There has been something which has been bouncing around my mind for a few weeks and I wanted to see if I could put the proverbial pen to paper and post it for the site as it involves the player development pipeline for the Cardinals. International free agency is a market which has already shaped the face of Major League Baseball and will shape the face even more of baeball for the next century or so and it is something that the Cardinals should be making plans about to get ahead of their peers.
I cannot remember who it was on Twitter, it might have been Pitchers Hit Eighth (my apologies for not remembering the exact person and quote) who said they asked the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak at the Cardinals Social Media Night if the Dominican Republic and the Cardinals newish academy there was an attempt to take advantage of the market inefficiency for signing players there. Mozeliak’s response was both telling and interesting. He said if anything, the market in the Dominican was already saturated and the Cardinals were late to the game there. Secondly, I read this great article from The Star in Toronto on searching India for the next MLB star. Additionally, I was reading about the Rays being the first team in the MLB to set up an academy in Brazil for scouting and developing players.
The Cardinals should already be setting up academy style compounds in Brazil, India, China and let’s say South Africa to house the scouting and development of teenagers in those countries into MLB players. The Brazilian trail has already been blazed by the Tampa Bay Rays with a huge lift from the Brazilian government (from the ESPN article in 2009, when it opened):
The academy will be constructed with Brazilian federal funding in Marilia, a city in the interior of Sao Paulo state. The mayor of Marilia, Mario Bulgareli, said the city will provide transportation to and from schools and the Rays will provide the equipment and administration.
Even harder to believe is that the Rays have so far spent zero dollars on the construction of the academy. The $2.5 million project has been subsidized by both federal and local funds. Tampa Bay’s only financial commitment is for the upkeep of the academy, which could be anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million per year, for the next five years. Tampa Bay won’t even have to spend a dime on players’ medical care since all Brazilians are covered through the country’s universal health care plan.
Otsuka says he now often receives calls from other towns who want to donate land to major league teams to build academies. Edno de Souza says he’s talked to local politicians who say the same.
Arangure’s whole article is worth reading especially if you are interested in the way that local politics, culture and academies are all wrapped up together in the development of baseball players. In the end, that is the major hurdle, culture, not money. Brazil has problems with the culture of baseball amongst a soccer crazy country with a large Japanese minority who are interested in baseball.
The other countries I mentioned like China and India would also present challenges. The current regime of China would certainly present hurdles and need some time and political clout to get completed. But, MLB has wanted to reach out to China’s huge untapped population and wouldn’t the Cardinals love to have the first Chinese star in the major leagues wearing the Birds on the Bat?
South Africa and India additionally are countries that have familiarity with cricket, which is somewhere on baseball’s family tree. There is a semblance of pitching, there is hitting and there is catching. Each part is slightly different in cricket, but the concepts are there. That could help the development of baseball academies in either country. India has had success with the reality TV show model, which as The Star article references which costs about $250,000 a year to run. The Indian TV model so far is a quick and dirty approach. Any MLB team approved academy would have to sponsor and host youth baseball leagues and teach players baseball from a young age. But, it wouldn’t be a bad start to fill out the academy with players that already could throw 80-90 MPH.
A potential hurdle to the “academy approach” is the potential for MLB to force feed the International draft into the new collective bargaining agreement with the players. Bud Selig says it is going to be a part of the next CBA, but others have said that it is not going to happen. Obviously, an international draft would kill any effort to discover and develop talent in other countries because once that player reached a certain age; he would be able to be drafted by any team with no regard for resources spent on that player to that point. For me, I doubt the international draft will happen, but there is risk involved in starting new academies without being sure if that is going to happen.
There is always risk involved when attempting to exploit market inefficiency. If the market was already efficient, then there would be minimal risk, but there would also be minimal reward. The Cardinals could put up say, $24 million over 6 years to put academies in 4 different countries. To put the money in perspective, $4 million a year is $.7 million dollars more than the Cardinals are paying Ryan Theriot this year. In baseball terms, that is not a lot of money per year. The most expensive cost would be shipping equipment over to the new academies and paying salaries. However, there would be a distinct possibility of not seeing a single player state-side from those initiatives for 6+ years.
Rather than the money, the Cardinals would have to be able to deal with the local politics, cultures and logistics required to get something like that done in each country. Each country would have a different language, culture and barrier to creating and running the academy. However, as in Brazil, there is incentive for local and national governments to assist MLB teams with the creation of the academies. China pulled out all the stops to build a gold medal winning team in every sport for the Olympics. They would also be interested in helping develop a baseball star as well. Local governments will donate land to have the prestige of an MLB academy in their town.
The world is getting smaller and the MLB universe is slowly getting pulled in that direction as well. International MLB players would open the door for future income with merchandise and TV rights in countries with large populations. The future of baseball is in these markets, not in the currently draft-eligible market. To me (and it is not my money) the rewards far outweigh the risks for opening and running academies in several countries around the world to find the next diamond in the rough.