We’re at the point in the season, as you may have heard a few times now, where we can begin to judge who is and who is not a contender for the playoffs. Some teams are in a no-doubt playoff push even in these early June days, and teams like the Chicago Cubs and the Washington Nationals are looking ahead to the trade deadline to see who they can pick up to bolster their runs. Then there are teams like the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, or the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox, who find themselves in a dog fight, and who can look forward to several months of local columns debating the plusses and minuses of “selling the youngsters” and “adding experience.” But what about the already-also-rans like the Atlanta Braves or the Minnesota Twins? What can they look to in the doldrums of uncompetitive June? Well, July 2nd, of course.
July 2nd marks the date that amateur free agents from outside the United States can officially enter into deals with major-league clubs. It is basically a moment when, somehow leaping the bounds of even our most prestigious wishful prospect thinking, teams sign 16-year-old kids from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and any number of other (mainly Latin American) countries while the teams’ fans wonder if these kids will be able to help in 2018. It’s an exciting day, marking the start of a new crop of hope in the minor leagues, a kind of second draft to pump excitement into even the most moribund fanbase. It’s fun, basically.
The reality of the day, however, outside of its hopeful pomp, is a bit more complex. Many of the free agents that will “sign” on July 2nd have been under handshake deals for far longer than that. Kevin Maitan, the Venezuelan shortstop who supposedly defends like Andrelton Simmons and hits like Miguel Cabrera and rides a stallion of white gold named Juan de Cortez onto the field, apparently has an unofficial agreement with the Atlanta Braves. This is, of course, illegal, but the deal exists in the odd gray area of plausible deniability and indeterminate rules that exist for Major League Baseball’s international free agents. Indeed, while spending caps introduced to the 2012 signing period have made the international market not quite the Wild West free-for-all it used to be, “July 2nd” can stand in metonymically for the massive business of finding, courting, and underpaying the 16-year-olds who will win you a championship seven years down the line. And this business sees teams bending and breaking the rules as a matter of course, as the cost of playing the game in the first place.
And MLB has been attempting to curb this rule bending, mainly by introducing newer and more exotic rules. Handshake deals and communication with free agents prior to 16 are frowned upon and forbidden, if not always explicitly. Spending caps, tied to draft position, have been levied on each team, and going over that cap carries the penalty of not being able to select any players on the following July 2nd deadline, along with a (probably far more onerous) financial penalty. To give you an idea of how labyrinthine these rules can get, here’s an excerpt from a Ben Badler column from 2014 on a then-new rule change:
“MLB sent teams a memo Tuesday stating that, effective today, international players are not allowed to be at a team facility until they are 16 years old or until six months before they become eligible to sign, whichever comes first. That means most players who become eligible to sign on July 2, 2015 won’t be able to enter a team’s Dominican academy—a vital component for teams to be able to evaluate players—until Jan. 2, 2015. For players who turn 16 between September and December, they will be allowed to go to a team facility once they turn 16.”
I’m going to level with you: I’m basically literate in half of that rule. And I’m being generous to myself; the armature of MLB’s rule system for international signings puts the baroque rules of June’s Rule 4 draft to shame. And while teams play within the rules to a point, there are clearly benefits to extending or even shattering the rules and taking the consequences along with their shiny new prospect. July 2nd in this way is a complex game theory, a sort of risk evaluation and an opportunity to take a penalty now for the sake of the future. Or, since international bonus money can be traded, vice versa. It’s fascinating.
But there is of course another side to this whole business, one that helps inform why MLB bothers making all of these rules in the first place: the players themselves. If you can, I want you to imagine back to when you were 16 years old. If you’re still 16, this experiment doesn’t really require you to go back at all, so please no 10-year-old regressions. I’m not sure what you’re remembering, but for me, it’s a kid who had a lot of ideas and certainty about the world and who was also pretty much wrong on, say, 75 percent of those ideas and conclusions. Now take that kid and make him a tremendously gifted athlete living in a poor country, with not only the opportunity of wealth for himself and his family pushing him, but also sometimes-scrupulous, sometimes-less-than-scrupulous agents and trainers trying to get him to a contract so they can get a cut. This is a world in which entire academies and training centers, even alternative “Tricky League” baseball is created to showcase kids barely old enough to drive in the States to teams that want to pay hundreds of thousands, possibly millions for them. It’s heady stuff.
And so it’s no surprise that teams behave badly. The Boston Red Sox are in the spotlight for this of late, though they are almost definitely not the only team who’s acted outside of, or at least around, the rules. The Sox have been accused of signing “package deals” with prospects under the same trainer in an effort to skirt spending limits. This obviously would present a fairly dramatic way around the rules, as well as a deeply troubling blurring between player-as-person and player-as-object. While package deals sound really nice when it’s, you know, free fries with purchase of entrée, the analogy becomes more troubling when the free throw-in is a 16-year-old boy who’s trying to escape poverty. One can see why MLB doesn’t want its many profitable team brands tied up in something like that; one can also see why MLB’s very profitable team brands have incentive to look for ways to keep breaking the rules anyway.
Somewhat glaringly, the people who lose out in this battle of optics and propriety are the players themselves. For every Nomar Mazara or Yoan Moncada who gets a multi-million dollar deal, there are many players who get paid between $10,000 and $200,000 dollars to sign on with a team who may never even bring them stateside. And you can bet their trainers are making a mint off of each and every deal, no matter how small (and, again, you can see why they’d be justified in doing so, if you look at it from their perspective). I wrote an article a long time ago about why this would incentivize young Latin American players to take steroids, and why it wouldn’t be reasonable to attack them for their desire to simply make it in the world. Sadly, not too much has changed—while teams are able to skirt MLB rules on international signings because of their complex and often unofficial nature, the eagerness of both player and trainer to ingratiate themselves to people poised and posed as financial saviors has a lot to do with the state of international free agency as well.
And this is where I conclude on a depressing note, because I’m not sure there’s an easy fix. Major League Baseball wants a draft, and while that would democratize the access to players from a team perspective, the players will still be under the pressures of poverty and power. It’s all too easy to point at global capitalism and say “there’s the culprit!” and it’s a bit rewarding, too. But we won’t go there today. What I will say is that the free-for-all of international free agency day, while fun, should be understood as deeply flawed and troubling as well. When teams gamble on rule-breaking simply via numbers and risk factors, it may make sense from a perspective of long-term success, but it often leaves those people most vulnerable to failure—the players themselves—in the lurch.