MLB drops hammer on Braves following lengthy investigation

Major League Baseball dealt unprecedented punishment on the Braves, including a lifetime ban on former general manager John Coppolella, in a lengthy list of sanctions handed down Tuesday for rules violations in the international free-agent market.

The Braves have been the subject of an extensive investigation since it was announced that Coppolella and former international scouting director Gordon Blakeley resigned last month amidst the scandal. Blakeley received a one-year ban.

In additional penalties handed down by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, the Braves will lose 13 prospects, a third-round draft pick and have heavy spending limitations in future international spending periods. Other Braves international baseball operations employees are expected to be reproved.

Among the primary areas of investigation were the past two international signing periods. The Braves lost nine players from their 2015-16 haul, and three from this year’s group after MLB determined the organization packaged and inflated signing bonuses.

The following players were ruled free agents and eligible to sign with any of the other 29 franchises: Infielder Kevin Maitan, catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, infielder Yunior Severino, right-hander Juan Contreras, right-hander Yefri del Rosario, infielder Livan Soto, third baseman Yenci Pena, infielder Jihwan Bae, outfielder Juan Carlos Negret, right-hander Guillermo Zuniga, Brandol Mezquita, infielder Angel Rojas and outfielder Antonio Sucre.

The Braves also will lose a 2018 third-round pick for offering under-the-table benefits to outfielder Drew Waters, whom the team selected 41st overall in June’s draft. The Braves are limited to spending $300,000 for a player in the next two signing periods, but MLB penalties will allow for no signing more than $10,000 in the 2019-20 periods. The team will lose half its bonus pool (roughly $4.75 million) in 2020-21.

The Braves were additionally banned from signing 14-year-old Dominican infielder Robert Puason, with whom MLB determined the team had an illegal agreement.

The Braves issued a statement on the penalties on Tuesday. It read:

“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.”

The severity of the penalties sent a message to the other 29 franchises as MLB attempts to better monitor activity on the international market.

The Braves’ long-awaited day of reckoning came seven weeks after the team’s stunning announcement of the abrupt resignations of Coppolella and Blakeley, both of whom were forced out amid an MLB investigation into what the team said was a breach of rules regarding the international free-agent market. It turned out that was just one part of the alleged malfeasance.

Anxiety hung over the organization for nearly two months as Braves employees awaited the outcome of the investigation, the seriousness of which was not known to high-level team officials until the final week of the season. That’s when MLB investigators gave them a rundown of major infractions they were looking into and some evidence, specifically in the area of international free agency.

That notification led to resign-or-be-fired ultimatums for Coppolella and Blakeley on Oct. 2, one day after the Braves’ regular-season finale. Blakeley almost immediately rescinded his resignation, but the team never announced that development; he’s not been paid or treated as an employee since Oct. 2.

For many fellow Braves employees, Coppolella’s fall from grace came after a steady decline in morale that had resulted in large part, they say, from his increasingly heavy-handed management style over the past year or more. Some believed he felt pressure because the Braves’ rebuild wasn’t producing on-field results as quickly as hoped and that Coppolella, believing his job to be in danger, began to micromanage and lash out at some employees, even reassigning a few to reduced positions of importance after they voiced dissenting views or merely sought to discuss matters including the draft.

John Hart, president of baseball operations for the past three years, also was investigated by MLB to determine his role in or knowledge of various infractions, since it was ostensibly his responsibility to oversee Coppolella and his assistants in all matters. Though Hart continued in the job for another 6-1/2 weeks after Coppolella and Blakeley were forced out, the Braves announced Friday that Hart had stepped down "to pursue other opportunities."

A person familiar with the situation said that Blakeley, in a Nov. 9 meeting with Manfred in New York, discussed how much that high-ranking Braves officials, including Hart, knew about the alleged infractions before and after they were committed. Some believe that meeting influenced the departure of Hart despite the fact he was under contract through the end of the year.

Names of players who would be declared free agents began tricking through Tuesday afternoon, headlined by Maitan. The Braves’ No. 9 prospect according to Baseball America, he was long considered a chief subject of the investigation.

For months leading to the July 2016 signing of Maitan, the Venezuelan was called the top available international free agent and his hitting potential drew comparisons to the likes of countryman Miguel Cabrera and Braves icon Chipper Jones. The team signed Maitan for $4.25 million, the Venezuelan bonus record.

Maitan’s first season in the U.S. was underwhelming as he combined for a .241 average, .290 on-base percentage, .629 OPS and two home runs in 176 plate appearances for two Braves rookie-league affiliates.

Gutierrez was the Braves’ second biggest acquisition in the 2016 signing period for $3.5 million. He spent 2017 in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .264 with one homer and 12 RBIs in 129 at-bats.

Severino and Contreras rounded out the top-four richest signings of the period. Severino hit .270 with three home runs and 29 RBIs across two rookie-league affiliates. Contreras logged a 6.27 ERA over 19-2/3 innings in the Gulf Coast League.

Soto hit .225 in 173 at-bats in rookie league. Del Rosario pitched 37-1/3 across the Dominican Summer League and Gulf Coast League, earning a 3.62 ERA with 36 strikeouts to 14 walks.

Bae’s signing surprised some given that he was regarded as one of the best young prospects in recent years from his country and the Braves could offer only a maximum $300,000 signing bonus for any international free agent, part of a two-year MLB restriction that resulted from the team spending vastly over its 2016 bonus-pool limit when the Braves signed a bevy of top teen-aged international free agents led by Maitan.

The Braves were ecstatic when announcing Bae’s signing Sept. 23, referring to him as the best prospect in the Pacific. Special assistant Chad MacDonald compared Bae to Nationals shortstop Trae Turner, whom he signed with the Padres, praising his impact speed and defense. Coppolella acknowledged it as a crucial step in furthering the Braves’ activity in Asia.

Other teams will be allowed to use money from the current international signing periods or bonus pools to sign the players, as first reported by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports. The players are required to use different agents than those who negotiated the voided deals with the Braves.

Blakeley sent a statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution following the news of his one-year suspension.

"I am obviously very disappointed in the Commissioner's decision regarding my suspension, particularly given my 32 years of untarnished service to the game,” Blakeley said. “That said, I am digesting the Commissioner's findings and considering all of my options going forward. I take responsibility for my actions in this situation; however, I always acted under the direction of my superiors."

The long-awaited announcement from MLB closes a chapter on a period that Braves officials would like to put behind them as quickly as possible, but perhaps the entire story still hasn’t been told. Blakeley hired a high-powered Atlanta labor attorney and seems inclined to sue the team, and Coppolella also hired an attorney in the immediate aftermath of his forced resignation, though it’s unclear to what end.

But for most surviving Braves officials, the team and its fans, the page finally has been turned and they can move forward under the direction of new general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who was introduced at a news conference just over a week ago in which the only other person seated before the cameras and microphone was Braves CEO Terry McGuirk, not any of the others who’ve participated in events of that magnitude for the past couple of decades.

Noticeably absent from the stage was longtime former GM and president and current vice chairman John Schuerholz, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last summer but hasn’t been an active decision-maker in baseball operations for the past two years. Bobby Cox, the legendary former Braves manager, wasn’t at the table with McGuirk, but was seated in the front row and will continue to serve as an adviser in baseball operations and for Anthopoulos – the 40-year-old GM has a great deal of respect for the Hall of Fame manager – and manager Brian Snitker, a former coach on Cox’s staff.

In announcing the punishment, Manfred said “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.”

Several Braves officials said in recent weeks and at last week’s baseball GM meetings in Orlando that they were prepared for the potential loss of prospects and/or draft picks as punishment for the infractions, and they just wanted MLB to hurry up and announce the penalties so they could move forward. That announcement finally came Tuesday, and the anxiety and dread that permeated Braves offices for nearly two months has finally been lifted.

That easing of so much tension began with the hiring of Anthopoulos, a new voice from outside the organization and a man who’s known for leadership and people skills; he is well-liked and widely respected around baseball, qualities that were in dire need in the Braves GM position at this juncture. And the figurative dark clouds swirling over the franchise began to dissipate as MLB announced its penalties for the Braves, ended the long waiting period.