I want the headline here to be about the Chicago Cubs’ aggressive spending in international free agency in the recently closed IFA period, but I just can’t do it.
Not when the top-spending team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, spent more on international prospects than six other MLB teams spent on big league payroll.
According to Ken Rosenthal, between signing bonuses and the 100% overage penalty tax, the Dodgers spent $96 million in international free agency this year, and that does not include international signings that were not subject to bonus pool limitations (like pitcher Yaisel Sierra, who got a six-year, $30 million contract).
The Cubs were the second-highest-spending team in the 2015-16 period, which ended June 15, at about $29 million, between bonuses and the overage tax. Because they went well over their pool limit, the Cubs will now be restricted from signing any one player for more than $300,000 for the next two periods (unless the next Collective Bargaining Agreement somehow changes that (but I wouldn’t get your hopes up – my guess is, even if the CBA overhauls the international system, the Cubs, and the other overspenders, will still be under some kind of restriction for the two-year period)).
For their part, the Cubs went nuts in the traditional Dominican Republic/Venezuela/Mexico IFA markets, but did not spend aggressively with respect to later-departing Cuban prospects (many of whom, unfortunately, did not achieve free agency in time for the Cubs to go after them). Most of the Dodgers’ dollars were spent on Cuban prospects.
To be sure, the $29 million the Cubs committed in this period is still one of the largest totals ever during the current CBA. But the Dodgers’ spending was so laughably higher that it’s going to get people talking.
When the imbalance grows to this extreme level, you will see changes, perhaps as soon as the upcoming CBA. Many owners have for years wanted an international draft implemented, and perhaps this will be the straw – or, more accurately, the Mack truck – that breaks the camel’s back. Perhaps there will be other limitations instead, like a hard cap on spending.
The flip side of this coin, though, is that any artificial limitations on international spending designed to improve competitive balance in baseball will necessarily harm the players whose earnings are being limited. Many or most of the prospects who sign these deals will not make the big leagues, much less cash in on huge money in arbitration and free agency. So, however much they get when they sign as teenagers may have to go a very long way.
You can and should read Rosenthal’s article for more on this issue, including thoughts from Commissioner Rob Manfred. It’s definitely on his radar for the CBA.
*(Meanwhile, the huge money being collected by MLB as a tax on these signings is not necessarily being used to improve competitive balance or improve the lives of the international players who generated it. My understanding – at least as of an article I read last year, but, with apologies, can no longer find – is that because MLB did not expect teams to overspend like they have, there was no specific plan for the massive amounts of money being collected. Perhaps, then, there’s a way to use those funds in a positive way to address these issues going forward (among other CBA-related changes).)