MLB, Players Association resume bargaining over international draft

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In case you had forgotten, Major League Baseball and the Players Association, rather than settling the issue during this winter’s collective bargaining, kicked figuring out whether or not there would be an international draft down the road. The deadline for this second round of discussions is July 25, so you’re going to be seeing quite a bit about the international draft and proposals for it over the coming weeks. As things stand now, the MLBPA countered MLB’s proposal before the weekend, with a source telling The Athletic that it “called for significantly more money than the league’s proposal.”

My feelings haven’t changed on why MLB wants an international draft: they say it’s to clean up the corruption that occurs during the signing process, whether it emanates from international trainers who take a cut or from the teams that sign players before they’re 16 years old. The rules already exist, and are simply not enforced, which is fine by MLB, because what they want is to further limit the negotiating power of these amateur players, and lessen the size of the investment teams have to make in them. As I wrote for Deadspin back in 2019:

Most importantly for MLB, a draft would weaken player leverage and bargaining power in the future. As I’ve written in this space before, all of MLB’s avenues for earnings are connected, and any changes to the system necessarily have ripple effects. Locking international free agents into a draft system with capped bonuses, likely with specific dollar limits for each pick like those in the domestic amateur draft, would limit spending at the top of the draft, but also throughout its entirety. The impact of that would carry over into international players minor-league careers, where they will make the sub-poverty-level wages as their teammates; MLB has spent millions spent lobbying Congress to ensure that they be allowed to continue paying those rates. That, in turn, would make players more amenable to accepting team-friendly deals upon reaching—or, as we’ve increasingly seen in recent years, in order to reach—the majors. After years of getting squeezed, any guaranteed payday would look like a win. Some players will eventually benefit from free agency, but every team would benefit more and more often from everything that comes before.

So, when I see that the only real news we have on the PA’s counter is that it involves “significantly more money,” well, that’s not a surprise, you know? MLB isn’t going to propose anything that costs them significant money — they would like to continue to reduce the cost of international spending, just like they love to reduce the cost of all spending, it’s like having an entire league made out of Jerry Reinsdorf. They’re sticking with the plan, and are probably even more encouraged to push hard this summer, since the players aren’t in a position to strike, and they can simply bide their time until they get the exact international arrangement they want. Which is to say, one that is terrible for everyone except for those with an ownership stake in these 30 teams.

It’s good to see that the PA is pushing back here, regardless. An international draft shouldn’t exist at all, not when mechanisms are already in place for MLB to get what they publicly say they want, not when drafts shouldn’t exist in the first place, not in MLB, and not in other leagues, either. And then there is what the PA would even get in exchange for allowing for an international draft, at least: the removal of the qualifying offer system. A compensation system that harms the movement of a dozen players per year, many of whom have already made some serious money as a pro, vs. installing an entirely new way of depressing the compensation and negotiating power of a far larger class of players. As The Athletic news item notes, 28 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters were foreign-born players: consider how many minor-league players never actually make it to the majors, and you’ll realize just how vast the current international signing mechanism is. That’s a ton of players the league wants even stricter financial terms in place for, terms that will reduce what little payout these pros who never make it to the bigs are even able to pull in.

I’m not saying that removing the qualifying offer is nothing — it’s not truly unrestricted free agency if there are restrictions in place, after all. However, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where allowing an international draft to exist is a price worth paying to remove the qualifying offer from existence. Consider, too, that MLB is rarely willing to give up anything meaningful and useful, and yet they’re going to give up the limited compensation system they fought to introduce in the first place. What value does it actually hold for the league these days, other than as a bargaining chip, if that’s the case? Maybe that’s a little Pepe Silvia of me, but can you blame me, considering who we’re talking about here? MLB has mostly reined in spending thanks to such a large percentage of the league avoiding coming anywhere close to the luxury tax threshold, and teams often trade their qualifying offer-eligible players before they even get to that point in the relationship, anyway.

Removal of the qualifying offer just seems like a measly prize in exchange for reducing the economic rights of an endless supply of future pros, the kind of thing the PA would have agreed to in the past, such as when they gave the league too much power in the domestic draft and in capping international spending. You hope they won’t be repeating those mistakes once again, but given that this issue was pushed to later in the first place, there is reason for that hope, at least.

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