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The international draft is a bad idea

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It doesn’t solve the problem it sets out to solve and it sets up a dark future.


Gentle Reader, you do not need to have an opinion about an international draft. There are a lot of weird, complicated, and sad factors at play when it comes to international prospects and talent signings — stuff that goes well beyond the sphere of “Hey, I genuinely enjoy watching baseball” — and, well, really, I’m of the opinion that we don’t all need to have an opinion about everything.

However, should Major League Baseball and the Players’ Union agree to enact an international draft next year or the year after, as is currently being discussed, you, Gentle Reader, along with millions of other baseball fans, will suddenly develop a very strong opinion of it, because it sets the stage for a strike.

Based on what MLB told team personnel yesterday, the most recent draft concept would be 20 rounds, with teams allowed to trade picks. Every pick would have a hard slot value, so if a team drafts a player and the slot value is $1 million, that player would sign for $1 million. Picks in the top three rounds would be protected for clubs, so if a team drafted a player in one of those rounds who didn’t sign, it would potentially receive compensation in the following year’s draft.

The problem with a draft of any kind is that drafts inherently limit opportunity. It restricts player choice by giving them an either/or decision — “Either you play professional baseball for this team or you don’t play professional baseball at all”, which is inherently troubling — and they have the effect of restricting salary by way of caps and hard slot values.

The salary cap problem, of course, is why a strike could loom. Additionally, Baseball has started to figure out that if you raise the money floor a little bit up front — reminder: the league has started to explore the possibility of increasing minor league pay, even after successfully lobbying the federal government to make them exempt from minimum wage law — then it makes it easier to clamp down on “paydays” down the line.

More importantly, it continues Baseball’s run of limiting salary opportunities. “Baseball’s the only sport without a salary cap” is an empty phrase at this point. The June draft has pools and slots, “free agency” has the qualifying offer, and teams have the “competitive balance” tax. That last one has a publicly palatable description and that PR component can’t be ignored.

Baseball’s international interests have a nasty, actually criminal underbelly. The league has rules about when and how teams can scout, approach, and sign these teenage players, but their enforcement has been selective and, really, mainly in response to when the violations have been egregious.

The league’s willingness to mostly look the other way coupled with the deteriorating conditions in South America have led to even the “trainers” — essentially, the international players version of an agent, though the relationship is a lot more personal — shifting their collective stance against an international draft.

But doing something now “for safety reasons” is sort of an easy response to lazy inaction over the course of years and years by major league baseball. There’s an exploitable talent pool outside the United States and now that the exploitation is starting to get dicier — seriously, 12-13 year olds are being given handshake agreements — the league wants roll out of bed and enact new, pro-business policy, which they’ll be able to hide beneath loud and proud concerns about “player safety”.

The 21st century has not been great for the MLB Players’ Union. They have frequently sacrificed improvements at the lowest levels of their sport to prop up the top of the league players and haven’t even established a runway or kept a path clear for its future members. They agreed to a salary cap in the CBT and they’ve allowed for their share of the game-related revenue to diminish even as MLB has exploded its non-game revenue.

They’ll be boxed into a corner about “player safety” and kids being exploited and will probably lose the thread pretty quickly on what’s at stake. This is a business, after all, and if the players fall into the trap of sacrificing financial security and prosperity for the illusion of security, comity, and prosperity, then they will get what they deserve. Ultimately, that’s not our problem. None of us are members of the MLBPA. What will be our problem is the resulting strike when players realize they’ve gained nothing and lost almost everything.

Baseball has always contained one of the easier to grasp labor disputes in American history, and has persisted in the public consciousness into the 21st century. I’m no labor expert and I’m not even a union member (Hi, Vox Media writers!), but you and I can never go wrong by seriously questioning the motives of Major League Baseball and its 30 ownership groups.

The international draft isn’t just a bad idea in isolation. It’s part of a far larger assault on players’ rights and revenue sharing. But that’s not your problem. Not yet, anyway.