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The Atlanta Braves got hit hard Tuesday. Major League Baseball handed down punishments to the organization following its investigation of former general manager John Coppolella’s mishandling of the international player market.
Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred delivered harsh penalties to the organization. The team will lose 12 prospects to free agency, including highly-coveted infielder Kevin Maitan. On top of that, the team will be docked a third round draft pick and face heavy restrictions during the international signing periods for the next couple years.
It’s a strict ruling that finally attempts to address the shady practices used by teams on the international player market in Latin America.
Coppolella’s Braves are far from the first team to be punished for improper conduct in this area. In November, the Pittsburgh Pirates parted ways with their director of Latin American scouting Rene Gayo for receiving an improper payment from a Mexican Summer League team. Last July, the Boston Red Sox were banned from signing players during the 2016-17 international signing period after attempting to manipulate bonus pools. The team also lost five prospects.
These aren’t just recent issues, either. In a 2008 ESPN article framed around three members of the Chicago White Sox who took kickbacks from Latin American signings, Dominican Republic baseball commissioner Porfirio Vera said these tactics have “been going on forever.”
Over the past few years, the questionable nature of signing prospects in Latin America has become MLB’s worst kept secret. Type “MLB Latin America scandals” in any search engine, and you’ll have your pick of articles detailing the unsavory side of recruitment in Latin America.
These practices have been widely known for some time, but the league has consistently passed the buck on the issue. The White Sox fired the three members of the organization who were found in violation of the rules. A year later, the Washington Nationals fired Jose Rijo after he was involved in an age-changing scandal. General manager Jim Bowden resigned amid bonus skimming allegations just days later.
Until recently, that was enough to satisfy the league. The individuals being investigated would be leave the organization, and little else would happen. Teams would lose members of their scouting departments, but that was it.
Clubs got off without extreme punishments, so there was no reason to discourage scouts from engaging in this type of behavior moving forward. If they violated the rules, they would be fired. The team would be just fine.
The Braves ruling seems to be a sign that things are finally changing. This wasn’t a slap on the wrist. It will take years for the Braves’ organization to fully recover from Manfred’s punishment. If Manfred’s goal was to finally stop these practices in Latin America, this seems like a step in the right direction.
It’s fair to approach that conclusion with some skepticism. Much of Manfred’s role as commissioner has been filled with well-meaning promises that fall short in practice. He called for and instituted a domestic violence policy, but many have felt the punishments issued to players haven’t been harsh enough. The same can be said of Houston Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel, whose suspension for making a racial gesture toward Yu Darvish was pushed to the start of the 2018 season, instead of being enforced during the World Series. Even the St. Louis Cardinals punishment for hacking the Astros’ database seemed light.
There’s reason to think Manfred’s approach to the international market might be different. The Red Sox’s penalties in 2016 served as a warning to teams that things were changing, and the Braves’ punishment followed through on that threat.
There’s still plenty of work to do, but the Braves’ ruling sends a strong punishment to teams around the league. After years of ignoring exploitative and abusive practices in Latin America, the league is finally willing to take significant action to combat the issue.
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