Back in March, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association discussed creating an annual international amateur draft, possibly as early as 2014, and set a June 1 deadline to reach an agreement on its framework.
While the parties ultimately could not come to terms by the self-imposed deadline, they are expected to continue developing the idea in the meantime.
But after defaulting in the preliminary negotiations, an international draft is unlikely to happen for the rest of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires following the 2016 season.
If it’s done right, designing and implementing an international draft system that benefits amateur players could both improve the talent pool in already baseball-centric countries and, more importantly, stimulate the growth of the sport worldwide.
However, developing a draft based on the perceived best interests of amateur players isn’t on MLB’s agenda. Regulating teams’ international spending, on the other hand, remains a top priority. And for that reason, there’s also a growing fear that an international draft would diminish the talent pool in some countries.
The fact that MLB was so gung ho this spring about laying the groundwork for an international draft is an automatic red flag.
While they have good intentions, the league’s over-involvement this early in the process is concerning.
As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports noted following the announcement that the league and MLBPA failed to reach an agreement by the June 1 deadline, there’s still considerable pressure to implement the draft sooner rather than later:
The international draft has been a pet project of commissioner Bud Selig, who said he plans on retiring in 2015. He has dispatched top lieutenants to fix a system many in baseball see as corrupt, with rampant identity fraud and performance-enhancing-drug use among teenagers vying for tens of millions of dollars in signing-bonus money.
Baseball ultimately envisions an operation that keeps the heart of the trainer-based system while weeding out the crooked parts that also have included kickbacks to scouts.
Already MLB has taken steps to curb a market that exploded with multimillion-dollar bonuses after so long being a well for cheap labor. With the current CBA, the league instituted sliding bonus pools that give the worst teams from the previous season more money to spend during the next signing period that starts every July 2.
Furthermore, team owners are likely to support the initiative because it involves cutting costs in a mostly unregulated market.
HardballTalk.com’s Craig Calcaterra furthered Passan's thoughts by arguing that the idea behind an international draft has virtually nothing to do with fostering a competitive balance between all 30 clubs:
International signings cost a fraction of what teams pay for free agents and, in most cases, what teams spend for bonuses in the Rule 4 draft as currently constructed. They even cost less than the baseball operations budgets of most teams. Meaning executives, coaches, scouts and coordinators’ salaries. International free agency, as currently constructed, does nothing to keep so-called poor or small market teams out of the game. To see so, one need only look at the two highest profile international signings: Aroldis Chapman and Yoenis Cespedes, who went to the Reds and A’s respectively.
Meanwhile, having already sacrificed the rights of amateur players in the United States with the latest CBA, the Players Association is likely to agree to the idea provided they get something in return. After all, less money spent by teams on amateur players means there will be more available for big leaguers.
Additionally, opponents of the idea are quick to cite Puerto Rico as an example of how an international draft can negatively affect a country’s baseball pipeline.
As Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram pointed out:
Puerto Rico was sucked into the First-Year Player Draft in 1990, and the number of Puerto Ricans in the majors has dropped steeply. Many of the game’s greatest players are from Puerto Rico, and the Rangers made a living scouting there in the 1980s and 1990s, but fewer than 30 were on major league rosters to start the season.
One is Geovany Soto, an 11th-round pick in 2001. He said that players in the U.S. territory are scouted, but the baseball infrastructure there is lacking relative to in the States.
As such, players don’t play or practice as often and have considerably poorer facilities, and scouts aren’t as likely to commit to a Puerto Rican prospect the way they would an American — with 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa a recent exception.
No one doubts that baseball there is on the decline, and some point to the draft as a main culprit.
Wilson goes on to discuss the potential impact of an international draft as it relates to the Texas Rangers’ history of scouting and developing international players.
They have poured resources into their scouting department there and, like all other clubs, have an academy in the Dominican to lure prospects into signing and then develop them until they are ready to play in the United States.
The thought within the organization is that a draft would unfairly nullify their hard work. If teams aren’t putting in the same level of work or financial commitment as the leaders in Latin America, that’s their fault and they shouldn’t get a get-out-of-jail-free card from MLB.
International competitive balance has improved under the current CBA, with each team allotted a $2.9 million bonus pool. Therefore, an interest in decreasing international spending and regulating the market simply boils down to the desire of owners to cut costs.
How It Could Work
Creating an international draft is a major operation—one that will take years of planning and require complete cooperation from other countries. So, it’s not a coincidence that MLB is actively pursuing change in the free-agent posting system of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
While there’s no blueprint for structuring an international draft, there are obvious scenarios that need to be avoided—such as those with the potential to hurt a draft pick’s value.
Is an international draft in the best interest of international amateur players?
For example, a mixed draft composed of both U.S. and international prospects—“international” being used loosely to represent all potential draft-eligible players—is out of the question. In that scenario, a 16-year-old international prospect faces a potentially costly disadvantage having to compete against 18-year-old high school seniors and 21- to 22-year-old college players. Just think of the developmental resources, or lack thereof, available to the players in each of those draft categories.
The only way an international draft will work is if it’s designed and regulated by people who understand the importance of player development as well as the growth of the game abroad. Meanwhile, the actual draft order presumably would be the same as MLB’s annual amateur draft, using the reverse standings based on team winning percentages from the previous season.
As of now, the fundamental problem—and it’s a big one—with an international draft is that neither MLB nor the MLBPA represents the best interests of international amateur players.
And until the focus of the operation shifts from cutting costs to the global promotion of the sport, it’s difficult to envision the idea of an international draft gaining traction.