An international draft becomes the stumbling block for Major League Baseball and its players
Talks between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association, aimed at preserving a full 162-game season, broke down late Wednesday over a proposed international draft.
The owners want a draft, the players don’t, and after the two parties failed to reach a resolution Wednesday evening, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced that two additional series were being removed from the 2022 schedule.
The decision to eliminate another slate of games came little more than a week after Manfred previously announced the first two series for all teams were cancelled. That means opening day for the Blue Jays, originally scheduled for March 31, has been pushed back until at least April 18.
A few hours before Manfred’s statement, the owners and players appeared to be making headway on a new collective bargaining agreement after the previous one expired Dec. 2. Gaps on core economic issues such as the competitive balance tax, pre-arbitration bonus pool and minimum salaries narrowed, yet the progress didn’t result in a deal.
The owners have spent the better part of a year lobbying for an international draft. They reportedly included it in previous proposals dating back to last summer, but it was never something the players agreed to. The players made it clear Wednesday that it was one of their deal-breakers.
“The clubs went to extraordinary lengths to meet the substantial demands of the MLBPA,” Manfred said in a statement. “On the key economic issues that have posed stumbling blocks, the clubs proposed ways to bridge gaps to preserve a full schedule. Regrettably, after our second late-night bargaining session in a week, we remain without a deal.”
Before the players rejected Wednesday’s proposal, the owners gave them three options:
According to The Athletic’s Evan Drellich, the players countered with the same Nov. 15 deadline, but instead of reopening the CBA if the draft failed to materialize, the proposal was to reimplement the qualifying-offer system in time for the 2023 season.
“The owners’ decision to cancel additional games is completely unnecessary,” the MLBPA said in a statement. “After making a set of comprehensive proposals to the league earlier this afternoon, and being told substantive responses were forthcoming, players have yet to hear back.”
A few hours later they did, with reports suggesting the two sides would continue negotiating despite the latest impasse. That’s better than nothing, but the union’s initial unwillingness to discuss an international draft, or qualifying offers, for the upcoming season is a curious move and one they might live to regret.
The international draft has been a polarizing topic for years. In previous CBAs, players born or who attended school in Canada, the United States or a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico were eligible for the summer draft. Players from outside those regions were considered free agents and permitted to sign contracts as early as 16.
That system has been riddled with corruption, including allegations of kids being approached as early as 12 or 13. There also have been reports of nefarious handlers, particularly in the Dominican Republic, where representatives skim money off signing bonuses for the privilege of working out at one of their complexes.
While MLB’s stance is that a draft would eliminate side deals, the union appears to have no interest in taking away the freedom of choice from its future members. It’s a move that will require further explanation to understand, particularly because in previous CBAs the players agreed to international bonus pools. International players can pick their destination, but the bigger concession was made more than a decade ago when the union agreed to cap their earnings.
Even if an international draft is a non-starter, the proposed alternatives seemed reasonable enough. The tradeoff was keeping the qualifying offers in place, which allows teams to make a one-year offer at a predetermined amount. If the offer is declined, the team that signs the player forfeits a draft pick.
The union rightly believes attaching a qualifying offer to a player suppresses his market value, but it’s a situation that impacted just 14 players this off-season, six the year prior and 10 in 2019. That means the players declined substantial gains for some of its lowest-paid members because of the negative impact on a small group of its richest.
The reason the players might live to regret this is because unless a deal materializes over the next few days, an even bigger battle is looming that threatens to undo previous gains. The owners continue to insist players will only get paid for games played. The union is adamant about receiving full salaries regardless of how many games are cancelled. That disagreement won’t be easy to resolve.
Manfred created one fake deadline earlier this month to save a full season and he created two more this week. A fourth might be in the cards, but some time very soon the clock is going to run out. Once that happens, what seemed like a bridgeable gap on Wednesday, could be turned into a dispute that lasts weeks, maybe even months, and the players will be out revenue they’ll never recoup. The owners won’t recoup it either, but they might be rich enough already that it doesn’t matter.
After taking a beating in the media over the last few weeks, the owners might have won the public relations battle on Wednesday with their latest offer, but that only matters in the game of optics. With two more series eliminated, and an opening day pushed back until at least mid-April, both parties are going to end up on the losing side of this gigantic mess.