How the Players Have Suggested Tweaking the Draft to Improve Competitive Integrity

Although MLB has locked out the Players Association in the absence of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, proposals have been made by both sides at one time or another (even if the owners never made a responsive proposal last week). Knowing that, I did some digging and learned some specific proposals from the players with respect to the draft that haven’t yet made it into public view (as far as I know). Here’s what I found.

Player Goals

The players have two primary goals in these CBA negotiations. Let’s call them 1-A and 1B, because I think the first is just slightly more important than the second:

•   Goal 1A is to encourage and ensure a more competitive product year in and year out. The players would tell you it’s to improve the fan experience, because no fan should have to watch their team enter multiple multi-year rebuilds. The owners would claim it’s just a lever to get more teams to spend more money on free agents. Both would be right. They’re not mutually exclusive.

•  Goal 1B is to help players in the 0-3 range (especially the stars) earn more money at that point in their career. The league values these players higher than ever, and in some cases, they’re uniquely productive, both on the field and in more direct revenue generating capacities (merch). So with more of them around the game than ever before, players want to ensure they get paid more.

None of that is really news. Generally speaking, we knew most of it before today. Instead, it’s how the players are going about addressing those issues, particularly 1A, that I found most interesting. In short, there’s a whole lot more focus on draft picks than we may have realized.

The Problem

When the union looks around the league, they see teams hoarding prospects and valuing draft picks more than ever. Generally speaking, some teams are content NOT to contend for multiple years, because it often leads to more cheaper and younger talent down the line. It takes a little more aggressive stripping down to be considered “tanking,” but even when you’re just shy of tanking, you might still be prioritizing prospects and draft standing over adding just a few more wins.

Variations of this approach have been shown to “work” (as Cubs fans very well know), but this lack of competitive integrity is inarguably bad for the game.

So the players have some ideas to combat this problem, centered around the draft. You’ve heard about the possibility of a draft lottery, and while some version could help prevent the worst of the repeat tankers, it might not be enough to really lift up the level of competition without more. Enter the carrot and the stick.

The Carrot

» If you are among the teams that qualify for competitive balance picks* and you make the postseason, you’d be eligible for an additional pick in the Competitive Balance Round A, which follows the first round of the draft.

» Similarly, if you are (1) among the teams that qualify, (2) miss the playoffs, but (3) still finish with a record above .500, you’d be eligible for an additional pick in the Competitive Balance Round B, which follows the second round of the draft.

*NOTE: From what I understand, the rules for qualifying are not going to change: “The 10 lowest-revenue clubs and the clubs from the 10 smallest markets are eligible to receive a Competitive Balance pick (fewer than 20 clubs are in the mix each year, as some clubs qualify under both criteria).” 

There are two pretty significant incentives for those smaller-market/revenue teams not to tank. And remember, this is not for just the least-spending teams out there like the Pirates or Orioles. Last year, for example, the Marlins, Tigers, Brewers, Reds, Rays, Twins, Diamondbacks, Cardinals, Rockies, Orioles, Pirates, Indians, and Padres all qualified for picks in one of the two rounds.

Under the players’ proposal, then, all of them would be eligible for extra picks for finishing above .500 and/or making the playoffs. And for what it’s worth, the players also proposed expanding the postseason from 10 to 12 teams, making that part easier to accomplish if you stay competitive. (By contrast, the owners reportedly want a 14-team expanded field. Just one of the many dividing lines.)

So that’s how certain teams could get more picks. A nice carrot.

The Stick

If bonus picks are a carrot for the frequently-tanking smaller-market teams, then a draft lottery – with the risk of being booted from the lottery – is the stick for all teams.

» The players have proposed an 8-team lottery at the top of the draft (the owners’ proposal was for just 3 teams). In this world, a team could safely still try to contend without risking a shot at one of the top picks in the draft, but the nature of a lottery is such that tanking doesn’t always provide a 1-to-1 benefit. More of the stick …

» If you are a big market club, you would be excluded from the lottery (meaning the highest pick you could get is No. 9) if you were a bottom-8 team two years in a row *or* a bottom-12 team three years in a row.

» If you are a small market club, you would be excluded from the lottery if you were a bottom-4 team two years in a row or a bottom-8 team three years in a row.

*Note: Rounds 2-20 of the draft would revert to standard reverse order of winning percentage. These proposals are for only the first round of the draft. 

In other words, whether you’re a big market team or a small market team, tanking for too long could drop your picks down the draft board. That hurts, especially if your available bonus pool drops alongside it.

Obviously, these are some pretty aggressive ways to attack competitiveness and force certain teams to stop sitting on the sidelines year-in and year-out. But considering the fact that the owners are otherwise reportedly unwilling to touch the revenue sharing piece of the puzzle (which appears to be a since-abandoned angle from one of the players’ earlier proposals), targeting prospects/draft picks with both a carrot (extra picks if you compete!) and a stick (dropping down the board if you tank for too long!) might be the right path to cure a legitimate sickness in the game.

Now, obviously these are just some details out of the latest proposal from one side of the table. I’m sure the owners do/would have all sorts of notes (some reasonable, others perhaps less so). But setting aside the specifics, MLB should have just as much interest as the players in weeding out the competitive issues being artificially introduced into the game by teams that aren’t interested in competing each year.

Brett Taylor contributed to this post. 

written by

Michael Cerami began covering the Chicago Cubs for Bleacher Nation as a part-time contributor in 2015. One year later, he joined Bleacher Nation full-time, covering the Chicago Cubs and Major League Baseball. Today, Michael runs Bleacher Nation, contributing as a writer (Cubs, MLB) and an editor for all sections of the site, including the Chicago Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks, as well as MLB, NBA, NHL, and NFL. In 2019, Michael was the co-host of NBC Sports Chicago's Cubs Post-Game Show Outside the Ivy. You can find him on Twitter/X @Michael_Cerami

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