05/09/2002 2:03 pm ET
Should there be a worldwide draft?
Debate over how to distribute foreign players continues
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
In June 1961, while the ink was still wet on the contract teenager Bob Bailey signed for a record $175,000 bonus with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the following headline blared in The Sporting News:
"Soaring Bonus Bids Stun Major Execs - Quick Action Likely."
Four years later, Rick Monday became the very first selection in the very first installment of those execs' answer to the escalating competition for prime American amateur talent -- the First-Year Player Draft.
Four decades later, the problem of intense open-market rivalry for players is back, but on a global scale.
The stunning truth: At the start of the 2002 season, more than two out of every five professional baseball players in this country, either on the rosters of the 30 Major League teams or of their minor league affiliates, were not subject to the Draft.
The breakdown shows 174 foreign-born players among 849 Major Leaguers (active or on disabled lists), and 2,828 -- or nearly 50 percent -- of the 5,781 minor leaguers.
Again, big league executives are looking at the same salvation, this time a draft expanded on a worldwide scale. "It will be brought about," says Mike Port, interim general manager of the Red Sox, "by the same forces which led to the creation of the amateur draft."
Quick action? Unlikely.
In fact, unless a worldwide draft is ratified as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement currently being negotiated between owners and the players union, it will go back on hold for five years -- or whenever the CBA comes up for renewal.
And if both sides agree to it in principle, a staggering array of details would need to be worked out. For instance, could it be a true worldwide draft, or what special provisions would be required for countries (Japan, Korea, Mexico) with their own pro leagues? What would be the age and education groundrules (domestic players cannot be drafted until their high school class graduates, or until after their sophomore collegiate year)?
"Obviously, it won't be implemented for this season," said Sandy Alderson, MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations. "It's part of a larger proposal made to the union, and would likely be deferred until the next agreement."
It is not a fresh concept, having been floated for nearly a decade, since a September 1993 conclave of scouting directors at which they voted in favor of it. General managers quickly seconded the plan, but that's as far up the chain as the proposal has gotten.
For the owners, every year brings more compelling reasons for a worldwide draft. From the $3.7 million the Yankees gave Dominican outfielder Wily Mo Peña in 1999 to the $2.25 million for which the Dodgers signed Dominican shortstop Joel Guzman last July, foreign teens have been getting first-round money -- from the teams that can afford it.
Top-drafted foreign-born players could retain a comparable bargaining chip -- it would level the playing field by giving each team a 1-out-of-30 shot at international talent, aided by the expanded efforts of the Major League Scouting Bureau.
"Face it," said Anaheim general manager Bill Stoneman, "if the New York Yankees spot a guy in one of the Latin American countries, or anywhere, and they want him, they will out-spend all others to get him. And with their revenue, they can.
"A worldwide draft is just a good idea. Talent will be more evenly distributed."
"It's something we need -- that's pretty clear when you look at the worldwide talent spread throughout baseball," said Kevin Towers, the Padres general manager. "Look at the Dodgers rotation -- there are some pretty successful pitchers around the world.
"Implementation will give small-market clubs a fair, or equal, chance to get their share of the global talent."
For domestic players, the worldwide draft evokes a subtle threat to their leverage. The union does not oppose the need for a worldwide draft, but is proposing separate drafts for U.S. and for international players.
Foreign-born players on Major League rosters by homeland:
|-- as of Opening Day, 2002
Representatives of the Major League Players Association declined to comment on their current stance regarding a worldwide draft. Don Fehr, the union's executive director, simply said, "That isn't something we discuss publicly."
Of course, even among Major League teams there is disagreement on a worldwide draft. Teams with well-established Latin American or Asian pipelines -- Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Toronto, Seattle -- oppose it; those outside the international loop are in favor.
"That might not help us. We keep an eye on guys we would normally sign, but then we'd have to wait for a draft," said Roger Jongeward, the Mariners vice president of scouting and player development.
Since its advent in 1965, MLB's draft has undergone several alterations, each in response to shifts in player procurement.
Soon after the Milwaukee Brewers trumped bidders in 1983 to sign Juan Nieves, a Puerto Rican left-hander who had been pitching at a Connecticut school, a rule was enacted subjecting all players attending U.S. schools to the draft.
Since bidding wars continued to break out over Puerto Rican prospects, in 1989 the draft was expanded to include players in U.S. territories. And in 1991, it was broadened to include Canada.
And if the next logical step is eventually taken?
"Very simple," Alderson said. "All players will be subject to a draft, as is the case in other sports. It would be a true worldwide draft. Not to say all categories of players would be included; obviously, we would have to exclude pro players in Japan.
"It would give clubs more equal access to players on the international level. When 40 percent of your players are foreign born, there's a need to equalize access."
"The biggest task is, how to administer it?" Towers said. "Every time we do get together as a group, we talk about how we'd be able to administer it.
"In baseball, any time you talk about change it's a difficult process. It's not that easy. I can't speak for the other 29 clubs, but they are more for it than against it. The majority of the teams are open minded, and I'd have to think Major League Baseball itself has great interest in it.
"If there's a will, we'll find a way. Hopefully, in the very near future."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. Any opinions referred to here are not necessarily those of Major League Baseball.