One of the worst-kept secrets in baseball is that an international draft coming. The owners are interested in it. Players Association chief Tony Clark is in favor of it. Selling yet-unsigned kids from overseas is a type of collateral damage Clark is willing to negotiate away for something that will get veteran players higher salaries. Whether I like it or not, what matters is if 23 of 30 owners are interested in it in December 2016. They will be. The question that remains is how the Cubs would adjust to the new climate.
Some will point to the Yoan Moncada contract. Some teams were willing to over-spend in regards to their international caps to get Moncada. The Yankees and eventual winners in the auction, the Red Sox, were very willing to spend on him. The Dodgers were as well, but wanted him to wait until July to sign, which was not an accepted option from the player's perspective.
Many owners want to clamp down on the signing bonuses players receive. The best way yet to have that happen is a draft. This limits the competitive bids to, largely, one. That lack of competition is helpful for owners at keeping expenditures in line. Which seems very important for at least 23 of 30 of them. Arguing whether or not this is wise is of little value. What is helpful is deciding how to benefit from it.
With that as a backdrop, I want to look at Venezuela. As you probably know, the country is facing some turmoil politically. To summarize the baseball angle, teams are tending to move to the Dominican Republic. With the Mariners moving in late April from their Venezuelan complex, only four teams will remain in the Venezuelan Summer League. While the Cubs haven't made any official comment, it sounds like they will remain in the VSL this season.
The above isn't news, as others have routinely reported them. However, few have mentioned how the VSL functions. The Dominican Summer League "takes all comers" from the international scene. The VSL caters largely their rosters to Venezuelan youngsters. To have a VSL team, you have to commit to having 30 or more kids under contract to field a team. Many of these will have little or no long-term future as pro baseball players.
This is a major reason for the Dominican being the league of choice, especially when coupled with the political unrest. With Venezuelan governmental trust on the low side when it comes to foreign travelers, it isn't likely to get better soon. A rather serious problem is that the government wants to shackle people "popping in, then popping out" as this represents suspicious behavior. It is also what key scouts like to do to get looks at players.
With the uncertainty on the accessibility, political, and safety side, it is safe to assume that at least one team will limit their exposure in the country.
For as brief bit, I want to talk about what the international draft scenario will be, as soon as in 2017. MLB currently offers four "IFA draft values" when it comes to international signings. More specifically, during the season, a team can trade a "draft wedge" that they haven't used for a player. If the Giants (for instance) have a draft wedge they don't plan to use, they could trade it to the Mets for a player. This could be a major or minor league player. No cash can trade hands in these sorts of deals.
The wedges have specific values, though they can be used for more than one player. Teams get four wedges, which has led me to believe the draft would be four rounds long. As with anything, this can be adjusted with the new collective bargaining agreement.
Using "four round draft" as a starting point, these draft choices may well be available for trade with the new CBA. (I doubt the Rule 4 draft and the International drafts will merge. Someone might have their head a-splode if that were the case.) A team that isn't likely to invest heavily overseas may wish to trade the pick (as opposed to the current wedge-trading) for a player. For example, if the Cubs aren't allowed to make an expensive signing in 2017, they might trade their top pick to Boston or the Yankees (who might be very interested in an expensive international player at that spot). Possibly the return would be a minor league player and a fourth-rounder.
Players available after the rounds of the draft could be signed as undrafted free agents, as now. Presumably with a limit on the amount they can sign for. Though the last part seems unnecessary.
Now that I've hypothesized on the potential International draft, it has something to do with Venezuela.
In almost any season, the Cubs will sign far more than four international free agents. Venezuela will continue to crank out baseball talent, as will many other countries. Since other teams will be limiting exposure in Venezuela, it seems a decent gamble to increase, not decrease, exposure in the baseball hotbed. I just heard one or two of you roll your eyes. After all, the Cubs can't get scouts in and out of the country as easily. That makes scouting the country not worth the bother.
Imagine for a second if the state of Texas were declared off-limits for U.S. baseball scouts, right after the Astros, Rangers, and the minor league teams from the state were re-located. Would the baseball players in the state suddenly start being terrible? Doubtful. The climate and history of the game in the state would likely continue to keep the talent worth minding. Where would you put your scouts in that eventuality? If getting into and out of Texas were difficult, you'd want to have most of the state blanketed with scouts, so you could cover both college and prep prospects. Major cities, and smaller cities that constantly crank out talent would be key points.
If you can't fly in a superscout, you'd probably be well served to find a resident of Texas (the country) to serve as a draft liaison for the team. Players from Texas (who would likely be allowed back in) that wash out of the system could return home to hold important spots in the nation-state's recruiting network.
That is largely what I think the Cubs ought to do in Venezuela.
They already have some scouts in the country. They have players who have been in the pipeline form the country in-house already. Instead of "Garsh, it's going to be tough to blanket a country that doesn't trust our citizens. We'd better pull up our stakes and leave," I'd prefer to go the other way. Find two or three Venezuelans in the system who are good at training people to be scouts. Relocate them to Venezuela for an extended stretch.
Venezuela has sent plenty of talent to the major leagues through the years. Bobby Abreu is from Venezuela. So is Miguel Cabrera. Hall Of Famer Luis Aparicio was born there. The same with Magglio Ordonez, Andres Galarraga, and current Cubs catcher Miguel Montero. Not to forget pitchers: Johan Santana, Anibal Sanchez, and Felix Hernandez are from Venezuela.
The economy in Venezuela isn't very good. I'm not sure how much it would cost to get about a dozen decent apartment rooms in nice neighborhoods, and fix them up with solid internet connections. Buy the scouts some functional cars, Get them Skype accounts, and make the communications as easy as possible, honoring the country's restrictions.
It looks likemost of the activity is in the northernmost portion of the country. Many of the scouts should probably run the gamut from Caracas and points east-and-west, but don't forget the stretch down to the Brazil and Guyana borders. Venezuela is roughly twice as large as California. I would guess the Cubs have five or six scouts dedicated to that baseball-rich state. I don't see much folly in putting a dozen competent-to-newbie scouts in the country, particularly if paired up so the younger ones can gain experience from the more senior ones. Sort of an X-Files set-up, with a couple Venezuelan citizens as Fox and Mulder.
The Cubs have Gleyber Torres in the pipeline now. He is from Caracas, and has done rather well on both sides of the game (offensively and defensively) in big league spring games. He is 18 years old, and won't turn 19 until December. The talent, and the Cubs ability to locate it, in Venezuela remains strong. If other teams wish to walk away, that should be an enticement to double- or triple-down in the country, political strife or not. The game has become about gathering and developing talent, regardless of locale.
Torres skipped the Dominican and Venezuelan Leagues, and played better in Boise (at a higher level, against better competition) than he did in Mesa at 17. The talent in Mesa should have been too good for him. It wasn't. Neither was the Northwest League, in his short stint there. (He OPS'd 1.254 in a league where he was over four years younger than his competition.) He will be the starting shortstop for South Bend this season.
As a comparison, Brendan Rodgers might be an early pick in June. He is scuffling some against high school pitchers. Torres appears better already, at 18, than a likely top five pick in June's draft.
The Cubs are getting solid quality in Venezuela already. If more teams shy away from the country due to unrest, it seems the "market inefficiency" thing to do would be to upgrade the efforts there to fully take advantage of the folly of an international draft. Which is going to happen anyway. I imagine the front office is probably a few steps ahead of me on this. Which is why I largely approve of what they're doing anyway.
I hate the idea of an International Baseball Draft. It's coming soon. I hope the Cubs exploit the benefits it can bring as they try to exploit any other inefficiencies along the way. Preparing to load up on any disregarded Venezuelan talent seems to be a good next move.