Yesterday, Baseball America reported that the Boston Red Sox were being investigated by Major League Baseball for infractions related to their 2015 international signings. The claims, which you can find here, are pretty insane: the Red Sox reportedly had signed players to "package deals" to escape the cap on their spending, meaning they ripped players off by giving total money to agents and then receiving multiple players. What's worse, though, is what MLB officials did to investigate:
"According to multiple sources, MLB officials told the players that if they lied, the commissioner’s office would suspend them. They asked the players to give them their banking information and said they would investigate their bank accounts, according to those sources. Some of the players broke down in tears."
Yeah, this is messed up. We've seen this movie before. A team does something sketchy, and then MLB does something essentially illegal to get evidence (see: the Alex Rodriguez Biogenesis investigation).
For those who don't know, the international amateur system is unethical to the umpteenth degree, and it's completely unsustainable. Essentially kids as young as 10 are recruited by agents, or buscones, and they're trained in baseball academies until they're eligible for the July 2nd signing date the year they turn 17. Buscones get to negotiate the terms of these deals before the deadline, often skimming from the top. They give the rest to the player, and the player often gives a sizable portion to their family just so they can survive.
That's why none of these details with the Red Sox are surprising. All of these deals are extralegal, and all of them involve taking advantage of children so major league teams can profit on the order of millions of dollars down the road. If we assume that a player does not reach free agency (if they even make it that far) until 30, from ages 10 to 30 they are subject to buscones, meager minor league salaries, and six years of team control. It's unethical at best, and illegal at worst. For those that don't make affiliated ball at all, they are left penniless and uneducated.
The Yankees find themselves in the position where they both buy into the system and become part of the reason why it even exists. The Red Sox had to find a way to get under the cap because they went over it the prior year, so their maximum signing bonus was $300,000. Why does that exist? Competitive balance, of course. Because teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs routinely vacuum up all of the talent out of the international market, MLB has put these restrictions in place to keep these teams in check. Sure, they found that balance, but this is yet another unintended consequence.
The Yankees have signed high profile international signings of their own, like Gary Sanchez, Dermis Garcia, Nelson Gomez, and Juan De Leon. The latter three were part of the 2014 spending spree when the Yankees signed nearly half of the top 20 prospects in the period, and all four of those got over $2 million.
However, when the information above is considered, how much did these players really get? In the following signing periods, are we really sure the Yankees haven't tried to negotiate package deals? MLB claims that the Red Sox are the only team being investigated, but this system is the wild west. I'm not trying to say they certainly did something, but we don't know what an international scout may negotiate with the buscone, even without the front office's knowledge.
Let's be honest: this system is broken. Many have proposed an international draft as an immediate solution, but all that does is deflate the free market value of these young players. If there is going to be a legitimate answer to this, it needs to also include these players regaining some of their labor rights.
The Yankees should be at the forefront of this. They have a vested interest in making this right because they have so much to gain from an international scouting system that works, even if there are restrictions in place that cap their bonuses. They are willing to pay to the extra money to acquire talent, and I'm sure they would love to erode the power of the buscones.
MLB needs to eliminate the academy/factory system, and create a system that works. All teams, based on their revenue, should invest in MLB-sponsored academies that are ethical, foster the needs of the children other than treating them like chattel, and eliminate the middlemen. The Americas Quarterly offers a decent proposal:
"MLB needs to invest more in young players’ education so that viable options exist if professional baseball careers do not work out. Attorney Adam Wasch has called for MLB to adopt a corporate code of conduct on child labor modeled on the codes adopted by several multinationals after troubling scandals in their plants in developing countries. But some entity will need to police such a code. The bottom line is that given how much profit MLB has derived from Caribbean baseball talent, the league should invest more in the social fabric of the region... Nor should the MLB Players Association be left off the hook. For once, this notoriously self-interested guild needs to think about the needs and rights of those who are not its members. They should oppose the extension of the draft to the region, barring major reforms that protect the rights and interests of its youth."
If the Yankees can use their wealth to invest in top-notch minor league facilities in Tampa, or health and wellness for their younger players, then they need to include Latin America in their investments.
This incident with the Red Sox and MLB is not the problem, but merely the symptom of a larger and more systemic issue. Baseball is acting as a predator to a region that offers some of the game's best stars, and it really needs to end. When a team realizes how much value can be had by treating these people with respect, they will reap the rewards.