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'You kill those opportunities:' MLB's Dominican stars fear impact of possible international draft – USA TODAY

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Ever since Osvaldo Virgil became the first player from the Dominican Republic to reach the major leagues in 1956, the island nation has enjoyed multiple golden eras of big league superstars.
And the current crop of Dominicans, from legacy talents like Vladimir Guerrero and Fernando Tatis, a generational hitting savant like Juan Soto and dynamic stars such as Ronald Acuña Jr. ensure that this group stands up to any.
Yet the manner with which this generation – and those that preceded it – was scouted, signed and developed by Major League Baseball is about to change. An international draft – in which teenagers from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Curacao would be selected by and bound to specific teams, rather than allowed to bargain with multiple clubs as free agents – is just about an inevitability.
Long a non-starter for the MLB Players’ Association due to the potential suppression of signing bonuses, the international draft was averted in 2016 collective bargaining talks but became a key issue at the tail end of this 99-day lockout, when MLB and the MLBPA neared an agreement after weeks of often contentious negotiations.
Ultimately, the sides on March 10 agreed to a deadline of July 25 to either implement an international draft by 2024, or MLB will retain the right to attach draft-pick compensation to first-time free agents. It’s widely expected that the free market of international signings – subject since 2012 to bonus pool limits – will be a casualty of the bargaining table.
MLB and other stakeholders are hopeful that a draft may deter corruption that’s run rampant in the international markets, with scouts and trainers flouting the rules to arrange agreements with major league clubs for players as young as 12. But current players who came up through the system, grinding through minor-league levels both in the Dominican and stateside to realize their major league dreams, are already mourning its demise.
They fear an international draft will depress the earning power of elite Dominican players, while suppressing opportunities for the more marginal talents.
“When you get to pick a team,” says emerging Tampa Bay Rays superstar Wander Franco through an interpreter, “it’s better. That’s definitely something I appreciate. (The Rays) do a good job here, they’ve been there the whole time and they’ve been super good at being supportive of me.”
The system certainly worked for Franco, and the Rays: In July 2017, Franco agreed to a $3.825 million signing bonus with the small-market club, which saved up its bonus pool money to specifically splurge on Franco, an investment that should be mutually beneficial for at least a decade.
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After Franco, at age 20, produced an .810 OPS, 3.5 WAR and a startling 43-game on-base streak in just more than three months after his June debut, he and the club agreed to terms on an 11-year, $182 million contract that could be worth up to $223 million over 12 years.
Franco, stressing that he’s “thankful for God to give me this great opportunity to be able to stay here,” lauded the Rays for their support as he made his way from the Dominican, through rookie ball in 2018 and eventually to Tropicana Field.
That comfort level would have to start from scratch in the event of a draft, which gives current stars some trepidation.
“I don’t think the draft would be beneficial for anybody,” says Boston Red Sox All-Star third baseman Rafael Devers, who received a $1.5 million bonus from the Red Sox in 2013 and made it to Boston four years later. “The system being the way it is, the way you can choose a team can be great.
“It’s very beneficial for us, especially having all 30 teams interested in us, being able to pick where you want to go. I think the system works well. It’s extremely important, being able to build those relationships with those clubs before signing.
“At 15, 16, it makes sense. When guys are 11, 12 years old, it shouldn’t be happening, but it’s always helpful to be able to build that relationship in order to choose where you go.”
MLB and the MLBPA both wish to see the corruption and exploitation of young players curbed, by any means. In a statement to USA TODAY Sports, MLB says it has spent the past four years discussing draft implementation with affected parties, including international amateur players and their families, current and former major leaguers, trainers, club and government officials. 
The international draft framework, according to a baseball official who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because negotiations are ongoing, would include 20 rounds, 600 hard-slotted picks and a $20,000 maximum for undrafted players; teams’ draft positions would rotate rather than be based on the previous season’s records, which would make it virtually impossible for trainers to strike deals with teams since they would not know the draft order, nor predict the sequence of player selections.
MLB says it has already begun investing in international infrastructure – including fields and technology to support pre-draft evaluation and exposure for a greater swath of players and says overall spending on international prospects, with the bonus pool system discontinued, will increase by $20 million annually.
Since 2018, MLB has partnered with Latin American trainers in hopes of reducing performance-enhancing drug use, age fraud and other issues among teenage prospects. It hopes an international draft will further codify such efforts and reduce harm to potential signees.
“We would guarantee that players receive more money in a cleaner, healthier system that would still allow an unlimited number of international players to sign, while reducing the pressure on very young children to prepare for early deals,” MLB said in its statement. “To that end, we believe that any changes would only benefit players and trainers—as well as Clubs, which would have more time to scout players at older ages and, accordingly, make more informed decisions.”
Yet it’s an open question just how much a flawed and often exploitative system can be rehabilitated.
Franco and Devers both trained at a Dominican baseball academy helmed by Rudy Santin, a scout for three major league teams for more than 25 years before starting his own development house. Santin died of a heart attack in May 2020, but before his passing, was determined to play whistleblower.
He alerted MLB and FBI officials of the very worst he saw in the Dominican Republic, most notably scouts and officials striking agreements with players as young as 12, only to leave them hanging when the franchises who employed them soured on the prospects or their front office personnel turned over.
It’s probably easier to name the MLB franchises who haven’t run afoul of rules and regulations over the past quarter-century. The most egregious, publicly-acknowledged scandals included:
Beyond the high-profile scandals, practices such as providing performance-enhancing drugs to teenagers, hiding them from other clubs and the dealings of occasionally unscrupulous buscones – agents or advisors, if you will – have persisted for decades.
A draft might bring some practices above board, and perhaps disincentivize buscones from hoarding their players. After the rash of scandals in the early 2000s brought greater scrutiny from MLB’s newly formed Department of Investigations, the rate of positive PED tests among Dominican Summer League playrs began to gradually decrease, from 2.90% in 2008 to 1.40% in 2011, bottoming out at 0.70% in 2015 and ’16, according to data provided by the league.
Yet Dominican players fear baseball’s natural caste system – where elite players get greater bonuses, attention and development – will be exacerbated with a draft.
“Bottom line, people talk about corruption and corruption is everywhere. But I don’t see it that way,” says Phillies infielder Jean Segura, who was signed to a $70,000 bonus by the Los Angeles Angels in 2007. “I see a lesser chance for players who don’t have the big reputation to get into the draft. Now they don’t have a chance to sign and be a pro and keep growing up and jump into the big leagues.
“The Dominican, already there is corruption wherever you go. You can’t control it.”
Devers and Segura fear a disruption to the player development ecosystem should a draft be implemented. Certainly, unethical trainers, agents and buscones can use their leverage to back players into a corner, steer them toward predatory loans, renege on deals or claim an inappropriate percentage of a signing bonus.
Yet there are trainers, academy operators and advisors who do, in fact, mold young Dominicans into ballplayers and depend on compensation on the back end of the transaction.
“What I think it’s going to affect a lot is those people who run academies in the Dominican,” says Segura, 32. “They have a family, too. Just think about those families. Now you kill those opportunities because if I’m working to prepare players, and it’s not a benefit for me, why am I going to keep doing it? I have to find a different job to support my family.”
There’s another lesson from history books that players from the Dominican fear: Puerto Rico.
For a time, the U.S. commonwealth enjoyed a big league status on par or perhaps even above ballplayers hailing from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. A crop of Puerto Ricans signed between 1985 and 1988 would become superstars and Hall of Famers a decade later – Bernie Williams, Roberto Alomar, Pudge Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Javy Lopez and Carlos Delgado among them.
In 1989, though, Puerto Ricans became subject to the MLB draft, tossing the island’s players in with U.S.-born high school and collegiate stars.
While there are numerous factors beyond the draft, it’s hard to deny the cause-and-effect of that maneuver and the subsequent shrinkage of elite Puerto Rican players. Most notably, players in their late teens found fewer opportunities to play at elite levels than their stateside draft peers, this at a time scouting departments began emphasizing collegiate players in the draft.
Eventually, a cluster of academies emerged in Puerto Rico – including one funded by MLB and another operated by nine-time All-Star Carlos Beltran. There are occasional success stories, such as the drafting of Puerto Ricans Francisco Lindor and Javy Baez with the eighth and ninth picks in the 2011 draft (albeit out of Florida high schools). Puerto Rican Carlos Correa was the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, the 2015 AL Rookie of the Year and now the highest-paid infielder – at $35.1 million per year – in baseball history after signing a free agent deal with the Minnesota Twins.
But players from Latin America fear the sheer tonnage of players from their countries will diminish, and the unlikely success stories vanish. Correa’s longtime Houston Astros teammate, Jose Altuve, was famously signed for just $15,000 as a 16-year-old in 2007 after twice being turned away from their academy in Venezuela. Astros right-hander Luis Garcia, the 2021 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up who won the clinching Game 6 of the ALCS, was signed for just $20,000 out of Venezuela in 2017, when he was already 21 years old.
Without scouts motivated to work every corner of those countries, will those players be discovered? Will team academies stay open in the Dominican or shutter? 
“With the draft, you saw what happened with Puerto Rico,” says Devers. “I don’t know if that should be brought into the Dominican Republic.”
MLB insists a draft would actually provide a longer runway for lower-round picks or low-bonus players.
“To the contrary, a draft system would allow players to continue developing—in a more healthy environment—for longer, and Clubs would need to broaden their scouting focus to the larger universe of available players all the way through the day of the draft,” the league said in a statement. “We believe that this transparent and open system—and our investment in video and data services and support of leagues and initiatives worldwide—will allow non-elite and older players much more opportunity to be scouted and sign.” 
Still, a player’s agency over his immediate future is a key point for a group of players that are far from a monolith.
As a 16-year-old, Franco received life-changing money from the Rays, and over four dominant minor-league seasons showed he was as close to a guaranteed star as this game sees. He went out and proved that in more than a half-season in 2021.
Yet he still chose an even greater level of financial security while binding himself to the Rays into the next decade. Franco could have become eligible for free agency in 2027, at age 26. Just one player – fellow Dominican Soto of the Washington Nationals – is on track to hit free agency at 26, after the 2025 season.
Soto has opted to go year-to-year rather than sign an extension, and on Wednesday agreed to a $17.1 million salary for 2022 in his second of four years of arbitration eligibility. He turned down a $350 million offer from the Nationals this offseason and may crack the $400 million mark.
That works for Soto. Not Franco, who will earn $1 million in 2022 – about $250,000 more than he would have otherwise – and salaries of $8 million, $15 million and $22 million in what would have been his three arbitration seasons.
“If I were him, I would hope to already have a contract, as well,” says Franco of Soto. “Aside from playing the game, you have a family to take care of and you have to worry about yourself, as well.”
Does the extension bring him tranquility?
“Absolutely,” he says. “You have fun and you hope God gives you blessings to keep on going.”
Devers, like Soto, has chosen to go year-to-year. He agreed to an $11.2 million salary for 2022 and is eligible for free agency after 2023.
“I’m just comfortable being here, comfortable in my abilities and seeing what I can do on the field,” says Devers. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I just want to play it out and if I sign long term here, great. If not, we’ll get there when it happens.”
Devers says he talks contract matters “un poquito” – a little bit – with Soto back in the Dominican Republic, though they’d prefer to just talk ball, figuring the business end of things will take care of itself.
They have profited from the system but worry about the next generation.
Segura sighs and pauses to collect his thoughts when asked if he’s disappointed the international draft became a line item to be bargained away in the recently completed CBA talks. He reached the big leagues with Milwaukee in 2012, as the centerpiece of a trade for Zack Greinke, and never returned to the minors, eventually signing a five-year, $70 million deal that runs through this season.
He taps his chest gratefully in sharing that he’ll soon pass 10 years of major league service time, ensuring a generous pension.
The system worked for him, from start to finish, and he’ll be grateful for that for decades.
“Everything we do here in baseball, is for family,” says Segura, a father of three. “I came from nothing. Cracked shoes, no shoes at one point, nothing to eat at one point, and when you come to the States and sign a deal, it’s because of them. Our family, they pray for us and when you sign a contract, everything is, ‘Oh, OK, now I can go there and do my thing and don’t worry about anything,’ don’t worry if mama is going to have something to eat, dad has something to eat, brothers, kids.
“Sometimes we’ll go out and meet our family and meet our parents and you think about it more and it’s like, ‘Man, baseball’s tough, I need a hug from my mom and my dad and my family.’ And you realize, at the end of your career, you’re going to have a lot of time.
“Your life is so long.”

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