As the baseball team owners and players continue to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, I am drawn to one of the ideas being floated among the various proposals. The thought of an international draft is intriguing. I have mentioned in writing and last week on the Dingers and K’s Podcast I am not a fan of drafts in sports. The purpose of the draft is to suppress the cost of labor in what should be a free market, not give bad teams an opportunity to become better, despite what teams and the larger sports media at large have sold to fans for generations.
In my last article, I wrote about how the process of international signings works under the current system. Just to recap, players from outside of the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico can sign professional contracts as early 16 years old once the signing period begins. I also mentioned about the system of buscones which is prevalent in Latin American countries as a way talented young players are trained and developed in exchange for percentages of whatever signing bonus the players eventually sign for. This system has plenty of pros and cons, some of which are directly attributable to baseball and others which are issues in society at-large.
The international draft proposal was most recently discussed in earnest in 2020 as part of a negotiation session during the middle of the previous collective bargaining agreement. The proposed plan had a 2o round draft, with preset slot amounts for the signing bonuses for each draft pick. Players who went undrafted could sign with any team for up to $25,000. The proposal isn’t that much different than the system as it is. Obviously, an agreement wasn’t reached as it is still being discussed now. For sake of comparison, I did look at the draft processes in a couple of other major American sports. I didn’t use football because the player pool it almost exclusively Amercian players. The most intrucitve to me was the format used by the National Hockey League.
Hopefully I can simply give the NHL rules for the draft and draft pick rights for the teams. The draft is seven rounds. Players must be 18 to be drafted. Undrafted players over 21 are unrestricted free agents. For players 18 or 19 from outside of North America, teams retain the rights of players for four years. For players 20 or older from outside of North America the drafting team holds their rights for two years. There are some other stipulations for players drafted in college, but I don’t want to get too far into the weeds.
Now back to baseball. I can envision an international draft where all of the players around the globe are eligible to be selected. I will say deals will have to be worked out with the professional leagues in Korea and Japan. Limiting the draft to players 23 or older to account for players from other leagues and undrafted college players. The current international free agent rules state players 23 or older are not subject to international free agent pool which limit how much teams can pay the foreign players.
If the draft is going to exist I feel it should be limited to 20 rounds as it is now. The players must be 18 in order to be drafted. The slot amounts should be preset; the first pick of the draft should receive more than the fifth pick. Teams should not be able to use the draft bonus from one player to offset going over the slot value for another player. The teams will retain the rights of the player for four years. To borrow from hockey, the clubs must offer a contact to players within 60 days of the draft. Players bonus amounts will be frozen at the amount commensurate with their draft position for the four years. College players who were not previously drafted are eligible each year, and will be declared free agents upon graduation or their 23rd birthday, whichever comes first. Players who have signed professional contracts with foreign leagues are not eligible to be drafted in the Major Legaue Baseball draft.
I will admit an international draft will cause a major cultural shift in Latin America. The buscone system as it currently exists will be no more. It is fair to question what will happen to player development in those countries which are currently not part of the draft. There will be less incentive for the buscones to train players as there is a diminished guarantee they will see a return on their investment. Many of the players from these countries come from impoverished families, so the meals and training the buscones provide is a burden lifted from the family. This is a larger societal issue baseball should not kid itself into thinking it can resolve. This does however mean there will be a cleaner process for everyone. There will be no backroom deals were buscones steer the players to certain clubs.
The multi-year rights will benefit the players currently draft eligible in some ways and hurt them in other. Given the increased size of the player pool, the potential for players to be drafted is deceased. I feel this is offset by the four years the players have to sign. It will allow the players the real option to go to college to play, which will increase the standard of college baseball. The players will be able to develop and not worry about their draft position; they can sign if they truly feel ready to play professional baseball. It is common for hockey players or basketball players to stay overseas for a year or two for developmental purposes.
I can see there are pros and cons to an international draft. If MLB is determined to go this route I hope they create a model which is at least somewhat fair to the players. The MLBPA needs to look out for the amateur players better than they have as all major leaguers were in this class of player once upon a time.