- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Recent cases of fraud and potential corruption involving the signing of baseball players in Latin America have cast new attention to the possibility of a worldwide draft in major league baseball.

Increasingly, there is a call for baseball and its union to adopt an international draft in the next collective bargaining agreement in 2012 as a way to streamline and clean up the way players from outside North America are acquired, particularly in talent-rich places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. Moreover, supporters say a draft would provide an equal playing field among teams that recruit in Latin America.

“We have always claimed that one of the best ways to deal with this was to have a worldwide draft,” said Arturo J. Marcano, a former legal advisor to the Venezuelan Baseball Players Association and critic of baseball’s system of signing foreign players. “One of the biggest reasons is that there would be a set of clearly identified rules that everybody has to follow. You would need to have an office that is better structured with more resources to do things like verify ages and determine how these players were trained and who’s training them.”

The Washington Nationals are among several teams hit by scandals involving the signing of players in Latin America. Jim Bowden resigned as Nationals general manager on Sunday amid reports that he had been questioned by the FBI as part of an investigation involving the skimming of signing bonuses from Latin American players. Bowden has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing. But the Nationals already were reeling from news that Dominican prospect Carlos Alvarez had lied about both his age and identity when he signed in 2006.

Nationals president Stan Kasten said a worldwide draft is “one idea that has been floated as something that would help curb some of the abuses. I don’t know that it would or what goes along with that. But anything that cuts down on abuses both for the teams and the players I’d be in favor of.”

The NHL and NBA allow for the signing of international players as part of their league drafts. Baseball and its players union came close to a deal for a worldwide draft in 2002, but it was not included in the final collective bargaining agreement. Interest among baseball officials had waned by the next round of labor talks in 2006, but the issue has since resurfaced and could be a topic in upcoming negotiations.

“It is a topic that is of renewed interest among the clubs, and it’s something we’re going to look very hard at,” said Rob Manfred, baseball’s executive vice president for labor relations. “I think there is a much stronger consensus in favor of the worldwide draft than there was five years ago.”

And even if baseball and its players agree to move forward with a worldwide draft, actually putting it into place could present a great challenge. Creating a draft pool could be difficult, officials said, and the role of the team-controlled academies likely would need to be altered.

Under baseball’s current system, teams can generally sign any player they want in Latin America, provided he is at least 16 years old. The lack of a centralized system has encouraged teams to build large academies to attract and train players, but it also has allowed unofficial agents, known as buscones, to wield considerable influence. Baseball has bolstered its official presence in Latin America in recent years and frequently conducts investigations to verify ages and catch other acts of fraud. But cases of corruption still occur.

Team owners have considered the idea of a worldwide draft for years, but baseball officials said their motivations have had less to do with reports of scouting abuses and more to do with competitive balance. In July 2000, a blue ribbon panel on baseball’s economics recommended that international players be included in the league’s existing draft, arguing that it would provide all clubs a relatively equal chance to land top foreign talent.

Manfred stressed that competitive balance remains the primary motivation but said most teams would welcome changes to the way business is done, particularly in Latin America.

“I think the worldwide draft would help because it would reduce the financial incentives that would be problematic,” Manfred said. “To the extent that you have a nice, open system and everybody is looking at the same players and you can verify records before the draft, obviously it would clean up a lot of the problems that we’ve had. It would be an additional benefit that might flow from this.”

But even on the issue of economics, there is no consensus. Some observers have argued that larger market teams, such as the Yankees and Red Sox, have the edge because they can invest more in scouting and building academies. Others said the current system works well for lower revenue teams because it allows them to sign a large number of players for relatively little money.

“I’ve always been against it because I felt like if we were doing our job right running our team, we can beat you by not restricting ourselves with the draft,” said Steve Phillips, a former general manager of the New York Mets, now an analyst with ESPN. “If it’s open competition it would be better. I think there’s another thought that [open competition] would be better for the kids down there because more would get opportunities this way than they would out of a draft when you’re restricted to 50 rounds for the selections and such.”

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