The Growing International Influence in MLB

America’s past time they call it.

It is a sport like every other that has great stories written by legends that have shaped the game the way it is today. The game has evolved tremendously for better or worse depending on whom you ask but what is certain is that the young men who play the game are coming from more and more countries like never before.

Getting into the show is getting more and more competitive as more people are growing up playing baseball. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always a smooth process or transition into the big leagues if you may call it. It took a man (from the military) with determination and passion who wore #42 to grow this game from America’s sport to an international sport played worldwide. Jackie Robinson is a baseball hero and rightfully a baseball god as some would say as he broke the colour barrier 68 years ago. This was not an easy thing to do as he received much criticism and hatred from teammates and the media because this was the first time a Negro was playing in the majors – a game normally played by ‘whites’. It took a lot of courage for Jackie to overcome the colour barrier as he faced abuse and never fought back when he was intentionally knocked down here and there. Jackie was a very humble man who just wanted a jersey and bat so he could do his thing and he did more than enough to be awarded the Rookie of the Year award in 1948 and to be the only one to have his number retired all across the Majors.

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Likewise, another baseball icon followed the footsteps of Jackie Robinson several years later. Roberto Clemente was also a big part of the cultural change that took place. Like Robinson he came to the MLB to chase his dreams and became part of something bigger as he would become a leader to his teammates and fans for his determination and perseverance. Clemente worked hard to diminish the negative images of Latino players in baseball but ultimately his quest ended dramatically when he died in a plane crash in 1972. Both Robinson and Clemente played the game phenomenally and changed American history because of their actions on and off the field. The landscape of the game as we know it is changing since their time but todays players from around the world continue to model their game after the courage and passion of these two icons and hope to leave a legacy of their own.

See, baseball is growing and more and more people are playing it worldwide. Today if you look at the baseball scene there is tremendous talent emerging from more and more countries as players all dream to reach the same goal; making it to the big leagues one day. Just look at the Caribbean Islands for example where we have seen many great players who are among the elite today. Believe it or not they play the game quite differently then kids would in North America. We have seen many great defensive shortstops from Cuba who grew up taking the most difficult ground balls (and bad hops) from the dirt fields. Similarly power hitters from the Dominican Republic used to hit the ball with sticks and branches from trees. Though they may have not had the best glove or bat growing up, they used what was available to them and have learned the fundamentals from a young age, which is more important than anything else.

Baseball has become such an international sport that the World Baseball Classic was founded in 2005 and occurs every four years. Of course as we know baseball is not played in the Olympics anymore but this tournament showcases the talent of all the baseball players worldwide including current MLB players. It is just one example of how the talent is growing, as players compete on the big stage representing their home countries. In fact today the game has changed so much and the talent from around the world is partly responsible. Not to take anything away from the players who played the game many years ago but today pitchers are pitching faster than ever, batters are hitting more homeruns and players are stealing more bases because of their great athleticism. So what’s wrong with this picture?

Well nothing talent-wise.

The talent is great but there is a problem with regards to how these young men make their way to the big leagues. As we know every June the MLB hosts the MLB Player Draft (also known as the Rule 4 Draft) where teams around the league select young amateur studs based on a lottery system like any other professional sports league. Here the top American and Canadian born baseball players are signed (unless they reject and go back to College) and as their dreams of being drafted are accomplished, their dreams of making the big leagues begin.

So what about everyone else?

Well basically if you aren’t an American or Canadian native you don’t go through the draft process. In other words, if you are a Cuban teenager in the MLB you are likely making a whole lot more than someone who went through the draft. The same goes with the exceptional pitchers from Japan. Their pitching is very good yes, but because they are from Japan they end up making so much more. This is very unfair indeed. The system that is currently set up needs some major retooling because not only do these young professional ball players end up making much more money, but its often the big market teams who get their hands on them.

Let me explain a little further.

Just 3 years ago Japanese phenom Yu Darvish hit the market. He literally hit the market as was available as a free agent to sign with any team but it wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Like any international free agent, Darvish became a part of an extreme bidding war – but not for his talents exactly. Teams across the MLB all bid to buy the negotiation rights with the player on the market; with the winning bid getting a chance to come up with a contract that the player signs if he chooses. During this bidding process the teams are blinded if you may say so as none of the teams in the league know the amounts that other teams have put on the table so they have to use their discretion wisely. What’s even worse about this, the team who has the highest bid loses this money and doesn’t retain it back. The bid amount and the contract amount all goes to the free agent at the end of the day. Yu Darvish for example, costed the Rangers $108M. They won the bid (over the Blue Jays according to multiple reports) with a $51.7M bid and then signed him to a 6 year, $60M contract after winning the rights to him. Masahiro Tanaka was another Japanese pitcher who signed with the Yankees after they won the bid of $20M and signed him to a 7-year deal worth $55M. There were some concerns with him like many other Japanese pitchers if they could repeat their past success in the majors. Tanaka has been fantastic when he hasn’t been injured and has been a critical part of a Yankees rotation that has been good enough to position them in contention in a tight AL East.

Japanese pitchers aren’t the only ones getting signed in this manner. The White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu in 2013 when they won the bidding war over 7 other teams. He got the largest contract for a first-time international player signing a 6 year $68M dollar contract more than the $60M that Darvish received and $42M Yasiel Puig got. Well know for his power bat, Abreu was phenomenal in his first season wearing the pinstripes hitting .317 wit 36 homeruns. He immediately became a corner piece of the White Sox who already features one of the best pitchers in baseball in Chris Sale.

When international players hit the market the posting fee system isn’t the only way to sign them. Once amateur players turn 16 on or before June 1st of a given year they can be signed by MLB teams to minor league contracts. Each club is awarded a bonus-pool allotment, which is based on its record the previous season. Once teams go over the soft cap of $3M, every dollar gets taxed and penalties are enforced the following years. Yoan Moncada was the biggest international stud to hit the market this past year and was paid big time by the Boston Red Sox who signed him for $31.5M. So how much did he actually cost? After being taxed it costed the Red Sox just around $63M. This was the highest amount ever to be given to an amateur player. At only 19 years of age, he is making more than many American and Canadian young phenoms with equally if not better talent. Moncada is considered to be an older amateur to others who get signed from the age of 16, so there is greater hope that he will reach his full potential as he has begun to mature. Nevertheless, the amount is still significantly high for a guy who has yet to play in the majors.

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When you look at it even further it gets very interesting. Take a team who drafts a player in the first round in the MLB Draft. By the time they make the majors, they are likely on their rookie contract giving the team a respectable salary to pay. They are hopefully living up to their potential and are contributing to helping their team win, which is obviously the main goal. Players can become free agents after they have served six full years of major league service. The Cubs dealt with a situation like this year with Kris Bryant. Because there is a 10-15 day gap between total days on the MLB calendar and a full year of service time, teams that keep a prospect in their farm system for the first 10 to 15 games of the season gain another year of control over that player. Kris Bryant for example will become a free agent in 2021 instead of 2020. If Bryant doesn’t receive an extension prior to the end of the 6 years, it will take 6 years for his contract to reach the price that someone like Moncada or Puig was signed for during the international free agency period.

The issue with this system that is in place is that small market teams unwilling to pay high bonus taxes are put at a significant disadvantage. For example, paying $30M in tax money alone is a big expense for a team to shelve out especially when they may have team salaries as low as $80M. It is the same reason why majority of top international free agents are signed by bigger market teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox who can afford to pay the taxes associated with signing top talent players. Many Jays fans usually complain about the Jays being at a disadvantage but they aren’t a small market team at all. In fact they are fresh off signing one of the bigger names in the international market this past month.

Jay’s fans will remember Vladimir Guerrero who made a huge splash in the early 1990’s with the Expos and never looked back. He went on to win the MVP and slugged 449 homeruns. His son Vladimir Guerrero Jr. who was ranked the 4th top international prospect, was signed by the Blue Jays for $3.9M on July 2nd. He will look to jumpstart his career in Canada like his father and there is certainly a lot of optimism around him. When you look at Guerrero Jr. there are lots of similarities to his father other than his name. Guerrero Jr. shows strong eye coordination and bat control at the plate, as well as tremendous raw power. At only 16 he may not have the same tools his father had (not many people do in their prime anyways) but with that power he will be a strong middle of the order presence for the Jays. Blue Jays director of Latin American operations Ismael Cruz says, “… this kid is not about the money. He has a lot of money. He plays because he likes it. He wants to be better than his father.” He will be a corner outfielder most likely and as he matures and gets bigger he could end up playing first base. He is already bigger than his dad was at the age of 16!

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So what is the MLB going to do about this issue with international free agents making much more money and small teams being at a disadvantage? Let’s not forget that the current MLB draft in place has Canadian and American baseball players being drafted. Canadians are subject to this draft, but like the Dominicans for example, have nothing to do with United States. Puerto Rico is owned by the US but their players don’t even go through the draft while Canadians do. Weird eh? It seems just right that everyone should go through the same draft and if this is not the case, then there should be two drafts in place, an American draft and an international draft. As you also may or may not know, the MLB is the only professional league that doesn’t allow the trading of draft picks. If the MLB chose to change this then teams could trade picks and the signing-pool money that goes along with it. This would create tremendous flexibility and help smaller market teams. Smaller market teams don’t necessarily struggle to compete so this could even the playing ground for everyone. At the end of the day something needs to be done about the system in place. Whether that means retooling it or implementing something entirely new it is something that should be on the bucket list for the near future.

It is my hope that the international kids who get paid big money go back to their roots and help out those who got them to where they are today. This will only allow the game of baseball to grow even more into a sport played all over the world.

ADAM VIRANI

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