Ronald Acuña: superstar, centimillionaire, exploited laborer.
Photo: Todd Kirkland (Getty Images)

For North America’s amateur baseball players, be they generational talents like Mike Trout or organizational filler like Mike Fish, the road to the majors begins in the same place: with Major League Baseball’s amateur draft. There is no such system in place for international players, at least not yet, but MLB desperately wants to change that. The goal, which MLB has gotten progressively less shy about expressing in public, is to create an international draft that will eliminate the current international free agency system and give teams the control and cost-certainty in the marketplace for international prospects that they already enjoy for domestic talent.

They can’t just say that, though. Instead, MLB and its officials have pushed the need for a draft because of their concern about the human toll created by the lawlessness of the current international free agent system. According to the reporting of ESPN’s Jeff Passan, four of the players expected to sign in an upcoming international signing period were just 13 years old when they agreed to deals with MLB teams. That is three years before potential international free agents are even permitted to work out at MLB complexes, and so very much against the rules.

It gets worse. Those 13-year-olds, if they reside in the Dominican Republic, were once 10- and 11-year-old kids who were pulled out of school, along with the rest of the potential future professional baseball players, so that they could focus exclusively on baseball. Even the classic Mr. Show sketch featuring sports recruiters going after younger and younger players opens with David Cross telling a kid to stay in school, which means that MLB’s current reality is literally beyond parody.

Those same children who leave school to pursue the vanishingly distant dream of making it as pro athletes are exploited in various ways along the way. For starters, they’re likely pumped full of performance-enhancing drugs by their buscónes, the trainer-agents that work as middle-men between international free agents in places like the Dominican and MLB teams. Kids who appear bigger and stronger are going to stand out more to scouts, and are more likely to pull in larger contracts; for middle-school-age children with a chance at real money, the potential rewards outweigh the myriad obvious risks. Those players will only get that money after other people get theirs. MLB officials routinely get kickbacks in exchange for paying extra for a given prospect. Buscónes get a cut, too: they aren’t just finding, training, drugging, and representing these kids out of the goodness of their hearts. There are reasons to doubt MLB’s sincerity, here as always, but the human costs of all this institutionalized scuzz are real, and significant.

But MLB isn’t actually pushing for an international draft because the league wants to clean up that mess. They should, and they might, but the priority is to make this entire process cheaper for teams, and to permit those teams more control over their potential workers. The mess that exists right now is of their own making. As we’ll see, they already have the tools in place to clean it up without resorting to a draft.

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MLB has wanted an international draft in place of the international free agent free-for-all for decades now. During negotiations for the 2003-2006 collective bargaining agreement, MLB even got the MLB Players Association to tentatively agree to the introduction of a “world-wide draft.” The logistical challenges involved were too great in scope to be solved in the time allotted by collective bargaining, but MLB never quit on the concept. In 2011, as an alternative to instituting a draft, MLB and the MLBPA agreed to limit spending on international free agents by creating penalties for teams that go over those limits. MLB also created an International Talent Committee tasked with figuring out the logistics of an international draft. The idea was that, when the idea next surfaced in bargaining, MLB would have a plan ready to go.

In 2016, the international free agent market was further capped, once again because the MLBPA agreed to limit its scope in exchange for avoiding an actual draft. There are no longer penalties for teams going over their bonus pool, because it’s no longer possible for teams to do that: it’s now a hard cap. International free agents have also been lumped into one big group, which is how Shohei Ohtani ended up signing for a $2.3 million bonus and a standard league-minimum contract in 2018 instead of something more like Masahiro Tanaka’s seven-year, $155 million deal with the Yankees in 2014. MLB made it clear that whatever team signed Ohtani would not be permitted to promise him more money on an extension early into his career, either.

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As indicated by a potentially unprecedented international talent settling for Chris Owings money, MLB has successfully squeezed just about all they can from the union short of getting them to agree to an international draft. The only thing left is to finish the job, which means that the public relations battle over who cares more about the plight of foreign teens will begin in earnest. As former sportswriter and current New York Times editor Jorge Arangure tweeted, MLB’s goal is to reduce the leverage of free agents by making them draft picks instead. “MLB has exploited the economic situation of a poverty stricken nation,” he continued, noting that the pursuit of further exploitation is the reason MLB doesn’t enforce its own rules regarding international signings.

And that’s what this all comes down to. MLB could fix just about any of its supposed issues with the international signing system by simply enforcing the rules that are supposed to prevent 13-year-old children from agreeing to deals. The Braves and former general manager John Coppolella were both punished for their rampant criminality on the international market, and they deserved it—Coppolella’s front office agreed to a deal with a 13-year-old, and shifted money around to avoid complications and penalties from exceeding the mandated spending limits. The league hit him and the Braves hard—Coppolella was banned from the league for life and the Braves were forced to release 13 prospects—but the punishment, in this case, was far more surprising than the crime. “MLB has told teams they don’t care about early verbal deals at all and they’re often done two-plus years in advance,” the former Braves’ assistant director of baseball operations and current prospect writer Kiley McDaniel stated in a chat at FanGraphs earlier this month. “MLB cares about package deals to circumvent the bonus pools.” The last bit was Coppolella’s real crime, at least in MLB’s eyes.

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This kind of ban would happen more often if MLB cared about violations beyond bonus pool circumvention, which is relatively rare. (But not unheard of: the Red Sox lost lost five prospects back in 2016 for their own bonus manipulation and funneling.) Were MLB to go after the four teams that agreed to deals for the 2021-2022 signing period with kids who were 13 at the time—say, by banning them from the prospects they deemed worthy of breaking the rules for and limiting their international activity in following years—you’d likely see every team suddenly on its best behavior. MLB hasn’t done that, though, and to all indications is not interested in starting. What you see in the Dominican and Venezuela and everywhere else prospects are being exploited is what you get when MLB decides its own rules aren’t worth following.

MLB does care about that exploitation in one specific way, though—in terms of how it harms or improves the league’s image. An international draft of the kind that MLB has proposed would be a boon to the league’s image insofar as it could be spun as proof that MLB is trying to solve these issues. So long as no one notices that those issues are of MLB’s own making, it might even work.

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But that’s not all an international draft would do. Most importantly for MLB, a draft would weaken player leverage and bargaining power in the future. As I’ve written in this space before, all of MLB’s avenues for earnings are connected, and any changes to the system necessarily have ripple effects. Locking international free agents into a draft system with capped bonuses, likely with specific dollar limits for each pick like those in the domestic amateur draft, would limit spending at the top of the draft, but also throughout its entirety. The impact of that would carry over into international players minor-league careers, where they will make the sub-poverty-level wages as their teammates; MLB has spent millions spent lobbying Congress to ensure that they be allowed to continue paying those rates. That, in turn, would make players more amenable to accepting team-friendly deals upon reaching—or, as we’ve increasingly seen in recent years, in order to reach—the majors. After years of getting squeezed, any guaranteed payday would look like a win. Some players will eventually benefit from free agency, but every team would benefit more and more often from everything that comes before.

Agent Scott Boras correctly calls the team-friendly extensions that proliferated around the league this spring “snuff contracts.” These contracts can be assessed in an individuated way specific to the players signing them, but reflect the effects of years of shady practices by teams. The $100 million deal that Ronald Acuña signed with the Braves is worth a lot of money, but it’s also the result of everything that came before—the Braves manipulating his service time last spring to gain an extra year of his services, the league’s successful campaign of crypto-collusion that cut the bottom out of the free agent market, the teenage years that he spent making less than minimum wage in the minors, the initial signing bonus that was $100,000 instead of the $1 million or more he might have made in a less lustily manipulated marketplace. The money that the Braves will save in not paying a perennial MVP candidate in arbitration could give the team an advantage in the NL East, but is likelier to wind up either spent on real estate or staying in the owners’ pocket than it is on the roster. We need only look at what the Braves are doing now to know as much.

MLB teams want to create as many Ronald Acuñas as possible, and not just because they help in the middle of the order. Nothing is more valuable to teams than potential superstars whose earnings they can limit from day one, and who can be kept until it’s time to toss them aside in favor of someone younger and cheaper. But MLB teams also want to create as many of those other players—the ones who won’t even pull in six-figure bonuses, or ever sign deals anywhere near as big as Acuña’s extension, but who will still have no choice but to deal with all of the injustices of minor-league life and pre-MiLB exploitation—as they can. Moving to an international draft would lessen the influence of buscónes, sure, but it would also hand MLB further control over labor, and further ability to exploit players at every step along the way to the bigs. If MLB enforced the rules they already have, none of this would be necessary. But without the crisis they created, MLB wouldn’t have nearly as easy a time getting to the solution it has always wanted.

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Marc Normandin is the former MLB Editor of SB Nation, and currently writes a newsletter on baseball’s labor issues and more for Patreon subscribers. His baseball writing has appeared at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, and Baseball Prospectus.