13 years old, with an MLB deal: Why some are ready for change

Major League Baseball continues to push for an international draft and is getting buy-in from influential trainers who have grown weary of players as young as 13 years old agreeing to deals with teams, sources with knowledge of the situation tell ESPN.

In a recent meeting between MLB and those involved in the league's Trainer Partnership Program, a segment of buscónes -- or the the trainers who find and prepare amateurs in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to sign as 16-year-olds -- lamented the rash of early agreements and said a draft would alleviate the pressure on pre-teens to vie for multimillion-dollar contracts. At least four players from the 2021-22 signing period struck deals with teams as 13-year-olds, according to sources familiar with the agreements, and the majority of elite players are committed to teams at 14.

The best players in the Dominican Republic often drop out of school as young as 10 and 11 to start training for baseball careers. The increasingly early age at which players agree to sign -- which is against MLB's rules that are rarely enforced -- has incentivized the use of performance-enhancing drugs on children in hopes that their mature-looking bodies will impress scouts enough to offer significant signing bonuses. While the agreements are non-binding, teams fear that breaking a deal would have harsh repercussions with the buscónes who control the talent pipeline that accounts for nearly 30 percent of major league players and closer to half of minor leaguers.

An international draft would need the support of the MLB Players Association, which during the most recent collective-bargaining negotiations eschewed a draft in favor of a hard-capped system. In the current international spending period, which began July 2, 2018, and ends June 15, teams have spent about $150 million on international amateurs, consistent with the previous year, according to sources. During 2016-17, the last unrestricted year, teams spent more than $203 million, including penalties paid for exceeding their bonus pool.

An international draft could emerge as a leverage point when MLB and the union engage in mid-agreement talks on economic issues. The long-anticipated discussions have not begun, according to sources, and no meeting between the union and league is scheduled. Considering how central the distribution of revenue will be to the conversation, the gap between what international and domestic amateurs receive annually is sure to be a point of contention.

In the June draft, each team will be allotted a pool of money to spend. The total of those pools is around $266 million -- and teams can exceed theirs by up to 5 percent without incurring significant penalties. The international pools are fixed and total $166.2 million. The $100 million difference in potential amateur spending could be reduced as part of an international draft compromise.

MLB shared during its TPP meeting information on the top bonuses in the 2018-19 international class -- and only 31 players received seven-figure deals. That was less than half of the 66 players in the draft who signed for $1 million-plus. The highest-paid 16-year-old, shortstop Orelvis Martinez, received $3.51 million from the Toronto Blue Jays. That was less than the 14 top players in the draft, led by No. 1 pick Casey Mize, who signed for $7.5 million with the Detroit Tigers. The combined value of the highest 180 international bonuses: about $114.4 million. The slots for the first 180 picks in the draft: $232.6 million.

Those numbers give opponents of the international draft pause. Multiple buscónes said they fear a draft would artificially depress the value of the players chosen. Considering the pre-capped spending numbers, the concerns are warranted -- particularly when buscónes often take upward of 40 percent of players' signing bonuses. The concern is that with a hard-slotted draft, the value of buscónes as a trainer-agent hybrid will go away, and the trainer-only paradigm may not warrant such significant commissions.

Even still, other issues leave a number of buscónes involved in the TPP hoping for changes. Part of the program involves drug testing of players to eradicate trainers implicated in doping of children. There is also an effort to root out other types of corruption -- such as team employees receiving kickbacks for overpaying on players -- that that has pervaded the D.R. for decades.

Guaranteeing millions of dollars to barely pubescent kids is another issue unique to Latin America -- and one that even has a face. Shortstop Robert Puason had agreed to a deal with the Atlanta Braves as a 13-year-old before an MLB investigation implicated the team in a scheme to package players together and avoid bonus restrictions. General manager John Coppolella was fired and banned from baseball, and Puason, now 16, is expected to sign July 2 with the Oakland Athletics.