One theme of recent CBA post-mortems is the unintended and unforeseen consequences of rule changes. When the previous iteration of the CBA was finalized in November 2011, seemingly straightforward alterations carried wide-ranging ramifications beyond the scope of their intent.
The qualifying offer system, for instance, left some free agents without contracts through spring training. A spending cap and accompanying harsh penalties for overspending in the amateur draft prompted a handful of teams to sign college seniors for $10,000 as early as the fourth or fifth round, allowing precious bonus pool money to be shifted toward over-slot signees. Internationally, soft spending caps with less harsh penalties—at least in the view of some—led numerous teams to spend wildly in exchange for a two-year spending limit and overage taxes, which ultimately barred a third of the league from the ability to sign a foreign amateur prospect for more than $300,000 during the current J-2 period.
The new CBA, agreed to in late November, will undoubtedly have unintended consequences of its own, many of which probably won’t be fully realized until the contract is half over. The qualifying offer system, still clinging to life and now needlessly complicated, will probably be gamed somehow. The international amateur market has also been re-imagined again, this time with hard caps of $4.75-5.75 million for each team, varying only based on market size. While the new hard cap system is almost certainly better than a draft—and as Ben Badler of Baseball America points out, possibly not quite as abhorrent as the internet initially deemed it—it’s still unclear how it will shape the amateur market in traditional hotbeds like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Perhaps the most curious international-related change in the new CBA is the age at which players are considered amateurs. Under the previous CBA, international players who were 23 or older and had played at least five years in a professional league were exempt from the bonus pools and allowed to roam the market as unrestricted free agents. The Diamondbacks could (and, perhaps regrettably, did) sign Yasmany Tomas, then 24, to a six-year, $68.5 million deal without being subject to any additional tax or future spending limit. Now MLB has pushed that age to 25 while requiring at least six years of pro experience.
It's a no-brainer money saver for owners, as more international players—even established Cuban and Japanese stars like Tomas or 22-year-old NPB sensation Shohei Otani—will be forced to sign as amateur free agents or resist the majors until their 25th birthday. The criticism here is a layup: it could potentially keep talented players like Otani–who has already shown interest in a stateside migration–away from MLB, at least for a couple of years. Even viewed through owner-colored glasses, this change hardly makes sense, especially when considering the revenue someone like Otani could bring to a big-league team and MLB in general.
And unlike 16-year-old Dominicans with little in-game experience, 22- and 23-year-old players from Japan, Cuba, or South Korea explicitly aren’t amateurs, and they shouldn’t be treated as such. These players generally go straight to the majors—save for perhaps a minor-league pit stop—where they immediately impact win totals, cash flow, and fan engagement. On the surface, it’s a narrow-minded change enacted strictly to save owners money. But what about those pesky unintended consequences?
Potential positive unintended consequence: protecting the global health of baseball
In recent years, as defections from Cuba have become more common (the estimate in 2015 alone was 150), the quality of play on the island has markedly declined. The once-feared Cuban national team is no longer a powerhouse, now routinely bowing out of tournaments early, and Serie Nacional, Cuba’s top professional league, is without stars like Jose Abreu, Yoenis Cespedes, and the Gurriel brothers. It’s not hard to imagine, in some not-so-distant future, Cuba turning into the Dominican Republic or Venezuelan–countries whose place in the baseball world is to produce high-upside teenaged prospects for major-league teams to pick through, not necessarily to grow a healthy and well-developed professional league.
Cuba isn’t the only country facing a talent drain. Japan has long been a source of MLB imports, and although NPB has steadfastly survived star-poaching, the perpetual loss of top talent has undoubtedly taken a toll on quality of play. Otani might be Japan’s brightest star yet and there are already (very loud) whispers about his eventual transfer to the majors, which would rob Japanese fans of a longer first-hand look at a modern-day Babe Ruth. Leagues in places like South Korea and Taiwan also must deal with players leaving for more money, and although the exodus isn’t as massive as it is in, say, Cuba, each lost player carries a heavier weight given the relative lack of depth in lower-tier leagues.
The free movement of all players from Latin America and Asia (and elsewhere) to the United States may sound good in theory, but it also could have ugly downsides. Imagine a scenario in which any player in any league was simply allowed to jump into MLB’s free agent market, no strings attached. It’d be a boon for top players, but it’s unclear what would happen to fringier ones. It’s possible the market would become oversaturated with talent and that MLB would simply not have enough room or interest in potential organizational filler from other countries. Those players could retreat to their home leagues, but with all the best players already in the states, those leagues might not survive in their current state.
We’ve already seen this happen in the amateur J-2 market to a degree. Some players receive life-changing sums of money and eventually crack a big-league roster, while others sign for $10,000 or less and wash out of baseball two years later with little to fall back on. Imagine a baseball world without the South Korean bat flip, or Japanese attention to detail, or Cuban flair. Baseball, in general, is a better game when there are competitive leagues across the world that offer players from other countries a chance to hone their skills against high-caliber competition.
It’s a different game, too, where not every player is schooled through MLB’s affiliated minor-league system and where players can develop quirks and unique skill sets. It’s possible that pushing the non-amateur age from 23 to 25 will help foster stronger leagues worldwide, encouraging low-20s star talent from places like Japan and Cuba to stay in their native countries for two or three extra years before cashing in a big-league payday and helping to reinforce league quality and foster stronger fan bases.
Potential negative unintended consequence: damaging the global health of baseball
As Badler and others have already posited, it’s also possible that the reverse happens. Instead of waiting to transfer to the majors until they’re 25, the future Otanis—and wannabe Otanis—of international baseball will come to America far sooner, signing for less money when they truly are amateurs to accelerate their path to a multi-million-dollar payday. It’s a lot easier for an unproven 17-year-old to accept a $5 million signing bonus and an appointment to a rookie league than it is for a 23-year-old Otani–an established global phenomenon–to sign for under-market value because of MLB’s spending peculiarities.
Under this scenario, it’s possible that even Japan, with a longstanding, high-quality professional league, simply transforms into another feeder country for MLB, much like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela (and, increasingly, Cuba) are today. All of the best Japanese prospects would leave the country at 16 or 17, creating a potential double-pronged problem. For one, the quality of play in Japan (and other foreign leagues) would drop at a more precipitous clip. Not only would stars leave Japan to pursue major-league dreams, they’d do so before even giving Japan a half-dozen years on its biggest stage. The long-term effect could relegate secondary world leagues into eventual oblivion, without enough star-power or even mid-level depth to support a profitable enterprise.
There would also be so many young players flooding the amateur market. As it is now, a large share of international amateurs are signed out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. If major-league teams suddenly started signing gobs of amateur players from countries like Japan, Cuba, and South Korea, it’s impossible to say what it’d do to the international market in general, especially now that MLB in aggregate is limited to spending something like $150 million on foreign amateurs. The Armageddon scenario is that with so many players available and a limited amount of money to spend, bonuses and opportunities for talented yet second-tier youngsters would start to dry up.
Worse yet, the once-strong leagues that might have housed these MLB rejects could potentially fold without a reliable influx of young, exciting talent. Ultimately many talented players wouldn’t have a proper place to ply their trade—and even the first-class ones would receive smaller-than-expected bonuses—and it’s possible that baseball would start to erode in countries that were once obsessed with it. The Yoan Moncadas of this world might become soccer players.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of owner and union involvement in CBA negotiations is that each side is too worried about tomorrow—like, literally, tomorrow. The players want to make sure they’re getting a fair share of baseball’s booming money-generating apparatus and the owners want to make sure their business will remain at peak profitability through the end of the decade. Neither side is all that worried about what professional baseball will look like in 2050.
Of course, in one sense they’re acting completely rationally, looking out for self-interest and ensuring the short-term health of the league. However, given the outrageous prosperity of today’s game, maybe they owe it to future generations of fans and players to consider how decisions made now could alter the game in 30 years. It’s possible that the changes made in this CBA won’t have a material effect on the game worldwide. Despite the hard cap on international amateur spending, there’s still plenty of money to go around to satisfy talented 16-year-old Latin American players and the system that helps create them.
And bumping the non-amateur age a couple of years might not significantly change anything in the big picture, although it’ll almost certainly complicate matters for a few specific players. However, if we’ve learned anything from past CBAs, it’s also possible that these changes will lead to a complete upheaval in the international market, working to either help or hinder the future health of the game. Either way, it’s about time both the union and ownership showed more interest in the magnitude of their decisions.