MLB labour talks progress, but international draft remains an issue

One day after momentum seemed to be building towards the end of the MLB lockout, negotiations fell apart Tuesday and commissioner Rob Manfred officially started cancelling regular-season games. (Chris Szagola/AP)

TORONTO – Negotiators for baseball’s players and owners kept bargaining as Tuesday gave way to Wednesday, hopeful that a day of meaningful concessions would provide momentum toward a new collective bargaining agreement.

Talks paused early Wednesday morning after the MLB Players Association requested to speak to its executive board at a 10 a.m. ET meeting before responding to the league’s latest offer with a formal proposal of their own. Discussions will continue Wednesday afternoon with some significant gaps remaining after a day of meaningful progress.

A proposal from MLB Tuesday evening included significant increases to the competitive balance tax and the pre-arbitration bonus pool as well as smaller-scale concessions in other areas. Those developments led to initial optimism that there could be a path to a deal on time to play a 162-game season for which players would be paid in full.

Yet as talks continued in New York, the prospect of an international draft became a focal point of discussions and talks slowed, according to sources. While the league now considers an international draft a priority, players had some initial resistance to the idea, meeting internally to discuss potential consequences in detail while reaching out to Latin American players for additional viewpoints.

Owners tied the international draft to the elimination of the qualifying offer, suggesting that without an international draft the qualifying offer system could remain in place. Players dislike the qualifying offer, which they consider a significant drag on the earning power of free agents, so they’re motivated to eliminate the QO if at all possible. Whether that’s possible without implementing an international draft remains to be seen.

An international draft would bring with it various logistical challenges, but the existing system is fraught with corruption already so some changes are required regardless. In international baseball hotbeds including the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, buscones make pre-deals for children they informally represent starting at age 12 or 13.

By 16, when the players can officially sign with teams, the buscones have taken a large percentage of the bonuses but since MLB has no official oversight on important aspects of this process, the teenagers themselves have little recourse. While some reach the majors and enjoy further successes, others are discarded by the system with little money or education to speak of. Eliminating corruption is a goal of MLB’s, though implementing an international draft would undoubtedly be a challenge.

MLB’s international draft proposal would guarantee the top 600 players $181 million annually, according to an industry source. The league projects annual spending on international players would total $190 million, or about $6.33 million per team. That would be an increase compared to 2020 or 2021, when teams topped out at an average of $5.47 million per team.

Even if the sides didn’t immediately find common ground on the international draft, they made significant concessions in the course of talks, which were led by MLB’s Dan Halem and the MLBPA’s Bruce Meyer.

The league proposed a competitive balance tax of $230 million (up from $220 million) with increases to $242 million over the course of a five-year CBA. Players, meanwhile, expressed openness to a new surcharge tax level designed to rein in runaway spenders.

The league also offered to increase the bonus pool for pre-arbitration eligible players to $40 million annually, up from $30 million. The players didn’t initially present the league with a formal counter-offer on that topic, but indicated a willingness to lower their ask from $80 million per year down to $70 million with annual increases.

Owners also increased their offer on minimum salaries slightly while offering to determine a sixth draft pick via lottery, as the players had requested. Meanwhile, the players offered to allow MLB to implement rule changes regarding shifts, expanded bases and pitch clocks with 45 days’ notice.

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