SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Like so many kids on this baseball-mad island, Fraidel Liriano wanted to sign with a Major League Baseball team and eventually play at the top level. It could earn him and his family life-changing money.
So, at age 12, he said he left school and his home in Sabana Grande de Palenque, a municipality southwest of Santo Domingo, to live and train at a private academy east of the capital of the country that produced Rafael Devers, Boston’s star third baseman.
“It was tough,” he said in Spanish, later adding, “You have to take the risk. I loved studying but I also loved baseball and wanted to fulfill my dream.
The bet seemed to pay off when Liriano, a shortstop known for his powerful throwing arm and his power at home plate, and his coach, Javier Rodríguez, said they had reached a preliminary verbal agreement – a preacuerdo, as it’s called here in Spanish – with the Texas Rangers for $1.5 million.
Liriano was 15 at the time, younger than the minimum legal age (16) in the rules governing the international amateur market. But in the long race to find the next big talent, MLB clubs have increasingly – and alarmingly for many critics – hit these preacuerdos., sometimes with children as young as 12.
Liriano said he understood there was a risk with an unwritten and unenforceable pact, but he never expected what would come next: when it came time to officially sign Liriano, Rangers did not. have not done. Rodríguez said he later learned it was because Rangers had no more room in their international signing bonus pool of $5.3 million.
“To promise to make a dream come true for a child who has spent his whole life fighting and working to achieve it and at the end of the day telling him: ‘No, there’s nothing’, that’s something very frustrating,” Liriano said.
Liriano, who has sued the Rangers, alleging discrimination and breach of contract, said Rangers never explained why. Citing the ongoing case, Rangers declined to comment through a spokesperson. But the practice is one of the things that MLB and its players’ union — and many others who aren’t officially part of either group — hope can be prevented as they debate the way to remake the way international players enter affiliate baseball.
Monday is the deadline for accepting – or not – creating a very first international amateur draft. When MLB and the union had their contentious negotiations for a new labor agreement this past offseason, the international draft had to be postponed until now to avoid delaying the regular season. A draft would end the International Amateur Free Agency.
“The draft is the best that can happen to the Dominican right now,” Rodríguez said. “The first kid in the class of 2024 to come to an agreement is one of my own. But I have a business in this. And if I don’t, someone else will.
MLB effectively offered the union a trade: the introduction of an international draft in 2024, which MLB has long wanted but the union has long resisted, in exchange for the elimination of the qualifying offer system, which binds draft picks to top free agents, something the union feels has hurt the market value of those players.
The league and union differ on specifics and dollar amounts, such as, Sunday night, $191 million versus $260 million total for draft-eligible players, according to a person familiar with the negotiations not publicly authorized to comment. discuss, but they seem set on what would be a 20-round draft. If no agreement is reached, the status quo will remain and the collective agreement will be finalized without interruption of play.
While an international draft would affect every country outside of Canada and the United States, the Dominican Republic, as a hub of baseball talent that has produced more players than any country outside the United States United, was a driving force in the discussion.
“We’ve spoken with both parties,” said Junior Noboa, the Dominican Republic’s national baseball commissioner, referring to MLB and the union, the two groups who have spent a lot of time on the island talking to residents. players, government officials, coaches, agents and others involved.
“At the end of the day, it’s a decision they’re going to make for the baseball industry,” said Noboa, a former MLB player who is an executive for the Arizona Diamondbacks and has a private baseball academy. . “And with us, we hope that the industry will continue to grow and that it’s a clean and good business for the young people who sign and for the teams that get involved and make big investments throughout Latin America, but in a special way in our country.
The rate of preacuerdos accelerated, several trainers said, after the 2017 labor agreement that placed hard caps on international signing bonus pools, which gave teams the ability to know how much they should spend in coming years.
Jaime Ramos, a coach who helped catcher Gary Sánchez earn a $3 million signing bonus with the Yankees in 2009, said the rule changes were like lighting up a game “and it burned everything down.”
A byproduct, several trainers said, was that the preacuerdos rejuvenated the market, making it harder for unsigned players 16 or older to gain scouting attention or a contract. “If you’re not selling 13- or 14-year-olds, that’s a problem,” Rodríguez said.
Asked about their thoughts on an international draft over the past few months, several MLB players either said they wanted to know more or declined to answer. Several others are against the project.
“The problem is not only the draft; it’s the people,” said Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, a senior union official and a native of Puerto Rico, who preferred players picking their teams. “They are the ones who benefit. Because with a draft, there will always be people who take big percentages of the bonuses. How do you fix this system?”
Wander Franco, a Dominican shortstop who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for $3.85 million at age 16 — and signed a $182 million extension last year — was up against a draft and said that this could make it harder for young players to get money earlier to help their families. Still, he added, “the system has to change because scouts are watching 14-year-olds.”
The preacuerdos aren’t the only reason players and officials want reform. Despite MLB’s efforts to improve the ID verification process or launch a training program that includes steroid testing, this world is largely unregulated and often informal. Anyone can become a trainer and double as an agent. They don’t have to be certified by the union, which oversees agents in the United States and caps fees at 5%.
MLB said a draft could help end issues of malfeasance (such as coaches taking deep cuts in players’ bonuses – up to 50% – or entering into side deals) and performance-enhancing drugs donated teenagers in order to win contracts.
Ramon Peña, a former Cleveland Guardians and Mets executive and scout who has signed many MLB stars from the Dominican Republic, said he came to a project after initially opposing it.
“There is a lot of corruption in scouting,” he said. “It’s among scouts and coaches. I think a draft can eliminate that, or part of it.
Several trainers echoed the words of Tony Clark, the head of the union, who said in March that the challenges of the current system were “largely associated with those who cut the cheques”.
The education of Dominican children was also a frequently mentioned concern. It is rare for them to complete high school before signing with an MLB club, while domestic amateur players are selected after completing high school.
“We definitely need more education,” said Washington Nationals star outfielder Juan Soto. Adds Adrian Beltre, a former star of several teams: “Draft or not draft, the exploitation of young people, whether they sell 11 or 12 year olds, I don’t like that. It’s not okay for you to take the kids out of school.
Many people in the Dominican Republic are also finding ways to take parts of player bonuses. Some lend money – with interest – to the families of players who have verbal agreements, and therefore expect a future payday. Liriano’s family took out loans, Rodríguez said, but the bonus never came. At 18, Liriano remains at Rodríguez’s academy and unsigned.
Although Noboa said that the government of the Dominican Republic does not have an official position, he made some references in a recent interview to how a project could improve the existing system “a lot” because “you don’t know which organization you are going to sign”. with.”
The tenor from La Marina, a public baseball facility in Santo Domingo, on a recent morning was adamantly against the draft. Rafael Báez, whose baseball league has 300 kids between the ages of 5 and 12, and Franklin Guerrero, one of his coaches, feared that US officials wanted no more control over the process, that clandestine deals would continue , that there is no structure like baseball in high school. Dominican players, they said, would have fewer opportunities.
“For us it’s a headache if they put a project in this country,” Báez said. “First, this country does not have the conditions for a project. Second, we see what happened in Puerto Rico. After putting the draft in Puerto Rico, unfortunately, the production of players professionally and in terms of the major leagues fell to the ground.
Whether or not a project is approved by Monday, several coaches and officials once noted a slowly growing sense of support.
“I’m surprised when I hear a lot of the major private academies signing great players who are in favor of a draft,” Noboa said. “They might have a few questions, which is normal, but I feel like the support is more than there was before.”