The Major League Baseball Players Association has countered MLB’s original proposal for an international draft with one of its own — a plan that would allocate significantly more money to international players and address pre-draft requirements that the union considers discriminatory in nature, sources told ESPN.
The two sides face a July 25 deadline to agree on some form of an international draft, which MLB has sought for the better part of the past two decades. In an effort to entice the MLBPA, MLB offered to get rid of the qualifying-offer system — which constrains the market for a handful of mid- to upper-tier free agents every offseason — if the two sides agree to a version of an international draft. If they don’t, the international market and the qualifying-offer system will remain status quo.
The union presented MLB negotiators with a written proposal Friday and the league came away displeased by the demands, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. The two sides are believed to be extremely far apart, sources on both sides said, but this was a momentous step nonetheless considering it was the first time the MLBPA has agreed to any form of a draft for international players.
The league’s proposal from March — a 20-round, hard-slot international draft that would begin in 2024, with $5.51 million going to the No. 1 overall pick and a total of $181 million in guaranteed spending for the top 600 international players — remained on the table this week. The union countered with a 20-round draft without hard slots that would allocate at least $260 million to the top 600 international players, according to sources. The league proposed a limit of $20,000 for undrafted players and the union countered with $40,000.
Money will be a major sticking point in the negotiation over an international draft, as it was during the recent 99-day lockout that nearly torpedoed the 2022 season. At this point the league doesn’t seem inclined to allocate more dollars and is also concerned that eliminating hard slots would trigger the prearranged deals that have run amuck in the international market because teams could theoretically promise players more money in later rounds and allocate their draft pool to align with that strategy.
The signing age remains the same in both proposals — players need to turn 17 by Sept. 1 of their first year under contract with a major league team — but the union has asked to move up the international draft from early 2024 to September 2023.
The union believes the gap in potential spending for the international draft compared with the Rule 4 draft, which takes place every summer and involves amateur players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico, is too large (draft pools for all 30 teams in this year’s version total nearly $280 million). It also believes the league’s logistical requirements for draft-eligible international players, specifically with regard to drug testing and the disclosure of medical information, is notably more stringent than for those in the rule 4 draft and needs to be justified in certain instances.
The union, a source said, has also proposed ways to allocate more resources toward combating the corruption that has long plagued the international market, partly by forming special committees that can gather intelligence and offer solutions. Both sides are working under the premise that July 25 is a firm deadline, but they can ultimately negotiate an extension if the need arises.
In the current qualifying-offer system, teams can offer a pending free agent a one-year contract worth the mean salary of MLB’s 125 highest-paid players at the onset of free agency. If that player declines and signs elsewhere, the original team receives a compensatory draft pick from the signing team.
Ten years ago, in an effort to shrink the disparity in international spending, MLB introduced a system that assigned international bonus pools to each team, implementing caps that became stricter under the previous collective bargaining agreement. Using those caps, teams were able to project the amount of money that would be given to them several years in advance, which, according to people familiar with the international market, gave them the ability to scout and agree with players as young as 12 or 13 years old.
Those players who are then essentially promised to those teams are barred from showcasing their talent for other clubs leading up to their official signing date. Often, however, teams would threaten to reduce a player’s bonus before officially signing them or backing off the agreement altogether, according to numerous industry sources who have spoken out in recent years. Those who do sign must pay their trainers a significant portion of their bonuses — up to 50%, according to people with knowledge of the dynamics — and are at times funneled to agencies that have prearranged agreements with those trainers.
The league’s current draft proposal was first presented in July 2021, a source said, but it came up again in early March and threatened to scuttle an agreement on a new CBA that finally appeared to be close. MLBPA leadership has long sought the elimination of the qualifying-offer system, but Latin players bristled at the idea of tying it to the implementation of an international draft. MLB ultimately gave the MLBPA three options: maintain the status quo, with a qualifying-offer system and no international draft; accept the international draft in exchange for the removal of the qualifying-offer system; or take more time to think it over.
The union chose the third option — but now the two sides are once again far apart on a major issue.