After reading on Minor League Ball about the new baseball academies in the Dominican (including the Mariners), as well as a following post on the possibility of an International Draft, I have been inspired to post a possible solution to the issues at hand on the international scene. The issue is you have teams building fancy new academies that will finally provide adequate schooling, housing, nutrition and training to bright young ball players on the tab of the club in hopes of gaining a leg up on signing the top young players that advance through their system, yet the MLB now looks like they may be aiming to take away this advantage by implementing an international draft in the name of "fairness." Personal thoughts on the necessity of fairness and parity aside, there may be a way to mold both of these ideas together into a system that helps clubs that invest in the international scene as well as the kids. My proposal is one that many here may not be familiar with but I hope to explain fairly clearly in the following post. The idea finds it base in the world of international soccer and their own academies with a primary focus on building on the MLS' own growing of version of this and their Homegrown Player signings (HGP).
For those of you who are not aware of the way many of these academies work in the MLS, teams are allowed to own and operate separate development academies that provide schooling, training, and sometimes housing to promising young players. In the MLS, these players are designated to a club based on where they live, for example Seattle Sounders draw from an area that includes a large portion of the Northwest but this would not necessarily be the case in baseball on the international scene. The benefit for the clubs in the MLS is found in the Homegrown Player system that allows parent clubs the first opportunity to sign local players from their academies to their first team rosters as well as teams that sign HGP have the benefit of these players not counting against the team's salary cap. Players that are not signed or grow up outside of a clubs range then enter the draft as teams are limited to a max of two signings per year.
How would this system work in baseball? Obviously, it would need quite a few tweaks but I believe it provides a base to build off for the MLB. To start, the system of kids joining academies due to their localities would likely have to be abandoned for a more capitalistic approach due to the international scope this process will have. In my scenario, prospects will be recruited by these academies but have the right to choose which they attend. This will work to force the academies to attract players through top notch facilities, schooling and care. The next question is a little bit tougher to solve and that involves the number of academies teams are allowed to operate and how many players are they allowed to recruit into their system. I believe that teams should be allowed a total of 3 academies to disperse as they wish throughout the world. With 3 academies to work with we could see teams looking to foster growth of the sport in areas not normally accustomed to baseball which in turn will allow for the education of more kids. Looking at the table provided in Charlie's article the current number of players each academy houses range from 50 to 90 players at the given academies. Average this for 3 academies and we are looking at around 210 players being educated and trained by a club. Personally, I do not believe this number should be allowed to grow to over 300 players as to keep the playing field "fair". Please note I said specifically said players as teams should be allowed to recruit new players into the system under a very important stipulation that the team will still be on the hook for the education of any player they cut or suffers an injury through age 16 or a high school level education, unless the player themselves leave the academy for another or are recruited by one after they are dropped.
Another key to this is how long kids are in these academies. In reading comments around the internet on international prospects and their handling many opinions and concerns are raised on the age of these players when they sign as well as the age cheating issues often faced in these countries. I suggest that these academies are allowed to start as early as an American kid would start 1st grade. Obviously, this is a very early age to be training one to play baseball but keeping in mind that upon recruiting a kid, the team is now on the hook for up to a high school level education teams can closely monitor the growth of a kid from a young age and thus have a more accurate idea of a players actual age. This early start is not unprecedented as soccer clubs such as Barcelona begin training kids at a young age as well. Since these kids will already be receiving an education, proper nutrition, and training monetary compensation will not be needed until at the very least a high school age when they can receive minimum wage to go along with the schooling they receive for another two years until they are still eligible to sign at 16.
So how would MLB teams benefit from this? Thus far we have only seen them shelling out money to educate young players and raise them up in their systems. We cannot expect them to do this if their best players are just going to be whisked away into a draft pool only to be selected by a team that has not been vested in the development of the prospect. To find a solution, I suggest we look once again at the way MLS handles their homegrown players. To a club, a homegrown player offers great benefit. Teams can sign the player for whatever salary is needed to sign the player but not have it count against their salary cap. This can easily be translated into baseball even though baseball does not have a salary camp. With the new bonus pool restrictions in place, clubs can use these homegrown players as a way to work around the restrictions. Say the Mariners have a pool of around 2.5 million to work with like they do this year. In this scenario a rule is in place that allows the Mariners to sign a player for whatever amount is necessary to keep them from joining the draft but due to them growing up in the Mariners own academy the pool the Mariners have to work with is only affected by 100k per signee. Thus, if the Mariners sign 5 prospects per year from their academy they still have 2 million to work with in the international draft.
Another seemingly logical rule following this is a cap to the number of prospects a team can sign each year from their own academy before the draft. For this example, I will say 5 per team. This in turn allows strong prospects to still be available in the international draft and provides a semblance of balance to talent distribution. Using the Mariners current farm system as a pseudo-academy, this would allow them to possibly sign prospects Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Nick Franklin to contracts while players such as Brad Miller, Brandon Maurer, and Victor Sanchez are all available to be drafted by other teams. This helps balance weaker or smaller market teams while still allowing teams that invested heavily in these markets to recoup their expenses by guaranteeing them their top prospects. In order to make sure that the top prospects are not under bid by the teams they grew up with they still should have the option to join the draft if sufficient funds are not offered or they feel like they have been mistreated by an organization. Thus, if a prospect feels that he could be picked in a draft slot where the monetary value received would be greater than that that the club offers, he can make the decision to go that route. Likewise, due to the fact that no matter what they offer the prospect the club will only feel the 100k loss in their budget a club can make a fair offer to the prospect to sign. In order to keep a prospect from making demands that border on extortion, the draft will be hard slotted much like the draft today is.
The rest of the draft will be run much like the MLB draft today in regards to slotting and monetary budgets. Personally, I want to allow the trading of picks among other things but as this is meant to be a plausible design model for the MLB, I do not think they will stretch that far at this point. This is also meant to be for prospects of the high school or college age so Japanese and Cuban defectors over the age of 21 will become free agents that do not affect a team's given budget.
So again, this is my attempt at solving the issue of an international draft while still allowing teams to benefit by putting resources into educating young players that normally may not receive the quality education that would be demanded by this system. I hope I covered as many questions that may arise in an adequate fashion but I am sure I missed some aspect and would love to continue the discussion in the comments. All comments are accepted and very much appreciated.