MLBPA rejects MLB's proposal for international draft, leaving qualifying-offer system in place

The Major League Baseball Players Association formally rejected MLB's last proposal on an international draft on Monday, the deadline for both sides to reach agreement on a long-standing issue with major ripple effects. The absence of a draft means the qualifying-offer system and the international signing period will each remain as is.

The two sides exchanged a total of four proposals this month, including two last weekend, and were consistently far apart on the amount of money that would be guaranteed to future international amateur players.

The gap never got closer than $69 million.

MLB made what was presented as its final offer on Sunday, during which it increased the amount of money that would go to the 600 players selected in an inaugural 2024 draft to $191 million, up $10 million. The MLBPA, however, had previously submitted a $260 million proposal, believing the monetary discrepancy between the international draft and the domestic draft remained too large under MLB's plan. The MLBPA, also dissatisfied with several other elements of MLB's proposal, sent the latest offer to its player leadership on Sunday and the group declined without pushback, according to two union officials. A formal vote was not held.

At the end of a lengthy statement, the MLBPA wrote: "At their core, each of our proposals was focused on protecting against the scenario that all Players fear the most -- the erosion of our game on the world stage, with international players becoming the latest victim in baseball's prioritization of efficiency over fundamental fairness. The League's response fell well short of anything Players could consider a fair deal."

"MLB worked to reach an agreement with the MLBPA to reform the international amateur system in ways that would address longstanding challenges and benefit future players," a league spokesperson wrote in a statement. "We are disappointed the MLBPA chose the status quo over transitioning to an international draft that would have guaranteed future international players larger signing bonuses and better educational opportunities, while enhancing transparency to best address the root causes of corruption in the current system."

Talks on an international draft nearly scuttled negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement, which came amid a prolonged, owner-imposed lockout that lasted until March 10. In an effort to incentivize the union, MLB tied the adoption of an international draft to the removal of the qualifying-offer system -- whereby teams lose draft picks as compensation for signing certain mid- to upper-tier free agents every offseason, a mechanism that naturally suppresses the market for those players.

Most Latin American players, favoring a free-market system and concerned about how the livelihoods of those tasked with developing young players in their home countries would be impacted, were adamant against an international draft. The MLBPA and MLB ultimately agreed to table discussions during CBA negotiations, setting up Monday's deadline.

MLB's offer from March -- one it says had been on the table since July 2021 -- called for a 20-round, hard-slot draft that would guarantee $181 million to the top 600 international players, with up to $20,000 to spend on an unlimited number of undrafted free agents. MLBPA made its first counterproposal on July 8, marking the first time the union had formally agreed to any version of an international draft. It sought at least $260 million for the 600 picks, with slots acting as minimums, and up to $40,000 to spend on undrafted players.

When the league's counterproposal on July 15 didn't move a single dollar, MLBPA did the same, keeping its number at $260 million during a face-to-face meeting Saturday in New York. A day later, MLB submitted its final offer with hopes that it would be submitted to player leadership for a vote. It never got that far -- and the union stresses that money was only part of the problem.

The MLBPA had previously proposed compliance officers who would oversee the proliferation of early deals; an "International Player Development and Human Rights Foundation" that would require MLB to commit $10 million annually, most of it geared to providing amateur players with opportunities to be trained and scouted; and mechanisms that would increase bonus-pool commitments if the number of international signings fell below certain thresholds. MLB, a union official said, basically ignored those requests.

The league, however, believes it addressed other concerns regarding proposals the union deemed discriminatory in nature, mostly by eliminating suspensions for positive drug tests and making pre-draft physicals optional. MLB has been firm in its belief that it was going above and beyond to implement the proper resources in other countries. If an international draft had been implemented, MLB hoped to host showcases and other scouting events in four regions of the Dominican Republic and multiple others in Venezuela, in addition to Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Curacao, Aruba and other parts of Europe during the 2023 calendar year.

Amateur players from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico are currently subject to the domestic draft -- formally called the Rule 4 draft -- that takes place every summer. An international draft would include amateur players from the other countries, all of whom are currently eligible to be signed through the international signing period that begins near the start of every year. Asian players are eligible if they're younger than 25 years old and have played less than six years in their country's professional league; the same requirement is in place for Cuban players, who must also establish residency in another nation.

The deadline brought together two issues that both sides had been fighting over for decades. The MLBPA's efforts to eliminate the qualifying-offer system date to the strike of 1981. MLB, meanwhile, has spent the past 20 years trying to convince the MLBPA to agree on an international draft. MLB's desire for an international draft only heightened in recent years, amid widespread, escalating corruption in the international market, most prominently in baseball hotbeds in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Teams, able to project their allotted player pools years in advance, have been agreeing to early deals with players as young as 13 years old, three years before they're officially eligible to sign, sources familiar with the dynamics have told ESPN in recent months. Trainers, paid up to half of the players' signing bonuses, often provide players with performance-enhancing drugs as early as age 12, according to players, coaches and scouts with extensive knowledge of the situation.

It's not uncommon for teams to either slash bonuses or remove them entirely just weeks before official signing day. And players, barred from working out with other teams after verbal agreements are made, don't have the leverage to fight it.

MLB's proposal would have guaranteed the top 600 international players up to $33 million more than the total amount committed during last year's international signing period, believing it to be plenty generous. The MLBPA was quick to point out how much more is spent on the domestic draft, which, according to union projections, will see teams commit well over $300 million in 2024.

The question now is what can be done outside of a draft to combat corruption through the current international market, which allows teams to sign any amateur player but restricts spending through allotted pools. The league has been adamant that a hard-slot draft was the only way to eliminate the early deals and weed out corruption within a system that, in the league's view, incentivizes it by nature. The MLBPA maintains that the corruption would be lessened if MLB were more aggressive in identifying and punishing teams that make early deals.

Both sides, at least, said Monday that they are willing to continue to talk about ways to improve the system without a draft.

More than 28% of players on Opening Day rosters this year were born outside of the continental U.S., according to an MLB release from early April. It amounted to 275 players hailing from 21 different countries and territories, tied with 2018 for the highest total in history.