Monday, October 5, 2009

Shut loophole on international free agents

Baseball is a crazy game. Or, some might argue, a stupid one.

I often find myself leaning toward the latter category. For stupidity is the only thing I can point to for why baseball officials refuse to seal a loophole as big as Alex Rodriguez’s ego.

This time the issue is talent, not the inequity in market profitability, though profits, I suspect, do weigh heavily in this situation as well. At the center of it, as with most things in baseball, is money, which Aroldis Chapman stands to make a pile of.

Who is Aroldis Chapman?

Unless you know baseball well, the 21-year-old Chapman isn’t on your Fantasy League radar. But for those unfamiliar with him, they should file his name away, because he’s a ballplayer who should someday be making headlines in the Majors. He’s the latest defector from Cuba, a country with a deep pool of baseball players.

Now, Chapman is on the open market. His handlers are pimping his talent to the baseball world. They should fetch a handsome return, as they rightly should.

People who have scouted Chapman, a 6-foot-4, 180 pounds of arms and legs, claim the man’s as good as any pitcher his age. He has a fastball that routinely hits 100 mph. It's the kind of velocity that should make him a top-of-the-rotation starter, a rare commodity in an era in which quality pitching has proved scarce. Teams never have too much of it.

A free agent like him comes at a high price. Already, the typical suspects have lined up to throw millions Chapman’s way.

The Yankees are interested; they’re interested in any player who can make them better. The Mets, the Angels and the Red Sox are interested, too. That means the paupers of baseball will be watching this auction of prime talent from the sidelines.

And here’s the loophole: Why isn’t Chapman in the June draft?

Baseball does its fans and its weaker franchises an injustice when it allows talent like Chapman to avoid the draft. But all players from Latin America and Cuba and Japan and Korea and Australia and China avoid it, which keeps clubs like the Royals, the Pirates, the Nationals, the Padres, the Indians, the Marlins, the Rays and the Indians, as well as a few others, from participating in high-stakes auctions.

The advantage goes to the Yankees and the Red Sox, who can afford to miss or overpay for a can’t-miss prospect no matter what he’s asking for his services.

No other sport gives rich teams such an advantage, and if you listen to what baseball officials say, the loophole can’t be closed. No way, they claim, can baseball hold a draft of international players. It would be too complicated, too costly and too unwieldy to work.

To believe what baseball officials and general managers say is to partner with the stupid. They have no more difficult a task in putting together a worldwide draft than hockey or basketball do. A good scout can find talent in the Arctic Circle, if boys are playing baseball there. If the player’s name is registered for the draft, someone will figure out if he can play -- or if he can’t.

The issue is: Should players like Chapman be free to peddle their talents without rules. If so, why? If they can, then why not let a Minor League player who can’t find his niche in one organization do likewise? Why keep him on a treadmill going nowhere?

A team with a deep farm system shouldn’t be allowed to hinder the progress of a ballplayer.

The concept of letting a franchise hold a player’s rights for more than a season might have outlived its purpose. In today’s world, a player in the Minor Leagues should be able to pursue free agency after each year. He should be allowed to do what Chapman will do: post a for-hire sign.

That will keep teams from stockpiling talent. It won’t, however, stop the Yankees and Red Sox from outbidding rivals for the CC Sabathias and the Manny Ramirezes, but even the Yankees and the Red Sox can’t find a place for all the young players in the game.

Those players will have to go elsewhere first, perhaps honing their baseball skills on the cheap in Kansas City or Pittsburgh or San Diego.

At least then, fans there will have a window for success, which is more than what they have now. For a talented player like Chapman, if he’s as good as people say he is, could give any of these teams hope, and I see hope as a good thing for people who have spent the past decade watching their favorite team dwell in the cellar.


the_General said...

The reason why baseball doesn't have a draft for overseas talent or at least allow players outside of the U.S. borders to enter it's first year player draft in June is because of the sheer number of prospects. Baseball is unlike any other sport in this regard -- there is simply way too many prospects who might decide to go to school rather than go pro or may decide they don't want to sign with the team that drafted them for whatever reason.

There are already 55 rounds in baseball's draft. If you open it up to international players that would quadruple the number of rounds. That's ridiculous.

If you want to start leveling the playing field as far as money goes around the league, then the first thing to do in baseball is to institute a salary cap. Problem is, that will never happen because the players will never agree to it.

It's what makes baseball unique, it's one of many things that makes baseball great in my opinion.

Sure this Chapman kid could sign with the New York's of the world or the Boston's and LA's but he could just as easily say he would rather play close to home and sign with Florida or Atlanta. He could become a star for those teams or he could be a collossal bust, hamstringing the team that signed him for the duration of his enormous contract.

The franchise in baseball that ultimately win World Series titles are not the ones with the most talent or the ones that spend the most money, always with exception they are the ones that play the best as a team for an entire season after years and years of hardwork by scouting departments, development teams and front offices. They are the team that for one season sees everything come together from all of their fruits of labor -- and with a little luck of staying healthy -- play fundamental team baseball to best every other team in the majors.

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