Baseball America’s JJ Cooper reports that Major League Baseball has issued a memo to teams advising them against offering “exorbitant” amounts to undrafted free agents via the Continuing Education Program. In the ensuing thread on his tweet, Cooper goes through some thought exercises trying to figure out how to game the Continuing Education Program. He can’t come up with anything significant, as the scholarship comes with significant amounts of safeguards.
The pandemic and ensuing shutdown of MLB caused owners and the MLB Players Association to negotiate the temporary landscape of the sport. The 2020 draft was shortened from 40 rounds to five rounds for this year, and the 2021 draft may be only 20 rounds. Additionally, undrafted free agents were capped at a $20,000 bonus. The memo Cooper mentioned is aimed at preventing teams from circumventing that bonus by promising UDFA’s more money via the CEP program.
There’s a cynical and a not-so-cynical way to interpret this. The cynical way is to see this as one of the many ways MLB has hamstrung players who are not yet major leaguers — shrinking the minors by more than 25 percent, lobbying to legally underpay minor leaguers, etc.
The more forgiving interpretation is to see this as MLB trying to protect the young players, their families, and perhaps some less experienced agents who might not know MLB teams can try to take advantage of players this way, by over-promising while planning to under-deliver. Or, in MLB’s verbiage, offering “exorbitant” amounts. The amount of money the team contributes has nothing to do with either party’s desire or intent; it’s based on incurred expenses and oftentimes paid directly to the school. A player living on campus at Yale will receive more scholarship money — for tuition, for room and board — than a student commuting to a community college, for example. When you realize that most players will either never take advantage of the program or will incur expenses on the lighter end of the spectrum, it’s easy for teams to confidently overpromise to attempt to attract players. And if one team is overpromising, then the other teams are incentivized to do the same, creating an entire system of dishonesty.
Of course, only MLB knows its true intentions behind the memo. How you interpret this depends on your level of cynicism with the league. And, frankly, MLB hasn’t done much to earn itself the benefit of the doubt lately.