A reason to be optimistic about the failure of international draft talks

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​The MLB Players Association has been pretty quiet about their feelings on an international draft, which shouldn’t be a surprise: those negotiations are ongoing, with a deadline of July 25 to work out a deal with Major League Baseball’s owners, and the PA rarely comments on ongoing negotiations in public. We know that, at this point, the PA has submitted proposals where a draft does, in fact, exist (boo), but the good news is that submitting proposals isn’t the same thing as a future where a draft is created (hooray).

We received a reminder of this during the All-Star week festivities, where executive director of the MLBPA, Tony Clark, got a chance to speak with the media, and did so in a way that… well, it doesn’t really have me feeling optimistic heading into the weekend before the deadline, but I do feel better about the chances that no agreement is reached than I did. As Evan Drellich tweeted:

Tony Clark notes he would still like to get rid of the qualifying offer, but “it being attached to the conversation that we’re having relating to international entry and international draft, does not mean that we’re going to mortgage the future” of those players.

Clark does have to say that, because the history of the PA over the last decade certainly does not suggest they had the future of non-member players in mind. They’ve been better about it of late, of course, but it was only in the spring of 2020 when I wrote a feature for Baseball Prospectus discussing the PA’s then-recent, and decade-spanning, history of selling their future short. They thankfully didn’t enter into any further two-tier union shenanigans, nor make any major trade-offs that involved short-term benefits vs. long-term erosion of a place of negotiating power for young players, amateurs trying to turn pro, and minor-league players, in the latest collective bargaining agreement. But they also didn’t resolve the international draft issue, so, you know. There’s still time to make a mistake, is all.

Which is, again, why it’s good to hear Tony Clark say those words, that they don’t plan on agreeing to a deal that mortgages the future of the players in question. Losing the qualifying offer would be good and all, but as I wrote earlier in July, it’s not nearly a big enough deal for it to be the centerpiece of an agreement that creates an international draft. There isn’t any justification for having the domestic amateur draft these days, never mind adding on a second one, and especially not one that will further reduce the negotiating power and leverage of players who are already in a bind in large part due to MLB’s lack of oversight and the PA’s previous acquiescing to the league’s wants with regard to making the whole international free agency ordeal a less expensive one for the teams.

So, throw all of that in with the fact that the qualifying offer impacts such a small percentage of MLB’s players, anyway —14 free agents received a qualifying offer this past winter, which is a pretty good representation of the norm—and the research that suggests the whole system is more of an inconvenience than an actual problem at this point, and it’s both fair and accurate to say that the league is willing to get rid of it mostly because it doesn’t do anything for them anymore, but they’re aware that the PA might place a value on erasing the QO from existence. Said existence of a compensation system keeps free agency from truly being free, yes, but the teeth have all been pulled from that particular monster at this point: the QO is so limited in its scope, with so many workarounds that eliminate it even being offered to the vast majority of free agents, that it just doesn’t have the impact that it used to in its earlier days. Which, again, is why the league is willing to sacrifice it, in the same way someone in your fantasy league wants to deal you a player with name recognition who was great a decade ago in exchange for someone you’d be better off holding onto.

I’m in the same headspace as FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens here (linked above), where the speculated annual value of the qualifying offer ($50M-$100M, per Drellich’s industry sources this past spring) simply doesn’t match up with how the thing operates in practice:

It’s unlikely that there’s no qualifying offer penalty at all, but I think a fair estimation of its magnitude lands in the $10-$20 million per year area, and I wouldn’t be shocked if it even came in a bit lower than that. There simply isn’t much indication that players suffer lasting harm from it. Superstars get paid anyway, and average players who see their long-term markets vanish due to a qualifying offer can take a short-term deal and try their luck again the next year.

If you’ll allow me to editorialize for a moment, I just don’t see much point in fighting for these particular marginal millions. The union won a number of concessions from MLB in this CBA that I think will make the game better for players and fans. Higher minimum salaries and a pre-arbitration bonus pool will get money to high-performing players more quickly, and ensure the rookies and short-career players who have become baseball’s workhorses better pay. The higher competitive balance tax thresholds should help provide a market for the middle relievers and decent bats who have been increasingly squeezed out by teams leery of going over the tax line. These are helpful changes for the union’s constituency.

Even if the answer is higher than Clemens’ estimates, the fact there is such a massive range makes it even more clear that a swap of the QO in exchange for an international draft is a bad deal. The QO might be a problem for players’ total earnings, but the players we’re talking about are ones who have already been earning compensation through other means, and they’re still in a position to accept a one-year deal for a healthy single-season sum, and then never have to deal with the QO again, thanks to changes to the system over the years. Maybe a poorly timed qualifying offer does end up costing one player here and there a long-term deal — maybe they end up hurt, or struggle a bit in their second consecutive contract year, harming their market and potential career earnings in the process — but it’s that occasional maybe situation against the guarantee that every single international free agent will become an international draftee with lessened bargaining power and earnings to come. Which will in turn create a scenario where these players feel even more pressured to sign team-friendly extensions at the first opportunity — something the PA was trying to work against in creating better conditions for pre-arbitration during the most recent CBA negotiations.

Which is all a long way of saying that I hope the two sides can’t come to an agreement on the international draft, and the QO remains. It’s not a burden, it’s just annoying, and it’s certainly not worth, to borrow Clark’s turn of phrase, mortgaging the future of international baseball players.

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