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.

Royals pay tribute to late Yordano Ventura during spring training opener

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - AUGUST 12: Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during the first inning of the game on August 12, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The Royals honored former pitcher Yordano Ventura prior to their first Cactus League game against the Rangers on Saturday. Ventura was killed in a car accident in his native Dominican Republic in late January.

Rangers’ third baseman Adrian Beltre and center fielder Carlos Gomez paid their respects to the pitcher with a floral arrangement that was laid on the mound. Both teams stood along the foul lines during a pregame video tribute that highlighted Ventura’s tenure with Kansas City. Following the game, Gomez spoke to the media about his relationship with Ventura, describing their frequent conversations during the season and commending the pitcher for having “the same passion that I had early in my career” (via WFAA.com’s Levi Weaver).

A plaque dedicated to the 25-year-old was also presented to club manager Ned Yost as a more permanent commemoration of Ventura’s contributions to the sport. Blair Kerkhoff of the Kansas City Star reports that the plaque will be mounted in the club’s spring training facilities alongside tributes to members of the Royals’ 2014 and 2015 playoff teams.

The full text of the plaque is below, via MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan:

A brother and a teammate, Yordano Ventura, passed away on the morning of January 22 in his native Dominican Republic, at the age of 25. He signed with the Royals as a 17-year-old, eventually making the big league team in 2013 as a 22-year-old. On most days, he could be found laughing and joking with his baseball family in the clubhouse. However, on days when he pitched, that smile was replaced by a quiet confidence and an intense fire, which he brought to the mound for every start. He had many highlights in his abbreviated career, not the least of which was throwing eight shutout innings in Game #6 of the 2014 World Series to force a Game #7 vs. San Francisco.

Gerrit Cole named Pirates’ Opening Day starter

BRADENTON, FL - FEBRUARY 19: Gerrit Cole #45 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses for a photograph during MLB spring training photo day on February 19, 2017 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images)
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Right-hander Gerrit Cole is set to take the mound for the Pirates on Opening Day, according to a team announcement on Saturday. It’s a spot that was most recently occupied by former Pirate Francisco Liriano, who made three consecutive Opening Day starts for the club before getting dealt to the Blue Jays last August.

The 26-year-old produced career-worst numbers during his fourth run with the Pirates in 2016, due in large part to bouts of inflammation in his right elbow. He finished the year with a 3.88 ERA, 2.8 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 116 innings before getting shut down in September to avoid further injury to his elbow. When healthy, however, Cole has been lights-out for the Pirates. Prior to his injury-laden campaign last year, he touted a career 3.07 ERA, 2.2 BB/9, 8.5 SO/9 and cumulative 10.2 fWAR from 2013 through 2015.

Cole will go toe-to-toe with the Red Sox during Boston’s home opener on Monday, April 3. Right-hander Jameson Taillon is scheduled to make the second start of the year, while fellow righty Ivan Nova will cover the Pirates’ home opener against the Braves on April 7. The Pirates’ third and fifth starters have yet to be announced.