Saturday, January 29, 2022

Imagining a Better Mets Farm System

It's been great news that MLB and the Players Association are talking again, even if there is still quite a distance between the two sides' positions. However, it was telling that MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem felt the need to bring up MLB's willingness to lose some games to get what they want out of the negotiations. We're not even in February, but they just had to dangle that sword over everyone's necks. But there is also news of some progress being made in items that both sides are willing to drop from their demands, so we'll just hold onto good thoughts and optimism for as long as we can. I'm still pessimistic about the MLB season starting on time, but I am a bit less cynical than I was before this week.

We've also just learned that David Ortiz will be entering the Hall of Fame. I'm happy for the guy but don't have much to say on the subject beyond that point. Despite being linked to PED usage, Ortiz managed to be voted in on his first ballot by apparently being more likable than some other players.

The hypocrisy of some writers over steroid era players has forced me to stop caring about who receives the honor and who winds up being shut out. Basically, we can not prove definitively that any player from the late 80s through the first decade of this century was innocent of using PEDs. I'm sure that some elected players from the era did, in fact, cheat.

I get a headache when I have to listen to someone defending a vote for one guy while vehemently denying their vote to someone else, so for my sanity, I have elected to check out on the entire debate. Former Commissioner Bud Selig is as responsible for the steroid era as any man, and he's in the hall. Enough said.

One item that MLB is reportedly very interested in negotiating is a draft for international free agents. They've wanted this for quite a while. While the purported goal is to eliminate some of the corruption in the current process of signing these young men, MLB undoubtedly sees a draft as a way of keeping the costs of signing those players from escalating further. After all, changes in recent years to the Amateur draft of American players have served to hold down the bonuses handed out to these players.

The Athletic recently published a story bylined by Maria Torres and Ken Rosenthal on the corruption in the current system, specifically regarding ballplayers from the Dominican Republic. Quotes from various sources in the piece refer to the entire international signing process as "a failed system," the situation for amateur players in the country as "a cesspool," and accuse MLB of letting the whole industry "spiral out of control." The thought is that MLB sees the best way to achieve the international draft is for the corruption of the current system to force a change.

The article is an excellent look at the current international free agent market. However it ultimately happens, there is no doubt that MLB needs to find a way to clean up the system and stop the exploitation of young ballplayers. While a draft is MLB's choice for accomplishing this, there's no guarantee that one will be agreed to in the current CBA negotiations. If not, actual enforcement of existing rules would make things a lot better.

By all accounts, the Steve Cohen-owned Mets will be much more active in the international market than they were under the Wilpons. However, that didn't translate into the Mets feasting at the very top of the market, even though Cohen has owned the team for more than a year. The Mets did sign Simon Juan and Willy Fañas, a couple of outfielders from the Dominican Republic, to 7-figure deals, so it wasn't as if they were cheaping out. But Juan was the only one on the top international prospects lists, ranked 14th by Baseball America*.

If you were wondering why Steve Cohen's billions didn't enable the Mets to sign any of the players at the top of the list, it's explained by the current system forcing young prospects to come to an agreement with MLB clubs years before the actual signing. The groundwork for these signings was laid when the Wilpons ran the Mets.

While I very much hope that the Mets can ink some of the highest-rated international prospects in the future, I hope it's under a modified system that's less exploitive of these kids — whether it's an international draft or some other method. But however the process changes, the Mets will need to be as active as possible every year in chasing after the top talent available. If the current system continues, the Mets will need to work hard to sign some of the highest-ranked talent available.

Even if MLB can implement an international draft, The Mets should be doing everything possible to find more talent internationally, in Latin America, Asia, and anywhere else where a potential major league ballplayer might be found. If they really intend to compete with teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Astros, it's not enough to occasionally sign some of the better young ballplayers.

There was a silly story recently given way too much media attention regarding Elian Soto, the 15-year-old brother of Nationals star Juan Soto. At first, it was reported that the younger Soto would be signing with the Mets once he became eligible next year. This led to speculation that this could be a selling point for the Mets to lure Juan Soto to sign as a free agent down the road.

This seemed nonsensical to me when I read it. If Washington fails to lock up Soto to a long-term deal before he reaches free agency, it will take boatloads of money to entice the young superstar to sign. I doubt the presence of Elian in the system would make all that much difference. The whole point became moot, as the following week, it was reported that Washington would be signing Elian after all. So, basically much ado about nothing for a 15-year-old who isn't even regarded as a top talent in the market.

As fun as it is to imagine the Mets signing one of the game's best young players down the road, that's not really what I dream about for my team. I really want to see them sign and develop the next Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr.Fernando Tatis Jr., or Wander Franco. While prospects don't always pan out, of course, signing the best ones consistently is the best way to develop some stars down the road. Two young Latin players who the Mets gave team-record contracts under the Wilpons, Francisco Álvarez and Ronny Mauricio, are currently 2 of their top 4 prospects in the system..

Of course, even if the Mets act much more aggressively in signing international talent, the impact won't be felt for years. These players are so young when they are signed. Most of them won't even play for minor league teams in the states right away. Current top prospect Álvarez signed with the Mets in 2018 and is unlikely to get even a taste of the major leagues until 2023. And that would still be a very young debut. Álvarez won't be 21 until November.

In my imagined perfect scenario, five years down the road, the Mets will feature a system chock full of intriguing young ballplayers from Latin America and around the world, with some of them ready to make a major league contribution to the Mets. Presumably, the Mets organization will do everything in their power to maximize their investment in these players and the young American athletes they draft — offering them food that is both nutritious and familiar to them, comfortable housing and living conditions, and the best coaching and development opportunities possible.

Meanwhile, I hope that MLB gets its act together and does a much better job enforcing rules to ensure that these young ballplayers aren't exploited by the system.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos.

*Note: In my original post, I had erroneously listed Fañas as the ranked prospect, as pointed out to me on Twitter by Daniel Wexler. I have corrected the mistake.

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