Plot thickens in Braves scandal; investigation inching toward end

We watch the splendid drama of postseason baseball unfold each day, all the while as Braves front-office intrigue continues behind closed doors.

Then-Braves GM John Coppolella (left) and president of baseball operations John Hart chatted with veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki at spring training. Hart is now serving as GM until a permanent replacement is hired after Coppolella was forced to resign amid an MLB investigation. (Curtis Compton/AJC photo)

There's still no resolution from Major League Baseball regarding its investigation into alleged multi-pronged malfeasance by Braves officials in recent years, which already caused the forced resignation of general manager John Coppolella and international scouting supervisor Gordon Blakeley the day after the season ended.

I'm told the investigation is inching toward its end, but the sordid situation and penalties likely won't be laid out for public consumption until after the World Series. Baseball prefers not to detract from its showcase postseason series.

At least one or two other team officials were believed to be in the crosshairs of the investigation. It’s unclear if more heads will roll either before or after MLB announces its findings and levies penalties that could include a heavy fine for the Braves, potential loss of players if rules were broken in their acquisition by the team and major restrictions on dealings in the international free-agent market, where the worst of the Braves’ alleged offenses occurred.

Meanwhile, word spread around the Braves’ offices soon after Coppolella’s forced resignation that he has hired a lawyer (or lawyers) and that lawsuits might be forthcoming. That's surely caused plenty of sweating in certain departments with the Braves, as some fear that Coppolella might bring down others while attempting to show he, or he and Blakeley, didn’t act alone.

Underscoring that concern was a weekend report by the Macon Telegraph’s Bill Shanks, who wrote that he was told Coppolella was offered severance pay by the Braves. If true, that would seem a highly unusual step taken by a company with an employee forced to resign due to allegations of wrongdoing – even if, as president of baseball operations John Hart said in announcing Coppolella’s resignation, the offenses strictly involved MLB rules and not a criminal matter.

You're fired, now here's a nice severance package?

Coppolella hiring legal representation and being offered severance -- if that's indeed true -- only stokes the theories being bandied about on the Internet and the airwaves that the Braves want this to go away as quickly as possible and that the now-disgraced GM didn’t go entirely rogue and doesn’t intend to take the fall alone.

As the Braves world turns, indeed.

Remember when we thought decisions on manager Brian Snitker’s option for 2018 and R.A. Dickey’s decision whether to retire or play again might be the only big Braves news before the end of the World Series? Ha. How quaint that now seems.

By the way, Dickey hasn’t announced yet whether he’ll play, but to me it’s seemed since the last week of the season that he was leaning heavily toward retiring, and at this point I’d be surprised if the knuckleballer decides to continue his career. If he did, the Braves would likely pick up his $8 million option for 2018. But again, I don’t think they’re going to have to make that call.

Now, back to other pressing matters: Where once the Braves were once a fixture of playoff baseball deep into October, they’ve now gone 16 years without getting past the first round and four years without making the postseason at all. As if that weren’t enough, they now find themselves three years into a rebuilding project that has been painfully slow to yield results at the big-league level and now has been, at least temporarily, completely overshadowed by the dark, roiling clouds over the franchise.

Scandal is a strong term, but until proven otherwise, it’s precisely that. An ugly scandal. One of the ugliest in recent memory for baseball.

The Braves were long seen as being above this type of situation. No more.

And I had one agent tell me this week that, while at least half the teams in baseball have cheated for years to sign Latin American free agents, that won’t matter if MLB decides to make the Braves an example for the rest of baseball by bringing down the hammer. And because so many other teams – and several agents -- have filed complaints about the Braves and specifically Coppolella both before and since the investigation began, it’s probably only increased the likelihood of heavy penalties.

So much attention has been focused on this case, so many details leaked by baseball officials and others, that if MLB doesn’t come down hard now, it knows it’ll look about as toothless and corrupt as the NCAA did last week in wrapping up its years-long investigation of North Carolina by doing nothing.

So, the Braves are prepared to get slapped with penalties. They have been for a while now.

They just wish it would happen so they could move forward. Because the business of baseball doesn’t stop, and as soon as the World Series ends, the wheels of free agency begin to turn, trades begin to be discussed, the General Managers Meetings are set for mid-November and the Winter Meetings four weeks after that.

Meanwhile, the Braves don’t have a permanent GM. Hart has assumed those duties and ostensibly is set to keep them for however long it takes until they hire a replacement. Fortunately for the Braves, he’s been around long enough to know the team’s personnel inside and out, knows which prospects the Braves value most, which ones they have penciled in to help them at the major league level and which ones might be better used to acquire to plug other holes with the big club.

But what if Hart, too, is or becomes embroiled in this controversy? What if Coppolella’s legal representation was obtained for a lot more reason than to make sure he retains his short-term health-care benefits and 401(k)?

Stay tuned.

One thing that’s become apparent as this thing has dragged on is that there were probably more reasons for Dayton Moore – the dream GM candidate in the view of many Braves followers – not to jump ship on the Royals and take the Braves job than there were for him to do so. And that’s beyond the obvious one: As long as Hart is president of baseball operations, Moore would be making a less-than-lateral move coming to the Braves, since he is, in effect, both GM and president of baseball ops with the Royals. Moore, a former Braves assistant GM, runs the entire show in Kansas City, as far as baseball ops is concerned.

But here are other reasons some overlooked in the early predictions or no-brainer declarations regarding Moore coming to Atlanta, where he began his career as a scout. First, he’s from Wichita and went to college in Kansas; he has professional roots in the Braves organization, but life roots in the Midwest.

Secondly, he went through some rough years in Kansas City where he was sharply criticized for orchestrating a rebuilding plan that some didn’t believe was yielding results fast enough, then took more heat when he started trading off top prospects once he decided the Royals were ready to contend. He’s long since silenced most of those critics after winning consecutive AL pennants and the 2015 World Series. His plan worked. Before 2014, the Royals hadn’t been to the playoffs since winning the World Series under general manager John Schuerholz, who would, of course, go on to become Braves GM and serve as Moore’s boss for years.

Here's the thing some have overlooked: Even if Hart weren’t in the picture, if Moore were to leave the Royals now, many would portray it as him leaving the organization with the cupboard bare and leaving it to the next GM there to rebuild things. And at the same time, if Moore came to the Braves and had success in the next few years with players acquired by Coppolella and Hart, he’d be seen by many as riding their coattails or winning on the work they did to put things in place.

By the same token, if he came in and began trading away young Braves talent, Moore would be in a must-win situation at that point, or else he’d be ripped for wrecking what is now considered the best or second-best farm system in baseball.

So, while Moore was the sexy choice of many to come in on a white horse and clean up this mess, there were plenty of obstacles. And reasons to believe that other candidates were more likely including Nationals assistant GM Doug Harris, a respected talent evaluator with a long relationship with Hart; Nationals special assistant Dan Jennings, a former Marlins GM and manager, and Blue Jays vice president of baseball operations Ben Cherington, a former Red Sox GM. Others could emerge including potential in-house candidate Billy Ryan, Braves director of baseball operations until being reassigned late in the season by Coppolella.

There’s no timetable for hiring a GM. In the interim, Hart led four days of organizational meetings last week at the Braves’ minor league headquarters in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. It wasn’t a typical organizational meetings in that all the coaches weren’t there, as they have been the past couple of years; it’s tough to invite the coaches when you haven’t yet announced which ones will be returning to the 2018 staff.

Also, at least a couple of relatively high-ranking team officials weren’t there, since Coppolella had put together the list of invitees a while back and the Braves didn’t scramble to update that list and invite a couple of the passed-over officials on short notice after Coppolella’s resignation.

But most of the hierarchy were in attendance including Hart, top scouting and player-development officials – including late-season Coppolella hires Adams Fisher and Perry Minasian – vice-chairman Schuerholz and chairman Terry McGuirk.

McGuirk is the man who ultimately has final say on hiring and firing decisions and serves as the liason to the team’s Colorado-based Liberty Media ownership group,which, by the way, is keeping close tabs on this investigation and has had its lawyers in attendance at various meetings with MLB officials.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of those organizational meetings last week in Florida. Even a fly might’ve needed a drink by the end of those days, given the current state of front-office flux.

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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.