Fixing the international signing period requires discipline, not new rules

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Peter Gammons has an interesting piece up about how crazy things are getting during the international amateur signing season:

Former San Diego Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson is
overseeing a wholesale investigation being conducted by Eddie Dominguez
of MLB Security into corruption and fraud in the Dominican Republic and
all over Latin America. The investigation could lead to the deportation
of 70 to 100 minor leaguers.

Yet, one week after the international signing period opened July 2,
the dollars spent on international signings have more than tripled in a
five-year period. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who did not bargain for
any slotting system, now beats on teams to stick to a strict, arbitrary
slotting system for American players in the draft. Even so, teams were
climbing over one another this past week to tell their fans they’re
spending big in the Latino market.

In addition to the spiraling costs of international signings, Gammons
also mentions the other issues we’ve long heard about scouting talent
in the Dominican, including the influence of Buscones, bonus skimming, exploitation of players, performance enhancing drugs, and all of the rest.

I’ve written about this at length in the past,
and while Gammons’ take on things is always welcome and enjoyable, his
piece suffers from the same central problem that all of the many other
previous passes at the issue suffer: the somewhat misleading conflation
of multiple, often unrelated problems into one seeming monster of a
problem that, intentional or not, paints the Dominican market as some
lawless, chaotic environment. At the end of all of these articles —
Gammons’ included — is a prescription for how baseball should “deal”
with it. The problem, though, is that the issues Gammons details —
fraud, signing bonus escalation, skimming and abuse of players — are
distinct phenomena. And not all of them are actually big problems,
which renders the prescriptions offered in these articles simplistic at
best and cynical at worst (I’ll explain the cynicism in a minute).

The bonus skimming/age and identity fraud is certainly a problem,
but it’s more of a legal problem, not a baseball problem. The example
of scouts coming back stateside with cash in their shoes is a matter of
simple embezzlement by employees and poor accounting controls on the
part of teams. The FBI is involved as they should be but at present it
seems to be a case of bad apples and opportunism, not a grand
conspiracy, and certainly not something that should lead to baseball
changing the ways it approaches the international signing period.

The issue with the Buscones — the guys who go out and find
talent for major league teams and then act as quasi-agents for the
players — is a different thing. Yes, it’s troubling insofar as these
guys are almost certainly taking advantage of Dominican teenagers. But
here’s something funny: you rarely hear baseball people complaining
about that aspect of the Buscone-player relationship. Rather,
you hear about how they’re not necessarily good for baseball in that
they’re overselling kids with low talent and driving up their price. I
think the Dominican government should do more to monitor these guys and
I certainly think that baseball can and should play a role in that —
maybe as informer in chief when they see exploitation going on — but
it’s worth remembering that when baseball talks about doing something
with these guys, they’re motivated by a desire to eliminate
cost-enhancing middle men than they are motivated by altruism. Baseball
doesn’t like American agents either, so we have to take the complaints
of front office people quoted by Gammons with a grain of salt.

The final problem — the escalation of signing bonuses to
international players — while interesting, rings pretty hollow as a
problem to me, and that’s where the cynicism comes in. Baseball has
never liked paying players a lot of money, and hearing teams complain
about it now sounds an awful lot like the squawking some teams do when
a Major League free agent signs for big dollars. Unless I’ve misread
everything baseball has done for the past, oh, 50 years, however, I’d
say that there is an effort afoot on the part of ballclubs to overstate
and to conflate all of these problems so as to convince Major League
Baseball and relevant governments that there’s a raging crisis. Why? To
convince them that they need to institute some new rules, be it a draft
or caps or whatever, that will save teams and cost amateur prospects
money.

Ultimately, however, this is problem of fiscal discipline, not one
of systemic failure unique to the international market, and certainly
not one that needs to be solved with big new competition-reducing
rules. If teams stopped flooding the islands wth money and started
evaluating talent with a more discerning eye, the influence of the
Buscones would diminish and the costs of the international signing
period would as well. None of the other prescriptions — be it Gammons’
idea to cap bonus money or the usual idea of imposing some sort of
international draft — are a good substitute for teams just being
smarter about things and restraining themselves from paying too much
for uncertain prospects.

Orioles are eying Welington Castillo as their primary catcher target

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 25: Welington Castillo #7 of the Arizona Diamondbacks warms up prior to taking an at bat against the Baltimore Orioles in the second inning at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on September 25, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
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A report from the Baltimore Sun’s Dan Connolly suggests that free agent catcher Welington Castillo currently tops the Orioles’ list of potential backstop targets for the 2017 season. With Matt Wieters on the market, the Orioles lack a suitable platoon partner for Caleb Joseph behind the dish, and Connolly adds that the club has been discussing a multi-year deal with Castillo’s representatives since the Winter Meetings.

Castillo batted .264/.322/.423 with the Diamondbacks in 2016, racking up 14 home runs and driving in a career-high 68 RBI in 457 PA. His bat provides much of his upside, and Connolly quoted an anonymous National League scout who believes that the 29-year-old’s defensive profile has fallen short of his potential in recent years.

For better or worse, both the Orioles and Castillo appear far from locking in a deal for 2017. Both the Rays and Braves have expressed interest in the veteran catcher during the past week, while the Orioles are reportedly considering Wieters, Nick Hundley and Chris Iannetta as alternatives behind the plate.

Report: Phillies agree to minor league deal with Daniel Nava

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 12:  Daniel Nava #12 of the Kansas City Royals bats during the game against the Oakland Athletics at Kauffman Stadium on September 12, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Phillies reportedly signed veteran outfielder Daniel Nava to a minor league contract, according to Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Nava began the season on a one-year contract with the Angels, during which he slashed .235/.309/.303 through 136 PA in the first half of 2016. He was flipped to the Royals in late August for a player to be named later and saw the remainder of his year go down the drain on an .091 average through 12 PA in Anaheim. After getting the boot from the Angels’ 40-man roster in November, the 33-year-old outfielder elected free agency.

Nava is expected to compete for a bench role on the Phillies’ roster in the spring. As it currently stands, the club’s projected 2017 outfield features Howie Kendrick and Odubel Herrera, with precious little depth behind them. Nava’s bat is underwhelming, but at the very least he offers the Phillies a warm body in left field and a potential platoon partner for one of their younger options, a la Tyler Goeddel or Roman Quinn.