International MLB draft: Inevitable or impossible?

You didn't have to be related to any ambassadors to the United Nations to notice that the 1,215 players chosen in the 2015 baseball draft had one thing in common:

None of them were citizens of the Dominican Republic. Or Venezuela. Or Japan. Or Cuba. Or the Republic of Macedonia, for that matter.

And so, in a related development, the new commissioner of baseball, Rob Manfred, has used expressions like this, in recent weeks, any time the topic turns to including players from all over the globe in the draft, as opposed to just those wholesome young Americans:

"Inevitable." ... "Really important to the sport right now." ... "The most efficient way to promote competitive balance."

Wait. What was that first word again? "Inevitable?" Hmmm. Are we sure about that?

What the commissioner believes, and it's hard to blame him, is that the baseball draft should work the way the NBA draft works, the way the NHL draft works. So no matter where you play or where you're from, your ticket into the sport should come via the draft. And nowhere else.

A beautiful sentiment? Absolutely. But the truth is, here's what the commissioner undoubtedly knows, from his two decades of work on this very idea:

When other people inside the sport start thinking about a "worldwide" draft, you almost never hear them use words like "inevitable."

They're way more likely to use words like "impossible."

"I've been hearing the same thing for many years," said Venezuelan scouting legend Andres Reiner. "I don't know how many times I've had meetings with people from the major leagues about this. We're talking many years back. And I have always told them this will not work. It will not work in Venezuela. It will not work in the Dominican. So I do not understand. Why do they think it will work?"

Hmmm. Good question, actually. What Reiner sees looming, what many people in the game fear is looming, is a tense showdown that undoubtedly would involve more than just MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association.

We're talking politicians. Governments. Lawyers.

We're talking about a situation where Major League Baseball could announce: "The worldwide draft is here."

And then the countries that draft would involve just might say: "No thanks. Not interested. Not opting in."

And, well, then what?

Nobody knows. That's what.

"Could we try to force them to opt in?" said one longtime baseball man who has held a variety of positions and has deep ties in Latin America. "That could be a position we'd take. But it's not a realistic position. If we take that position, then we're taking this out of the hands of the baseball people and putting it in the hands of the politicians. And that's dangerous."

This potential global political nightmare certainly isn't the only challenge that stands in the way of an international draft. We can get into the other hang-ups some other time. You'll be hearing a lot about this topic over the next year or so, as baseball tries to chisel out its next labor deal. And we know you're looking forward to that.

But the politics of the world draft represent the thorny snag that fascinates us most -- because it goes well beyond the question of whether the owners and the union could ever come to an agreement on this topic after years and years of failing to do that.

This is an international big-screen political thriller waiting to happen. Can baseball actually force other nations to take part in its world draft? Wow. Does Robert Downey Jr. want to star in this epic? We'd cast him.

So let's lay out the plot for this saga this way. We'll tell you how each side sees it. Then we'll try to figure out where this might be leading.

Baseball's case

So Manfred wants an international draft. Many people in this sport would love to see an international draft. Not all of them, obviously. But there's growing unhappiness with the current system, primarily among clubs in smaller markets. So something has to change.

"I don't know what the answer is," one scouting director from a mid-market club said. "But this system doesn't work. When a team like the Dodgers can go past their [international-signing] cap and just keep on spending, and the only penalty is money, that doesn't work. The penalty can't just be money, because money isn't a deterrent to them."

MLB hears that talk. And it's sensitive to that talk. And its favored solution is clear. Just lump all amateur players into the draft -- or possibly two drafts, one for North American players, the other for international players -- and voila. All the inequities get solved. Theoretically.

Inside MLB, officials clearly believe they can convince other countries that a world draft wouldn't hurt them. Not one bit. If they can somehow promise officials in the Dominican and elsewhere that just as much money will flow into their nation with a draft as without one, they expect everyone to go along with the plan. Pretty much any plan.

But is that how those countries see it? Hoo boy. Not right now.

The world's view

First off, let's get something straight. Baseball might call this thing a "world draft" or "international draft." But primarily, there would really be just two countries (for now) that the draft would be aimed at.

"What they call 'international' will end up just being the Dominican Republic and Venezuela," said Reiner, who retired in 2011 after five remarkable decades of work in Latin American scouting. "They won't be able to do this in Cuba. They won't be able to do this in Japan, or Taiwan, or Korea. So they will call it 'international,' but they should call it what it is. They would like to get Venezuela and the Dominican in a draft. It's so obvious."

But what front-office people across the sport fear is that, in Venezuela and the Dominican, they will want no part of any draft. And why would they?

They will want to protect a system that pays teenagers millions. They will want to protect a system that has resulted in the construction of spectacular baseball facilities around their countries. They will want to protect a system that, in the words of one official, has given them "a big financial stake" in the status quo.

So it's hard to find anyone in any team's front office who expects the Venezuelan government to agree to take part in a world draft without a messy fight. Political strain between Venezuela and the United States has been rising anyway. Many teams have shut down their baseball academies and pulled out of the country. Fewer scouts descend on Venezuela than ever, largely over concerns about safety. So tensions already are running high.

When we turn our gaze to the Dominican, there seems to be less concern over a potential opt-out battle. But don't be so sure, say some club officials.

"I can tell you this," one of them said. "They're not going to opt in if they think there's any chance that the overall investment in the game in their country will be reduced. If that's the case, they definitely won't opt in."

So this is where the helicopter lands, Downey pops out amid a swirl of dust and we ask the question that will cause pulses to race in audiences around the globe:

Can Major League Baseball force the world to opt into its draft?

We posed the following question this week to one of the world draft's strongest proponents:

"What would baseball do," we asked, "if Venezuela and/or the Dominican say, 'We want no part of your world draft?'"

"Then their players don't play in the major leagues," he replied -- and that was that.

"It will not work in Venezuela. It will not work in the Dominican. So I do not understand. Why do they think it will work?" Andres Reiner

Now imagine each side taking that position and digging in. Whew. Who wins that battle?

Again, we don't get the vibe that baseball's powers that be are particularly worried about losing that fiery political tug-of-war. The way they no doubt see it is as basic as a 3-and-0 "take" sign.

Players want to play. Latin American players want to play in the big leagues. And everyone needs the money. So baseball, they obviously believe, has all the leverage.

But not everyone has that vision. We've spoken with people who foresee antitrust suits being filed against baseball in both countries. We've spoken with others who fear the wrath of Latin American politicians who aren't used to being told: "This is how we do things -- and so will you."

And then there's the most intriguing question of all: Are we sure MLB has enough clout to tell the next generation of great Latin American baseball players that if they don't play by our rules, they can go home -- or stay home?

"Have you seen how many Latin players are in the major leagues right now?" Reiner said, emphatically. "How can baseball live without that? They can live without that for one or two years maybe, and wait. But there will come a point where the major leagues will need players and they would [give in]. They think it's the players who would get hurt. But it's baseball that would get hurt, because who would play? Baseball needs those players, because the draft [of U.S. players] isn't producing enough."

So could it really come to that? Baseball saying, "It's the draft or else?" Two proud baseball nations saying, "You need us more than we need you?"

It's hard to imagine there isn't some sort of demilitarized zone in between. But they need to find one, Reiner said, because this is about more than baseball. It's about what's fair and just.

"I always say that you can't see only a uniform when you make a deal," Reiner said. "You have to see that inside the uniform is a human being. So when you make a decision like this, you are almost making like God. And that is not right.

"When you sit down and make a deal, it needs to be something that is OK for both sides," he said. "Not just for one side. That's no way to conduct business."

So can Rob Manfred sell his world-draft vision as a panacea that's good for everyone? He clearly thinks so. But after surveying the landscape, all we can say is: Good luck.