SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic — Like many kids on the baseball-crazy island, Freidel Liriano wanted to sign with a Major League Baseball team and eventually play at the highest level. He could earn life-changing money for himself and his family.
So at age 12, he said, he left school and home in Sabana Grande de Palenque, a municipality southwest of Santo Domingo, to live and train at a private academy east of the nation’s capital that produced Rafael Devers, Boston’s star third baseman.
“It was difficult,” he said in Spanish, adding later: “You have to take risks. I liked studying, but I also liked baseball and I wanted to follow my dream.
The bet appeared to have paid off when Liriano, known for his tight throwing arm and power at the plate, and his coach, Javier Rodriguez, said they had reached a preliminary verbal agreement — a preacuerdo., As they call it 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-running race to find the next great talent, MLB clubs are increasingly — and alarmingly to many critics — courting these preacuerdos., Sometimes with children under 12 years old.
Liriano said he understood there was a risk of an unwritten and unenforceable pact, but he never expected what would come next: When it came time to officially sign Liriano, the Rangers didn’t. Rodriguez said he later learned it was because the Rangers no longer had room in the $5.3 million international signing bonus.
“To promise a child a dream that they’ve fought and worked their whole life for and then tell them, ‘No, nothing,’ that’s something very disappointing,” Liriano said.
Liriano, who sued the Rangers alleging discrimination and breach of contract, said the Rangers never explained why. Rangers declined to comment through a spokesman, citing the pending case. But that practice is one of the things MLB and its players’ union — and many others not formally affiliated with either group — hope to avoid as they discuss how to overhaul how international players enter affiliated baseball. .
Monday is the deadline to agree – or not – to create an international amateur project. When MLB and the union had contentious negotiations for a new labor agreement this past offseason, the international draft had to be delayed until now to avoid delaying the regular season. The project will end in international free agency.
“The draft is the best thing that could happen to a Dominican right now,” Rodriguez said. “The first kid in the class of 2024 to make the deal is mine. But I have in this case. And if I don’t do it, someone else will.”
MLB actually offered the union a trade: introducing an international draft in 2024, something MLB has long wanted but the union has long resisted, in exchange for eliminating the qualifying offer system that ties draft picks to top free agents. The union believes that the market value of these players has suffered.
The league and union differ on dollar amounts (such as $181 million for draft players vs. $260 million total) and other specifics, but they seem to depend on a 20-round draft. If no deal is struck, the status quo will remain and the collective bargaining agreement will end without a game stoppage.
While the international draft will affect every country outside of Canada and the United States, the Dominican Republic, as a hotbed of baseball talent that has produced more players than any country outside the US, has been a driving force in the discussion.
“We’ve talked to both sides,” said Junior Noboa, the Dominican Republic’s national baseball commissioner, referring to MLB and the union, two groups that have spent a lot of time on the island talking to players, government officials, trainers, agents, and others. 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 serves as an executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks and owns a private baseball academy. “And with us, we hope that the industry continues to grow and that it is a clean business and good for the young kids who sign and for the teams that are involved and invest heavily throughout Latin America, but in a special way in our country. “
Preacuerdo rate The acceleration, several coaches said, came after a 2017 labor agreement that put a hard cap on international signing bonus pools, giving teams a chance to know how much they’ll have to spend in future years.
Jaime Ramos, the trainer who helped Gary Sanchez win a $3 million bonus with the Yankees in 2009, said the rule changes were like lighting a match “and it burned everything.”
According to several trainers, this preacuerdo was a byproduct The market was getting younger, making it harder for unsigned players over the age of 16 to catch the attention of scouts or get signed. “If you’re not selling to 13- or 14-year-olds, that’s a problem,” Rodriguez said.
Several MLB players asked for their thoughts on the international draft over the past few months said they wanted to learn more or declined to answer. Several others are against the bill.
“The problem is not only the project; It’s the people,” said Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, a senior union official and Puerto Rican native who preferred players to choose their teams. “They will benefit. Because with the draft, there will still be people who get a large percentage of the bonuses. How do we fix this system?”
Vander Franco, a Dominican shortstop who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for $3.85 million as a 16-year-old — and signed a $182 million extension last year — opposed the draft, saying it could make it harder for young players to get money early to help their families. . Still, he added, “the system needs to change because scouts are looking for 14-year-olds.”
Preacuerdos That’s not the only reason players and officials want reform. Despite MLB’s efforts to improve its ID verification process or start a trainer program that includes steroid testing, this world is largely unregulated and often informal. Anyone can become a coach and become an agent. They don’t have to be certified by the union that oversees agents in the U.S. and caps fees at 5 percent.
MLB said the draft could address concerns about malfeasance (such as coaches taking large cuts in player bonuses — up to 50 percent — or side deals) and performance-enhancing drugs given to teenagers to sign contracts.
Ramon Peña, a former Cleveland infielder and Mets executive and scout who has signed many MLB standouts from the DR, said he came around to the draft after initially opposing it.
“There is a lot of corruption in scouting,” he said. “It’s between the scouts and the trainers. I think the project could eliminate this or part of it. “
Several trainers echoed the comments of union chief Tony Clarke, who said in March that the challenges to the current system were “primarily associated with those who cut the cheques”.
The education of Dominican children was also a commonly mentioned concern. It’s rare for them to finish high school before signing with an MLB club, and domestic players are usually drafted right out of high school.
“Of course we need more education,” said Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals star. Added Adrian Beltre, a former star for several teams: “Draft or not, the exploitation of young kids that they’re selling to 11- or 12-year-olds, I don’t like it. It is not right that you are taking children out of school.”
Many people in DR also find ways to take player bonuses. Some lend money – with interest – to the players’ families, who have verbal agreements and therefore expect future repayments. Liriano’s family took out a loan, Rodriguez said, but the bonus never came. Liriano, 18, remains at Rodriguez’s academy and is unsigned.
While Noboa said the government of the Dominican Republic has no official position, he did hint in a recent interview about ways the project could improve the current system “a lot” because “you don’t know which organization you’re going to sign with.” “. with.”
Tenor at La Marina, a public baseball facility in Santo Domingo, was recently against the draft. Rafael Baez, whose baseball league has 300 kids ages 5 to 12, and Franklin Guerrero, one of his coaches, feared that U.S. officials wanted more control over the process, that deals would continue to be tabled, that there was no formal structure like high school baseball. . According to them, Dominican players would have less opportunities.
“It’s a headache for us if they put a bill in this country,” Baez said. “First of all, this country does not have the terms of the bill. Second, we see what happened in Puerto Rico. After the draft was held in Puerto Rico, unfortunately, the production of players professionally and in terms of the big leagues fell through the floor.
Whether or not the bill is approved by Monday, several trainers and officials said the day would mark a slowly growing sentiment of support.
“I’m surprised when I hear a lot of principle private academies signing big players who are pro-draft,” Noboa said. “They may have some questions, which is normal, but I feel like there’s more support than there’s ever been.”