Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz, perhaps the most prominent voice in Dominican baseball, says he is open to the idea of an international draft but is wary of its implementation before receiving significant input from players past and present.
In a phone conversation Wednesday with ESPN, Ortiz said the draft proposed by Major League Baseball, which has become a flashpoint as the league and the MLB Players Association try to strike a deal that would end MLB's lockout of players, needs a long runway for implementation.
"The system in the Dominican [Republic] is not ready to have a draft next year," Ortiz said. "The Dominican is not the U.S. You can't snap a finger and everything lines up to operate the right way. We've got a new president who's trying to improve things. We need to do this slowly."
MLB has proposed a draft system that would begin in 2024. The league would place teams in pods of seven or eight and rotate their draft positions so there would be equitable access to top amateur talent, with each team picking in the top seven or eight once every four years. The draft would feature 20 rounds, with 600 hard-slotted picks, and undrafted players could sign for a maximum of $20,000. International picks would be tradable.
The league says the draft system would guarantee more money for international talent than the current process, in which international amateurs are free agents who can sign with any team but are limited by a hard cap that topped out in the 2021-22 signing class at $6.26 million for eight teams and was as low as $4.64 million for others.
Players are eligible to join organizations at 16 years old, though teams regularly enter into multimillion-dollar agreements with children as young as 12 and 13. MLB believes a draft will curb the corruption that is rife in the international market, with early signings, financial kickbacks and trainers giving performance-enhancing drugs to teenage boys among the foremost issues.
Support for an international draft among the union's rank-and-file is mixed, sources told ESPN. The league tied its implementation to the removal of direct draft-pick compensation, which penalizes teams for signing top free agents, according to sources.
Between the international draft and the gap that remains between the league and union on competitive-balance tax thresholds, multiple issues continue to hold up a deal that would end the lockout, sources said.
With nearly one-third of major league players coming from Latin American countries and a higher proportion of minor leaguers from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and other baseball hotbeds, the international market has become a vital part of the game.
Among the current stars to sign as international free agents: Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Jose Ramirez, Jose Altuve, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and reams of others.
MLB, which canceled the first week of games already, told players that without a deal by Tuesday, it would cancel a second week. Following 17 hours of talks that ended early Wednesday, the league agreed that it would wait for a proposal from the MLBPA before canceling another batch of games.
In a voice message sent to a group chat that has been widely shared in Dominican baseball circles, Ortiz encouraged others "to lead a strong campaign opposing the draft," according to a copy of the message obtained by ESPN.
In the follow-up conversation with ESPN, Ortiz said he understood the potential benefits of a draft but was wary of its consequences. A longer runway to implement it, he said, would allow the voices of on-the-ground principals to be considered.
"Taking time -- that makes more sense," Ortiz said. "OK, guys, let's keep up this pace to do it three, four years from now. We sit down with the big-time players. We listen to what they have to say. If we're going to do it, let's do it right. Rushing it like this is not right.
"Baseball is such a big thing in the Dominican. Baseball keeps kids off the streets. We don't want that to walk away from us. We want it to get better. That's my focus. Nothing else. We have the youth. People wanting to be me, Pedro [Martinez], [Albert] Pujols. We can't let that go away.
"At the end of the day, I don't want those kids to be affected by it. I already played baseball. I had a career. I care about the kids being treated right. I understand MLB wants to have control over everything they do, but you're not going to change the system overnight. Baseball is one of the secret weapons of the Dominican economy. If you talk about a draft here in the states, you have choices. You can do football, basketball. You don't have choices [in the D.R.]. Dominican has baseball to make your way out. That's it. You have to be careful."