Normally, this time of year would be cause for celebration for the Houston Astros after they went out and signed nine international free agents when the IFA period opened up earlier this month. While some teams choose to put most of their international bonus pool towards a single top player and then try to find bargains elsewhere, the Astros decided to spread their money around a bit more with a few players getting low seven-figure or high six-figure deals.
There are pros and cons to this type of strategy and, at the end of the day, most of these guys are so young that we won't know for years if the moves were the right ones. However, a recent development has put a hold on any of that discussion, as the Astros' IFA class took a hit through no fault of their own.
Several days ago, The Athletic put out a fantastic report on how age fraud in the Dominican Republic was unusually rampant this year when it comes to these international free agents. Those that have followed the IFA process for a long time know that this was a long-standing problem that had seemingly gotten better in recent years. Unfortunately, the Astros were one of the hardest-hit teams by it this go-around, as that same report noted that Houston had three players hit by the scandal, nullifying their deals.
Astros News: Age fraud is one of a number of reasons why an international draft is needed
So far, the players involved haven't been named, although it is "probably" safe to say that the two Cuban outfielders Houston inked, Cesar Hernandez and Luis Rives, are not involved, considering the report centered on fraud in the Dominican Republic. However, losing three international free agents is a massive blow to an Astros organization that needs an influx of young talent in the low minors. The team may be better off not having those guys, as their character and actual projection are in question, but it sure would have been nice to be able to use that international bonus pool on players that could help them in the long-term.
Despite some recent reforms, it is clear that the international free agent system as it stands is still the wild west. Teams are still locking in early handshake deals with 12-year-olds, and handlers in Latin America are still doing a lot of shady stuff. They are just being smarter and sneakier about it. It is issues like these that prompted calls for an international draft during the last round of collective bargaining talks.
Everyone seems to agree that the system needs to change, but MLB and MLBPA cannot come to terms on how to do it. The CBA called for further negotiations regarding the imposition of an international draft in exchange for getting rid of the qualifying offer, but the two sides promptly failed to meet the deadline for an agreement on an international draft, so we are stuck with this system for now.
However, cases like the Astros' 2024 saga, in conjunction with many other teams that got screwed by age fraud this year and in years past, prove that the sport of baseball desperately needs an international draft. Aside from getting rid of these shady backroom deals that are rampant right now, it would allow MLB to create oversight and regulations regarding age verification and level the playing field when it comes to gaining information. Such formalizing would also take control away from unseemly "advisors" that currently control the international market in ways that feels an awful lot like human trafficking.
Yes, there will be push back on both sides on how to go about instituting an international draft, as well as from interests in Latin America that benefit from the current system. However, chaos in international free agency cannot continue to reign, as it is costing everyone too much now. It won't happen this year or next, but expect the calls for an international draft to continue to grow ahead of the next round of CBA talks.