Last Friday, Major League Baseball made an example out of the Red Sox, taking five Venezuelan players signed last year out of the organization while also suspending Boston from signing any players in the 2016-2017 international amateur signing period, which began on Saturday. The Red Sox, apparently, signed those Venezuelan players as part of “package deals” in order to work around the $300,000-and-under spending restrictions they were placed under for last year’s J-2 signing period.
The punishment obviously hurts the Red Sox. They lose five young players from the minor-league system and are forced to sit on the sidelines when the rest of the league—even other teams under similar spending restrictions—are able to stockpile loads of Latin American talent. Last year, even though the Red Sox were under the penalty, they still signed 45 players. This year that number will be zero, which could have an odd effect on how Boston rosters its low-level minor-league teams over the next few years. Like many of MLB’s decisions, however, this one looks much worse once you consider how it impacts the lives of 16- and 17-year-old kids.
For the five players granted free agency, it could be worse. They get to keep the signing bonuses they received last year from the Red Sox plus any excess money they earn this year beyond $300,000, perhaps getting a nice bump to their bank account. However, they’re forced to leave their first organization just a year into their professional career (er, apprenticeship) and form a relationship with another team, another group of players, and another staff of scouts and instructors. Maybe playing for the Red Sox, specifically, was a dream for these kids; maybe they had a great bond with a scout or front office staffer from Boston. Maybe there won’t be similar interest around the league for their services, and they’ll end up signing for next to nothing with little chance of moving up through their new organization.
Even worse, consider the players who were expected to sign with the Red Sox in the 2016-2017 signing period. Even though it’s technically against the rules, teams negotiate with international amateurs well before the new J-2 period actually opens, generally all but signing the dotted line in advance. That’s why, on Saturday, hordes of young players were signed almost immediately—it wasn’t as if major-league teams were all scrambling to sign these kids; the deals were already hammered out, if not yet official.
When MLB suspended the Red Sox from signing any players for this signing period, they ultimately took away contracts from a bunch of young players who were expected to sign with Boston on Saturday.
So when MLB suspended the Red Sox from signing any players for this signing period, they ultimately took away contracts from a bunch of young players who were expected to sign with Boston on Saturday. And they did it just a single day before the J-2 period opened, leaving those players—and their “buscones,” or agents, who take a large cut of each player’s signing bonus—with little time to work on getting a deal ironed out with another team. Imagine preparing to officially sign with a major-league team only to have the rug pulled out because MLB decided to crack down on something you weren’t even involved in.
What complicates matters more is that, like the Red Sox, most other clubs have already worked out deals with many of the players they want. So when a new player unexpectedly re-enters the marketplace, a number of teams might not possess the budget or space to add him. Not to mention, knowing those players were originally likely to sign with Boston, teams may have stopped keeping tabs on them at some point, and—like the five players turned free agents—might not have the knowledge or interest to ink them to big contracts.
Just because package deals or even more nefarious international dealings have gone without penalty in recent years doesn’t mean MLB was wrong to come down hard on the Red Sox. They broke the rules. Make no mistake, though, they’ll be okay. Yoan Moncada is stashed away safely in Portland, and the rest of the 2014-2015 international class—the one that put Boston under spending restrictions to begin with—went untouched by MLB’s decision. Further, Boston can return to international normalcy next year, with both spending restrictions and penalties in the rearview mirror.
What’s disappointing is that this decision doesn’t just hurt the Red Sox, it hurts young players just getting started in professional baseball. For MLB (and the Players Association) those young players are just unfamiliar names from faraway lands, 16 year olds with little chance of ever showing up on our TV screens. But they’re also important to the heartbeat of the game, and it’s important that they’re given every opportunity to succeed. It’s almost as if MLB either doesn’t fully grasp the unintended consequences of its decisions or simply doesn’t care, particularly when those decisions involve young players. Either way, that’s something that should change.
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