BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- The search for the next great international prospect is only part of the reason more than 150 players, 200 scouts and 25 local trainers have gathered at the Cubs' academy 40 minutes east of Santo Domingo this week.There's also the pursuit of the middle ground
BOCA CHICA, Dominican Republic -- The search for the next great international prospect is only part of the reason more than 150 players, 200 scouts and 25 local trainers have gathered at the Cubs' academy 40 minutes east of Santo Domingo this week.
There's also the pursuit of the middle ground for discovering, scouting and signing prospects in the evolving international market.
MLB officials, including Deputy Commissioner of Baseball administration and chief legal officer Dan Halem and senior vice president of league economics and operations Morgan Sword, met with trainers participating in the new Trainer Partnership Program on Wednesday in between games at the showcase for prospects from the Dominican Republic in an effort to strengthen the working relationship between the parties now and in the future.
"We got a lot of positive feedback from the way the event has gone, and they are all excited to see all 30 clubs and get a good showcase opportunity for their players," Sword said. "This is a voluntary program and its principal objective is to get rid of a horrible problem that is happening in Latin America. People are coming together as trainers, clubs and the league to make sure we improve the game."
So far, Major League Baseball's efforts in Latin America have resulted in an important series of new rules, starting with tryouts. The previous regulations made prospects wait until they were 16, or six months from becoming eligible to sign, before they could try out at a team facility. New policies allow teams to try out players at their facilities starting 18 months prior to being eligible to sign on their 16th birthday.
What it means is that prospects currently eligible to sign (the signing period started July 2) -- let's call them the 2018-19 class -- can enter a team's academy for up to 15 days in any 45-day period. The players in the 2019-20 class that are six to 12 months from signing can enter a team's academy and stay there for up to 15 days in any 90-day period. That group can enter a club facility for up to 15 days in any 45-day period once a player is six months or less from becoming eligible to sign.
A prospect from the class of 2020-21, usually ages 13 1/2 to 14 years old, cannot enter a team's complex until he is 18 months from becoming eligible to sign. A group of prospects from this age bracket will work in front of scouts on Thursday in the showcase's finale. Prospects from 2018-19 and 2019-20 displayed their skills at the event Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Clubs are active in evaluating players well in advance of becoming eligible to sign, and we thought it was important to provide an opportunity for all of those different age groups," Sword said. "The clubs are starting to get access to some of those players and seeing what is out there."
Evaluating international prospects at an early age is a common practice under the current system. In fact, some teams are planning so far ahead, they are trying to secure prospects as early as age 13. The reason? Teams can estimate how much money they will have to spend on international prospects each year until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021 and are allocating their resources. Some trainers are also preparing prospects for scouts at an earlier age than usual.
"Early deals are an unfortunate consequence of the system that we created, and it was one of the primary reasons we were interested in moving to [an international] draft during the CBA negotiations, because a draft prevents early deals," Sword said. "The issue that we have, and so do the trainers, is that it is a very hard issue to police and enforce equally to all clubs and all trainers. For now, we are living with the system and trying to make incremental improvements when we can, but we don't like early deals. For all of the good that has come with our signing system, this is one of the negative consequences."
Overall, MLB's efforts in Latin America include prospect registration, a temporary prospect league, a focus on age and identity verification, and central drug testing, along with new tryout rules and a trainer program.
"Change is hard, and all of these partner trainers took a risk to join us in this program, and so far, they seem very happy," Sword said. "We are living up to our side of the bargain and we'll continue to show good faith, as are they, as the program grows."
In all, close to 50 trainers from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are participating in the voluntary pilot program. All trainers are welcome to join.
"These guys came across as so sincere, and we have never had someone of Mr. Dan Halem's stature come down here, let his heart out and tell us we are going to get things in order here," said Alfredo Arias, a prominent trainer in the Dominican Republic. "There is a lot of optimism here. What happened in the past is over. We are looking toward the future."
Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.