcased as such when they are taken early in the draft rather than being packaged with four other players from the same baseball academy. It’s time to protect these young players that are being subjected to the wishes of a handler, who is essentially an unlicensed agent. Great players can transcend even the most difficult of circumstances, but they shouldn’t have to anymore. Major League Baseball needs to protect its future assets, and an international draft would certainly be a step in the right direction.




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