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Fixing the international signing period requires discipline, not new rules

Peter Gammons has an interesting piece up about how crazy things are getting during the international amateur signing season:

Former San Diego Padres chief executive officer Sandy Alderson is overseeing a wholesale investigation being conducted by Eddie Dominguez of MLB Security into corruption and fraud in the Dominican Republic and all over Latin America. The investigation could lead to the deportation of 70 to 100 minor leaguers.

Yet, one week after the international signing period opened July 2, the dollars spent on international signings have more than tripled in a five-year period. MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who did not bargain for any slotting system, now beats on teams to stick to a strict, arbitrary slotting system for American players in the draft. Even so, teams were climbing over one another this past week to tell their fans they're spending big in the Latino market.

In addition to the spiraling costs of international signings, Gammons also mentions the other issues we've long heard about scouting talent in the Dominican, including the influence of Buscones, bonus skimming, exploitation of players, performance enhancing drugs, and all of the rest.

I've written about this at length in the past, and while Gammons' take on things is always welcome and enjoyable, his piece suffers from the same central problem that all of the many other previous passes at the issue suffer: the somewhat misleading conflation of multiple, often unrelated problems into one seeming monster of a problem that, intentional or not, paints the Dominican market as some lawless, chaotic environment. At the end of all of these articles -- Gammons' included -- is a prescription for how baseball should "deal" with it. The problem, though, is that the issues Gammons details -- fraud, signing bonus escalation, skimming and abuse of players -- are distinct phenomena. And not all of them are actually big problems, which renders the prescriptions offered in these articles simplistic at best and cynical at worst (I'll explain the cynicism in a minute).

The bonus skimming/age and identity fraud is certainly a problem, but it's more of a legal problem, not a baseball problem. The example of scouts coming back stateside with cash in their shoes is a matter of simple embezzlement by employees and poor accounting controls on the part of teams. The FBI is involved as they should be but at present it seems to be a case of bad apples and opportunism, not a grand conspiracy, and certainly not something that should lead to baseball changing the ways it approaches the international signing period.

The issue with the Buscones -- the guys who go out and find talent for major league teams and then act as quasi-agents for the players -- is a different thing. Yes, it's troubling insofar as these guys are almost certainly taking advantage of Dominican teenagers. But here's something funny: you rarely hear baseball people complaining about that aspect of the Buscone-player relationship. Rather, you hear about how they're not necessarily good for baseball in that they're overselling kids with low talent and driving up their price. I think the Dominican government should do more to monitor these guys and I certainly think that baseball can and should play a role in that -- maybe as informer in chief when they see exploitation going on -- but it's worth remembering that when baseball talks about doing something with these guys, they're motivated by a desire to eliminate cost-enhancing middle men than they are motivated by altruism. Baseball doesn't like American agents either, so we have to take the complaints of front office people quoted by Gammons with a grain of salt.

The final problem -- the escalation of signing bonuses to international players -- while interesting, rings pretty hollow as a problem to me, and that's where the cynicism comes in. Baseball has never liked paying players a lot of money, and hearing teams complain about it now sounds an awful lot like the squawking some teams do when a Major League free agent signs for big dollars. Unless I've misread everything baseball has done for the past, oh, 50 years, however, I'd say that there is an effort afoot on the part of ballclubs to overstate and to conflate all of these problems so as to convince Major League Baseball and relevant governments that there's a raging crisis. Why? To convince them that they need to institute some new rules, be it a draft or caps or whatever, that will save teams and cost amateur prospects money.

Ultimately, however, this is problem of fiscal discipline, not one of systemic failure unique to the international market, and certainly not one that needs to be solved with big new competition-reducing rules. If teams stopped flooding the islands wth money and started evaluating talent with a more discerning eye, the influence of the Buscones would diminish and the costs of the international signing period would as well. None of the other prescriptions -- be it Gammons' idea to cap bonus money or the usual idea of imposing some sort of international draft -- are a good substitute for teams just being smarter about things and restraining themselves from paying too much for uncertain prospects.