The International Draft: The Most Unique Piece of MLB’s Newest CBA

Photo via MLB.com

Intro:

After a 99 day lockout was implemented by Major League Baseball (MLB), the league finalized a new collective bargaining agreement. In the days leading up to that agreement, the league made a sudden and strong push for the implementation of an international draft. This was something the league felt strongly about and which was ultimately included in the new agreement. Although the authority to implement the international draft was made part of the new CBA, a final decision on whether or not MLB will actually adopt an international draft in 2024 won’t be made final until July 25.[1] The idea behind this is to give the two sides more time to discuss its pros and cons before making such an impactful decision.

Latin players have already voiced their displeasure with the potential for an international draft. Under the prior agreement, international players were free to sign with whatever team they wanted; but if an international draft were put in place these players would lose that freedom. Also, previously international players were able to negotiate their contracts as well outside of the draft constraints applicable to U.S. players. So the question posed is, will this system suppress international players’ earnings, or were they just receiving preferential treatment?

American born players are forced to go through the traditional draft system, which pays significantly less in signing bonuses than that given to young prospects from Latin American countries. Those larger signing bonuses to young Latin players have proven lucrative, with players like Tatis, Jr., Acuna, Jr. and Juan Soto. These young international stars are the ones growing the game, and an international draft will only help bring more of these players into the spotlight. The international draft option is  a major decision the league will have to make in the near future that comes with advantages and disadvantages.

Pros:

The current proposal suggests the international draft would consist of 20 rounds (600+ selections), and international talent would be evenly distributed amongst the 30 teams. This incentivizes teams which have not traditionally scouted and signed international players to do so. An international draft also disincentivizes the exploitation of talented youth, which has become been prevalent in recent history. Some organizations start approaching young international players as early as 13 years old, with   unofficial agreements until they are 16 and legally allowed to sign a contract. Young international players are exploited in international free agency by being locked into one team at a young age before they are fully developed. The implementation of an international draft would, if nothing else, limit that from happening.

It would also create a greater distribution of money amongst international players. As it stands right now, the top international players make substantially more than the less highly touted prospects. With an international draft system, there will be a more evenly distributed means of paying international players. Along with greater distribution of money, international talent would be more evenly distributed throughout MLB, ideally creating greater competitive balance. Currently, there is an imbalance amongst front offices in terms of the resources they allocate to their international scouting departments. With the implementation of an international draft, teams will be forced to put more time and effort into that aspect of scouting and player development.

Another positive from the league perspective is it would allow for the elimination of draft-pick compensation for free agents who leave their old teams.[2] This would benefit teams that have had to give up draft picks in return for signing free agents who turned down their qualifying offers, while subsequently strengthening the market for those players because that draft-pick compensation is not tied to them. Overall, the international draft would create more transparency amongst all players, domestic and international.

Cons:

            There are some concerns about implementing the international draft as well. First, it would reward organizations that have not developed their international scouting departments. The draft would create an atmosphere that allows for a lazier approach amongst teams to acquire talent. An international draft would likely bring a combine and other means of exposing these players to all 30 clubs along with it, which would be rewarding teams that have not built the same international scouting infrastructure .

            Another potential downside to an international draft could be a long term effect of young players in Latin American countries not pursuing the game of baseball because they no longer can achieve their goals as quickly, or they are no longer able to make as much money as players in their shoes once could. The idea behind this would be the draft would suppress many of the young players’ initial earnings and because of this lead them to pursue other sports or other means of income. This would be very problematic for the game of baseball, given the fact that the top players in baseball are primarily international. Examples of these international stars are: Shohei Ohtani, Wander Franco, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis, Jr., and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

Conclusion:

            Major League Baseball clubs are seeing their rosters filled more and more by international markets. In 2021, a total of 256 players represented 20 different countries and territories outside of the United States on opening day rosters, which was 28.3% of the league (the third most all time on Opening Day rosters).[3] An international draft could very well help spread the talent of those players more evenly throughout the league, but will come with additional consequences. This is an implementation that will need to be considered carefully and taken one step at a time to ensure that it is affecting the game in the way the league wants it to, without frustrating international players who have become so important to the identity of MLB today.


[1] https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/33463929/needs-done-why-mlb-international-draft-such-big-deal

[2] https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/33463518/major-league-baseball-pushes-international-draft-players-union-opposes-sources-say

[3] https://www.mlb.com/news/opening-day-features-256-internationally-born-players

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Former college baseball player, focusing my legal studies on the intersection of sport, law, and business.

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