How Latino MLB players are being heard in international draft debate

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: On Monday, the MLBPA announced that it would reject MLB's final proposal on the international draft. It will not be implemented for 2024, and the qualifying offer will return.

THE LOCKOUT HAD been lifted, a new collective bargaining agreement was in place and so Omar Minaya ventured out for spring training. It was the middle of March, and Minaya, the former front-office executive who is now employed by Major League Baseball as an amateur scouting consultant, had a simple, yet critical, job: Discuss MLB's pitch for an international draft, a subject that had nearly blown up an entire offseason of bargaining, with as many players as possible.

The abbreviated camp restricted him to one trip to Arizona, where he visited the complexes of seven teams. Union reps gathered their Latin teammates, found an empty conference room and sat in for a presentation that usually lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. Minaya delivered a pitch, answered questions and promised to maintain an open line of communication. When the Dominican-born Minaya served as the New York Mets' general manager from 2004 to 2010, teams were just beginning to commit resources in Latin America.

It's different now.

"Teams are definitely getting more involved; they're investing more," Minaya said. "And the reason they're investing more is because you have all these great players coming out."

The latest All-Star Game, from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles earlier this week, further emphasized that point. Thirty-five percent of the selected players were born outside the continental United States, including 12 from the Dominican Republic, eight from Venezuela and one each from Mexico, Aruba and the Bahamas.

As soon as 14 months from now, amateur players residing in those countries and several others could be subject to a draft, a mechanism that will impact the international market -- and, thus, the sport as a whole -- in ways we still struggle to comprehend.

Or perhaps nothing happens at all.

The deadline for MLB and the MLB Players Association to agree on an international draft is only three days away, and signs of progress are scant. As of Friday morning, only two counterproposals had been exchanged, neither of which closed a monetary gap that extends at least $80 million wide. Nobody seems to have a handle on what will come of all this.

"Whatever decision they make, I hope it's the right decision for the future of Latin American players -- for them to keep growing Latin American legends and have more Latin American players here in the United States," Miguel Cabrera, speaking in Spanish, said during the All-Star Game media availability on Monday. "I hope it's not a door that closes, but a door that opens."

The international market that plucked Cabrera out of Maracay, Venezuela, 23 years ago has become increasingly more corrupt, a lot of which is rooted in the spending caps that were first implemented in 2012, according to people with extensive knowledge of the dynamics.

Teams, perpetually in search of any edge, routinely agree with players as young as 13, three years before they're old enough to officially sign, numerous agents, coaches and players have told ESPN in recent months. Trainers, incentivized to secure higher signing bonuses, inject players with performance-enhancing drugs as early as 12, according to sources. The players themselves, often hailing from places where baseball acts as their only escape from poverty, have no choice but to be exploited. They pay their trainers up to half their bonuses and oftentimes get funneled to the agencies and teams that have forged relationships with those trainers, also called buscónes. As signing day approaches, sources said, some have their bonuses slashed or taken away entirely, with no leverage to do much about it.

The league believes the corruption has become so deep-rooted that it can't be policed within the current parameters; the only fix, MLB says, is a draft system that can more closely regulate the market and make it increasingly more difficult to strike early deals. Some players agree; many others don't. Their opinions on the subject seem to cover the entire spectrum, but they all seem to land on one central point: This is on the league and its clubs.

"This is not a system problem -- this is a people problem, and the people work for the major league teams," said New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, a member of the MLBPA's executive subcommittee. "It should start by penalizing those people that do pre-deals. It should start by penalizing the people that are putting these (players) to work as hard as they can at such a young age to try to get a deal at 13, 14 years old. That's who they should be penalizing.

"At the end of the day, the system is a byproduct of the rules that people made. ... I think the system is probably not the greatest, but the people who created the system have taken advantage. That's the problem."

A LITTLE OVER four months ago, on the morning of March 10, Lindor took to his Twitter account to allege that MLB's inclusion of an international draft was a mechanism to "divide" players in bargaining.

Back then, the 2022 season continued to hang in the balance. Negotiations over a new CBA had progressed to the point where a deal seemed plausible, but MLB's inclusion of an international draft threatened to scuttle it all. Latin players had long been against it, but the league sought it in exchange for removal of the qualifying-offer system, which the MLBPA has fought against dating back to the player strike of 1981. The two sides scrambled to a compromise that would end the 99-day lockout and allow the season to commence: the July 25 deadline.

If an international draft is agreed to by then, the qualifying-offer system, which annually suppresses the market for a handful of mid- to upper-tier free agents, will be dissolved. If the sides cannot agree on the terms of a draft, status quo will prevail.

The league's proposal, both back in March and in a new version this month, calls for a 20-round, hard-slot draft that would begin in 2024, guaranteeing $5.51 million for the No. 1 overall pick and $181 million for the top 600 international players. The MLBPA made its first counter on July 8, submitting a proposal that would guarantee $260 million to the top 600 international players and set the slots as minimums, with tax and draft-pick penalties for teams that exceed them by certain percentages. It was the first occurrence of the MLBPA agreeing to some form of an international draft, a monumental development in its own right. But the money divide was inescapable -- and was further amplified when MLB's counter a week later didn't add a single dollar. The league believes its original offer is good enough.

"We think this is the best way to fix a broken system and will abide by the MLBPA's decision as part of the CBA agreement we made in March," an MLB spokesperson wrote as part of a statement.

"There are players on each side of the equation," MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said during a media availability leading up to Tuesday's All-Star Game. "But everyone can agree that the system that would need to be considered here, particularly in a draft, needs to be much better, than what has otherwise been contemplated to this point."

Agents, scouts, coaches and players almost universally agree that the corruption in the international market needs to stop, but some have expressed concern about how people might suffer under a different system. They worry that in a world without early deals, young players -- particularly those in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela -- won't have the resources for proper instruction because trainers will no longer be incentivized to work with them. They worry that the main source of income for trainers will dry up when MLB becomes more heavily involved and the development of international amateur players becomes more uniform.

As players develop, those trainers often become an extension of their family. As they matriculate into the major leagues, the vast majority of players maintain close relationships with them.

"I feel like it's a good idea, and at the same time it's a bad idea," Marlins starting pitcher Sandy Alcantara, originally signed out of the Dominican Republic, said of an international draft. "The good idea is that there's a lot of kids who are gonna have the opportunity to finish their schooling, their studies. They're gonna have the opportunity to sign for more money, they're gonna have the opportunity to have better development.

"But it's going to be really bad for the people who are in charge of taking care of those kids, developing them so that they could eventually sign. I feel like that's going to affect them a lot, because that's how they feed their families."

There is currently no plan in place to certify trainers who are not affiliated with major league organizations, but league officials say trainers will continue to hold immense value in the day-to-day development of young players.

Players are also concerned about how a one-size-fits-all approach could plague smaller countries.

"I don't think Venezuela and the Dominican will be the problem," said Miguel Rojas, the Miami Marlins' union rep, who was signed out of Venezuela in 2005.

"Before, back in the day, I just needed a tryout. I have to run the 60 yards, I have to take ground balls and throw to first -- it's not like that anymore. They have this system where they play a lot of games, where they give a kid a hundred at-bats in the Dominican Republic to see what's his value. How about the guys in Guatemala or Ecuador? They can find players all over the world and in different countries. How many at-bats are you gonna give to a guy in Aruba to actually prove himself in the same category as the Dominicans?"

MORE THAN 28% of players on Opening Day rosters were born outside of the continental United States, according to an MLB release from early April. It amounted to 275 players hailing from 21 different countries and territories, tied with 2018 for the highest total in history. The Dominican Republic (99) and Venezuela (67) absorbed a large chunk of that total, as usual, but 20% of those on Opening Day rosters were born in countries or territories of Hispanic origin, making them by far the largest minority group.

That dynamic is not represented through union leadership.

Lindor -- a product of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated U.S. territory that is subject to the domestic draft -- is the only Hispanic player among the eight-member executive subcommittee. Rojas, meanwhile, is the only Hispanic team representative.

"It's important for us to have a voice," Rojas said. "I take it with a lot of pride and responsibility. I'm responsible for my teammates and for the guys around the league. For me, I'm proud that I'm here. But at the same time, it's a lot of responsibility."

The MLBPA pushes back on the notion that Hispanic leadership is lacking throughout its union, noting that there are 17 Hispanic players who currently serve as alternate club reps while adding that Latin players throughout the sport take on leadership roles -- in a multitude of capacities -- without necessarily being designated as team reps.

Moreover, a union official said, the group has been gathering opinions from players on this topic for decades. The subject of an international draft is nothing new; the league has spent about 20 years angling for one.

This is the closest they've ever come. But in addition to the large discrepancy over money, there are plenty of other items that need to be decided before a deal can be reached. The parties have agreed to stage the first round of a potential international draft in either Miami or in the Dominican Republic, but the timing is less clear. In its last proposal, the union asked to stage the first draft in September 2023; the league offered two windows in its counter, early in 2024 or later that fall. The two parties also seem close on an educational component, with MLB guaranteeing at least $5,000 for every player signed and the MLBPA asking for a minimum of $10,000.

"I don't know if a draft will fix everything, but definitely we need more education for those guys down there," said Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto, a native of the Dominican Republic. "More education. Try to help them better on the field and out of the field."

MLB has yet to finalize plans for the facilities it will construct or how much money it will commit, largely, it says, because more time is needed to learn what works in different countries. A league official said three existing facilities in the Dominican Republic and one in Venezuela have already been outfitted with the proper technology to host showcases leading up to drafts. If an international draft is implemented, the league hopes to host showcases and other scouting events in four regions of the Dominican Republic and multiple others in Venezuela, in addition to Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Curacao, Aruba and parts of Europe during the 2023 calendar year.

But the union believes more needs to be done across the board. Its latest proposal called for compliance officers who would oversee the proliferation of early deals; an "International Player Development and Human Rights Foundation" that would require MLB to commit $10 million annually, most of it geared toward providing amateur players with opportunities to be trained and scouted; and mechanisms that would increase bonus-pool commitments if the number of international signings falls below certain thresholds. MLB, a union official said, has basically ignored those requests.

The league claims that the union dragged its feet on a proposal that has been on the table for 12 months. Union officials argue that they had turned down an international draft at every turn, while players maintain that a midseason deadline on such an important issue -- while so many of them are preoccupied with a season -- is unreasonable. The league counters that the deadline is necessary because team executives need to know the status of the qualifying-offer system ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline and believe the current offer, which would guarantee international players about $20 million more than last year's signing period, is plenty generous. Union officials believe the gap between the international market and the domestic draft, which will see teams spend close to $300 million this year, is too wide. The league argues that it has to be, given that international players sign at younger ages and thus matriculate to the majors at a lower rate.

The bickering continues, the clock keeps ticking and one important point has started to surface among those heavily invested in the international market: If a draft is not agreed to by Monday, the international market must still change. Status quo is untenable. For the first time, both sides seem to agree -- to varying degrees -- that an international draft would at least help address the issues. But they also acknowledge that the ripple effects are far-reaching.

"It's a huge deal," Lindor said. "It's not just money for ownership or players. This can essentially change cultures, for the Dominican, Venezuela, so many countries -- and essentially many people's lives. Hundreds of people will be impacted by this decision."