Labor Dynamics in Major League Baseball, Part One

Written by: Estee Rivera (@esteerivera42)

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Labor Dynamics in Major League Baseball, Part One: What’s It Like Being a 16-Year-Old Professional Baseball Prospect?

Javy Baez, Francisco Lindor and Ronald Acuña Jr. These are just a few of the remarkable Latino players dominating baseball today. Over the past 30 years, Major League Baseball has seen a huge jump in players worldwide, and especially from Latin America. Today, almost a third of the players on MLB rosters are of Latin descent. They bring a different, modern style of play that excites fans and players alike.

Just think back to the most recent World Baseball Classic. When Puerto Rico broke the Dominican Republic’s WBC winning streak, we saw the Puerto Rican players running and jumping around outside the dugout after Yadier Molina’s pivotal homer to take a 3-1 lead. We all remember Baez’s no-look tag to end that game. If you want to relive these few moments check them out here. (Thanks to MLB’s new video tool, we can watch pretty much anything we want)

The point is that these players bring an excitement to the game that we’ve never quite seen before. Moments like this are absolutely electric. Imagine if it was standard practice for players to react like this during the MLB playoffs. We would have seen Juan Soto do a lot more than just plaster clutch dingers. The new era of Latino players are the face that MLB needs.

Yet, we do not see WBC-hype moments during the MLB season or playoffs. There are still announcers chirping at guys like Acuña for how many chains he wears during games. News flash: Acuña is from La Sabana, one of the most crime-laden cities in all of Venezuela, . If he wants to flex some gold that he purchased after signing a nine-figure contract, then let him flex.

Despite myself and many others loving the energy some Latino players bring, they still cannot fully be themselves in today’s league. But it cannot be denied that these players are incredibly important for what MLB wants the future of the game to look like. They are huge contributors to the “Let the kids play” campaign. That is exactly why I am going to dive deep into what it is like to be a professional Latin baseball player. That means looking at their lives as amateur prospects, minor leaguers and major leaguers.

As an amateur free agent from a country like the Dominican Republic (which has the highest percentage of Latino players in the MLB), you are subject to a different set of circumstances than that of an amateur in the United States. First, if you are an elite prospect in the DR, the ceiling of your potential signing bonus is much lower than that of an elite prospect eligible to participate in the MLB Draft.

This is completely anecdotal, but Jasson Dominguez, a New York Yankees prospect and the prized jewel from the 2019 international class, signed a record $5.1 million bonus with the Yankees this past summer. Meanwhile, Bobby Witt Jr, a Kanas City Royals prospect, signed a $7.8 million full-pick value bonus after being drafted 2nd overall in last summer’s MLB Draft, the second largest bonus since Gerrit Cole’s $8 million figure in 2011. Witt and six others from the 2019 MLB Draft signed larger bonuses than Dominguez. In 2019, 92 international amateur free agents signed contracts with bonuses of $300,000 and up. In the MLB draft, these figures are seen for almost every player through round 6 and several others going into double digit rounds.

The key counter-argument here is that Dominguez is only 16 and the risk is just too high. However, if a Latin prospect is 18 or 19, there is no chance he will get a large signing bonus, so this argument simply doesn’t add up. In addition, if we are penalizing Dominguez for being too young, should we not also penalize Witt Jr. for reclassifying and being older than the rest of the high school seniors he faced? Age-based arguments against Latin American prospects simply don’t hold-up to even an elementary amount of critical thinking.

Next, there is the fact that the rules regarding international free agent negotiations are very loosely enforced. Although players cannot technically sign a deal until they are 16, agents negotiate and accept under the table deals as early as the age of 14. MLB has done a decent job at cracking down on this, but it will be tough for it to ever be eradicated under the current system. Currently, the Justice Department is investigating MLB’s operations in Latin America, specifically the trafficking of Cuban players. Teams involved in the investigation are the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and the Washington Nationals.

Not so coincidentally, these teams are among the top-tier when it comes to generating value in the minor leagues in the last decade. This was investigated by Driveline’s Dan Aucoin using a similar methodology to that of Kiley McDaniel, whose research is discussed further later in this article. The investigation centers around these teams’ involvement in bribing public officials and their general knowledge of the dynamics of Cuban baseball players fleeing their native island.

On top of that, agents can take much more than the standard commission that we see in the United States. In Latin America, these agents/trainers are called “buscones”. Buscones are responsible for these prospects in every way you can imagine, not just standard contract negotiations. Buscones, and teams, view the players as investments or assets. They train them, house them, feed them. Whatever it takes to get THEIR guy to be the next Jasson Dominguez or Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Because once you’ve ‘created’ one of these phenoms, everybody wants to come to you. Despite all the good that buscones do on the surface, they are as cut-throat as it gets.

It is commonplace throughout Latin America for players to drop out of school around the ages of 12 and 13 to pursue a life in baseball. Right away, they are scooped up by the buscones. You may be thinking, why in the world would a kid drop out of school at the age 12 to play a game? Baseball is the way out for so many people in the DR and other Latin American countries. Depending on what poverty line you observe, the rates fluctuate; according to the World Bank, over 20% of people in the DR live in poverty. However, this does not include their access to resources, or time spent on non-money generating activities. This may be confusing, but there are several ways to measure poverty. In the mainstream view, household income is the way to construct a poverty indicator, but non-income generating activities are essential to defining a household’s economic well-being. Essentially, I am saying that the 20% mark is an under-estimate of the struggle that people in the DR and other Latin American countries face. This is exactly why so many kids take the risk of becoming a superstar ball player.

As you would expect, it does not work out for most of these kids. For years, these kids train nonstop and forego their education. Once they become 16, they are eligible to be signed by a big-league team, but the estimated success rate is only two percent. Guess what happens when you don’t get signed? Your buscon drops you. Everything you have worked for is thrown away more often than not, leaving you with no job or education.

Those who do sign are often skimmed by the buscones, commonly on the premise that the buscon ‘basically did everything’ that made it possible for a prospect to warrant interest and to subsequently sign with a big league organization. But these kids cannot do it on their own, so they are left with no choice but to sign with buscones. Not every buscon operates in the same way. There are different levels of investment and treatment of the kids, but those who take advantage of the kids are more common than we would like. MLB has only started cracking down on this recently, making it hard to reverse all the years of corruption.

Thankfully, teams have ramped up their mission ensuring kids who sign at an early age still get a proper education when entering the team academies. Teaching these kids English as early as possible is more important than most realize. Yes, a third of the players in the majors are Latino, but that means two-thirds are not. Not having the ability to communicate with your teammates, coaches, general managers and owners will seriously inhibit your assimilation into team culture. Teams have started to do more on this front, but teaching these kids major life skills needs to become commonplace.

Major investments are made in the Dominican Republic for teams to house their Latino prospects. It is obvious that this is an opportunity for teams to reap massive surplus on their investments. A few different things have been done to try and measure how much value teams get from international signings, but for now, we will focus on Kiley McDaniel’s work from last year. FanGraphs has plenty of work on asset value research; here, McDaniel combined that with the available signing bonus data. Here’s a quick snapshot of what he put together.

international bonuses and value

I mean, c’mon. These numbers are absurd. As Aucoin pointed out, a lot of the surplus value created can be attributed to some teams excelling more than others, but regardless, this is remarkable. There is a reason why teams have ramped up their efforts in international scouting and their training facilities. Really, it’s a simple business model. Buy cheap and do everything you can to get an outstanding return on investment. We’re talking, at the very least, a 150% positive ROI. This further accentuates the point that these Latino players are simply just cheap labor. It’s hard to think otherwise. Especially when there are stories like Yewri Guillen’s.

Guillen signed with the Washington Nationals at the age of 16 for a $30,000 signing bonus. He was suspended soon thereafter for lying about his date of birth (probably not all his choice) and trained at the Nats’ Dominican Academy without pay until 2011.

In 2011, he was hospitalized in April for severe headaches. He had no health insurance and could not afford medical treatment, so he waited it out, but eventually it was unbearable. While facing this, he was scrutinized by his coaches for missing games because of his headaches. A day after his hospitalization, he was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. Immediately, doctors attempted performed surgery attempting to drain the fluid in his brain. Unfortunately, it was too late, and he died a week later. The Nationals faced no consequences for this. Again, this is one story, but is it crazy to think that a league with a billion-dollar revenue stream should ensure every player gets proper medical attention?

There are a lot of minor league players. Every team has at least a handful of minor league squads, typically more. All the players coming from the United States have gone through at least high school. A lot of them have some college experience, including at some of the country’s most elite universities. The opportunity cost is too great for most American ball players to live a life in the minor leagues. With the majority of Latino players being signed from an early age, however, many never have the opportunity to pursue higher education, or even complete high school. This could be a huge reason as to why half the players in the minor leagues are Latino. It is about time that people in the public are voicing the issues of minor league ball players. It is not right that they have been marginalized for so long.

Let me say it again, half the players in the minor leagues are Latino. The treatment of minor league players affects them more than any other group. We all know it. Minor leaguers do not earn what they deserve. No wonder we see such huge numbers in value generated by the league in international spending. Investigating the life of an amateur prospect is just the beginning. We have gotten a glimpse of the labor economics in the minor leagues, but there is plenty more to come.

In the next episode of this series on labor dynamics/discrimination in Major League Baseball, I will give you all an idea of what is going on in the minor leagues. We know a lot, but putting it all together will leave us thinking, “how have they gotten away with this for so long?” After that comes the fun part, data data data. My data analysis will focus on the major leagues. There is so much data available that will help put into perspective the general dynamics of the league.

My goal is for anybody who wants to more to have a one-stop shop to find it all. Oh, and special thanks to Zach Hayes for helping me put this together. Read what he’s done for Prospects 365 (here and here). Bard baseball players turned writer for the same platform is pretty cool.

Follow P365 staff writer Estee Rivera on Twitter! @esteerivera42

Follow us on Twitter! @Prospects365

Featured image courtesy of photographer Dustin Bradford and Getty Images

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