Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement March 10 that ended a lockout that froze the sport for more than four months. Reaching this agreement required the two sides to find a middle ground on a variety of issues, but there was one issue where both sides agreed to go down the path and deal with it at another time.
The league wanted to replace the existing international signing system with an international draft, suggesting this would be a way to improve a system that has its fair share of problems. MLBTR’s Steve Adams looked at many of the issues back in March and shared reports from many sources that had concerns, including grading players before they hit their teens and making verbal agreements when they were 13 or 14 years old. Other concerns include steroid use among these youth, as well as corruption among the “buscones,” who often arrange deals between teams and players.
However, players pushed back, with many pointing out that there are already rules against such behavior but little to no enforcement, and that the real motivation for MLB for wanting the draft is the earning power of the players and suppress the ability to choose their employer.
The league sought to sweeten the pot by offering to scrap the qualifying offer system in return, negatively impacting the earning power of players who receive one. But it wasn’t enough to bite the union. In the end, both sides agreed to put this particular confrontation on hold until July 25. If the two sides can agree on an international draft by then, the qualifying bid system will be abolished. If not, the existing international system of fixed capped bonus pools will remain in place, as will the QO.
With that deadline now a little over two weeks away, the sides met today to discuss proposals. ESPN’s Jeff Passan was among the reporters covering the meeting, noting that the two sides are separated by significant gaps in their proposals. USA Today’s Bob Nightengale added that the union proposal includes a higher cash pool for called-up players, noting that players from Puerto Rico and Japan would be barred from call-up. (An earlier report by Los Angeles Times’ Jorge Castillo noted that the inclusion or exclusion of Japanese players was still being negotiated.) Hannah Keyser from Yahoo! Sports added that the two proposals would share the same number of laps and age limits.
ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez then broke the key differences when it comes to the numbers. MLB’s proposal features a 20-round draft with hard slot values, meaning the player and team would have no option to negotiate a higher or lower amount. The total cash pool for the draft would be $181 million, with undrafted players capped at a maximum bonus of $20,000 if they subsequently sign as free agents. The MLBPA counter-proposal is also 20 rounds, but does not include a cap on player bonuses, a $260 million pool, and a $40,000 limit for undrafted players.
For reference, the current draft includes players from the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Each team receives a bonus pool, with these pools varying in size depending on which picks the team owns. Each selection has a slot value, although teams are free to sign players for more or less than the allocated slot prizes, as long as the total price of those commitments does not exceed the value of their bonus pool. There is no hard cap as clubs are allowed to exceed their bonus pools, although there are increasing penalties based on the extent to which teams exceed their limit.
In this existing draft system, players have at least some influence in negotiating with teams. If a player does not receive a bonus to their liking, they can refuse to sign and instead play college ball and return to the draft at a later date. It seems that players appreciate this bit of agency as they try to implement it for international players as well. The league, on the other hand, is more interested in cutting costs, both via hard slots and the smaller pool of overall cash available.
Whether or not the two sides can bridge these gaps and come to an agreement will have huge implications for many players, both current and future. As Evan Drellich of The Athletic points out, 28.2% of the 975 players in the opening day squads were foreign-born, with hundreds more playing in each club’s minor-league systems and more joining every year. The current youngsters who will one day follow in their footsteps could be confronted with the status quo or trying to navigate a new system that will be finalized in the coming weeks.
The agreement, or lack thereof, will also have a major impact on current players. The qualifying bid system has been known for years to hurt free agent earning power as it is associated with the forfeiture of draft picks. Most teams interested in signing a free agent with QO will consider losing the draft pick as part of the acquisition cost and lower their financial offer accordingly. However, this only affects about a dozen players a year. This year, for example, there were 14. While the union would certainly like to get rid of the QO, the international draft affects so many more players that they are unlikely to accept an unsatisfactory draft framework just to eliminate it.
More news will follow as negotiations between the two sides are sure to continue in the coming weeks. Of course, it’s possible that both sides could agree on a further extension and push the deadline beyond July 25, but that would pose complications. Players traded mid-season are not eligible to receive qualifying offers at the end of the season, meaning teams will likely want to know if the QO system is in place before deciding how to handle the trade deadline tackle on August 2nd.