Prior to reaching an agreement on the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the owners and the players reached a side agreement on the International Draft: they decided not to decide it yet. The issue was too complex and too contentious to be completed in time for the CBA to be completed in time to keep a full 162-game season.
Specifically, the sides agreed that they would, by July 25, make a decision on implementing an International Draft by 2024. If a draft is agreed upon, then the qualifying offer system as we know it – and the anchor of draft pick compensation that can drag down some of the best free agents – will go away. If there is no agreement, however, the qualifying offer system stays in place as is.
What we know is that the owners really, really want an International Draft, and have for going on a decade. The plans are all laid out for what the draft would look like, and MLB claims it will actually provide more total compensation to international free agents, while ridding the system of some of its uglier issues (like trainers and teams agreeing to deals for 13 and 14-year-olds, years before they are actually eligible to sign, and without much real protection for the players or their families). Let’s be real: it will also provide longer-term cost control and cost certainty for owners, which I suspect is the predominant reason they have wanted it for so long.
The players, however, are split on the issue. It seems like many U.S.-born players, who were subject to the Rule 4 Draft, are OK with accepting an International Draft, particularly in exchange for dropping draft pick compensation on free agents. International players, however, have been very clear on their strong opposition to any system that takes away the players’ choice about which team to sign with (which, of course, is the singular hallmark of a draft).
To that end, in an article primarily about that opposition, USA Today’s Gabe Lacques drops an early expectation on what will actually happen (emphasis added):
An international draft – in which teenagers from countries such as the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Curacao would be selected by and bound to specific teams, rather than allowed to bargain with multiple clubs as free agents – is just about an inevitability.
Long a non-starter for the MLB Players’ Association due to the potential suppression of signing bonuses, the international draft was averted in 2016 collective bargaining talks but became a key issue at the tail end of this 99-day lockout, when MLB and the MLBPA neared an agreement after weeks of often contentious negotiations.
Ultimately, the sides on March 10 agreed to a deadline of July 25 to either implement an international draft by 2024, or MLB will retain the right to attach draft-pick compensation to first-time free agents. It’s widely expected that the free market of international signings – subject since 2012 to bonus pool limits – will be a casualty of the bargaining table.
That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone report that the current expectation is that a deal on the International Draft will be reached. But it sounds like that’s the industry take, at least according to Lacques.
I have mixed feelings on an International Draft, because, on the one hand, I do support anything that gives players (humans!) more autonomy and choice in what happens to their lives. But on the other hand, I do think the system is pretty awful as currently constructed, and when the hard cap bonus pools went into place a decade ago, the *main* value of keeping the IFA system in place went away (i.e., players’ bonuses were artificially capped, and that bell was never getting un-rung).
So, really, all that’s left to decide is whether players having choice of which organization to sign with (for limited bonuses) is worth more than the proposed MLB International Draft (which, again, they claim will provide more total money to players), plus getting rid of draft pick compensation. I’m not actually sure that fighting to keep the current system in place is better for the players, though I do respect the opinions of the players who came up through that system, and who fear the ramifications of its change.
In any case, the primary takeaway here is that we’ve got our first report that the current expectation is that a deal on the International Draft is coming, which could make next year’s IFA class the final one under the existing system (and would make last year’s free agent class the last subject to qualifying offers).
A near-term, Cubs-specific side note on all this?
So, if the International Draft is accepted, that means the qualifying offer goes away. That in turn means, if Willson Contreras stays with the Cubs all year, they could not make him a qualifying offer after the season. Here’s the important part: that would NOT mean they are without compensation, though. Per reports, if the qualifying offer system goes away, it would be replaced by a system that simply awards compensation (no cost) to teams that lose significant free agents. The amount of compensation depends on the market size/revenue of the team that lost the player, and on the size of contract the player signs. Basically, if a team like the Cubs loses a free agent like Willson Contreras, they’re going to wind up getting around a third round pick. It’s not great – it’s “worse” than the current system for big market teams losing a free agent like Contreras – but it’s not nothing.