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A workable format for an international draft is on the horizon

With CBA negotiations ongoing, the specifics of the owners’ proposal for an international draft were released. They’re (surprisingly) not terrible.

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Mandatory Credit: Terri Nummer/Tigers Minor League Tracker

Tuesday evening’s CBA proposal from the owners to the players left many feeling like they were negotiating in good faith for the first time in this cycle’s renegotiation process. A notable element of that proposal was a the implementation of an international draft, the specifics of which were made available to the public. Reporting indicates that the owners view it as a point of significant importance. They’ve even attached it to the abolition of draft penalties in the qualifying offer system, which is a major carrot for the players.

The idea of instituting an international draft as a pipeline for global talent to reach the the major leagues isn’t a new one — owners have made it a staple of their CBA proposals since 2002. The current system is expensive, inefficient, and rather shady to boot. A draft would allow teams to eliminate the sketchier elements of the international signing period while also taking away the already limited bargaining ability of young international players. For the teams involved, that structure seems like a clear win.

When a rich and powerful institution is rallying for a new way to bring young talent under contract, it’s bound to raise some skepticism. That skepticism is doubly warranted in the case of a structure with a track record of exploitive behavior toward young people. When baseball’s owners have pitched the idea of putting an international draft in place in the recent past, the pro-labor side of sports journalism has been none too quiet about its objections. The owners really want it, however, and at the end of the day, they tend to get what they want. The issue has been at the center of the ongoing CBA negotiations at times and remains a key chip on the bargaining table.

Now that the international draft is back on the table and could easily be a reality in the near future, let’s take a look at some of its reported features and evaluate them against the system that’s in place today. I was surprised at how reasonable may of these propositions sound when weighted in that light.

MLB Proposal: A 20-round Draft with more than 600 selections (regular picks, plus competitive balance selections), which are guaranteed because clubs cannot pass on its selections. Each slot in the Draft would also carry a guaranteed signing bonus amount the first pick would be worth $5.25 million.

It’s important to keep in mind that the nature of the international baseball market in 2016, the last time this was an issue, was an untamed badlands of outrageous spending and chronic malpractice. The Red Sox spending a grand total of $63 million in bonuses and penalties for Yoan Moncada’s signature alone was fresh in the public memory, as was the Dodgers’ spending spree that resulted in two signing bonuses in excess of $15 million and over $45 million in penalties.

SB Nation’s Eric Stephen smartly pointed out at the time that 11 teams overspent against their international bonus pools in the years leading up to the 2016 CBA renegotiation. Compare that kind of spending to 2016 first overall draft selection Mickey Moniak’s $9.015 million bonus, and it’s easy to see why the owners’ 2016 pass at an international draft seemed like a cynical cost-cutting maneuver. Instead, they managed to implement a bonus pool system that clamped down on high end spending anyway.

One way or another, the high rolling ways overseas were doomed from the start. The league can’t stand seeing an opportunity to trim the fat on their profit-loss margins go to waste and the international market was an obvious place to cut costs. Other deterrents to extreme spending were installed. Teams’ bonus pools are a hard cap and even the largest ones provide less than $7 million to split up between any players signed for more than $10,000.

That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not going back. Without big money contracts being splashed around anymore, a slotted bonus system isn’t much of a step back for the players involved.

MLB Proposal: Draft picks could be traded between clubs.

Adding international draft picks to the trade market is just pure fun. The way teams have come to value and evaluate minor league players doesn’t take into account the uncertainty inherent in a draft pick’s value rather than that of a known prospect. Making it an option to trade for the rights to draft an international player available will absolutely lead to some lopsided swaps.

The amount of real impact this will have on the trade market once things equalize is probably pretty low, though. It’s no secret that, outside of the most elite, hit rates on top international signees is very low. Were the idea eventually implemented in the MLB amateur draft, you might see more fireworks. The most likely outcome is a general unwillingness to part with top draft picks and a general apathy toward lower-round picks. A team holding a top pick knows that the highest rated player in the class could turn into a Wander Franco-level prospect, whereas a team interested in acquiring a top pick knows that the range of outcomes includes a Kevin Maitan-level bust.

Even if the team with the first overall pick was an out-and-out buyer looking to make a playoff run and seeking immediate assets at any cost, it would usually make more sense for a selling team to trade for a player rather than a pick. It’s much easier to feel good about the trajectory of a player with minor league track record than a 16-year-old with nothing but physical tools.

MiLB: APR 24 Extended Spring Training - Braves at Yankees
There were no end to Kevin Maitan’s praises as a 16-year-old signee, but his game never translated to the minor leagues.
Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

MLB Proposal: The age for eligibility draftees would remain the same as players eligible to be signed under the current CBA. All draftees will be drug tested.

While a slotted draft system takes away the negotiating power of the players being drafted, it’s also absolutely crucial to remember how little negotiating power international players truly have under the current system. International players are already behind the 8-Ball when it comes to getting the most money for their talents because of the hard cap structure, and the simple fact that at 16 years of age, they’re just a lot more of a risk to evaluate than college players five years older.

That problematic situation is worsened by the status quo of establishing handshake deals when the players being agreed upon are still prepubescent children, often born to families of little means. Though arranged marriages on the open market are great for the team, who can have security without real financial commitment until the last possible moment, agreements reached years in advance of signing eligibility can be terrible for the players involved.

Of course, a 12-year-old can’t negotiate for himself with a major league organization even if the rules allowed such a player to be signed. That opens the door a predatory agent to swoop in, pressuring the family to let him him to the process “for the good of the child” and promptly ingratiating himself into the paperwork and affording himself an excessive commission. The commitment to the players’ overall best interest can vary widely.

While it doesn’t happen in every instance, there have been many well-documented cases of players being pressured by their so-called representative to sign a bad deal that, down the road, leads to extorting usurious rates from a player’s signing bonus by leveraging the family’s well being. This problem even exists among adult players who are, by nature of their age, far more difficult to manipulate. It follows then, that agent exploitation is downright rampant in cases of a players completely unable to stick up for themselves due to youth.

The pressure to perform once a deal is agreed to in principle can become extreme as well. The agent can’t get his overlarge slice of the pie if a deal never happens, and if a kid doesn’t play as well as a team thinks he will, there’s nothing preventing them from withdrawing an offer. In some cases, this can lead to PED usage being encouraged, even pressured, among players too young to enter high school. In short, there are far too many opportunities for kids to be treated like meal tickets.

Predatory behavior has come under more scrutiny in recent years, with the Atlanta Braves taking the brunt of a 2017 crackdown, but it will likely always exist. As things stand now, though, the governing bodies of the league only stand to benefit by turning a blind eye. Establishing a structure that de-incentivizes misconduct by removing the option for a prearranged deal and installing drug testing as a fail safe is a big step in the right direction for protecting the children of the sport.

Maria Torres and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic wrote an appalling exposé of the ‘failed system’ at work in the Dominican Republic. It’s behind a paywall, but if you’re an Athletic subscriber, it’s definitely worth your time to read.

MLB Proposal: Each club would be randomly assigned to a group of six clubs, and each group would then rotate through Draft order over a five-year period.

Under the current system, the larger bonus pools are allotted to teams who have a Competitive Balance Round A or B pick. Comp picks are given out based on a secret formula that takes into account a team’s record, revenue, and market share. Two of those three factors are easily influenced by how much of an effort the front office puts into assembling a winning team.

Tanking, when executed properly, works. Losing on purpose was even a good idea when it was still innovative rather than a mainstream practice. The form tanking has taken in 2022 is a bloated corpse of its original purpose, though, and it has taken a sizable gouge out of fan engagement with the sport. This seems like a clear effort to disincline teams to lose more as a way to access cheap talent.

Syndication: DetroitFreePress Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press

As far as anti-tanking measures are concerned in the CBA negotiations, this one seems a bit rough around the edges. The owners are the ones who benefit from a pro-tanking (thus, anti-spending) environment, so it’s not all that much of a surprise that their proposal’s deterrent to losing on purpose is very muted.

On the other side of the coin, this represents the owners going out of their way to make a concession within their desired structure. Sure, it may just be laying groundwork for a false flag to blame continued loss of game days on the players if this round of negotiations don’t produce results. Regardless, if it is implemented, this would be an (admittedly small) step in the right direction for fan interest and player compensation.

MLB Proposal: Clubs would receive supplemental selections for drafting and signing players from non-traditional international baseball countries.

This is, in my opinion, the most intriguing part of the proposed structure for an international draft. Baseball has strongholds across the earth, thriving in the Caribbean, Central America, Australia, China, Japan, and South Korea. Outside of those locations, the sport has struggled to get off the ground. There are little leagues in Europe and Africa — who can forget the Honkbal Hoofdklasse? — but they rarely do anything with international noteworthiness and haven’t produced major league talent yet.

MLB’s effort to grow the sport in other places hasn’t produced meaningful results so far, but this is an angle that hasn’t been explored before. By giving teams a reason to care about the growth of baseball in regions that don’t have much baseball talent to offer at the moment, the league can get teams to do the dirty work.

‘Non-traditional’ places that I’d expect to see given the lion’s share of attention include the Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy, South Africa, Brazil, and India. India, in particular, seems an especially appealing destination for teams looking for a way to capitalize on the supplemental picks. The league has poured substantial resources into bringing the game to India, including a partnership with Star Sports, a major sports network in the country. The large population of India and its thriving cricket culture make it a good bet that future baseball players can be found in the country, and MLB has said as much. But, once again, the specter of young players used as meal tickets by predatory agents and trainers is liable to be a problem until those nations have their own structures to develop players into their late teens and early twenties before they turn pro.

Regardless of the league’s motivations for expanding the scope of baseball’s popularity, it can only be good for the sport from a bird’s eye view to be drawing talent from as many places as possible. With a larger talent pool available, the competition for roster spots gets tougher and the final product will improve. This engine for growth will undoubtedly be a slow one, but implementing it now could pay off in a big way in a decade or two.

Should the MLBPA be open to this international draft structure?

My answer would be yes. Though the international draft has been a non-starter in the past, the owners are staunch about their desire to get one in place now. With features included in the package that act to protect young players, discourage tanking, and expand the game to new places, it’s to the player’s association’s benefit to at least consider the offer seriously. The real question should be pushing up the bonus tiers.

Granted, this international draft structure has some flaws, but the current system of signing talent from overseas is a minefield as well. And until the league decides to enforce just treatment of minor leaguers, the entire system of player development is de june exploitation. However, improvement, even incremental, is always a good thing. Surprisingly, this international draft structure is probably an improvement.