Latin America has long been viewed as a scouting Wild West in baseball circles, a region where a sense of opportunity for teams and players alike has combined with an element of lawlessness to create a world unto itself.
Teams, players, and trainers have all tested — and often blown past — regulatory limits.
Given that history, Major League Baseball’s punishment of the Red Sox last month for their international amateur signing practices seemingly represented something of a landmark in the league’s determination to police how teams acquire talent in the region.
Yet in many ways, the league’s actions raised as many questions as they answered, a stake planted atop several perceived fault lines related to concerns about the murky practices of players, teams, and the league itself.
What the Red Sox did
An international spending binge by the Red Sox in 2014-15 on players such as Yoan Moncada and Anderson Espinoza vastly exceeded the team’s MLB-approved spending pool. As a result of going past their limits, the Red Sox faced international amateur signing bonus caps in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 signing periods, with the team prohibited from signing players to a bonus in excess of $300,000.
The Red Sox had signed a number of players out of Venezuela to bonuses of $300,000, including some whose talent suggested that they could have gotten more. In addition, players of varying skill levels who worked with a common trainer signed with the Sox.
Evaluators outside the organization accused the Sox of circumventing restrictions by agreeing to “package deals,” in which money was transferred by a trainer from one player to another.
A hypothetical illustration: If a team views one player as being worth $500,000 and another as be worth $50,000, the team could sign both to bonuses of $300,000. The trainer, who often acts as the agent in negotiations, could then redistribute the bonuses — perhaps giving one player $500,000 and the other $100,000 — to reflect the talent differences between the two, while also earning a larger commission for himself.
MLB found what it deemed hard proof that the Sox had engaged in such “package signings” and punished them heavily. Five players — notably outfielders Alberto Guaimaro and Simon Muzziotti as well as shortstop Antonio Pinero — were declared free agents. The Red Sox were banned from signing any international amateurs in the 2016-17 signing season, eliminating the chance that they could find, say, a $50,000 diamond in the rough.
On one level, the matter seemed simple: MLB had defined a prohibited behavior, the Red Sox were found to engage in that behavior, and there was punishment.
“That’s just not right,” said one major league source of package deals. “We wouldn’t be doing it in this country, and we shouldn’t be doing it elsewhere.”
Yet industry officials were stunned by the severity of punishment.
“One-hundred seventy-five cars have driven by a cop at 90 m.p.h., and now they’re going to pull over that one,” said an American League official. “I understand that it’s ‘wrong.’ But it’s a strange thing to have something basically be decriminalized for years and then all of a sudden prosecute it.”
MLB felt it had to act because, in contrast to past instances of packaging, an investigation provided what the league viewed as hard evidence. That said, many in the industry consider package deals a relatively trivial concern in comparison to other practices in the pursuit of teenagers from Latin America.
“[Packaging] is a practice that happens,” said a major league source. “Let’s say it shouldn’t happen and let’s say baseball doesn’t want it to happen. [MLB] made a statement.
“I’m interested in what the next steps are. If this really is an illustration of next level of seriousness in prosecuting activity in this market, what the Red Sox did will quickly look like a misdemeanor.”
History of exploitation
Teams have scouted for talent in Latin America for more than a century.
“Major League Baseball has sought to acquire really strong talent [from Latin America] extremely cheaply,” said Adrian Burgos, a history professor at the University of Illinois. “In many instances, it’s verged on exploitation. It’s mostly been the prospects who are subject to exploitation where others have profited greatly.”
In 1994, the Dodgers brushed a few strokes of whiteout over the date of birth on the contract signed by star-in-the-making Adrian Beltre, replacing his real date of birth — April 7, 1979 — with the date of April 7, 1978, so that they could sign the “16-year-old” before another team had a chance to do so.
In 2008, White Sox official Dave Wilder was stopped with a briefcase filled with more than $30,000 in cash. He eventually received a two-year federal prison sentence for taking kickbacks on signing bonuses for international amateurs.
Trainers and players, too, have engaged in suspect or outright illegal behaviors, including age falsification, identity fraud, and performance-enhancing drug use meant to inflate the appeal of teenagers. In countries where a career in baseball represents an alternative to dire poverty, the incentives for players to take part in such practices have been considerable.
Questionable training and signing practices in Latin America — along with a heightened demand by the US government for documentation of players receiving work visas after 9/11 — convinced MLB of the need to tighten its review processes for amateur international signings, a desire that was amplified by the massive increase in the size of signing bonuses over the last decade.
The efforts to regulate the international market took fuller form under the current collective bargaining agreement between the Players Association and Major League Baseball that took effect in 2012. The creation of spending pools — with penalties for exceeding those limits — represented a significant change.
MLB also now conducts age and identification investigations and drug testing that have diminished some misrepresentation.
“I think we’re definitely moving away from that [Wild West] characterization,” said Kim Ng, an MLB senior vice president of baseball operations who oversees the league’s international operations.
“I think we’ve definitely seen some improvement over the last several years, and another thing that will help us in the long run are the penalties that have been imposed and are now being imposed. Hopefully that adds deterrence.”
Into the vortex
Yet as much as MLB’s policing of its rules might seem straightforward, there’s both resentment and resistance in the international baseball world, as well as curiosity about what will come next.
“MLB takes this adversarial approach to the way that it manages the international baseball arena,” said Ben Badler of Baseball America, who writes extensively about the international market. “Teams don’t feel like Major League Baseball is working for them. They feel like MLB is creating a bunch of new rules that are obstructing them from doing their job properly.”
Such perception derives from regulations such as a prohibition on bringing players to academies until they either turn 16 or are within six months of their signing eligibility.
Given the difficulty of scouting players who are at least two years younger than US or Canadian high school counterparts who are draft-eligible, the regulation was viewed as needlessly onerous. The edict contributed to the perception that MLB has done more to establish its own authority than to benefit players or teams trying to scout them.
The fact that regulations about the international market typically come via memo circulated only to the 30 clubs, rather than with any kind of transparency, creates further mistrust.
The secrecy of the league in turn creates discomfort with any sort of dialogue about how the international market works. One major league evaluator described the subject of MLB’s international regulations as a “third rail” that he wouldn’t address on the record. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz declined to comment on how the international market is regulated. Red Sox vice president of international scouting Eddie Romero likewise declined to comment.
On the player side, the spending cap — with 100 percent penalties on any money spent beyond it — represents a particular source of distress. A player such as Moncada who is deemed worthy of a $63 million investment by the Red Sox receives just $31.5 million; the other half goes to Major League Baseball.
Some experts see this as something akin to a sanctioned version of the skimming for which Wilder was once arrested.
“Most people point their finger at these trainers who collectively receive anywhere between 30 and 45 percent of a players bonus, but here comes MLB, who hasn’t added one lick of value to a player’s development, and they’re taking 100 percent of what a team is willing to pay for them if they go over the budget,” said Ulises Cabrera, a Dominican-American who became an agent (now with Octagon) after a playing career at Vanderbilt and in the minors.
“So who’s the bad guy? Is it MLB? Is it the trainers and the group of people who’ve invested sweat equity to see what happens, or is it the big billion-dollar industry that takes 100 percent of what a team is willing to pay a kid and puts it in their own bank account, and doesn’t or hasn’t delivered tangible results in the same market in which they received the money?
“When one looks at it that way, it puts a lot of things in question.”
The path forward
There are markers of progress, both in the background investigation process now conducted by MLB and in the benefits available to players once they’ve signed and can enter team academies, which typically offer year-round food and board along with educational programs.
“It was a different world back then than it is now,” said Players Association senior adviser Omar Minaya, whose front office career began as an international scout in the 1980s. “I think it’s gotten better. There’s a process that’s a better fit, and that protects the players somewhat more than they did back then.”
The presence of the penalty money could represent an opportunity for baseball to address some of the humanitarian concerns related to a system that has encouraged players to leave school years before they’re eligible to turn professional. At this point, the league has far more penalty money than it anticipated — believed to be more than $100 million — from teams spending beyond their international bonus pool caps.
The league has already seen this money as opening a world of possibility and has invested in scouting and new markets beyond traditional hotbeds such as the Dominican, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Critics of that strategy, however, suggest that the league often seems focused on either limiting the amount of money that goes to players or opening new markets that will not only broaden the game’s fan base but will be used to find the next markets to tap for ever-cheaper talent.
“Let’s talk about the pink elephant in the room,” said Cabrera. “There’s $150 million sitting in a bank account. What is that money for? Where does it go? Who determines where it goes, how it’s used, when it’s used for what it’s used?
“They’re using the money, which in my opinion is really stealing the money from the players, and even from their own organizations, for the growth of the game?
“They’re trying to go to Brazil and see if they can develop players that are cheaper than the ones they’re currently getting out of the Dominican Republic.”
There is a belief that the money could be used to address some of the more significant quality-of-life issues that affect young players in the Dominican — whether providing more oversight to ensure humane conditions for young players, investing in educational infrastructure for players to give them opportunities in the likely event that they do not enjoy long professional careers, or creating amateur baseball environments, such as academies, that would help to do both.
“The Red Sox cut a check for $31 million to Major League Baseball for Yoan Moncada,” said one major league source. “My guess is you could fund an amateur baseball league in at least the Dominican and probably Venezuela, too, for years with $31 million.”
The league is still deciding how to spend its penalty money. At the same time, MLB is pushing for a system in which it no longer represents the financial beneficiary of international signings.
The one known change on the international amateur baseball horizon, according to several sources, is that the league will push for a worldwide draft. Commissioner Rob Manfred has outlined his intention to create a system in which all amateur players will have the same point of entry into professional baseball, with a consistent bonus structure presumably following. As part of that push, according to one major league source, there are plans to consider moving the age of eligibility to sign from 16 to 18.
An international draft would change the international landscape. There could be considerable benefits from it, and greater equity to the bonuses available to all players who start their pro careers through it. And there could be unintended consequences, as when MLB’s decision to make players from Puerto Rico eligible for the draft rather than international amateur free agency shrank the interest in baseball on the island for years.
What is certain is that any change will be greeted, at least initially, with distrust from many quarters.
“Just because someone shows up and says there’s a new sheriff in town,” said one AL evaluator, “it doesn’t mean anyone gives a [expletive].”