Major League Baseball pushed its deadline for a labor deal to 5pm Tuesday, bringing about some renewed hope that a new collective bargaining agreement could be agreed upon without the cancellation of any regular-season games. Both the league and the union made some notable offers overnight, with the players showing a willingness to drop Super Two expansion from their proposal and the league dropping increased overage penalties for teams exceeding the luxury tax.
It’s frankly staggering that after a months-long lockout, the maintenance of the status quo in those regards feels like progress, but there are larger elements at play in other areas of negotiation. One key item that has not drawn much attention to this point but is currently a part of the league’s proposal, per Evan Drellich of The Athletic (Twitter link), is an international draft. The implementation of an international draft would be seen as a sizable gain for the league and would presumably require them giving something back to the players in return, though at present it’s not clear just how feasible its inclusion will be.
As with all elements of a proposal (from either side), it’s possible that the inclusion of an international draft is little more than a bargaining chip that will eventually be “dropped” under the guise of making a concession. Both parties have done this throughout negotiations, presenting items known to be nonstarters for the opposition before largely backing off as talks reached — and surpassed — MLB’s imposed eleventh hour. Super Two expansion and increased CBT penalties, for instance, have both been generally viewed as non-negotiable by the league and union, respectively, but remained key components of both parties’ proposals until late last night. Whether the league is seeking to wield the international draft in a similar capacity isn’t clear, but to this point there’s no reason to believe the two sides are close to agreeing on this front.
Talk of an international draft has been ongoing in various capacities for more than a decade, although it has not, to this point, been a prominent feature of the current wave of collective bargaining. International free agency used to be largely unregulated within the sport, allowing teams to spend as they pleased on amateur talent from other countries, with only U.S. and Canadian talents being subject to the annual Rule 4 (amateur) draft held each summer.
The 2012-16 collective bargaining agreement implemented stricter classification of which talents could be considered amateur versus professionals and also instituted harsh penalties for exceeding league-allotted international bonus pools. The thought, at the time, was that teams would shy away from exceeding their bonus pools for fear of being significantly curbed in future signing periods. Exceeding the bonus pool by a certain threshold in a year limited teams to bonuses of $250K (and later $300K) or less in subsequent periods.
What unfolded instead was somewhat the opposite. Multiple teams — the Cubs, Yankees, Padres, Dodgers, White Sox and Red Sox among them — showed no hesitation in absolutely shattering their league-allotted pools, either in order to make one-time runs at stocking the farm with enormous waves of amateur talent or to sign the highest-profile talents on the international market. That approach is what led the Red Sox to sign Yoan Moncada for a $31.5MM signing bonus that came with a 100% overage tax — effectively spending $63MM just to get him into their system. The White Sox did the same with Luis Robert, signing him for a $26MM bonus that came with a 100% dollar-for-dollar tax.
The 2017 collective bargaining agreement eliminated teams’ ability to do so — presumably much to the relief of smaller-market clubs that felt they had no hope of signing players in that regard. The union agreed to hard-capped international bonus pools, the overall size of which were tied to the team’s record (just as is the case with the annual amateur draft). In essence, the more games lost by a team, the larger the international bonus pool and amateur draft pool. The increased restrictions on teams’ paths to acquiring amateur talent is now seen by the players as a major component of what they believe to be an anti-competitive landscape in MLB that incentivizes clubs to stop spending money and embark on lengthy rebuilds in the name of rebuilding the farm system.
The specifics of a potential amateur draft remain unclear, but in theory, it could be seen as a means of further limiting the ability to spend freely on amateur talent and further incentivizing prolonged rebuilds — at least if the international draft order is tied to record (and particularly if it is separate from the amateur draft lottery being discussed by MLB and the MLBPA).
It’s also unclear just who’d be eligible for the international draft in its currently proposed state. At present, players who are at least 25 years of age and have at least six years of professional experience in a foreign league are deemed “professionals” and are exempt from bonus pools, allowing them to sign Major League contracts. Padres infielder Ha-Seong Kim and current free agent Seiya Suzuki are prominent recent examples of this. Players who are younger than 25 and/or have fewer than six years of pro experience — e.g. Moncada, Robert, Shohei Ohtani — are deemed “amateurs” and are only able to sign minor league contracts with signing bonuses. The 2017 CBA, as previously mentioned, hard-capped those bonus pools, which is why Ohtani’s bonus was “only” $2.3MM, as opposed to the enormous bonuses secured by Moncada and Robert.
It’s a bit surprising to see such a notable component being moved into the spotlight a bit with time for an agreement ostensibly dwindling, but its inclusion is nevertheless quite notable — whether it’s being legitimately discussed or simply yet another in a long line of leverage plays that has been brandished throughout a contentious set of negotiations.