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Worldwide Draft? We Hardly Knew Ye

by Alan Schwarz
June 3, 2004

NEW YORK--When I was a kid, I had a mortal fear of quicksand. An odd phobia for a New Yorker, I suppose, but nothing scared me more than the prospect of looking down and finding yourself marooned in some murky morass, and ever so slowly being sucked under and swallowed up, never to be heard from again.

I had shaken this image until recently, when I decided to check in on the joint committee that Major League Baseball and the players union formed last year to bang out changes in the amateur draft. You remember, the committee that was supposed to ratify new compensation rules, devise a worldwide component and figure out how to allow for the trading of picks . . .

"I don't know if it's still alive," one general manager said.

"We haven't met since last May," one committee member coughed.

"The whole subject is going nowhere," another grumbled.

Sure enough, all the changes that were supposed to be implemented in time for the current June draft, some of which were once announced as a done deal, have been gobbled up by the quicksand of committee. Since May 2003 it has not met, and does not plan to meet again.

The draft will almost certainly retain its status quo until at least the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, ETA 2007. The only difference, it appears, is that most baseball folks are now too distracted, or bored of the whole conversation, to worry about it anymore.

An Agreement Unravels

On the morning of Aug. 30, 2002, after an all-night bargaining session that resulted in a strike-averting, 11th-hour CBA settlement, MLB chief negotiator Rob Manfred and union lawyer Mike Weiner agreed to a significant change to the draft rules: clubs that lost major league free agents would no longer receive high-round compensation picks, but teams that did not sign a first-round pick would be compensated far better. (Rather than get a pick somewhere in the 30s, the club would get a pick just one spot lower the following year.)

Other changes, including opening the draft to international players and shortening it to between 20 and 38 rounds, would be handled by a joint committee that would meet "no later than October 15, 2002," according to Attachment 24 of the CBA. The document continued, "The parties agreed that there should be a world-wide draft."

The compensation tweaks were an immense step for clubs in their longtime desire to curb high-round bonus payments. (A scouting director could tell a prospect, "We don't have to sign you, because we'll get essentially the same pick next year.") Problem was, in drafting the contract language a few months later, the two sides disagreed on what they had agreed to; management thought that not signing a compensation pick would also be subject to compensation, while the union believed that it was a one-shot deal. So they decided to fold that into the larger-picture committee discussions.

Well, it took until May 9, 2003--seven months after originally planned--for four union and seven management officials to finally meet at a Chicago hotel. According to several officials present, the entire three-hour dialogue concerned the worldwide draft, during which time it became clear that MLB didn't even want it anymore.

"When we realized the logistics," one club official said, "how difficult it would be for the administration of the draft, it was just, 'Let's pass on it.' " As for the compensation changes (that were all but agreed to) and the prospective trading of picks, the official said: "We never got to that part."

No date for another meeting was set, and the committee never met again.

Said Sandy Alderson, on the committee as baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, "There's no real appetite for change . . . At this point, for most clubs, the status quo is preferable."

Moving On

This is remarkable, given that changes to the draft, and specifically its internationalization, had for years been on the short list of MLB bargaining objectives, even higher than steroid testing. And all it took was one three-hour meeting on the details for everyone to say, "Never mind"?

Several officials with knowledge of the talks said that MLB had lost its club consensus that an international draft was necessary in the first place. "Some of us have the concern that the large-revenue, large-market clubs are able to sign more players, are able to see players that other clubs might never get a chance to see," said an obviously disappointed Alderson. "But that doesn't seem to bother those clubs that are potentially harmed."

To be fair, accessibility to at least domestic players has increased recently, thanks largely to the slotting direction teams get from MLB; bonuses have decreased each of the last two years, last year by 16 percent. Fewer top players slide past poor teams to rich ones, a longtime small-market complaint.

But after years of clamoring for a worldwide draft, and all the talk of new compensation structures, the entire subject has apparently drawn its last breath above the quicksand. My only question is this: Where's our compensation for paying attention to this whole thing?

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