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.

Josh Johnson retires from baseball

PEORIA, AZ - FEBRUARY 21: Josh Johnson #55 of the San Diego Padres poses during Picture Day on February 21, 2014 at the Peoria Sports Complex in Peoria, Arizona. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
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Oft-injured pitcher Josh Johnson is retiring from baseball, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick is reporting.

Johnson, 32, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2013. The right-hander underwent his third Tommy John surgery in September 2015 but wasn’t able to bounce back.

Johnson spent most of his career with the Marlins, but also pitched for the Blue Jays in the big leagues, as well as the Padres in the minors. He retires with a career 3.40 ERA, 915 strikeouts across 998 innings in the majors, and two All-Star nominations. Johnson led the National League with a 2.30 ERA in 2010, finishing fifth in NL Cy Young Award balloting. One wonders what he could have accomplished if he was able to stay healthy.

Report: Angels close to a multi-year deal with Luis Valbuena

HOUSTON, TX - JULY 08:  Luis Valbuena #18 of the Houston Astros hits a three run walkoff home run in the ninth inning to defeat the Oakland Athletics 10-9 at Minute Maid Park on July 8, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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The Angels are nearing a multi-year deal with free agent third baseman Luis Valbuena, Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register reports. It’s believed to be a two-year contract with a third-year option.

Valbuena, 31, hit .260/.357/.459 with 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 342 plate appearances in 2016. He missed most of the second half with a hamstring injury, for which he underwent surgery in late August.

Valbuena has played a majority of his career at third base, but also has extensive experience at second base and has racked up innings at first base and shortstop as well. He won’t play every day for the Angels, as Yunel Escobar lays claim to third base and C.J. Cron first base, but he will give them flexibility and a left-handed bat off the bench.