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Major League Baseball hammered the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday for circumventing rules governing the signing of international amateurs, banning their former general manager for life and declaring 12 minor league players, including vaunted prospect Kevin Maitan, free agents as part of sweeping penalties against the organization.
Following an investigation that cost general manager John Coppolella and scout Gordon Blakeley their jobs and led indirectly to the resignation of president of baseball operations John Hart, MLB determined the Braves had broken rules – the most severe of which was the packaging of signing bonuses – in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 international signing periods. Nine players from the Braves’ 2016-17 signing class, the majority of whom received bonuses in excess of $1 million, will be declared free agents, as will three players from the most recent class. Atlanta also will lose a draft pick next June for trying to induce a player this year with off-the-books perks.
Coppolella was placed on MLB’s permanently ineligible list while Blakeley was given a one-year suspension.
The biggest name is the 17-year-old Maitan, a switch-hitting shortstop from Venezuela who signed for $4.25 million and was one of the most highly touted prospects from Latin America in the last decade. He will be eligible to sign with the 29 other teams, who will be able to use leftover money from the current international signing period or dip into their 2018-19 bonus pools to sign the ex-Braves, a source familiar with the penalties said. Each of the players will be forced to use an agent different than the buscon, or trainer, who negotiated the original deals.
Atlanta, limited to spending a maximum of $300,000 for a player in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 signing periods, will face severe penalties in the two periods thereafter, according to sources. In 2019-20, Atlanta will be restricted from spending more than $10,000 per player – and will be banned from signing Robert Puason, the 14-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic with whom the Braves had struck a deal deemed illegal because of his age. Come 2020-21, the Braves will lose half their signing-bonus pool, which is expected to be $4.75 million.
In addition, MLB docked the Braves their third-round pick in the 2018 draft after the investigation found the organization had offered extra benefits to Drew Waters, the 41st overall pick in the 2017 draft, according to sources. He will remain with Atlanta.
The loss of the draft pick, the international sanctions and the free agency of the dozen players – including catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, who received a $3.5 million signing bonus, pitcher Juan Contreras and third basemen Yenci Pena, each of whom received more than $1 million to sign, and Korean shortstop Ji-hwan Bae, a 2017 signee – will erode the organizational depth Atlanta had fostered during its rebuild. The Braves’ farm system remains one of the game’s best nonetheless, led by 19-year-old center fielder Ronald Acuna, the MVP of the Arizona Fall League, and a plethora of pitchers, including Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright, Luiz Gohara, Joey Wentz, Ian Anderson, Kolby Allard, Max Fried and Bryse Wilson.
While the Braves’ future under new general manager Alex Anthopoulos remains bright because of their cache of prospects, the stain of improprieties on an organization that long prided itself on running its operations the right way is indelible. It’s not just that the Braves are the latest team to run afoul of the rules governing international free agency; their blatant disregard, the investigation found, went beyond that of the Boston Red Sox, who lost five players to free agency and were banned for a year from signing international players for packaging players to skirt bonus-pool limitations, or the Pittsburgh Pirates, who last week declined to renew the contract of longtime Latin America scout Rene Gayo after a league investigation showed he received a kickback on the signing of a player from Mexico.
As the investigation into the Braves unfolded, executives around baseball agreed that other teams disregard the rules in similar fashion to Atlanta. The Braves were simply the ones caught. And the severity of the penalties go beyond merely losing players and facing restrictions going forward: Between the signing bonuses and penalties for exceeding their bonus pool, the Braves will have paid well over $20 million to players who no longer are part of their organization.
Maitan is the biggest name in the group and is expected to receive the most interest from other teams. While evaluators’ opinions of him are more divided than they were at his signing – seen as a sure thing at the time, Maitan did not impress in rookie ball this year, with one scout saying he was out of shape and didn’t look like a prospect – he’ll almost certainly receive a significant seven-figure bonus on top of the millions Atlanta paid him to sign.
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