MLB's International Signing Rules Are A Disgrace

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The precise details of what led to former Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella’s downfall are still unknown, but the basics are out: It was a breach of international signing rules, one said to be “significantly bigger” than the one that cost the Red Sox dearly last year. That makes this a good time to point out that MLB’s international signing rules—both as they existed at the time of these violations and as they exist now, in an even stricter form, under the new collective bargaining agreement—are a disgrace, a way for baseball to present the exploitation of children as high-minded and just.

The specifics of the rules are (and previously were) rather complicated, but their fundamental purpose is to block teams from spending too much money on international players. The concept of “too much money” here is an arbitrary limit set by MLB, and so “too much money” is simply what league management has determined to be too much money to pay young foreign players, the talent and market value of those young foreign players notwithstanding. This is done under the guise of parity, supposedly to protect us from the dangers of a world where the wealthiest teams write big checks for the best players and everyone else sits on the sidelines. Declaring that teams can spend just a few million per year on international players is not, though, a service to fans of the Athletics and the Brewers and all the other teams who work to cultivate their images as scrappy “small-market” clubs. It’s simply a way to take money that otherwise would have gone to players—poor teenagers from Latin America, mostly—and put it in the pockets of owners and major-league players.

Under the old CBA, teams could bypass the “too much money” limit fairly easily—they would far outspend their bonus pool in a given year, pay the overage tax, and accept that their signing opportunities would be heavily limited for the next two years as penance, after which they were free to fire up international spending again. (See: Boston making a $63 million commitment to Yoan Moncada in 2015, in the form of a $31.5 million signing bonus for him and an equal amount for MLB in penalty fees.) But the CBA that went into effect this year cracks down on this practice. With a hard cap in place, teams can no longer blow through their bonus pools while simply accepting the penalty as the cost of doing business. While the exact figure of that new hard cap varies, for most teams, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million to $6 million. (Baseball America has a good explainer here.) That’s not per individual signing—that’s per whole yearly signing class, in a market where a single elite player’s value is in the tens of millions. And if foreign players want to simply wait things out until they’re old enough to be exempt from bonus pool regulations for international amateurs, well, that’s more difficult now, too. Under the old CBA, players were exempt once they turned 23 with five years of playing time in a foreign league. Now, they must be 25, with six years of playing time. (You might notice that these new rules went into effect just a few months before Japanese phenom Shohei Otani’s 23rd birthday. Curious!)


A hard spending cap doesn’t mean that breaking the rules will become impossible—obviously—nor does it mean that under-the-table deals will disappear. It likely just means that those will be pushed further underground, further complicating situations for young players with no bargaining power and few resources. (If the idea of a corrupt sports system creating the conditions for its own subversion seems familiar, perhaps you’ve heard of the NCAA.) The international market has always been nearly impossible for MLB to regulate, and stricter rules won’t make it any easier. They simply make it easier for clubs to exploit players by paying them less than they’re worth, all in the name of parity.

This isn’t to say that MLB has an ideal system going on stateside; an amateur draft is just salary suppression by another name. (Even as more money has flowed into the game over the last decade, the signing bonuses for top picks has stayed essentially the same—$6.15 million for Tim Beckham in 2008 and $7.5 million for Stephen Strasburg in 2009, compared to $6.1 million for Mickey Moniak last year and $6.75 million for Royce Lewis this year.) MLB has previously pushed to copy that system with an international draft, which would only serve to make things worse. But the fact that the signing system for domestic players is deeply unfair in its own ways neither excuses nor justifies the separate, fundamental injustice of the international signing system itself.


Coppolella, in whatever capacity, broke the rules here. He almost certainly didn’t do so out of a desire to stick it to management’s plainly and frustratingly anti-labor ideals. (For what it’s worth, there’s no shortage of accounts surfacing about the guy’s capacity for being kind of a dick.) But regardless of why or how the rules were broken, the rules are cruel and unfair, and amount to a scheme to take tens of millions of dollars away from young men with nothing and make sure it ends up in the pockets of those who least need it.