Evan Grant's recent report that the Texas Rangers reached a $15 million agreement with Cuban Outfielder Leonys Martin, once again reminds us that for American amateur ballplayers the United States is not the land of liberty. By subjecting American baseball players to the Rule 4 Draft, Major League Baseball stifles their earning power, while simultaneously allowing relatively unregulated transitions for players outside the country. Is this fair? Absolutely not.
Clearly, this isn't about Mr. Martin as a player, who doesn't profile as a top talent*, based on reports published by Jim Callis, Keith Law** and Buster Olney. But rather the leverage granted to him and other International Free Agents by inconsistencies in Major League Baseball's governing legislation, notably the Major League Rules(MLR)*** - not the Collective Bargaining Agreement as most incorrectly assume.
Rule 3 of the MLR places contract eligible players into three categories, High School, College, and Junior College and defaults the rest, including International Free Agents, under Rule 3(B). The first three categories are filled with residents of the United States, its territories, and Canada (I will be referring to this class generally as Americans). Well what is a resident? As defined in The Rules,
A player shall be considered a "resident of the United States" if the player enrolls in a United States high school or college or establishes a legal residence in the United States on the date of the player's contract or within one year prior to that date.
Players subject to the draft become reserved by the Club who drafts them and if they choose not to sign become eligible for the next year's Rule 4 Draft. Players are not able to sign with, thus severely limiting bargaining power. However, if one isn't a part of one of the aforementioned classes, one will be eligible to be sign with an organization if they are 17 years old at the time of signing, or will be 17 prior to either the end of the effective season for which the player has signed or September 1 of that season, whichever is later. Not only are these players not restricted in the number of teams they can negotiate with, but they can also contract at an earlier age.
What rationale can be given for this unequal treatment? One might point to American society's disposition to encourage education. But, if that is important, why not force high school students to college? Why not force draft eligible sophomores to complete their degree? Why hold education as a priority for Americans but not aliens? Why not draw more arbitrary lines? Maybe it isn't education. Likely it's an assortment of public policy issues. Regardless, in a country that encourages freedom of contract, it is strange to see such disproportionate restrictions on its citizens.
In an effort to have a universal and equal system, some would argue for implementing a free market for all players, regardless of residency. Opponents of that concept suggest it would create a situation very similar to what we see with the English Premier League. In European Football, the distribution of talent creates a an uneven playing with very little parity atop the league tables. The Evolution of Baseball's Amateur Draft suggests "stockpiling" was the reason for implementing the draft in the first place (according to Wikipedia, I cannot access the piece).
An alternative that preserves equality would be an international draft, similar to the NHL's Entry Draft. Observers of Puerto Rican baseball would quickly retort that the country's inclusion in the Rule 4 Draft, rather than the International Free Agent system other Caribbean nations enjoy, has destroyed baseball in the country by removing the economic incentive of investing in the sport.
Personally, I am far more concerned with an individual's right to freely negotiate than I am with competitive balance. There are other equitable ways to achieve that end. Where is the public outcry that despite a tremendous difference in natural ability, Leonys Martin just signed a contract of almost equal value to that of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg? Hypnotically, what if Strasburg never threw another pitch and his earning power as a baseball player suddenly evaporated.
Or how about the not-so hypothetical situation of Matthew Purke, also a superior prospect to Mr. Martin who had the misfortunate of being born an American. According to Nolan Ryan, Mr. Purke had a pre-draft deal with the Texas Rangers for $6 million. While far less than he would on the open market it was still a life altering sum of money. As many of you know, Major League Baseball terminated the agreement after assuming an oversight role of the Ranger's non-budged transactions. Now, as each week of the College Baseball season passes, questions regarding Purke's draft stock and eventual price tag loom. Aaron Fitt wrote a great piece at Baseball America detailing Purke's most recent struggles. In all likelihood, Purke will not receive as lucrative a signing bonus as he was offered by the Rangers two years ago. Unable to cash in after a dominant high school career and an inspired freshman year at Texas Christian University, Purke's earning power has diminished due to overbearing restrictions placed up American amateur baseball players.
Should Strasburg and Purke not be able to negotiate the best deals while Aroldis Chapman, Leonys Martin and Intentional Free Agents are entitled to engage the open market? When the collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2011 season, many expect the Rule 4 Draft to be among the largest bargaining chips. Let's hope that the subsequent agreement will promulgate numerous changes to the MLR that favor universal negotiating equality and freedom.
* I trust Rangers GM Jon Daniels to make the best decision for his organization. The bashing of Martin is mostly illustrative, as there really isn't much hard evidence about the young man.
**Keith Law: Consistent response was that he can run and shows raw power in BP, but has major swing flaws with every single source questioning his ability to hit. Have also heard that he wasn't running balls out in late workouts because of some undisclosed leg injury. Several sources said they liked him, just not close to the ultimate price.
*** If you aren't aware of the work Maury Brown is doing at The Biz of Baseball, you're missing out. He absolutely kills it day in and day out. Much respect.
**** Please don't get political. I understand that the country's unions are having a difficult time right now. For better or worse, please keep the conversation limited to baseball.