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Seong-Min Kim, Korea, and the International Draft

Yesterday evening, Roch Kubatko of MASN announced the most unexpected: The MLB had voided the Baltimore Orioles‘ contract with 17-year-old South Korean pitcher Seong-Min Kim.

Kim had signed with the Orioles earlier this year, but the $550,000 signing almost instantly sent the peninsula into an icy rage. The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) decried the MLB for not affording it the same unspoken courtesies as Japan’s NPB league. This week, the MLB, the Orioles, and the KBO have taken the tack of calling the signing a “breach of protocol.”

Which is funny because:

Protocol, by definition, is official. Yet this signing hoopla is about an unofficial rule: You don’t take amateur talent from East Asia (or at least Japan and South Korea). For the Orioles’ breach (which has been officially undone now), the KBO outlawed Seong-Min Kim (on February 8) from playing in Korea (that may/should be rescinded), and they have forbid the Orioles from sending scouts to South Korea (that does not appear likely to be rescinded).

In a shame-based culture such as Korea’s, a social breach such as this, however unintentional, can leave a damaging, lasting, and — to Americans — overzealous impression, and that is bad news for the Orioles.

But there is even a bigger issue here, that of the differing expectations and standards in the international market for talent. Because while the KBO complains about MLB teams snatching away talent from the amateur levels, the Puerto Rican baseball community has begun to complain about the opposite issue.

In mid January, the New York Times published an article about the decline of baseball in Puerto Rico. The article interviewed past and present Puerto Rican players, as well as Mets GM Sandy Alderson — who worked in the MLB front office, dealing with this very matter. The ultimate claim of the article? Just look at the title: “Puerto Rico Traces Baseball’s Slide to the Draft.”

Many in the Puerto Rican baseball establishment claim the MLB’s decision in 1990 to include Puerto Rico in the MLB draft has undermined the success of the nation’s development of the sport. Among other troubling signs, the national baseball league is shrinking, the international competitiveness of its teams are dwindling, and the number of Puerto Rican MLB athletes has stagnated.

Why is the draft at fault? Here’s the logic:

Or something like that. The basic idea is this: The ability for teams to come and sign away the youngest players or the most talented players is what helped Puerto Rico succeed in the past. In other words, they have the exact opposite problem as South Korea.

South Korea’s baseball economy is relatively thriving — their national league even draws American talent, MLB veterans. The KBO wants greater organization, whether they state it explicitly or not; they would probably prefer an international draft — assuming the rules stipulate the player must be first given permission by the KBO to become draft eligible.

For Korea and Japan, it makes sense to hold onto amateur talent, to vet them first in their own professional leagues. For Puerto Rico, the Wild Wild West of free agency is a breath of fresh air, it encourages teams to invest in academies — give young Puerto Ricans an education and a shot at the Bigs.

Currently there is only one MLB academy in Puerto Rico — because there is no incentive to train youngsters who might, after years of cultivation, just get drafted by another team — and that one academy sounds, at least in the NY Times article, somewhat uninspiring.

Sandy Alderson, however, suggests the amateur draft was not the lone culprit:

Indeed, a cursory look at the GDP per capita of major baseball nations gives us an incomplete, though intriguing look at the baseball socioeconomic landscape. It appears we have two main groupings of international talents: Mills and Farms. (And if these terms make you uncomfortable, make you think of imperialism, then please know that is not an accident.)

Mills are essentially nations with built-in vetting systems — they have strong educational foundations, so the MLB cannot offer anything in the way academies, and they have rich and successful high school and professional leagues (or they are Canada). The players to leave these countries are older and more near finished products (like how a mill produces finished or near-finished goods).

Meanwhile, the Farms have lower GDPs and generally worse-off, less-dynamic and diverse economies. Baseball is indeed an escape. The players who leave the farms countries (which literally tend to rely on farming economically) often require more time and patience (like farming requires time and patience and cow tipping to pass the time).

But for Puerto Ricans — who are American citizens and have an economy more predisposed towards success and an opportunity to easily (if not cheaply) move to America to seek additional opportunities — the incentive to play baseball is considerably smaller.

Also, and this is a matter I have discussed and pondered at length, there is the whole baseball culture thing. Some nations have a baseball frenzy, others do not. This amorphous, unknown, qualitative factor seems to largely determine the amount of talent a nation funnels into baseball. Puerto Rico, given it’s size, produces a surprisingly large amount of baseball talent.

So, if the MLB does entertain the notion of an international draft, it must do so fully recognizing the distinct groups of talent and markets for talent in other nations. The draft in Puerto Rico does not seem to have stopped the pipeline of talent, but it may have adversely hurt the nation’s baseball institutions, which hurts national interest, which hurts the MLB.