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MLB's Proposed International Draft Is Half Insult, Half Fantasy

What team wouldn’t want to have, and then relentlessly exploit, players like these?
Photo: Kevork Djansezian (Getty Images)

Major League Baseball has wanted to institute an international draft for a long time, but they’ve never succeeded at convincing the Major League Baseball Players Association that they, too, should want an international draft. The reasons owners want an international draft are the same that players wouldn’t, but decades of failing to get what they wanted did nothing to deter MLB. During the course of this decade, a few rounds of bargaining have delivered more and more strict international free agent spending rules, and that progress has inspired the owners to ask for what they’ve wanted all along—the league is now pushing a plan for an international draft they’d like to bring into existence as soon as 2020.

As Ben Badler reported for Baseball America, MLB’s owners support the deal, although we already knew that before the details were revealed. Back in May, I wrote that MLB’s owners want an international draft because they want absolute control over the players in their employ. That’s more of a philosophical point than a concrete one, but nothing in the league’s actual proposal for the draft conflicts with that assertion. The goal is what it has always been, which is to reduce the power that players have in their negotiations and force them to take what they’re given. That guiding principle is unmistakable in both the general push for an international draft and the specific proposal that the league has put forward.

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The key item here is that each pick in the proposed international draft would have an assigned value. This means that, unlike the domestic draft held every June, international players from places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela would be subject to a take-it-or-leave-it capped payout instead of a negotiating period built around a suggested slot value. So, if a player is drafted in a spot worth $100,000, they will then either sign for that amount or not sign at all. Since players will still likely owe buscónes (trainer-agents) money for the training, housing, steroids, and other necessities that helped them get noticed and drafted, they’ll almost certainly end up signing for what’s put in front of them; owners know all this, and are using their leverage against players who have bills to pay. Oh, and in the first three rounds, teams will be protected if a player doesn’t sign, specifically by receiving a compensation pick in the future; the players, naturally, will have no such protections. They’ll be left to submit to the next summer’s draft, in which they will be a year older and less appealing as a result.

A hundred grand is likely a lot more than either of us has in our pockets right now, but some context is useful, here. Those bonuses are going to 16-year-old kids, who will have to move to the United States and play in the minors for four, five, six, or more years of developmental hell at various levels, all while making the poverty-level wages that MLB teams inflict on minor leaguers. That $100,000—or what’s left of it after the buscóne gets their cut—will disappear fast, and the big league wages at the end of the rainbow are far from guaranteed. It’s worth pointing out, too, that most prospects won’t even get something approaching that type of bonus, although they’ll have to deal with the hardships of minor-league life, too.

The planned international draft would be 20 rounds long, with undrafted players free to sign afterward for a maximum bonus of $25,000. Teams can also trade their international draft picks under MLB’s plan, which means a team could still abuse the system by paying buscónes money years ahead of the draft, keep the players they like out of view of rival teams, and then sign them for just $25,000 once they’re passed over in the draft because no other team even knows who they are. This may sound suspicious or far-fetched, but it’s already happening on the international free agent market: the Tigers just bragged about doing it earlier this month, at the start of the current signing period. Yes, Detroit paid Roberto Campos $2.8 million when other teams thought he was worth less than that, but other teams thought he was worth less because they hadn’t really seen him—the Tigers had him hidden away. What would Campos have received as an international free agent had more teams known to bid on him? Or if more than one team knew about a player that the Tigers considered to be of a high enough quality that they made him disappear for a few years in order to acquire him at a discount?

Just because a draft applies some rules to what is currently a deliriously informal and easily subverted process doesn’t mean that it will clean it up in any meaningful way. Indeed it’s easy to foresee a version of the Tigers’ subterfuge with Campos extending into the new, formalized draft. The draft model would save teams money and completely undercut what player leverage exists in the international market, but there’s also nothing in the proposed draft that would keep teams from engaging in trickery that saves them even more money at the expense of the players they’re signing. The Tigers have already shown how this would work: just pay a prospect and his buscóne some guaranteed amount, off the books, to get them to vanish—but not so much that the player is anything but a discount relative to what the rules might mandate.

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That sort of scuzzy chicanery aside, teams are signing dozens of international prospects annually, and the draft would make it so that, best-case, roughly half of those players topped out at a $25,000 bonus. It’s not difficult to see how teams might further exploit the international market in order to avoid paying larger bonuses to high schoolers and college players in the relatively more expensive domestic draft; the more players a team hoards at $25,000, the less it will need to invest in the later rounds of June’s draft. Given that teams are already hiding young teenagers so they can avoid paying them what they’re worth on an open market, there’s no reason to expect them to do anything but continue to press their advantage.

An international draft has been a dream goal for MLB owners for nearly two decades. Back in 2002, while negotiating the collective bargaining agreement that would cover the 2003-2006 seasons, MLB and the MLBPA agreed in principle on a “world-wide draft,” but completely changing models of player acquisition in a way that satisfied both the exploiter and those to be exploited proved to be slightly more complicated than anticipated, and the idea was shelved. A committee was formed—former commissioner Bud Selig always loved his exploratory committees—with the goal of investigating just how an international draft would work, in hope that MLB would be ready with a full plan the next time the topic was broached.

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Instead, the MLBPA changed course. This is not a surprise, given that the vast and ever-increasing number of Latinx players in the game would likely have had some concerns about their various countrymen being forced into a draft. The result of this change of heart was that international spending was limited in the CBA that was negotiated in 2011, and then subjected to a hard cap in 2016’s. That, in conjunction with MLB outright ignoring the rules it wrote to keep international free agent signings free of controversy and sketchiness, has led us to where we are now. MLB created a series of problems when it left teams free to do whatever they wanted, and its solution to problems like teams signing 13-year-olds to deals years before they’re eligible has been to introduce a system that would... further benefit teams while hurting international players’ earning power, shockingly.

The current international draft proposal would be the biggest step yet towards that longstanding goal. It would do the same things for international spending that penalties and bonus pools did for the domestic draft, only in a more extreme fashion, and it would do all this to players from even more disadvantaged backgrounds. The best that can be said about the proposal is that it seems impossible that the MLBPA would ever accept it. They’ve rejected versions of the idea in multiple consecutive CBAs, and, if you hadn’t noticed, the two sides aren’t getting along quite as well as they did earlier this decade.

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MLBPA executive director Tony Clark told the media that he suggested abolishing the draft outright at the bargaining table, which suggests that adding a second, even worse draft isn’t a top priority for the union.

MLB wants what it wants, but it has to know that a proposal like this would be unlikely to meet with approval from the players. That doesn’t make the proposal useless for MLB—even as a feint, a purposely terrible proposal that could require massive concessions has some value in bargaining. After all, the threat of an international draft has worked for MLB before: it’s where the current awful international system came from. It’s possible that causing the union to focus so much on an international draft—something not all of the players in MLBPA will be convinced matters, given they’ll never take part in it—could break the burgeoning solidarity of the Players Association just as the arbitration issue did during the 1985 strike. MLB pursuing an international draft at a time that the MLBPA is bringing real anger to the bargaining table wouldn’t be a shocker. It could weaken the union’s resolve on one issue or another, and even if it doesn’t result in a draft, that would make it useful to the owners.

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And there’s no shortage of other issues to discuss at bargaining. Free agency is broken. Arbitration is under attack, and will buckle eventually if it isn’t protected. The domestic draft includes severe penalties for teams that want to stockpile talent, primarily to ensure that no amateur player gets too big a bonus. Minor-league players are, by and large, living in poverty. Teams in range of a postseason spot seemingly don’t feel much like going for it in the offseason or in-season. Ownership and the league office have created a lot of problems, and now MLB is going to make the MLBPA pick and choose which situation it wants to fix, and they’re going to try to wield an international draft as a weapon to make sure that whatever change comes will be limited.

Will it work? That part is entirely up to the MLBPA, and how hard they’re willing to fight for what they believe to be right. MLB won’t institute an international draft if the players can help it, but the owners now have an awful plan in hand, just in case the union slips.

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Marc Normandin is the former MLB Editor of SB Nation, and currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more for Patreon subscribers at marcnormandin.com. His baseball writing has appeared at Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, and Baseball Prospectus.

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