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With the NBA and NFL lockouts dominating sports news for most of 2011, the quick resolution of a new labor agreement in Major League Baseball flew under the radar. But baseball’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) may end up being the most important of the three, as it fundamentally changes the way MLB franchises acquire foreign players, giving a revealing look at how market forces affect the flow of international labor.

In the old CBA, there were no regulations on how teams scouted, signed and developed international players. Twenty eight of the 30 MLB franchises have academies in the baseball-mad Dominican Republican, where they can sign players as young as 16.

The result has been an incredible pipeline of talent over the last decade. In that time, a country of only 10 million people has produced 282 active players, including All-Stars like Jose Bautista, Adrian Beltre, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Edinson Volquez.

Signing international players has been one of the main ways for small-market franchises to level an imbalanced playing field where the highest major-league payroll in 2011 was $202 million (New York Yankees) and the lowest was $36 million (Kansas City Royals). The Oakland A’s gave the 16-year old Michael Ynoa $4.5 million in 2009, while the Cincinnati Reds signed the Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman to a $30 million deal and the Texas Rangers invested $8.5 million in two 16-year old Dominicans last summer.

But now, in an effort to legislate competitive balance and curb amateur spending, MLB teams have agreed to institute a $2.9 million cap on international signings for the 2012 season. Many think it’s the first step towards a worldwide draft, something Commissioner Bud Selig has wanted for many years.

To understand the downsides of such a system, all baseball has to do is look at Puerto Rico. In the 1980s, it had a pipeline that rivaled the Dominican one, producing a long-line of Hall-of-Fame caliber players, from Roberto Alomar to Juan Gonzalez, Pudge Rodriguez and Carlos Delgado.

But after Puerto Rico was folded into the American amateur draft in 1989, its players could no longer be signed at 16 and there was no longer much of a competitive advantage to developing young talent on the island territory. However, Puerto Rico didn’t have the type of infrastructure that exists on the U.S. mainland to support amateur athletics, so its prospects were disproportionately damaged by the withdrawal of professional coaching.

Twenty years later, the amateur draft has been a disaster for baseball in Puerto Rico: only 3.5% of position players today hail from the island, a 24-year low, while the number of Puerto Rican players drafted annually has steadily declined over the last two decades. The island had only two 30-somethings (Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina) playing in the 2011 All-Star Game, and there aren’t many promising young Puerto Rican baseball players behind them.

If the Dominican Republican goes along the same path, baseball fans may be robbed of an untold number of great players. However, there is one group who would benefit immensely from such a scenario: American-born baseball players.

While Dominicans can drop out of school at 16 and train year-round, Americans cannot sign professionally until they are 18, putting them far-behind their international peers on the developmental process. Many go to college, sacrificing 24/7 training in order to become more well-rounded individuals with a back-up plan if baseball doesn’t work out.

When those two groups intermingle in the minor leagues, there’s a huge culture shock. As  the father of an American prospect and a former big-leaguer told an ESPN reporter, “You watch a big league game, see all the Latins and wonder ‘do any of these [American] kids have a chance?’” There’s very little chance most American parents would let their sons drop out their sophomore year of high school to focus on baseball.

In a sense, American baseball players are no different than American factory workers, increasingly unable to compete with foreigners willing to work under much more worse conditions for a tiny fraction of the pay. While the American consumer has benefited from better-played baseball and more reliable cars over the last generation, it’s come at the price of shrinking the number of American jobs in those industries.

The international draft can be seen as an attempt to force foreign labor that wants to compete for the dollars of American consumers to adhere to the same type of workforce protections that helped develop the American middle class. Twenty years from now, the caliber of baseball in the U.S. may not be as high, but there might be more opportunities for American-born baseball players.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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