Major League Baseball is pressing a plan to implement an international draft in the near future, Baseball America’s Ben Badler reports. With ownership behind the initiative, says Badler, it’s possible that the league could attempt to institute such a system as soon as the 2020 international signing season.
That general attempt has long been anticipated. What’s most notable about the report, which arises in the wake of a league-run session with teams’ international staff members, are some of the potential particulars. The changes, if implemented, would represent a significant further tightening of an already closely controlled labor-intake system.
According to Badler, the initial structure under consideration features “hard slot value[s]” that would leave no room for negotiation for incoming players. In other words, in addition to losing their ability to select which organization would best nurture and care for a 16-year-old while providing the best long-term opportunity, players and their families would be stripped of the chance to negotiate a larger bonus than the system dictates.
The proposal also includes a simple rotation system for assigning top draft choices to teams. That’d make for quite a different approach from the domestic amateur draft, in which the order is tethered directly to MLB team performance. A rotating approach would largely preserve the status quo, in which spending pools aren’t connected to MLB-level outcomes; it’s unclear whether there would continue to be any connection to competitive balance (recipients currently get more pool money) or free-agent outcomes (there’s a pool hit for non-revenue sharing teams that sign a player who declined a qualifying offer).
MLB has already succeeded in shaving something like a quarter of its international expenditures by imposing hard caps on amateur spending. Though many players signing under the regime are teenagers, the rules also extend to cover those who haven’t yet turned 25 and who possess less than six seasons playing in a foreign professional league. (That’s why the immensely talented Shohei Ohtani signed for peanuts.)
It’s impossible not to connect the question of the international draft to the still-building labor battle between MLB and the MLB Players Association. First and foremost, the international intake system is subject to bargaining — just as it was when the union acceded to the hard-cap system. More broadly, there’s an obvious connection between amateur signing bonuses and early-MLB extensions — the recent run of which has had a huge (albeit still not fully known) impact on the ability of MLB players as a whole to command future free-agent earnings.
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how the MLBPA responds to this initiative. Chief Tony Clark hinted recently at a new stance on the amateur side, though it’s still not clear whether the union will be able to enunciate an encompassing vision to compete with the league’s — or, at least, use this topic to pry other, worthwhile concessions. Mid-CBA negotiations are now in process; the international question will no doubt feature significantly.
Badler notes that members of the international intake apparatus — trainers on the player side and scouts on the team side — are increasingly “split” in their views on the draft after a history of general opposition. That won’t dictate the players’ position by any stretch, but it’s a notable shift from a set of important stakeholders.
There are numerous considerations to be accounted for here beyond bonuses. The international signing system has long featured nefarious, sometimes dangerous, situations involving young and often vulnerable players. While there are indications that some of the most concerning elements have improved in recent years, it’s still plenty concerning that teams are lining up advance deals with extremely youthful players who are not yet eligible to sign. There’s still ample potential for harm. And while teams have increasingly seen the value in investing in education and health initiatives for their amateur players, there’s no common standard and no firm support system for those that aren’t chosen to continue advancing as professional ballplayers. It may be hoped that, if the league is successfully able to tighten control through a draft, it also focuses serious energy and resources to creating a truly just overall program for players that are eligible for selection.