Nationals scouts Pablos Arias, left, and Carlos Ulloa, second from left,… (Ricky Carioti / The Washington…)
It's the poor stepchild of the baseball draft.
For years it was barely regulated, which made it ripe for abuse. And even today it remains overlooked, underpublicized and all but ignored by most fans.
Yet baseball's international signing period, which begins July 2, is quickly becoming one of the most important dates on the calendar for many big league teams.
More than a quarter of major league players — and nearly half of those in the minors — were signed as international free agents, including eight of the 20 starters in last year's All-Star game and last season's rookie of the year and Cy Young award winner in the American League.
"You have to go to where the baseball players are," said Angels General Manager Tony Reagins, whose team is beginning to ramp up its international operations. "The competition is steep. Virtually every team has an academy in the Dominican Republic. The Asian markets are heavily scouted.
"It's definitely become more of a challenge."
For many small-market clubs, it can also be the most cost-efficient way to remain competitive, allowing teams access to cheaper talent as a way to supplement the draft.
"We look at them as complementing one another," Reagins said.
Last year the 30 big league teams spent an average of $6.494 million in the draft. No team spent that much on international signings.
In fact the Angels and Dodgers spent considerably less, with Reagins' team giving out $617,000 in bonuses to international players and the Dodgers — once the most active team internationally — spending $314,000, according to estimates compiled by Baseball America.
Despite the low buy-in costs, the international market can be a gamble. Given the control that many agents have over their players in the Dominican Republic, scouting can be difficult with evaluations often limited to controlled tryouts. Widespread graft and corruption have soured many teams as well.
"You have a pretty good history of a player in the States, where you can basically follow that player from age 13," Reagins said. "If you deem that player is a prospect, you have a real good track record and a history of the player.
"In the international market, that's not always the case."
Ulises Cabrera, a former minor league shortstop and player representative with Creative Artists Agency, is trying to correct that — as well as other problems.
Eighteen months ago, he and business partner Brian Mejia launched the Dominican Prospect League, which, among other things, gives players a chance to showcase their skills for big league scouts in weekly games.
"There's more transparency. And the kids are getting exposed on a frequent basis," Cabrera said. "As an organization, we believe the more precise decisions organizations make, the healthier the industry will be in the long run.
"We created the DPL because we thought it could be the foundation upon which all of the negative issues in Latin America could be solved."
That means cleaning up a process plagued by abuse on both sides. On the players' side, age and identity fraud is widespread in the Dominican, as is the use of banned substances.
The teams, meanwhile, frequently prey on a family's poverty by offering bonuses that are a small fraction of a player's market value.
"The interesting point comes when one analyzes why the system was allowed to exist as it was," Mejia said. "One potential answer was the system was created and allowed to exist by stakeholders in the industry — teams, trainers and players — because there was a financial benefit to do so. The cost of signing talent was ridiculously low, the lack of media oversight gave confidence to people to do bad things [and] there was no genuine commitment to change."
Now, however, change is coming. A blue-ribbon committee convened by Commissioner Bud Selig has made wide-ranging recommendations on how to clean up baseball's operations in Latin America, some of which have already been implemented.
And signing bonuses have increased dramatically. A decade ago the Boston Red Sox signed Hanley Ramirez, a future batting champion and three-time All-Star, for $22,000. Last year 30 players, only one of whom was older than 18, got bonuses of at least $475,000.
Nevertheless, baseball's "nuclear option" — expanding the June draft internationally, an unpopular concept in Latin America and one that would give the commissioner's office widespread control over signings and player development — remains under discussion as part of the talks for a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players union.
"The suggestion that the international draft will solve the issue that existed in Latin America is a charade," Cabrera said. "The only issue that the international draft addresses is reducing the cost of acquiring talent. And that is only an issue for the owners of major league teams."
The solution lies in cooperation, not competition, according to Cabrera and Mejia, who think a partnership involving major league teams, local trainers and agents, and the players and their families has a better chance of solving the complex issues than any mandate hammered out over a conference table.
"We don't think the answer can or should be limited to what MLB can do," Mejia says. "We believe MLB should collaborate directly with the stakeholders in the industry who have proven themselves to do things in a professional, transparent and ethical way."