The final stumbling block before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified, and the lockout ended, was the notion of an international player draft. The owners have been pushing for one since well before the 2011 CBA, and the players have resisted the idea. In 2011 they compromised through a soft cap on international signings. That turned into a hard cap in 2016. This time around, the players continued to resist, and the owners tied doing away with the draft pick penalty for signing free agents with qualifying offers. There appeared to be an impasse…until David Ortiz, as a prominent retired international player, said an international draft could be doable with a sufficient lead in time. Rapidly thereafter, the players agreed to consider it, with a decision to come in June. That, in turn, resulted in the rest of the CBA being passed and the 2022 season getting going. I expect ending the draft pick penalty will ultimately successfully entice the MLBPA to agree to the draft.
Why do the owners want a draft? The real answer is it provides even better cost control than just the international salary cap has. It, like the regular amateur draft, would have expected salary slots per round as well as an overall cap. Teams couldn’t just spend all their international cap number on one or two ”sure fire” prospects. At one point in time, teams that exceeded the soft salary cap by too much got penalized by having how much they could offer an individual player capped. In one notable instance, the Braves’ GM at the time—Jon Coppolella—tried to get around that by ”bundling” bonuses. That is, they would sign two players each for the $300K max bonus on paper but actually pay one something like $500K and the other $100K. That gambit got Coppolella banned for life.
Commissioner Manfred will tell you the owners want the draft in order to end abuses that occur in Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. To be sure, abuses have occurred, frequently. ”Buscones” (free lance ”searchers,” ie scouts/non-certified agents) would collect kids from the streets of Santo Domingo or the bateyes and enroll them in baseball academies that they run. MLB does not allow signing players to contracts before they turn 16, but the buscones make verbal deals with kids as young as 13. Some academies are good, provide decent housing, nutrition, education, and coaching. Others treat the kids like a commodity, and expect to get 33+% of whatever deal the player signs to play pro ball. The unscrupulous ones have also often plied the boys with PEDs, readily available over the counter in the Dominican Republic, for example. Certainly the draft would result in players having to have actual, certified agents. The cost containment per player would also make the buscones’ efforts less personally lucrative. Those two things just might mitigate the shenanigans I just described. However, MLB could also have required testing of free agents, not turned a blind eye to the verbal contracting of underage players, and done something like institute a certification system for academies to ensure quality…and not take players from academies that do not get certified. Clearly a draft is easier and cheaper than doing all of that.
One thing a draft definitely does do: ensures the opportunity to evenly distribute talent. I say opportunity, because obviously some teams scout and draft better than others. Before the regular amateur draft began in 1965, the combination of good scouting and deep pockets could enable certain teams to routinely get the cream of the prospect crop. Partly as a result of that being that from 1948-1964 only once did the World Series not feature a New York team (or two)—and that was 1959, and only because the Dodgers had moved to LA by then.