Major League Baseball's 2013-14 international free agent signing period officially got under way on Tuesday, July 2, as the newest crop of young talent from outside the American high school and college feeder system -- primarily Latin American players, but also with the occasional Asian and European signing here and there -- became eligible to formally sign with the 30 MLB clubs.
This is the first IFA signing period governed by the full signing bonus pool rules set down in last year's new collective bargaining agreement -- each team has a set amount of money it is allowed to spend on international amateur prospects, and that amount is determined using the team's winning percentage from the previous season. That means that the worst team from 2012, the Houston Astros, have the most money to give to July 2 prospects this year while the Chicago Cubs have the second-most, the Colorado Rockies the third-most and so on down to the Washington Nationals, who have the least since they had the highest winning percentage in baseball.
One of the primary benefits of this new framework is supposedly parity -- by giving the worst teams the most amount of money to spend, it theoretically helps them rebuild their organizations faster. This is at best a heavily flawed way of approaching the matter of international scouting and talent signing, and relies on the perception that the IFA market before the new CBA was dominated by the same market forces as the regular free agent market each team participates in during the offseason: a market with a set, regulated pool of players that each team can negotiate with on equal terms once the exclusive negotiating window expires in December.
That's not how the IFA market really worked at all, however -- in the late 2000s, teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers would routinely outspend the New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs in terms of raw bonuses handed out, and each organization had its own approach -- it was entirely normal for players to have wildly different perceived values from one organization to the next, and for some organizations to not even know about players their rival organizations were coveting.
Incidentally, this led to a lot of corruption in Latin America between team representatives and the local agents -- the now-infamous buscones -- handling the teenaged prospects. The provisions under the new CBA don't do a whole lot to address this; in fact now that each team has roughly the same amount of money to spend on bonuses, corruption is even more incentivized, as under the table benefits or payments to the player -- or far more common, illegal kickbacks to the buscones themselves -- replace simply being able to give the player more money. Why is the new system even in place, then? Why take a flawed but workable way for smaller or less successful teams like the Pirates or the Rangers of five to six years ago and restrict spending so much?
Well, it makes it so that teams like the White Sox, whose only real sustained foray into the world of international free agency over the past decade has been signing Cuban players -- and given the rules surrounding defectors and the fact that when players do defect they're much older on average than most players coming out of say the Dominican Republic, Cuba is its own special corner of the IFA market -- don't have to worry so much about teams using strategies other than the draft and the MLB free agent market to get good.
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had been trying to restrict other teams' spending on IFAs for years, and this time around he finally got his wish by appealing to the other owners' pocketbooks. What the White Sox and teams with their front office philosophy would really like is an international free agent draft like the one the league has for domestic amateur players, not only to further tamp down signing bonuses but to force teams that actually do scout Latin America and Asia to pick and choose between the talent they discover in the traditional pick-per-round format of a draft instead of just being able to sign them wholesale like they do now. The Players' Union is enthusiastically willing to sell IFAs up the river too, because they don't represent any of those players until they're on a 40-man roster somewhere; the reason prospects have seen their share of the pie decrease so suddenly is because they're one of the only groups getting money who don't have a seat at the table in labor talks.
One of the interesting wrinkles the new IFA slotting system has introduced however is the ability to trade bonus money. The Chicago Cubs, who already had the second-highest pool in the league, availed themselves of this in quite dramatic fashion on Tuesday, trading Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger to the Baltimore Orioles for Jake Arrieta, Pedro Strop, and bonus money, then sending infielder Ronald Torreyes to the Houston Astros in exchange for some more money for their IFA draft pool. They actually gave some money right back when they dealt Carlos Marmol to the Dodgers, sending along about $200,000 of IFA pool money with him; the Dodgers pocketed the pool space and immediately designated Marmol for assignment, which he accepted. That's how valuable IFA dollars are under the new CBA: Los Angeles was willing to pay Carlos Marmol the remainder of his contract to pitch in the minors just to get some more breathing space under the cap.
So far, while the bonuses are generally down from what they used to be, prospects are showing no unwillingness to sign -- since July 2 there's already been two or three dozen signings across the league, with roughly half of Baseball America's Top 30 international free agent prospects already committed to a team less than a week into the 2013-14 signing period. There's different ways to view that; one could argue that it shows the IFA market was inflated to begin with and that the new rules are restoring order to a lawless financial frontier. One could also argue that the continued willingness to sign immediately merely shows how much power the buscones have over the kids they represent, and how the kids will sign where they're told once a deal is struck. One might even argue that those two positions are just two sides of the same coin.
But regardless of how one feels about the current system, it's probably best not to get too attached. An international free agent draft is one of commissioner Bud Selig's higher priorities, though we won't see it next year, and maybe not the year after, that given what a logistical nightmare it'll be to set the thing up. For the next year or two, though, get used to hearing about draft pool trades like the ones the Cubs and Dodgers executed on Tuesday; like everything else about winning in the margins, that's the new smart play up until the moment it isn't.