When Major League Baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires in December of 2011, owners and players once again will be embroiled in a labor dispute. This is nothing new to a sport that has suffered eight work stoppages since 1972, the most recent coming in 1994 when baseball cancelled its World Series.
Baseball’s current CBA is not unlike traditional CBA’s, as it is a voluntary negotiation between an employer (the “owners”) and a trade union (the “players”) in an effort to regulate working conditions. This includes procedures governing grievances, how wages are regulated, and employees’ freedom to contract. The Major League Baseball Player’s Association (“MLBPA”) is a notoriously resilient union, among the strongest in the United States.
Among the plethora of pertinent issues facing the two sides in the upcoming negotiation is the call for an international (global) draft. Currently baseball employs a First Year Player Draft (Rule 4 Draft), which encompasses players who are residents of either Canada or the United States (including U.S. territories, i.e., Puerto Rico) who have never signed a contract. The rest of the world is available to the highest bidder. This includes the talent rich region of Latin American, the competitive professional leagues in the Asian corridor and baseball’s newest hotbed in the Netherlands.
Critics of the current structure argue two major flaws exist: it is unfair to North American players (who have little freedom of contract) and it rewards teams in major markets with deep pockets. The principle of the freedom to contract is as American as apple pie and well, baseball. Currently, when a player is drafted, his rights are retained until the subsequent draft. On the other side of the hemisphere (in either direction), players are free to negotiate with any of baseball’s 30 teams beginning as early as age 17.
The real focus of critics’ venom is the competitive imbalance this creates. Baseball, unlike the other major American professional sports, does not employ a salary cap (baseball’s luxury tax has proven ineffective in curbing excessive spending). Typically, but not always, the best players sign with the team offering the most money. Not surprisingly, the teams with the most money to spend are those in markets such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
To institute an international draft, baseball must address the issue of global compliance. Is Venezuela, a strong conduit of talent in recent years, going to allow American baseball to dictate policy for their homegrown talent? Would they adhere to the strict policies regarding age eligibility (and verification)? Another consideration is what impact stripping foreign players of their free market advantage would have on players migrating from other strong, lucrative professional leagues.
The National Basketball Association is currently dealing with this dilemma. Countries such as Turkey and Greece (pre-economic fallout) have deep pockets that provide an opportunity to avoid the “one and done” college rule and age eligibility requirement (players must be 19 and a year removed from high school). Why go to college when you can play against professional competition and make a lot of money doing it (see Brandon Jennings)?
For baseball, the question is whether an international draft is an issue large enough to force a lockout. That answer is likely to come within the next 13 months. For now, we get the opportunity to enjoy a World Series featuring teams with the 10th and 27th highest payrolls in the game. Note: to get there they beat teams with the highest (New York Yankees) and 4th highest (Philadelphia Phillies) payrolls in the game.