Major League Baseball dropped an unprecedented hammer on the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, declaring 12 of their prospects free agents and permanently banning former general manager John Coppolella in the wake of an international signing scandal that spanned three years.
MLB also forbid the Braves from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, and reduced by 50% their international signing bonus pool for 2020-21. Additionally, the Braves will lose a third-round pick in the 2018 draft and former assistant GM Gordon Blakeley received a one-year ban.
It's all a result of what Commissioner Rob Manfred termed a "thorough investigation" that determined the Braves "circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017."
The Braves, Manfred said in an 800-word statement, diverted signing bonuses from five top prospects in the 2015-2016 class by giving inflated bonuses to older players who qualified under different signing rules.
This tactic kept the Braves from exceeding the international signing for that period, enabling them to operate without restrictions in 2016-2017.
And that's when they signed nine "high-value" international players, as MLB termed it, led by Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, who received a $4.25 million bonus.
Maita and eight others in this signing class were among those set free Tuesday, along with right-hander Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, uan Carlos Negret, Yenci Peña, Yunior Severino, Livan Soto and Guillermo Zuniga.
Additionally, according to MLB, the Braves "signed Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre for reduced amounts, and provided additional money to those players’ agents by signing other players affiliated with their agents to contracts with inflated bonuses."
This "package deals" practice came under fire in July 2016, when MLB nullified five signings by the Boston Red Sox and banned them from international signings in 2016-17. MLB determined then that, in a year after Boston busted its bonus pool with signings of players such as Cuban star Yoan Moncada, ostensibly crippling its following international class, the club signed five players for the maximum $300,000 allowed, and diverted money to lesser players.
It's clear that with those penalties and the actions against the Braves that Manfred will have little tolerance for those aiming to circumvent MLB's repressive international signing structure.
"I intend to discipline other Braves’ International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures," Manfred said. "My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association.”
Coppolella resigned as Braves general manager in early October as part of the fallout of the investigation.
John Hart left the team late last week, after being stripped of his role as president of baseball operations when the Braves hired Alex Anthopoulos as general manager.
Maitan, a 17-year-old shortstop from Venezuela, is the highest-regarded player among the quartet of new free agents. He received a $4.25 million signing bonus.
Commissioner Rob Manfred's full statement:
"My office has completed a thorough investigation into violations of Major League Rules by the Atlanta Braves. The Braves cooperated throughout the investigation, which was conducted by MLB's Department of Investigations. The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves. I am confident that Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Alex Anthopoulos and their staffs have and will put in place procedures to ensure that this type of conduct never occurs again and which will allow the Club to emerge from this difficult period as the strong and respected franchise that it has always been.
"The investigation established that the Braves circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017. During the 2015-16 international signing period, the Braves signed five players subject to the Club's signing bonus pool to contracts containing signing bonuses lower than the bonuses the Club had agreed to provide the players. The Club provided the additional bonus money to those players by inflating the signing bonus to another player who was exempt from their signing pool because he qualified as a 'foreign professional' under MLB rules. Consistent with the rules, the Braves could have signed all of the 2015-16 players for the full, actual signing bonus amounts. Had the Club signed the five players to contracts containing their actual bonuses, however, the Braves would have exceeded their signing bonus pool by more than five percent and would have been, under MLB rules, restricted from signing any players during the next two signing periods for contracts with bonuses greater than $300,000.
"As a result of the 2015-16 circumvention, the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to them had the Club accurately accounted for its signings during the 2015-16 signing period. These players were Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, Abrahan Gutierrez, Kevin Maitan, Juan Carlos Negret, Yenci Peña, Yunior Severino, Livan Soto and Guillermo Zuniga. In addition, the Braves entered into additional 'package' agreements in 2016 and 2017 in which they signed Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre for reduced amounts, and provided additional money to those players' agents by signing other players affiliated with their agents to contracts with inflated bonuses. In order to remedy these violations, I am releasing these players from their contracts with the Braves and declaring them free agents eligible to sign with any other Club. The procedures governing the players' release and the signing process will be communicated to MLB Clubs under separate cover.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves: (i) agreed to sign six players to inflated signing bonuses pursuant to an agreement with prospect Robert Puason's agent in exchange for a commitment that Puason would sign with the Club in the 2019-20 signing period; and (ii) offered prospect Ji-Hwan Bae extra-contractual compensation. In order to remedy these violations, I am prohibiting the Club from signing Robert Puason when he becomes eligible to sign, and disapproving the contract between Bae and the Braves, which has not yet become effective.
"While the remedies discussed above will deprive the Braves of the benefits of their circumvention, I believe that additional sanctions are warranted to penalize the Club for the violations committed by its employees. Accordingly, the Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, which is the first signing period in which the Braves are not subject to any signing restrictions under our rules; and the Braves' international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 percent.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves offered impermissible benefits, which were never provided, to a player they selected in the First-Year Player Draft in an attempt to convince him to sign for a lower bonus. As a penalty for the Club's attempted circumvention involving a draft selection, the Braves will forfeit their third-round selection in the 2018 First-Year Player Draft.
"With respect to individual discipline, former Braves General Manager John Coppolella will be placed on the permanently ineligible list, effective immediately. Former Braves Special Assistant Gordon Blakeley will be suspended for a period of one year, effective immediately, and may not perform services for any MLB Club during his suspension. I intend to discipline other Braves' International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures. My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association."
The Braves issued a statement late Tuesday afternoon saying:
“Today, Major League Baseball informed the Atlanta Braves organization of sanctions being levied as a result of their investigation. As MLB stated, the Braves cooperated fully throughout this investigation and we understand and accept the decision regarding the penalties that have been handed down.
As we expressed last week, our organization has not lived up to the standard our fans expect from us and that we expect from ourselves. For that, we apologize. We are instituting the changes necessary to prevent this from ever happening again and remain excited about the future of Braves baseball.
We do not plan to comment further on this matter.”