- While former Braves president of baseball ops John Hart, current CEO Terry McGuirk and current president John Schuerholz all escaped league-issued punishment in the team’s international free-agent/amateur draft scandal, the entire scenario tarnishes their legacies within the game and within the Braves organization, writes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic (subscription required and recommended). That trio’s lack of oversight allowed the guilty parties within the organization to “run wild,” Rosenthal notes, and the uncertainty surrounding the involvement of Braves’ higher-ups will linger. Peter Gammons rhetorically asked, “So who in Braves’ ownership ok’d all the cash to Coppolella?” following the investigation’s completion (Twitter link). That is just one of the many questions surrounding the incident that remains unanswered — a reality that flies in the face of comments made by McGuirk last month when telling Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “I don’t think there will be any questions (unanswered) when we are able to discuss it.”
Major League Baseball has instituted a lifetime ban on former Braves general manager John Coppolella, according to an announcement from commissioner Rob Manfred. The heavy punishment comes as the league moves to punish his former organization for amateur signing infractions during his tenure as GM. Coppolella had already resigned from the Atlanta organization.
Beyond the lifetime ban for Coppolella, the Commissioner’s Office has banned former Braves international scouting director Gordon Blakeley for one year, and commissioner Rob Manfred has also indicated that other members of the Braves’ international scouting staff will be disciplined. Here’s the full statement from Manfred:
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 ramifications are significant for the Braves, whose capacity for amateur talent acquisition over the next several years will be hammered. Both Maitan and Gutierrez were ranked among the Braves’ top 30 prospects at MLB.com, with Maitan having ranked fifth overall and Gutierrez ranking 30th. The forfeiture of those prospects will mean that more than $10MM worth of amateur bonuses have now been squandered, and the Braves will also feel that pain of MLB’s sanctions in next year’s amateur draft and through the 2021 season on the international market.
The role that former president of baseball operations John Hart did or didn’t play in these infractions remains unclear, but Hart, who was given a reduced role in the front office upon the hiring of new GM Alex Anthopoulos, announced his resignation from the organization last week. A split between the two sides seemed largely inevitable; either Hart played a knowing role in the most significant circumvention of MLB’s international amateur free agency system to date, or he exhibited a stunning level of negligence in allowing these infractions to be committed without his knowledge. Neither of those scenarios seems excusable.
The Braves have also issued a statement on the matter:
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.
That the Braves won’t comment further on the matter runs somewhat contrary to comments made by Braves CEO Terry McGuirk last month. Speaking with Tim Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McGuirk stated: “I don’t think there will be any questions (unanswered) when we are able to discuss it.”
Meanwhile, Blakeley has also issued a statement on his year-long suspension (via Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, on Facebook):
I am obviously very disappointed in the Commissioner’s decision regarding my suspension, particularly given my 32 years of untarnished service to the game. That said, I am in the 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 Braves are slated to lose their rights to a dozen young prospects as punishment for international signing violations. Additionally, the Atlanta organization will face limitations on their amateur signing rights in the future.
Most notably, perhaps, the Braves will lose their rights to highly regarded prospect Kevin Maitan, as Jon Heyman of Fan Rag first reported (via Twitter) and as earlier reporting suggested. A long list of others are also being stripped from the organization, as Ben Badler of Baseball America reported earlier. Backstop Abrahan Gutierrez, shortstop Yunior Severino, righty Juan Contreras, shortstop Livan Soto, righty Yefri del Rosario, shortstop Yenci Pena, righty Guillermo Zuniga, outfielder Juan Carlos Negret, and outfielder Antonio Sucre are also heading on to the open market, according to the Baseball America report. Those prospects were members of the club’s vaunted 2016-17 July 2 class. A big name from the following signing period, Korean shortstop Jihwan Bae, is also being taken from the team, per Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, with outfielder Brandol Mezquita and shortstop Angel Rojas rounding out the list of departing prospects.
Maitan, in particular, was viewed as one of the best young international players in recent memory at the time of signing. Despite a tough debut in the Appalachian League, the infielder ranks 38th on MLB.com’s latest list of the top prospects in baseball. Even if it’s true that the current front office is not quite as enamored with Maitan as some others, he’s a notable asset to lose. (BA’s J.J. Cooper rounds up the latest impressions of Maitan right here.)
Looking forward, the Braves will also face restrictions for future amateur classes, as Passan details. The club will be capped at $10K per player for the 2019-20 period and will not be allowed to sign shortstop Robert Puason. According to Passan, the investigation found that the team had improperly agreed to a deal with him ahead of his market eligibility. In 2020-21, Atlanta will operate with half of the hard-capped spending capacity it otherwise would have had access to. Also, owing to an offer of “extra benefits” to 2017 draftee Drew Waters, the Braves will lose their third-round pick in next summer’s draft.
Other organizations will surely flock to sign the players that are now free agents. Those prospects will be allowed to retain their original bonuses in addition to negotiating new ones. Generally, those players will be subject to the already-extant rules and limitations in the international arena. But Passan tweets that teams will be allowed to use currently available international funds or draw from their 2018-19 pool to sign these players (but may not utilize both). MLB organizations still have uncommitted international money — some of it likely earmarked for Shohei Ohtani and a few other quality names still available — so there could be quite some competition for the former Braves prospects.
Clearly, the Braves took a significant hit for the amateur infractions that occurred during the regime of president of baseball operations John Hart and GM John Coppolella. Those two executives have departed already (see here and here), with the latter having received the brunt of the public scrutiny. Though precise details are still largely unreported, Passan says signing-bonus packaging was the primary concern identified. While the Yahoo Sports report acknowledges that other organizations have likely engaged in generally similar behavior, it seems the Braves’ actions were particularly brazen and widespread.
Newly minted GM Alex Anthopoulos will still have plenty of talent to work with, but the cupboard of young talent won’t be quite as stocked as the organization had hoped when it snapped up an impressive group of international free agents — evidently, through illicit means. On the one hand, these penalties won’t have any direct effect at the MLB level, since none of these players was close to the big leagues. On the other, Anthopoulos will not have as much flexibility to part with far-off talent if he enters the trade market in search of assets. That’s all the more notable given the restrictions on international spending rights for the coming seasons. The net result is that the Braves’ talent intake at the most youthful level will have been substantially curtailed for multiple consecutive seasons. Such a result runs directly counter to the overall strategy that the organization had employed.
For Anthopoulos to craft an overall slate of players that promises the kind of sustainability that Atlanta (like all organizations) hopes to create, he’ll have to remain all the more mindful of finding opportunities to draw in younger assets even while exploring ways of moving the major league roster into position to contend. Taking chances on talented but risky players on the 40-man roster is one way of infusing talent, but the club would need to sacrifice certainty and/or tie up valuable roster spots to do much of that. It’s also possible that the Braves will end up moving some higher-level prospects to build out the lower levels, though again that’s a diversion of resources that could otherwise be utilized in other ways. Any way you slice it, the organization will be much more constrained than it would have been absent the penalties. Of course, that also seems to be a fairly natural result of the fact that the team acquired these young players in an improper manner (the details of which, somewhat surprisingly, have yet to be fully detailed in firm reports).
NOVEMBER 21: An announcement could come today, MLB.com’s Mark Bowman adds on Twitter. Notably, he says to expect a “severe” punishment that strips the Braves of “many” recent international signees.
NOVEMBER 20: League action seems to be imminent, as Ben Badler of Baseball America reports that MLB has set meetings for tomorrow with certain Braves prospects. Though specific identities are not known, the report says that “nearly all of the team’s top international signings from 2016” are scheduled to speak with the league’s representatives. You can read Badler’s round-up of that huge signing class at this link with a BA subscription.
NOVEMBER 15: It’s been more than a month since Braves general manager John Coppolella and international scouting director Gordon Blakely resigned amid a league investigation into what has since been reported to be an “unprecedented” level of rules violations on the international market and in the domestic amateur draft. While there’s yet to be any official resolution, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the Braves will “definitely” lose some prospects that were signed out of Latin America.
Previous reports have suggested that top 2016-17 signing Kevin Maitan, who received a $4.25MM signing bonus, could be among any potential losses, though it’s not yet clear which prospect(s) Atlanta stands to lose. There could be further penalties yet, however, as David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution tweeted earlier this morning that it seems likely that the Braves will be banned from signing any international amateurs for at least one signing period. O’Brien also noted that there’s a “good chance” the Braves will lose some prospects as punishment, while Mark Bowman of MLB.com tweeted that he’d be “surprised” if the Braves didn’t lose at least one prospect, listing Maitain, Ji-Hwan Bae and Abrahan Gutierrez as potential prospects that could be impacted.
The Red Sox found themselves in a scandal that cost them prospects in July 2016. Boston forced to tear up the contracts of five international prospects that were deemed to have been acquired as part of a “package deals” system. In essence, the team overpaid marginal prospects whose trainers also represented more highly regarded young talents, with the trainers then funneling money to the superior prospect as a means of circumventing Boston’s spending limitations.
Those five prospects were allowed to keep their initial signing bonuses and became free agents that were once again subject to international bonus pools. The Red Sox were barred from signing any international amateurs during the 2016-17 period, so there’d certainly be precedent for imposing a signing ban on the Braves.
Per Rosenthal, any Braves prospects whose contracts are voided as a result of the league’s investigation will be treated in that same manner rather than being deemed unrestricted free agents.
9:24pm: Ravin has now been dealt to the Braves in exchange for cash considerations, Shaikin tweets. He joins fellow reliever Grant Dayton in following executive Alex Anthopoulos from Los Angeles to Atlanta.
7:31pm: The Dodgers have designated righty Josh Ravin for assignment, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times was among those to tweet. As he departs the 40-man, righties Trevor Oaks and Dennis Santana will join it.
Ravin, 29, showed some big swing-and-miss potential after landing with the Dodgers but never fully caught on in the majors. A PED suspension and some injuries certainly had an impact. Ravin ultimately threw 16 2/3 frames in the bigs in 2017, allowing 12 earned runs with a 19:9 K/BB ratio. In 35 1/3 Triple-A innings, he pitched to a 4.33 ERA with 14.0 K/9 against 4.8 BB/9.
The addition of Dayton becomes the first acquisition for newly hired Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos, who is certainly quite familiar with the southpaw from his time in the Dodgers front office. Atlanta, evidently, can afford the greater patience — as well as the inconvenience of tying up a 40-man spot for part of the offseason — that comes with Dayton as he rehabs.
Certainly, Dayton carries an intriguing background to his new organization. He seemingly came from nowhere to dominate down the stretch and become one of the Dodgers’ top relievers in 2016. But Dayton showed signs of trouble throughout the 2017 season and ultimately struggled to a 4.94 ERA with 7.6 K/9 and 4.6 BB/9 in 23 2/3 innings before going down with a UCL injury.
Given the timing of the surgery, it’s fairly likely that Dayton won’t pitch in the majors in 2018. The Braves can, of course, add him to the 60-day DL to open the year, but will have to clog a 40-man spot in the meantime to maintain control rights.
- The Braves “expect to lose” prized prospect Kevin Maitan as part of MLB’s investigation into the team’s alleged violations of international and domestic amateur signing rules, Gammons hear from a source within the Atlanta organization. Interestingly, the feeling within the new Braves front office (now led by new GM Alex Anthopoulos) is that “Maitan was [not] worth the money or the hype,” so losing him wouldn’t be a major setback for the farm system. Maitan signed for a $4.25MM bonus at the opening of the 2016-17 July 2 international signing period, and he hit .241/.290/.340 in his first pro season, receiving 176 PA in rookie ball. Despite those unimpressive numbers, Maitan came into the season as a consensus top-100 prospect in baseball and is still just 17 years old — even if the new Braves decision-makers weren’t keen on Maitan, they’d still be losing a significant trade chip if the league did indeed void his contract with the team.
The Braves announced on Friday that former president of baseball operations John Hart has stepped down and is leaving the organization “to pursue other opportunities.” Hart’s departure comes less than two months after GM John Coppolella resigned from his post due to infractions on the international free agent market and in the domestic amateur draft.
While it has been reported that the league would not sanction Hart based on its investigation into the matter, Hart was moved to a diminished role (senior advisor) earlier this week when Alex Anthopoulos was hired as the team’s new general manager and given full authority over the baseball operations department.
Through a team press release, Hart issued the following statement:
“This was a difficult decision, but it’s one that I made with the best interests of the Atlanta Braves in mind. With the hiring of Alex Anthopoulos as general manager, this organization is in great hands. I believe that the talent of the Major League players, combined with the young talent soon to arrive, makes the Braves poised for a great run of success. This is a good time to step aside and let Alex and his group put their stamp on this great franchise.
I still have a tremendous passion for this great game, and I plan to stay active and contribute to the game. I want to thank Braves fans – the best fans in baseball – for your patience during this rebuilding time. You will soon see the winning team that you deserve. I also want to thank my beautiful and supportive family. I am very excited to see how the next chapter of our life unfolds. Finally, I want to thank my longtime friend, John Schuerholz, for convincing me to come to Atlanta to oversee the rebuild. And especially to our leader, Terry McGuirk, who has shown such passion for returning to a winning place. Thank you all, and Go Braves!”
The extent to which Hart was or was not involved in the club’s front-office scandal may never be fully known. There’s a prevailing argument, though, that it’s equally as damning for the president of an organization to be completely in the dark while his two of his primary lieutenants (at least) commit what has been reported to be an “unprecedented” level of violations on the amateur talent acquisition front. Suffice it to say, his resignation — whether forced or voluntary — comes with little surprise.
Hart may well land with another organization in an advisory capacity down the road, depending on the findings of the league’s investigation. If it is deemed that his sole transgression was merely a lack of oversight of his charges, a club could look past that in order to hire an advisor with nearly two decades of experience as a president or general manager and is considered one of the more influential executives in MLB history. Hart has also served as a television analyst on MLB Network in the past and could look into other media opportunities as well.
In his latest Inside Baseball column, Jon Heyman of Fan Rag looks into the Royals front office. Owner David Glass is “considering a possible two-year extension” for GM Dayton Moore, writes Heyman, even though Moore has “no leverage” given that he’s already under contract for three more seasons. This all arises after Glass declined to allow the Braves to speak with Moore about changing squads. While Moore has expressed gratitude to ownership, his recent comments were interesting, if difficult to interpret with any precision. All told, it seems there could still be some unresolved matters in the Kansas City front office.
Let’s look at a few more items from Heyman of particular relevance to the still-developing hot stove season:
- Top free agent center fielder Lorenzo Cain has drawn some early interest from the Mets and Giants, according to Heyman. As regards the New York organization, this information seems to conflict with recent statements from Mets GM Sandy Alderson — though as ever it’s worth taking things with a grain of salt and acknowledging fluidity this time of year. As for the Giants, we at MLBTR pegged San Francisco as the likeliest landing spot for Cain, though some doubt whether the organization will go over the luxury tax line and sacrifice draft choices to land him. At a minimum, though, the organization would seem to be wise to do some diligence on the possibility.
- The Rangers have “looked into” free agent righties Lance Lynn and Tyler Chatwood, says Heyman. While it’s not clear just how serious the interest is, the link isn’t surprising. Texas clearly needs arms; indeed, MLBTR guessed they’d land Lynn. While Chatwood doesn’t have nearly the track record of results that Lynn does, he is an intriguing option in his own right and shares some of the characteristics of Andrew Cashner — the former Ranger free agent signee who is himself back on the open market.
- Another team with a desire to add several starters (and with reputed interest in Chatwood) is the Orioles. The Baltimore front office met with agents for lefty Jason Vargas during the GM Meetings, Heyman reports. The 34-year-old veteran seems to be a good match for the O’s, as we predicted, since the team needs to find so many rotation innings and can’t afford to make major long-term commitments to multiple starters.
- The Diamondbacks are “open” to bringing back Fernando Rodney, GM Mike Hazen tells Heyman. Arizona is facing a difficult payroll situation but obviously will be looking to maintain and improve upon a Wild Card-winning roster. Though Rodney didn’t dominate last year, he’s still throwing mid-nineties heat and generating quite a few swings and misses — and obviously met with the approval of the D-Backs’ brass in the closer’s role. Beyond improving the pen, the Arizona priority is to improve in the outfield, per the report. That could mean pursuing under-the-radar additions; though Hazen says he’s not ruling out a return for J.D. Martinez, that’d almost certainly require the kind of payroll increase that does not appear to be under consideration.
- Newly minted Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told reporters today that he doesn’t feel pressure to come in and “accelerate things” or rush the process with his new club (link via David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Anthopoulos said he’s spoken with John Hart and AGMs Adam Fisher and Perry Minisian at length to help garner as much knowledge as possible about his new organization in a short time. The former Blue Jays GM (who worked with Minisian in Toronto) expressed excitement over the club’s farm system, calling out Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley and Max Fried, among others, as players he’s excited to see develop. Anthopoulos noted that there have been internal discussions about the bullpen and about third base, where Riley is rising through the ranks, though he unsurprisingly didn’t exactly tip his hand as to which way they’d proceed this winter. Anthopoulos stressed the desire to build a sustainable contender in Atlanta and didn’t sound like a GM who anticipated coming in to make wholesale changes to an organization with a farm system that’s on the rise. Braves fans will absolutely want to check out the full column, as it’s packed with insightful quotes from the team’s new top baseball decision-maker.