As deadline for MLB’s proposed international draft nears, an agreement seems unlikely

To the credit of everyone involved (really!), the collective-bargaining agreement negotiations that delayed and threatened to derail the start of the MLB season feel far away as the unofficial second half kicks off. Baseball storylines have replaced the proposal minutia. But there remains an outstanding issue and one last looming labor deadline.

The deal that was ultimately struck was made possible in part by a mutual agreement to postpone a final decision on the thorny subject of an international draft, tied to the elimination of the qualifying offer system for free agents. Major League Baseball has long sought a draft for the international market and the union has historically — and successfully — resisted. The two sides agreed in March to table the topic of the draft and set a new deadline: July 25. If they can reach an agreement on an international draft by then, the existing qualifying offer system — which attaches draft picks to certain free agents and which the union believes suppresses the free agent market — will be eliminated. If no deal is reached, the status quo remains on both matters: The QO system stays and international amateurs will continue to enter affiliated baseball via free agency, instead of a draft.

A draft provides control and cost certainty to teams, and so naturally the Players Association prefers an open market. But the issue is made vastly more complex by the rampant and widely recognized corruption in Latin America, particularly in the baseball hotbed that is the Dominican Republic. MLB contends that a draft would curtail corruption by making it less advantageous for teams to skirt the rules. The players recognize that the current system is flawed, but are wary of signing on to anything that doesn’t offer clear and sufficient improvements.

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 in baseball’s World Series against the Atlanta Braves Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, Houston. (AP Photo/Ron Blum)

International players can sign at 16 years old, but often strike unofficial handshake deals with teams several years before that. After a new CBA, agreed to in 2017, hard capped international signing pools, these early deals became more common and more problematic. Teams looking to lock up talent and with the leverage of their limited bonus pool money will reach verbal agreements with kids in their early teens, years before they can officially sign. Trainers and teens are incentivized to abuse performance-enhancing drugs to secure an early deal, or to attract a team’s attention if they remain unsigned at 16. A hefty portion of a player’s promised bonus is funneled to so-called buscónes to fund years of unregulated training and development. And if the team spends their bonus money elsewhere and ultimately reneges on their promise to sign a player for a certain amount, there’s little recourse.

A draft would remove the incentive to strike early deals with kids as young as 12, and thus theoretically clean up some of the established under-the-table practices.

Earlier this month, the union made a proposal to the league that included an international draft for the first time. Like the league’s earlier proposal during the CBA negotiations, it was for 20 rounds. Other similarities include an education component, leagues in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and international tryouts. The league had previously proposed $181 million in a hard-slot bonus pool money and the union countered with a $260 million system that could expand from there and includes what amounts to financial guardrails against a decline in players being scouted and signed out of Latin American countries . (The degradation of baseball in Puerto Rico when it was folded into the Rule 4 Draft in the 1990s is often cited as a cautionary tale.)

Both sides exchanged proposals again over the weekend. The union’s latest offer kept the $260 million bonus pool, while the league increased to $191 million in what was called its last proposal. Among other differences, this leaves the two sides of $69 million apart heading into the final day to negotiate, with little optimism that a deal will get done.

There’s no threat to the season this time around if they fail to reach an accord. Both international acquisitions and the free agent market will continue on, unchanged. But in a league increasingly headlined by international stars — they made up 28% of opening day rosters and 35% of All-Star selections — the issue of an international draft isn’t going away, it’s just getting pushed down the road, again.

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