'Something needs to be done': Why an MLB international draft is such a big deal

Photo by RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

An MLB lockout that had reached its 98th day and threatened to cancel a second week of regular-season games finally appeared to be nearing a resolution Wednesday. Gaps between the owners and players around minimum salaries and a designated player pool had narrowed to the point of reason. Concessions were made with regard to the competitive balance tax threshold, an onerous issue that at times seemed to jeopardize the entire deal.

And then suddenly, an under-the-radar issue became the central obstacle to a new collective bargaining agreement: an international draft.

Major League Baseball has been pushing for one from the onset of negotiations and ultimately decided it would not agree to eliminate draft-pick compensation -- a priority for the union -- without it. The MLB Players Association, which says it rejected an international draft at every turn, predictably derided the connection. Latin American players spoke up against it, fearful of how it might alter the dynamics of baseball-rich countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor alleged that discussions around an international draft were a mechanism for the league to "divide players."

"This issue is bigger than just Latin Players or amateur players," Lindor, a member of the union's executive subcommittee, tweeted Thursday. "It's all about Players and the future of the game. We need to get it right."

On Thursday morning, MLB and the MLBPA finally reached consensus, agreeing to a July 25 deadline to establish an international draft that would begin in 2024. The agreement cleared a major hurdle in CBA talks and paved the way for a lockout-ending agreement later in the day. But the international draft will continue to be a major talking point among union members and league officials over the next several months.

What is it, exactly? Why does the league want it so bad? Why are players largely against it? And how did the two sides come together?

We tackled those questions below.

How it would work

Let's start with the basics: High school and collegiate players in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are subject to the traditional MLB draft that occurs every summer. But there is a robust number of amateur players from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela -- also, to a lesser extent, Mexico and Colombia and several other regions -- who are not subject to a draft.

MLB wants to change that as early as 2024 by establishing a separate, 20-round draft with hard slots that begin at $5.51 million for the first overall pick (by comparison, the No. 1 overall pick in the traditional amateur draft signed for $6.5 million last year). The draft order would be unconventional, with teams randomly assigned to one of four groups that would rotate each year.

MLB would institute mandatory drug testing and allow for the trading of draft picks; the signing age would remain the same as the current international system: 16. In an effort to grow the sport globally, teams would be awarded extra picks for drafting players from previously underrepresented countries.

What would change

Ten years ago, in an effort to shrink the disparity in international spending, MLB introduced a system that assigned international bonus pools to each team, assigning caps that became stricter under the previous CBA. Using those caps, teams were able to project the amount of money that would be given to them several years in advance, which, according to people familiar with the international market, gave them the ability to scout and agree with players well before they turned 16.

Here's a theoretical example: A team in 2018 identifies a promising player who doesn't turn 16 until 2020. The team and the player -- with a family member or a trainer, also known as a buscón, acting as an intermediary -- strike a handshake deal for a specific dollar amount. After the player commits to a team, he can't train with or be seen by scouts for other organizations. As soon as the international market opens in 2020, the team officially signs that player for the previously-agreed-to amount. It's why so many signings are announced on the first day of the international signing period.

This can create a litany of issues. Sometimes teams threaten to reduce those players' bonuses days before they officially sign them, or back off on the agreement altogether, according to numerous industry sources who have spoken out against these issues in recent years and resurfaced concerns in those areas on Wednesday. Those players are left in a vulnerable position because they haven't been seen by other teams -- and those other teams already have most of their international spending money accounted for anyway. The trainers, in turn, typically don't report the wrongdoing because they don't want to burn a bridge with the teams that serve as their main source of income.

Even those who do sign must pay the trainers a significant portion of their bonus -- up to 50%, according to people with knowledge of the dynamics -- and are at times funneled to certain agencies who have pre-arranged agreements with those trainers. Baseball is often the only avenue for these kids to escape poverty, and they're often exploited for it. Several agents, coaches and executives familiar with the international market have long said teams scout and agree with players at early ages, some as young as 12 and 13 years old, and that it's not uncommon for teenagers to be given performance-enhancing drugs by trainers in an effort to bolster their stock value.

"I saw what was happening in Venezuela with my own eyes," a Venezuelan minor league coach said. "These young kids, being drugged with steroids, and no one does anything. I actually asked about a kid's age, and the answer was, 'He's 2026.' They answered when he was eligible to be signed. We have to find a solution, and I think we have to institute a draft. Something needs to be done."

Who wants it

MLB has spent the past two decades pushing for an international draft and believes the urgency for one increased in recent years, as the number of early signings and reneged bonuses escalated. An international draft isn't necessarily a panacea, but the league believes it will solve the two major issues within the current international structure: those 12- and 13-year-olds making deals with teams, and the PED use among them.

A half-dozen players reached by ESPN on Wednesday repeated a stance shared by many over previous years: the vast majority of Latin players have long favored a free-market system over an international draft. But there's a large segment of scouts, executives and agents who believe -- begrudgingly in some instances -- that a draft has become a necessity.

"It's the only solution right now, unfortunately, because MLB didn't do enough to fix the issues in recent years," said one agent who mostly represents players from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. "If they had been holding teams accountable, an international draft wouldn't be necessary. Now it's out of control."

A Latin American player added: "This has gotten so out of hand that now MLB is trying to impose the draft to solve a problem they have created and did nothing to prevent or solve."

The league disagrees with the notion that it has turned a blind eye to widespread corruption, with one official saying the current system "encourages bad behavior, encourages early deals and doesn't have enough teeth to punish people." The league also notes that the international draft proposal would pay players more in the aggregate. The combined international bonus pools in 2022 amounted to about $150 million. The 614 picks for a 2024 international draft add up to $181 million, with no limit to the number of players who can sign as undrafted free agents for up to $20,000.

Who doesn't want it

David Ortiz, perhaps the most influential Dominican baseball player, has emerged as the strongest voice against the sudden implementation of an international draft. The Hall of Fame designated hitter doesn't necessarily oppose the concept but believes it needs time to be implemented, and that MLB needs to speak with players and coaches from the affected countries before subjecting them to a draft.

"I understand MLB wants to have control over everything they do," Ortiz told ESPN's Jeff Passan, "but you're not going to change the system overnight."

A handful of agents and scouts noted potential problems in determining draft class, because of the difficulty of regulating birth certificates and medical information in the Dominican and in Venezuela. More of them raised the following issue: If trainers no longer have the financial incentive that comes from receiving a percentage of these players' bonuses, would they still be incentivized to train them? What would happen to the 13-year-old kid who has promise but whose parents don't have the financial resources to give him structured training? Would that problem extend to those who are 15 and 16? How many of these kids would abandon baseball because of it? And how would that negatively impact the overall interest in baseball in their countries?

San Diego Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. alluded to this point earlier on Wednesday, telling El Caribe, a Dominican media company, that "the international draft is going to kill baseball in the DR. It's going to affect us a lot because there will be many young people who used to give them the opportunity to get a bonus and with the draft it will not be the same."

MLB says it is committed to putting enough infrastructure in place to allow amateur players from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and other nations to receive proper training, but will it be enough? It promises to make trainers a vital part of the process, but will they be incentivized in the same way? Those were some of the questions posed by people throughout the industry on Wednesday, none of whom have solid answers at the moment. It's why several players believe an international draft should at least wait a few more years.

"I support the international draft because of the rampant steroid use in children, and the money that is being exchanged," an agent told ESPN. "I care more about these kids than about making money. I want them to do well. But players have to be included in the process. It cannot become a last-minute issue when it is such a delicate and sensitive subject. People do not understand the way things work in the DR."

What happens next

Wednesday's back-and-forth ended with MLB presenting the MLBPA with three options built around a Nov. 15 deadline to decide on the international draft and how it would impact the qualifying offer system. The union submitted a counter, but not before the league-imposed 6 p.m. ET deadline, prompting the cancellation of another week's worth of games.

Finally, on Thursday morning, the two sides reached a compromise -- a July 25 deadline for the union to decide whether it wants an international draft by 2024. If the players sign off on one, draft-pick compensation would be removed. If they don't, those two issues would return to the status quo -- draft-pick compensation tied to certain free agents and no international draft.

Union members will likely spend the next four months debating the merits of a complicated system. Waiting until 2024 would provide more time for MLB to put the proper infrastructure in place, but others have suggested the possibility of moving an international draft even further back, to 2025 or 2026, to give places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela more time to prepare for what would represent a seismic change.

A concern expressed by many was the lack of Latin representation among union leaders, with only one Latin American team representative (Venezuelan infielder Miguel Rojas) and one in the eight-person executive subcommittee (Lindor, a Puerto Rico native who came up through the domestic draft).

"Include us in the process," one Latin American player urged. "Hear us. Don't dismiss what we think."