Embroiled in scandal, Braves must make right moves

Do you realize it’s been 16 years since the Braves won a postseason series? Yes, sixteen years. That means they've gone longer without a postseason series win than the Braves' unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles lasted over 15 completed seasons during 1991-2005.

John Coppolella (left) was forced to resign as Braves general manager last week, and president of baseball operations John Hart (right) is serving as GM until a replacement is hired. (Hyosub Shin/AJC file photo)

I point this out to note that it’s not as if the Braves went from being on top of the world to their current state of embarrassment over multiple alleged rules violations under the front-office regime led by general manager John Coppolella, who was forced to resign last week.

That said, no aspect of the Braves’ long run of mediocrity or worse – not six consecutive division-series losses and a wild-card game loss, not four consecutive losing seasons, not the past three seasons with at 90 losses – has brought as much shame upon the organization as the current situation, which can rightfully be referred to as a scandal.

We should not hear the Braves refer to themselves as a “gold standard” franchise anytime soon. They've effectively lost that right for the time being.

And when next you hear someone say, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” you have my permission to tell them to shut the (bleep) up.

“Coppy,” as he was affectionately known – yes, it wasn’t that long ago he was affectionately known by many, though it now seems an altogether different era – was forced to resign a week ago today amid an ongoing MLB investigation into Braves’ misdeeds on several fronts. Most notably it was the international free-agent market, but also the domestic draft and alleged tampering by contacting the agents of players -- or players themselves -- who were still weeks if not months away from free agency.

One person with knowledge of the domestic draft and its ins and outs insisted to me that the Braves – i.e., Coppolella or those he directed to do so – made illegal in-home visits and asked potential draft picks to fake injuries and/or tell other clubs they wouldn't sign. How much of that is true? The MLB investigation findings should shed more light on that.

Then there was the troubling matter of Coppolella’s deteriorating relationship with other Braves officials, specifically those below him. When a couple of them were reassigned late in the season and two hires were made from outside the organization for assistant GM (Adam Fisher from the Mets) and director of player personnel (Perry Minasian from the Blue Jays), it served only to raise the tension and downright fear among some employees. They said Coppolella was “weeding out” dissenting voices, sending a clear signal to the others of what would happen if they didn’t fall in line.

It effectively ended such dissent and further chilled an already frosty work environment among Braves employees torn between their loyalty to the organization and desire to remain employed, and their active and ever-increasing dislike of Coppolella.

Was it as bad as some of the recent accounts of the situation have stated? One Braves official I asked said in a one-word text reply: “Yes.”

Now they are all in a holding pattern of sorts, even as organizational meetings begin this week in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Because, as another Braves official put it, with the MLB investigation hanging over their heads and no GM in place and the scouting department waiting for the other shoe to drop, there is a great deal of anxiety and uneasiness in the Braves’ front office and throughout baseball operations.

Where is this headed, what will things look like when it’s finally resolved? And how was Coppolella allowed to make the personnel changes that he made late in the season, didn’t anyone know above him of the MLB investigation and think it might be wise to hold off making major front-office changes?

Doesn’t it feel like the Braves played their season finale a month ago? It was a mere eight days, believe it or not. Eight days in which nary a kind word has been said about the Braves, but many words of derision and scorn have been. Cheating will bring that upon you, especially when done on the rather large scale that Coppolella and Company are accused of.

All that remains is for MLB to announce its finding, whereupon we will have a better idea of just how bad it was and just how many fall into the “and Company” part of Coppolella and Company. So far, it’s just him and special assistant/international scouting supervisor Gordon Blakeley, who also was forced to resign last week. Blakeley was, by all accounts, given far too much leeway in which to operate in Latin American free agency matters. The veteran former Yankees assistant still operated as if it was the “Wild, Wild West” at a time when MLB is trying to make it a lot less so by cracking down on rogues and the most blatant of what are still undoubtedly high numbers of rule-breakers from many teams.

Braves, prepare to be made an example of by MLB in its quest to clean up and better regulate that international market. You picked the wrong time to have Blakeley and his assistants making numerous (alleged) deals that skirted the rules or made an outright mockery of them, according to some accounts.

It certainly appears as if Coppolella became intoxicated by the thrill of signing some hugely talented young players down there and wanted more, and trusted far too much in Blakeley’s expertise at making those things happen without questioning whether they were pushing the envelope way too much and really starting to tick off a lot of other teams. Many of those teams were probably also cutting corners and ignoring rules, just not quite on the grand scale that the Braves were (allegedly) doing it.

The question, or at least one of the key questions, is how much did someone(s) above Coppolella know about what was going on in the Latin American market, and also potentially in rules violations regarding the domestic draft and possible tampering with pending free agents?

In the case of Latin American free agents, are we to believe that Coppolella was given enough authority to get the cash needed for the alleged “bundling” schemes involving overpaying some lesser Latin teen free agents in order to significantly underpay more highly sought free agents represented by the same “buscones,” the often-shady street agents who discover so many of the players from poor backgrounds in those countries?

Did Coppolella have to run the specifics of these (alleged) operations by a higher-up? Or was he just given a budget and told to make things happen and spend it wisely? And if that was the case, did he know the specifics of all the schemes or did he, in turn, just turn over the money to Blakeley and his crew and tell them something along the lines of, "get it done and I don’t want to know the details?”

Either way, it’s bad.

Dayton Moore, Royals GM and a former Braves assistant GM, is believed to be the preferred candidate to replace Coppolella, but probably wouldn't take the job unless given full control as GM and president of baseball operations. (AP file photo)

Until MLB releases its finding after an investigation that I’m told has been rather exhaustive -- some Braves officials faced more questioning by MLB investigators last week even after the Coppolella resignation – we won’t know exactly what the fallout will be for the Braves. They could be slapped with heavy fines, restricted from pursuing international free agents, or even have some declared free agents up to and including elite Venezuelan infield prospect Kevin Maitan, whom they signed to a $4.25 million bonus as a 16-year-old in July 2016, when he was the top international free agent on the market.

In the meantime, the Braves are trying to clean up the mess and move on. Problem is, it’s hard to pick up the pieces when there could be more fallout, more of a mess than we even know about today, more forced resignations/firings.

I was told the day that Coppolella and Blakeley resigned that others in scouting – international and/or domestic – could also be implicated and forced out. And what about higher-ups? Are they in the clear? Some I’ve talked to think it’s unlikely that anyone above Coppolella – there aren’t many above him obviously – will be forced to step down, but no one seemed absolutely certain.

For now, president of baseball operations John Hart is running the show as interim GM until the Braves hire a Coppolella replacement. They insist there’s no rush and no timetable, and I was told this weekend by a Braves official that the team hasn’t interviewed or even reached out to anyone yet. But I was also told by some outside the organization that they’ve already asked or been told, either directly or indirectly, that the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t stop Dayton Moore, who’s believed to be the Braves’ top choice, to speak to the Braves about their GM opening, and that the Nationals will permit the Braves to talk to a couple of candidates from that organization: Nats assistant GM Doug Harris and special assistant Dan Jennings, the former Marlins GM and manager.

Former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, now Blue Jays vice president of baseball operations, is also believed to be a potential candidate for the Braves GM job. And former assistant GM Billy Ryan could be a candidate from within the organization.

With the Nationals involved in the postseason, I wouldn’t expect anything to happen on that front right away.

Clearly Moore, a former Braves assistant GM under John Schuerholz, is the preferred candidate of a vast majority of Braves fans, and probably of most team officials. He has a squeaky clean reputation at a time when the Braves need that, and a proven track record after winning consecutive AL pennants and a World Series in Kansas City, where the Royals had been a non-factor for about a quarter-century before he built the team into a contender through a long, initially painful process.

But as most folks have undoubtedly read or heard by now, it’s unlikely Moore, a Kansas native, would take the Braves GM job unless he was also president of baseball operations -- in charge of the whole thing the way he is in Kansas City. And right now, Hart is president of baseball operations and told a few of us reporters last week than he plans to stay for 2018, though it’s unclear yet if he’s signed his contract and, even if he has, whether the MLB investigation might stain him.

That’s why this GM search might last longer than most people want it to, since in this day and age most people would prefer it be done yesterday and view one week of no action as a sure sign of complete failure on the part of the Braves or as rejection from Moore, who as far as we know hasn’t had a job offer yet to accept, reject or think about.

He’s busy doing Royals GM things – going to see their guys in the instructional league, headed to the Arizona Fall League, etc. The kind of stuff that Coppolella would have been doing with the Braves, but that Hart is now doing or preparing to do – that is, between talking to MLB investigators, denying to a reporter that there’s a huge personality conflict or feud between him and his longtime pal Schuerholz, and trying to prepare for the annual Braves organizational meetings that began today (Monday).

Yes, there’s a lot going on, and very little of it, so far, can be construed as good for the Braves.

Three consecutive 90-loss seasons doesn’t seem nearly as bad now, compared to this ugly mess. But at the same time, winning and losing is ultimately the only way, or at least the best way, for the Braves to put this behind them. Specifically, winning significantly more and losing significantly less. In 2018.

Never mind the incremental improvement by 2-3 wins per season that we’ve seen the past couple of years. If the Braves hope to maintain the increased attendance they saw in 2017 when the novelty of the new ballpark is gone in 2018, they’ve got to win. They’ve got to be in the hunt for at least a wild-card berth past mid-July.

And if they want people to stop talking about the darkest days of the Braves franchise in decades, the period we are in right this moment, then they need to make sure they hire the right person for the GM job, then give him the budget to make a couple of significant additions this winter.

Everyone knows that revenues are up at the new ballpark; the Braves told us that for the past two years leading up to its opening. So don’t expect people to buy into the line about payroll staying in line with revenue streams, not when you now play in a ballpark and surrounding village that experts are heralding as the future of sports stadiums with all its increased revenue streams and properties controlled by the Braves.

And certainly not when you are trying to get out from under a scandal, to get people talking about something other than how much you cheated.

You need to win, Braves. In 2018. And that starts now, with hiring the right GM and giving him a payroll that’s not in the bottom third, or even the bottom half, of baseball. You’ve got no choice, really. You gave yourselves no choice by embarking on a massive rebuild, then not improving the product on the field fast enough to suit the masses in a market that was used to winning for so long. This wasn't the Cubs or Astros, where rebuilding wasn't so painful because winning had never become old habit.

And then, on top of four straight losing seasons, you go and become embroiled in an ugly scandal involving the acquisition of some of the very players you are rebuilding around.

Mistakes were made. Big ones. Whoever’s responsible isn’t as important now as making sure those mistakes are never repeated.

And winning. You need to win. Winning cures most ills. Being aboveboard cures plenty of others.

Losing sucks, but losing while cheating and obfuscating sucks a lot worse. And can, if you’re not careful, suck the lifeblood out of a proud organization.

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About the Author

David O'Brien
David O'Brien
David O'Brien covered the Atlanta Braves for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for more than a decade.