No Major League team would have been willing to commit major money to Bobby Abreu when he was a scrawny 14-year-old from Maracay, Venezuela. It took two more years of food and fundamentals for Abreu’s five-tool talents to begin to reveal themselves. Then -- and only then -- was Abreu mentally and physically prepared for his first professional contract with the Astros, which birthed the long and fruitful career that landed him on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot.
Abreu, who goes by Bob these days, runs his own baseball academy in Venezuela and he sees first-hand how the future of MLB -- the Latin American kids dedicating their lives to the game -- don’t get the opportunity to fully develop the way he once did.
“Sometimes [Major League teams] concentrate on guys who are 13, 14 years old,” Abreu said. “I’ve seen a lot of guys here who are 18 or 19 years old without a lot of opportunities. For some reason, they are [considered] too old for the system, too old for the game.”
Abreu is one of many Latin American instructors who have become advocates for the International Draft that MLB has tried to advance during the ongoing Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. When details about the Draft proposal became public in recent days -- including the guarantee of more money in a system that would support the same number of signings -- a wave of trainers from the various academies in the baseball hotbeds of Venezuela and the Dominican Republic voiced their support of the idea because of how frustrated they have become with the current environment.
“Today,” said Carlos Guillén, a three-time All-Star infielder who runs an academy bearing his name in Maracay, “kids have agreed with teams at 13, 14, 15 years old. With an International Draft, more kids would have more opportunity.”
Imagine if baseball players in the United States were compelled to agree to terms with big league teams when they were still in middle school -- unable to renegotiate a few years later, when their bodies and skills were more developed.
That would be considered a potentially predatory and preposterous process, rife with ugly incentives.
Yet those are precisely the conditions that exist in Latin America. Whereas players eligible for the First-Year Player Draft in the U.S., its territories and Canada have been selected at ages anywhere from 17 to 28, in Venezuela, the D.R. and other Latin American countries, age 16 -- the age players are first eligible to sign, per the current international signing rules -- has increasingly acted not as an entryway, but as a ceiling.
“We know of teams that have kids locked up to 2025,” said Eddy Fontana, who heads up J&E Academy in Santiago, D.R. “We’re talking about three years in advance. This is a failed system.”
As Fontana explains it, when players feel compelled to agree to deals so early, they too often find themselves agreeing to signing bonuses that are less than what they could command if the process played out more gradually.
On Opening Day 2021, 17.8 percent of Major League rosters (active and injured list) were made up of players from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. The influence of those two countries, in particular, on the modern game has been remarkable. But with that impact has come an increasingly cutthroat signing environment in which teams try to lock in the next big thing years before that player is even eligible.
That’s what has encouraged MLB to push for an International Draft more in these CBA negotiations with the MLB Players Association than in past talks.
In preparing its proposal for an International Draft, MLB listened to trainers like Fontana, who is a member of the MLB Trainer Partnership Program, about the issues with a current system in which the largest financial commitments are being made to players several years shy of actual signing eligibility.
Those trainers want a system with improved transparency and accountability. A system that does not incentivize performance-enhancing drugs and under-the-table deals. A system in which players who naturally develop and improve in their mid- to late teens can be rewarded with professional opportunities and equitable signing bonuses.
“In a new structure, you could keep players in a [traditional] school system longer,” trainer Cristian Pimentel, who runs an academy bearing his name in Santo Domingo, D.R., said through an interpreter. “When you have to develop them quickly, it is not good for the long-term benefit for the player. That’s one of the reasons I like the [Draft] proposal, because you can focus on one age group to develop your players and they are competing [to be drafted and signed] at an age where their bodies and minds are more prepared.”
The problem, as these trainers describe it, is that in committing the bulk of their international pool money years in advance, to players who are still far away from eligibility, teams leave the “late” bloomers (if you can call 16-18 years old “late”) on the outside looking in, or accepting the smallest of signing bonuses.
“Ten years ago, players were able to have a good market when they were 15 or 16 years old,” Adolfo Burgos, who runs Academia Internacional de Baseball in Santiago, D.R., said through an interpreter. “Now that has shifted to the point where I have had to say to 14-year-old players, ‘There’s no market for you.’ Some of the best offers for 15- or 16-year-olds now are for [only] $10,000.”
During the conversation Burgos also mentioned that two of his pupils who became Major Leaguers (José Leclerc and Emmanuel Clase, who both signed when they were almost 17) would have struggled to sign in the current system.
Said Fontana: “If a ballplayer does not sign by his 16th birthday, if he’s not a pitcher or a catcher, nobody’s going to look at him anymore. We’re signing kids at 21 in the States. Who says a Dominican kid can’t develop?”
The need, under the present conditions, for players to impress at inordinately young ages has incentivized the use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“How do you think a player at 12 years old can hit a homer in a regular baseball field?” said Pedro Liriano, a former Major League pitcher who runs an academy bearing his name in Fantino, D.R. “There’s no way that’s going to happen [without PEDs]. They are pushing the kids to become great before the regular [signing] age.”
And the system has pushed trainers to take in kids as young as 11 years old, simply to keep up with the times and keep their business running.
“That comes at the expense of [the kids] not having time for their childhood,” William Valdez, owner of an academy in Santiago, D.R., said through an interpreter. “I got Wilmer Difo signed when he was 18 years old. Baseball scouts are not looking at [players that old] anymore. Even budgets for 2023 and 2024 are not available at some clubs right now.”
The primary incentives of the International Draft proposal would be to eliminate the early agreements and provide more transparency for players and teams.
A hard slotting system would guarantee more signing bonus money, in aggregate, to the 600 Draft picks than was spent on more than 1,000 international players in the last full signing period prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. And because players would not be eligible to be drafted before the age of 16 -- and would remain eligible after turning 16 -- they would have more time to get the tutelage and training they need before committing to a professional career.
“Time is going to tell us, but I strongly believe we’re going to see more kids have opportunities at 17 or 18 if there’s a Draft,” Fontana said. “With [a Draft system], if he’s not ready at 16, he can go back into the Draft the next year and be looked at, not because of his age, but because of his abilities.”