U.S. investors are commodifying Dominican ballplayers

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In today’s New York Times Michael S. Schmidt  reports that U.S. investors, many of whom are unconnected to Major League Baseball, are setting up training academies in the Dominican Republic with the sole purpose of profiting on draftees’ signing bonuses:

Recognizing that major league teams are offering multimillion-dollar contracts to some teenage prospects, the investors are either financing upstart Dominican trainers, known as buscones, or building their own academies. In exchange, the investors are guaranteed significant returns — sometimes as much as 50 percent of their players’ bonuses — when they sign with major league teams. Agents in the United States typically receive 5 percent.

Some of the investors in this game have some tenuous connection to Major League Baseball, such as former Yankees’ crown prince Steve Swindal,  but Schmidt reports that most are just random profit-seekers, such as “a real estate lawyer from New Jersey, a dentist from California and a computer salesman from upstate New York.”  In essence they’re American buscones who, instead of finding a random kid to flip to a Major League team, are working on a bulk model.

I can put on my commie hat — yes, I own one — and declare, with at least some degree of honesty, that all development of young baseball talent involves exploitation. At least in the way that term is technically defined.  Even a prospect from an upscale Southern California suburb is “exploited” in that his talents are obtained and then used by Major League Baseball so that it might profit off his labors in an amount that exceeds what he is initially paid while he is simultaneously prohibited from taking his labor elsewhere.  On some cold level he is an investment vehicle for agents and teams, and we obviously have no problem with this.

But this is different. Different than Major League teams setting up their own academies. Different than baseball setting up an international draft. At least in those instances baseball is or would have a longer game in mind, in that they would seek to recoup their investments by having players develop into prospects and one day have productive careers. And, even if the vast majority of players don’t make it, there are public relations and regulatory means through which Major League Baseball could be compelled or persuaded to make sure that the circumstances under which they house and train these kids are adequate, safe and ultimately beneficial to even the non-prospects.  I mean, Felipe Alou or someone of his stature could shame baseball into doing the right thing by these kids if it was found that it wasn’t.

But who — besides Michael S. Schmidt — is watching some real estate lawyer from New Jersey, a dentist from California and a computer salesman from upstate New York, none of whom have a reason to care a lick about these kids after they’re signed or, in most cases, passed over?  What motivation do they have beyond maximizing signing bonuses and keeping costs low in the meantime?

None that I can see.  And even if the lawyer, the dentist and the computer salesman Schmidt mentions are running clean tight ships, the nature of investment for investment’s sake is such that, eventually, there will be a race to the bottom in an effort to maximize profits. I mean, the first guy who bundled mortgages was probably pretty prudent about it.  He probably kept good files and made sure that only  top quality paper got sold.  Things, however, eventually got out of hand. Because that’s what happens when the only goal is to turn a profit in the short term.

Report: Braves not expected to pursue Bryce Harper

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Thanks in part to a rebuilding effort that got ahead of schedule, the Braves in 2018 had their best season in five years, finishing 90-72 and winning the NL East. They were stopped in the playoffs by the Dodgers, falling in five games in the NLDS. Outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and Brian Snitker won the NL Manager of the Year Award. Veteran outfielder Nick Markakis even got some down-ballot love in NL MVP voting, finishing 18th behind teammates Freddie Freeman (fourth) and Acuña (12th).

Markakis is now a free agent and there happens to be a very talented and still-young outfielder available in free agency this offseason who could replace him and then some. He goes by the name Bryce Harper. You might have heard of him. David O’Brien of The Athletic initially said to not be surprised if the Braves became players in the Harper sweepstakes, but quickly retracted it as a source he trusts assured him the Braves are not, in fact, in on Harper and added that he thought there would be no way Braves ownership (Liberty Media) would sign off on a 10-year deal.

Since being taken over by Liberty Media in 2007, the Braves’ Opening Day payroll has been in the $60 million to $137 million range, according to USA TODAY Sports. On average over that period of time, the Braves have had the 18th-highest payroll among the 30 major league teams. The Braves increased payroll to a franchise-record $137 million on Opening Day in 2017, but cut that all the way back to $83 million in 2018, dropping their rank in baseball from 13th to 27th. In April, the Braves disingenuously played service time games with Acuña, then an uber-prospect who was undoubtedly major-league ready, in order to cheaply get another year of team control over him.

Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution wrote in March this year that Liberty Media has $42 billion in assets. This corporation is not hurting for cash. Yet the Braves cried poor in order to bilk taxpayers of $400 million to fund the totally unnecessary new ballpark that moved the Braves’ home from Atlanta to Cumberland (Cobb County). The stadium is not as easily accessible by way of bus or subway, hurting a lot of the Braves’ poorer fans and those who live in the city, sans car. As Meris Lutz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last year, Cobb County found itself in a $30-55 million budget shortfall, even after “raiding $21 million in rainy-day funds to plug a gaping hole in the 2018 budget.” Liberty Media, of course, doesn’t lose anything from this.

The Braves were one of 13 teams in baseball to see an attendance increase from 2017 to ’18, seeing over 50,000 more fans go through the turnstiles. Braves ownership had said that a spike in revenue — from increased attendance as well as from leasing offices and retail space — would lead to increased payroll. Instead, the Braves’ payroll was cut by approximately $54 million and now the organization has reportedly already taken itself out of the running for Harper, unarguably the best free agent outfielder to hit the open market in quite some time. Adding a talent like Harper (or Manny Machado) would solidify the Braves’ legitimacy in the NL East and it would, at minimum, be a show of good faith to Braves fans, whose tax dollars are on constant display during all 81 home games in Cobb County.

This is in stark contrast to Phillies owner John Middleton, who recently said, “We’re going into this [offseason] expecting to spend money. And maybe even be a little bit stupid about it.” He added, “We just prefer not to be completely stupid.” This confirms what everyone already knew: the Phillies are major players for elite free agents Harper and Machado. Heck, they might even get both. Either player could exceed the record for the largest contract in baseball history, currently held by Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who signed a 13-year, $325 million contract with the Marlins in 2014.

This past season, the Phillies fell flat on their faces in the second half while the Braves continued to press forward with a better-constructed team. The Phillies didn’t have an Acuña or a Freddie Freeman and their minor league system still doesn’t quite match up with the Braves’. Sniping Harper from the Phillies would seem almost critical, then. Or at least keeping up with the Phillies by signing other free agents to fill the gaps left by Markakis and others.

Sadly for Braves fans, it seems like Liberty Media got what it wanted, largely on the taxpayers’ dime, and is happy to keep the Braves near the bottom-third of the league when it comes to payroll. If the Braves finish behind the Phillies in 2019 and beyond, fans and the players will have only ownership to blame.