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Is the international draft inching closer to reality?

The idea of Major League Baseball somehow finally gaining a measure of control over an international signing process that St. Louis Cardinals VP Jeff Luhnow calls “the wild, wild west” may be inching closer to reality.

ESPN’s Jorge Arangure tweeted Thursday evening that Major League Baseball’s owners are in favor of an international draft and the new director of the players union has already gone on record saying they would not oppose it.

If true, the sides need to get together today to begin tackling what will surely be some very complex issues. The current collective bargaining agreement has two more years to run, so there is still ample time if the parties are truly serious.

Michael Weiner (AP Photo/Richard Drew)The union, formally known as the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), has a brand new head man in Michael Weiner. Well, not entirely new. OK, not new at all. The executive director had been the group’s general counsel and has been employed by the MLBPA for over 20 years.  As such, Weiner is expected to continue the policies of his predecessor, Donald Fehr, who had led the union for the last 26 years.

In a Thursday LA Times story, Weiner affirmed the MLBPA would support an international draft. In reality, the union’s position has not changed. Back in 2006, while the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) was being negotiated, the MLBPA was reportedly willing to discuss an international draft, but the owners declined.

Like any new idea, in instituting an international draft, the devil will be in the details.

Past management objections to the concept included increased staffing and related expense, the difficulty of aligning processes with varying country laws including testing and dealing with increased temptation to falsify player ages and names – all meaty issues. Yet those same challenges exist today without the structure of a draft.

The countries themselves may provide the greatest opposition. In fact, as recently as 2007, Puerto Rican government officials formally requested the island’s players be removed from the First-Year Player Draft pool because the related restrictions put their prospects on uneven ground compared to their neighbors. Of course, that went nowhere.

Those developing the new international draft guidelines would need to devise some strong penalties for nations that either directly try to opt out or indirectly scuttle the process by building unreasonably high fences. In other words, the draft must be administered equally across all nations or it will fail as circumvention methods would surely be identified and exploited.

One obvious reason the owners may be changing their tune from their indifference in 2006 and prior and come down in favor of subjecting international players to the draft is, you guessed it, money. They are likely interested in gaining control over the rapid and unchecked escalation in bonuses for top amateur players we have seen in recent years.

Yet gaining control in one area could lead to loss of control in another. A management objection to the draft in the past was driven by a fear that bonuses for mid-tier players might actually increase, as the draft formally establishes a player’s position in the rigidly-defined financial pecking order.

The primary way ownership might try to head this off is by attempting to institute a slotting system like is in place today for the players drafted from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Weiner and the MLBPA may agree with the idea of a draft, but are dead set against slotting, which seems to be collusion by its very definition. The new director labeled it “a salary cap for entry-level players”. Of course, the words “salary cap” are a lightning rod if there ever was one.

While relations between the Lords of Baseball and the union have generally been amicable in recent years, the current undertow of potential collusion charges due to the depressed free agent market could scuttle progress on this and many other issues between now and the end-of-year 2011 conclusion of the current CBA.

An international draft won’t happen without some uncharacteristic proactivity and leadership from an MLB administration that is more known for its inability to resolve far less complex problems within the game.

Yet there is still room for optimism.

Here’s hoping the final years of the Bud Selig regime can be remembered for accomplishing something extremely important for the future of the game – the institution of an international draft.

Don’t hold your breath, though.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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