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Towards an Understanding of the Worldwide Draft

Please welcome Patrick Clark to the BtB fraternity (not that I'm opposed to making this a co-ed house down the road.)  My first exposure to Patrick's work came through his fascinating look at Dominican youth baseball.  He'll be taking a look at the international game at BtB, both by dissecting angles most fans aren't familiar with and, eventually, from the objective, data-driven side.  Give him a warm BtB welcome.  - Sky

"There’s no question in my mind, in 2011, certainly a [hard] slotting system and a worldwide draft are things we will be very aggressive about," said Selig.

This from MLB’s spendthrift commissioner on August 19, as the signing period for the Rule 4 draft closed and Stephen Strasburg laid waste to Mark Prior’s record for an amateur bonus. It’s no surprise then that Selig’s comments on the amateur draft have received the bulk of the attention, even if it’s also worth noting that we only seem to hone in on the international talent market when someone has been defrauded.

Still, a worldwide draft represents a more radical departure from prevailing procedure than hard slotting does, and the ramifications are greater.

Without getting into the arcane details (for more on which, try here) internationals born between July 2 and Aug. 31 become eligible to sign free agent contracts on their 16th birthdays, while those born after Aug. 31 become eligible to sign on the subsequent July 2.

The July 2 system is modest in its aims: to assert a semblance of order to the international market by instituting age constraints and focusing signing activity to a limited time-period.

Given these aims, the system has been largely successful. Under its auspices, clubs have retained and developed large quantities of talent, often at low costs, just as large quantities of international—mostly Latin American—players have achieved professional careers, and cottage-industries have developed to varying degrees globally.

But as MLB’s international talent market has become increasingly important, the July 2 system has come under a series of criticisms from certain quarters. To wit, that the free market nature of the July 2 system has caused bonuses to explode, favored richer teams, and engendered an atmosphere in which players lie about their ages, adults take advantage of adolescents, and everybody but this guy gets screwed.

Well, I’m going to leave the validity of these claims aside for now. The data is far from complete, but one of the things I hope to do here at BtB is look at just what the clubs’ international budgets buy, and which clubs do the best in the market. For now, I’d like to consider briefly how well a worldwide draft might answer the July 2 system’s criticisms.

The first one seems easy: assuming that a worldwide draft comes with a hard-slotting system, it will rein in international bonuses. It’s possible, I suppose, that more internationals would receive mid-level money, but I’d go so far as to surmise that controlling top-end bonuses is what makes the worldwide draft particularly appealing to Selig.

Likewise, a worldwide draft with hard-slots would level the playing field on a basic level. Certainly, some clubs would find or maintain advantages in scouting and development—particularly important in secondary markets, where inferior infrastructure (primarily, the absence of live games to evaluate) causes these advantages to play up—but I think we generally chalk this up to gamesmanship, as opposed to insurmountable monetary edge.

Could a worldwide draft also clean up the international market?

Again, I think the answer is a qualified yes. Chief among the major problems plaguing the international talent market are a lack of structure and a lack of transparency, and insofar as a worldwide draft can mitigate these issues, I think it will help.

Things may be changing already, but as of recently it has not been a given that every team has had the opportunity to scout the most highly-regarded international prospects, and it has been suggested to me by Dominican player-advisors that a reputation for spending aggressively can be a prerequisite for seeing the best prospects. Throw in the not-so-long-ago yet seemingly completely forgotten talk of bonus skimming, and you get the picture of a market with a pretty large capacity for shady dealings.

By tying compensation directly to draft position, you’d do a lot to ensure fair access to international talent. Likewise, it’s reasonable to think that a worldwide draft might draw increased media attention that in turn will have a cleansing effect.

(It’s seems likely that the increased attention paid to the last two July 2 periods has been a solid first step in this direction, and it’s possible that we’ve already reached a point where it will be increasingly difficult to get away with some of the long-accepted chicanery that has plagued the market.)

So what’s wrong with an international draft?

Frankly, it’s complicated, and I’m a little out of breath. For the moment, I’ll raise a couple of concerns, and resolve to dive back in at a later date.

One question is whether a draft would stifle the development of the sport in emerging markets. This is an argument that’s been made with regards to Puerto Rican baseball—that inclusion in the Rule 4 draft beginning in 1990 has caused Puerto Rico to fall behind its Caribbean Series rivals Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. I’ve wondered before whether the case has been overstated, but it’s a valid concern, especially for countries with less-developed baseball industries.

Another question is the simple logistics of scouting across cultures, languages, economies. Even assuming fair access to international prospects, how do you compare a 16-year-old Dominican with an eighth grade education to 22-year-old American college grad? Clubs are already doing this on some level, depending on how they allocate their scouting budgets, but it’s a certainty that a worldwide draft would present some mighty challenges to scouting departments league-wide.

Finally, what about the kids? There’s already the notion that any draft is unfair to the draftees, and I think a worldwide draft would be particularly unfair to international talent, which in nearly all cases will not have a college scholarship to fall back on. Not that we have much reason to believe that the commissioner’s office, the clubs, or the Players Association will lose too much sleep over that.