Earlier this month, according to the Athletic, Dominican outfielder Juan Soto rejected a Washington Nationals offer for 15 years, $440 million, which would have made Soto the highest-paid player in the game. Soto, 23, who was born in the Dominican capital Santo Domingo, was signed by Washington as an amateur free agent in July 2015 when he was still 16, and he later helped the Nationals to a 2019 World Series title.
The franchise may now trade their superstar phenom, but regardless, Soto stands to make a sizable paycheck wherever he lands. He represents the dream many Latin prospects are chasing.
One such example is Cristian Garcia. Through 32 games in the minor leagues this year, Dominican switch-hitting infielder Cristian Garcia was batting .246. Garcia, 18, is currently part of the Los Angeles Angels’ farm system, playing in the Arizona Complex League at the Rookie level. I have played in the Dominican Summer League last year after signing with the team.
It’s a long way from just two years ago, when Miguel Garcia, Cristian’s father, said he and his son were blindsided by the San Diego Padres, after the team backed out of a verbal agreement with Cristian, leaving the young prospect with no deal and his immediate baseball future in doubt.
“It was devastating to say the least,” Miguel Garcia said in 2020, according to a USA TODAY Sports report. “Because (we) had made a lot of plans based on this.”
The Garcia family’s 2020 ordeal is just one snapshot of the complicated business facing international amateur free agents, particularly in talent-rich countries throughout Latin America, like the Dominican Republic. International prospects are not governed by a draft like their teenage peers in the US, Canada and Puerto Rico. This week, the Major League Baseball Players Association rejected what it called the league’s “final” proposal for an international draft, which means that a system fraught with problems remains in place.
“The Players Association today rejected what MLB characterized as its “final” proposal to establish a draft and hard slotting system for international entrants. Players made clear from the outset that any International Draft must meaningfully improve the status quo for those players and not unfairly discriminate between those players and domestic entrants,” the MLBPA said in a statement.
The international draft issue was tabled by the league and the union back in March when the new collective-bargaining agreement (CBA) was agreed upon by both sides.
“I think it should be the same for the Latin player as it is for the American player,” Miguel Garcia said in Spanish via a recent text message, when asked about MLBPA’s decision.
Another Dominican scout who’s worked for several major league clubs, and who asked not to be named, said that the overwhelming sentiment on the island after the MLBPA rejection was one of relief.
“Most people do not want the (international) draft,” said the scout.
There has been no international draft in professional baseball for decades, and the issue has become a thorny one for both the league and the union. The rules that MLB has in place — no international amateur prospects can sign deals with major league clubs before the prospect turns 16 — have been increasingly bent or ignored in recent years as teams aggressively search for the next great baseball talent, sometimes pursuing prospects as young as 12 and 13.
What can often happen is a verbal arrangement is made between a major league team and a trainer who helps develop a player or players from an early age. These verbal pacts are often forged years before the prospect turns 16, and then when it comes time for the boy to sign, any number of scenarios can play out, often to the detriment of prospects and their families.
Team budgets shrink, with no international pool money left to sign the prospect; MLB front office regime takes over and renege on existing verbal deals because the scout or executive who made the original pact is no longer there; major league scouts may feel a prospect hasn’t developed to the team’s expectations, and will scrap the verbal arrangement altogether, leaving the prospect in the cold.
“We are clear with clubs, players and their agents that any agreements or understandings prior to the date when a player is eligible to sign are completely unenforceable and are not recognized by our office,” MLB said in a statement in the 2020 USA TODAY Sports report. “This has been our policy for years, and every agent is aware of it. Clubs, agents and players do not report these agreements or understandings to us.”
Other dangers include trainers or scouts skimming a prospect’s signing bonus or prospects and their families taking out loans with usurious interest rates, only to be unable to pay off those loans at a later date if the verbal deal they agreed to has been terminated.
“On one side, you have these early deals being struck (between) MLB teams and trainers, with kids at the age of 12 and 13,” said one veteran Dominican trainer, who also requested anonymity. “(Deals) are secured with nothing more than a handshake. Sometimes they hold, but mostly they do not. Imagine the conversation, telling a 14-year-old you have a verbal agreement with (a MLB team) for $2 million dollars, only to be told a year or two later you don’t.
“Teams step away from these deals just because they can,” the trainer added. “If they find someone better or the player hasn’t developed, trainers are left trying to find another team at the last minute, that hasn’t (already) committed their money.”
In the most recent stalemate, the union and MLB couldn’t find common ground on numerous issues, including the amount of money spent on the top 600 picks of a proposed 20-round international draft. According to multiple reports, MLB offered $191 million while the union wanted $260 million. Another layer of the negotiations was the proposal to eliminate draft-pick compensation.
The Players Association has long opposed a salary cap, but during the 2016 CBA negotiations, the union agreed to a cap on international budgets. That concession hasn’t improved the system of signing international prospects, however, and the Dominican trainer said the business has only gotten worse.
“The corruption is very bad,” said the trainer. “So bad that some scouts will not come to your field if you don’t give a kickback. If you strike a deal, a percentage of that deal goes to them. MLB says they want to clean it up, and that’s why a draft is needed. But they don’t want the same money being spent (like) the MLB draft in the US”
The league established the Trainer Partnership Program in 2018, designed to “help develop international baseball while addressing important issues in the international market… Participating trainers are required to meet certain MLB standards, including early registration and drug testing of their players, and they maintain an ongoing dialogue with MLB about international baseball policy.”
But if an international draft is ever implemented, that could spell the end of the trainer network altogether in places like the Dominican.
According to The Athleticthe league issued a statement after the union’s rejection of the international draft proposal that said in part, “We are disappointed the MLBPA chose the status quo over transitioning to an international draft that would have guaranteed future international players larger signing bonuses and better educational opportunities , while enhancing transparency to best address the root causes of corruption in the current system.”
For now, it’s baseball business as usual throughout Latin America. At least one voice said the status quo — no international draft — doesn’t play in the prospects’ favor.
“Right now this is like a bad divorce and the kids are the victims,” said the Dominican trainer.