Within Major League Baseball’s current international signing environment, aspiring ballplayers often get just one shot to impress Major League scouts -- and it comes early. The competition for Latin American talent has become so cutthroat that teams have been known to commit to informal deals with kids several years before they reach their age-16 signing eligibility, often upon the assessment of a single tryout.
As MLB continues discussions with the MLB Players Association about an International Draft aimed at eliminating the early signings and improving transparency in the Latin American player market, MLB has begun preparations on initiatives that would give international players a greater opportunity to develop and showcase their skills and teams a better opportunity to assess talent.
One such example would be a free league in the Dominican Republic, which would allow players access to be scouted during extended playing opportunities (six months of each year) in their regions. MLB would undertake or support similar initiatives in other major baseball countries (it has already begun supporting multiple leagues operated by trainers and former players in Venezuela), as well as increase its presence in traditionally smaller markets.
“The ability to scout a player in 50 or 60 games in a year is incredibly important to creating a transparent market,” said Omar Minaya, the former Mets and Expos general manager and current amateur scouting consultant for MLB. “But it's great for the kids, too, to have time to develop amidst healthy competition. Older players are going to have a lot more opportunity to get significant playing time in front of clubs, and younger kids will not have the pressure associated with individual make-or-break tryouts.”
The entire subject of the International Draft, which was temporarily tabled when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified in March, remains open for discussion until July 25.
By that date, a final decision must be made. If MLB and the MLBPA agree to implement an International Draft, beginning with the 2024 signing period, then the current free-agent Draft-pick compensation system (which includes the qualifying offer) would be abolished, beginning with the 2022-23 offseason.
Details of MLB’s International Draft proposal were revealed during the CBA negotiations, but the concept of a pre-Draft league run by MLB provides more clarity on how the landscape would develop.
What MLB has proposed in the Dominican Republic, specifically, is a league that would operate as follows:
• Four geographic regions, with up to eight teams apiece (about 800 players total on up to 32 teams total).
• Participation would be free of charge for the participants, who would be Draft-eligible players selected based on MLB evaluations and club input from tryouts and other scouting events.
• Players from other countries would also be incorporated into the league either, by being added to existing Dominican Republic teams or by creating specific teams for players from non-D.R. countries.
• The season would be divided into two halves of three months apiece, with a two-month midseason break that would include showcase events. Teams would play two to three games per week, and the season would culminate with a tournament.
• Facilities would be equipped with the best scouting technology, and all video and data would be distributed to clubs, free of charge.
• At the conclusion of the season, just prior to the Draft, a scouting combine similar to what already exists for the domestic Draft would be held, featuring strength and conditioning assessments, medical exams, interviews and on-field playing opportunities.
• MLB would make significant investments in infrastructure and staff (a coordinator to oversee the league in each region, coaches and other statistics, technology and umpiring staff) to ensure everything is run properly.
• A regional league website at MLB.com would include schedules, scores, leaderboards, player profiles and other content. Social media accounts would be used to promote the players and build excitement for the Draft, and games could be streamed online.
"Our goal,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, “is to provide players and clubs access to healthy scouting opportunities in each local landscape by creating MLB platforms and supporting people in local baseball communities.”
While political complications might make it difficult to initially field such a league in Venezuela, MLB has already begun working with trainers, including former players Carlos Guillen, Bobby Abreu and Cesar Izturis, to organize and support local leagues in the major baseball regions of the country, as well as facilitate club access to information and video on participating players.
Leagues and partnerships in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela will provide frameworks for working with federations, local leagues, trainers and former players in other major baseball countries, such as Panama and Colombia (where MLB has already expanded its Trainer Partnership Program), as well as Mexico, Curaçao and Aruba, Brazil, the Bahamas and others.
Many trainers in Latin American countries have voiced their concerns about the unhealthy nature of the current signing system, viewing it as predatory and problematic. The early signing environment contributes to performance-enhancing drug use and leaves many late bloomers (i.e. kids whose player development path is more natural) scrambling for meager signing bonuses.
Were these leagues and support initiatives established in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and beyond, a player’s future would not hinge on a one-time tryout at an early age. And for teams, such a league would allow for more informed decisions on a player’s talent level, therefore reducing risk in the investment.
The fate of the International Draft and the proposed regional league will be determined in the ongoing negotiations between the MLB and MLBPA.