Today is Jackie Robinson Day, the baseball community’s annual celebration of Robinson and his legacy to the game. By breaking baseball’s color barrier, Robinson opened Major League Baseball’s door to the thousands of black players who came after him. Unfortunately, after peaking in the 1980s, the share of black baseball players has been in decline ever since. To celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, MLB should take the most meaningful step it can to reverse that trend: eliminate the draft and allow for the proliferation of baseball academies.
In 2008, the Mets opened a new $8 million baseball academy in Boca Chica, Dominican Republican. The organization uses the facility to scout, train, and develop players signed to a contract, as well as those auditioning for one. Rafael Montero, Hansel Robles, Amed Rosario, Gabriel Ynoa, Jhoan Urena, and Marcos Molina are among the many Dominican-born players who likely passed through the facility before the Mets signed them as international free agents.
Baseball academies are an extremely effective tool for finding and cultivating young talent. By investing in them at such a young age—Ynoa, for example, was just 16 when he signed with the Mets—organizations can develop players over the course of many years, while imparting on them specific organizational philosophies and approaches. Moreover, the contracts that teams offer these gifted young athletes provide a strong incentive for them, many of whom grew up poor, to play baseball instead of other sports.
Given academies’ success in a relatively small country like the Dominican Republic, one can only imagine the potential of an academy system in a country like the United States. The Dominican Republic, after all, is only slightly larger than the City of New York. If MLB teams operated academies in America’s largest cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia, think of how many future major leaguers those teams would find and produce.
So why don’t baseball academies exist in the United States? The answer is simple: because of the draft. Unlike international players, who can sign with any team as they see fit, domestic players are subject to the amateur draft. This makes it financially untenable for teams to invest in them before they’re drafted. Why would a team spend all the years and money it would take to develop an amateur player when that team would only have a 1-in-30 chance of signing him once he became draft eligible?
The draft serves as an enormous disincentive for teams to invest in young players. As a result, it artificially limits the pool of potential major leaguers, thereby reducing the quality of play. It’s for this reason (and many others) that MLB should simply eliminate the draft. Instead of drafting players, teams should be able to scout and recruit players in an open and competitive market, as exists internationally.
Such a system would result in more investment in young athletes, more competition for their services, and therefore higher salaries once they’re signed. It would also likely result in the birth of the American baseball academy.
The end of the draft and the rise of baseball academies would combat another problem that’s plagued Major League Baseball in recent years: the declining share of black baseball players. In 1986, black players accounted for 19% of all major leaguers. By last year, the figure had fallen to just 8%.
While there are several possible causes of this demographic change, a major one is cost. Youth baseball, for example, is becoming prohibitively expensive. Meanwhile, colleges and universities typically offer many more scholarships to higher-revenue sports like football and basketball than they do baseball. These financial barriers incentivize many talented young athletes from low-income families to choose other sports. Because black Americans are disproportionately represented among low-income families, it stands to reason that these financial disincentives are disproportionately driving black Americans out of baseball.
This would change if baseball scrapped the draft. By treating amateur players as free agents, MLB would incentivize teams to more aggressively pursue and invest in young talent. Instead of only scouting players who are close to draft eligible, teams would scout players throughout their high school and even middle school years. If a team liked what it saw, it could invite the player to work out at its academy. If the player showed real promise, the team could offer him a part-time salary to train at the academy after school and during the summer—or, at the very least, the team could cover the player’s training expenses and fees for participation in organized baseball.
Likewise, if a team heard about a star athlete in another sport, like football, basketball, or track, the team could invite that player to its academy and try to teach him baseball. In return for the team’s investment, the player and his family could agree to a contract that would keep the player exclusive to that team.
Remember, the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson before the draft’s existence—MLB didn't hold an amateur draft until 1965. At the time, Dodgers GM Branch Rickey saw an untapped market of talented black baseball players in the Negro Leagues. Rickey, an innovative thinker, revolutionized MLB’s talent acquisition process by investing in Negro Leaguers like Robinson. It’s not hard to imagine a similar revolution taking place today—this time with young amateur players—if only MLB allowed it to.
Of course, eliminating the draft would raise its own set of issues that would need to be addressed. For example, one wouldn’t want high-payroll teams like the Yankees to simply purchase all the best amateur talent by outbidding their competitors. To prevent that from happening, MLB could assign each team a firm budget cap it must stay under when signing amateur players, similar to the international bonus pools that each team is allotted.
Each team’s budget cap could be determined by the reverse order of winning percentage in the previous season, which Rany Jazayerli proposes, or by the reverse order of spending on major league talent, as Dave Cameron suggests. Simply put, teams with bad records or teams with low major league payrolls would be allowed to spend more money to sign amateur players.
Moreover, MLB would need to ensure that baseball academies were safe and not exploitative. These problems plagued many academies in the Dominican Republican before the commissioner’s office, led by then-point-man Sandy Alderson, cracked down on them in 2010. American baseball academies would need to guarantee a healthy environment for their players, and should promote their players’ academic development off the field.
An academy system would allow teams to recruit more players of every background and ethnicity. Again, though, it would probably have the biggest impact on the recruitment of black players. By eliminating the draft, teams would have a direct incentive to help to ease the financial burdens that disproportionately affect black families. Given that black players are statistically overrepresented in sports like basketball and football, and underrepresented in baseball, that particular demographic group seems to represent baseball’s biggest potential source of recruitment from other sports.
On this Jackie Robinson Day, if the baseball community wants to have a serious conversation about increasing black participation in baseball, that conversation should start with ending the draft. Programs like RBI have done excellent work in organizing baseball programs in underserved areas, and many future major leaguers have passed through those programs. Still, RBI’s significant investments don’t compare to the level of time and resources that MLB teams would directly commit to those young athletes if given the incentive to do so.
The tragedy of the current system is how much talent it has left untapped and undeveloped. While there will only be one Jackie Robinson, the next best thing could be out there somewhere. It could be in the form of a young teenage sports prodigy; a potential Hall of Fame second baseman with power, speed, and a great glove; a future ambassador of the game with strong personality and character.
Unfortunately, that future Jackie Robinson might be on a basketball court, a football field, or in any number of places other than on a baseball diamond. The thought of a baseball career may have never even crossed his mind.
It’s time to give the Mets and every other professional baseball team the motivation they need to find that player, put a bat and glove in his hands, and teach him America’s pastime. It’s time to end the draft.