"The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas."
The quote above is from two-time Nobel Prize winning chemist/biologist, Linus Pauling, and his thoughts may seem like an odd match to refer to new MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. However, it seems the primary way the water is flowing in Major League Baseball these days -- after the Boston Red Sox blew a big wad of cash on Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada -- is to create "fairness" by creating an International Draft. Not many other ideas seem to floating down the stream.
An International Draft would, in the eyes of many, even the playing field for North American amateurs. No longer would any player not currently subjected to the draft be able to get clubs to pay out massive sums for premium talents. Players in the current draft are pigeon holed in tightly held slots limiting their ability to cash in.
Is the current system fair? No. Is the International Draft the only remedy? Mr. Pauling would likely agree if I say "no."
Let's play the always popular game of "what if"
What if MLB and the players union truly surprised us and decided to go the opposite way? Instead of creating a new draft or folding internationals into the current draft, why not just get rid of the draft process altogether? Create "fairness" by giving players freedom to negotiate with all clubs to find the most money available to them.
"Madness," you say? The wild, wild west. An environment where the richest clubs would buy all the premium talent?
A pure free market probably would have some drawbacks, initially. The haves and the have nots would be fairly identifiable. "The Yankees and Dodgers will buy everyone!" Or would they? The Oakland A's signed Michael Ynoa a few years ago to a then-record amount before spending restrictions on bonuses were in place. Even though he didn't pan out, the money splashed down on him came from a club that cries "poverty" often, it shocked everybody. The A's also jumped in for Yoenis Cespedes in 2012. The Twins parachuted in late and stole top power-hitting prospect Miguel Sano from the Pittsburgh Pirates for over $4 million a few years ago. The mid-market Cincinnati Reds made their play for Aroldis Chapman as well. Teams have money. This is a $9 billion per year business after all.
If MLB wanted to create some cost-certainty for the player recruitment process -- and we know they would (I'm looking at you, Jerry Reinsdorf) -- they could probably get the players union to agree to a Amateur Bonus Pool Cap for all players world wide.
Let's say they allot each club $25 million per year to spend on amateur bonuses. Clubs can allocate as much or as little they prefer each year to the process. Maybe they can carry over a percentage of what they don't spend to the next season if they forecast a certain year will yield more talent.
This cap would keep a large revenue club like the Dodgers from blowing away the Tampa Bay Rays or the Atlanta Braves each season. It would force clubs to make hard choices on who to recruit, who to develop, and how much of their cap figure they can blow on top players.
It would give young players drafted out of high school or college the ability to court multiple teams for the best deal. This is something Caribbean players have always been able to do and North American guys have not. This seems eminently fair. Also, it would be really interesting to monitor for fans akin to college football crazies who live and die for their club's success on National Signing Day.
A Threat to the Worldwide Game
One of the big fears of an international draft is that it will hurt the development of talent all over the globe. The "Puerto Rican Baseball Malaise" is a real threat for other countries.
In 1990, players from Puerto Rico were made subject to the MLB Draft process. Previously, they had operated on that island like any international player, free to sign with any club they choose. That freedom went away.
What happened? The number of players developed in Puerto Rico went on a steady decline over the next two decades as MLB clubs closed their academies there. Why spend time and resources if you're the Reds in order for a player you've worked with to be drafted out from under them by the Rockies? Makes sense, really. Teams relocated these academies elsewhere to countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Many believe basketball is now a more popular sport in Puerto Rico.
Subjecting today's youth in current academy-laden countries to a draft process will run the high risk of seeing clubs act in the same rational manner. Baseball does not need top talent from those countries seeking easier access to opportunity in other sports.
It's a party in the USA
What would happen to American youth baseball if the draft were abolished? The reverse of what happened in Puerto Rico is possible. Suddenly the initiatives to revive baseball in the inner city could take on a whole new level of attractiveness for teams. They can build their own "six million dollar men."
If the Tigers opened a youth academy in southeast Michigan, south Florida, and southern California they could develop their own pipelines of talent by building relationships with these young players early and giving them incredible opportunities currently not open to them. Relationship building will be a big key to the process (and, yes, so will the money).
All teams would be forced to actively recruit these players. This probably holds it's own can of worms of shady operations. But the "buscone" system (the seedy talent recruiters who have their hands in the wallets of the kids they represent) in the Caribbean has always been there and MLB has navigated through those murky waters. Today's high scrutiny social media environment might make it harder for similar profiteers to operate under the radar in America.
If clubs can afford international academies, it's a safe bet nearly every club could build a handful in the United States, even if the costs of doing so are slightly higher. You could even see clubs have "consortium academies" in some parts of the country to share costs. Again, when you're one of 30 teams that are part of a $9 billion enterprise, there is very little credibility to claims that a couple of millions bucks each year to run their academies would sink the ship.
The Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy from the 1970s for raw talent out of high school could also come back into vogue for some teams who really want to turn over every stone to find a rare gem.
What will happen
Let's face it: MLB is on the fast track to implement the International Draft. The Yoan Moncada situation is the final impetus they needed to push it into the game.
The sad part is that the owners are going to save money on an international draft. They'll do it by taking money and opportunity out of the hands of kids from around the world, the vast majority of whom come from rather economically challenged situations. Does Mike Ilitch need to save the coin? Does Jerry Reinsdorf really need an extra million bucks in his wallet? Do the Pohlads need that new pool by the Lake Minnetonka mansion?
Is there really something wrong with a kid like Yoan Moncada getting rich? Does he really need to be told where he'll play and for how much with no say in the matter?
One of the arguments in favor of the International Draft is that it is "fair" to North American players. Big whoop. Almost nothing will change for them. They won't make a penny more. They will still have no choice on which team drafts them. This move doesn't do one damn thing for a kid from Ankeny, Iowa who is humming a 94 mile-per-hour heater at age 17. He has no more freedom or cash with an international draft.
Dare to be different
Get rid of all drafts. Put the bonus pool cap in if you must. Create freedom for players to target where they will play and who they will play for. Let them attempt to leverage their considerable skills for as big a piece of a club's bonus pie as their skills command.
Make clubs truly compete on a personal level for talent. It would be chaotic. That's okay. Chaos can breed opportunity for a smart ballclub.
It would also be darn to fun to watch play out each year during the established signing periods.
I can dream.