ATLANTA — The Braves lost 13 prospects and former general manager John Coppolella was banned for life by Major League Baseball on Tuesday for circumventing international signing rules from 2015-17.
Former Atlanta special assistant Gordon Blakeley, who was the team’s international scouting chief, was suspended from baseball for one year by Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Sanctions imposed by Manfred leave the Braves unable to bargain at full strength for a top Latin American prospect until 2021.
Manfred said MLB’s investigation determined the Braves funneled extra signing bonus money to five players in 2015-16 by giving the funds first to another player considered a foreign professional under baseball’s rules and having the money redistributed to the other five. If the money had been counted for the other five, the Braves would have exceeded their pool by more than 5 per cent and been restricted to signing bonuses of $300,000 or under for international amateurs through June 15, 2019.
Because of that, MLB voided the contracts of nine players the Braves would have been ineligible to sign: Venezuelan infielder Kevin Maitan ($4.25 million signing bonus), Venezuelan catcher Abrahan Gutierrez ($3.53 million), Dominican shortstop Yunior Severino ($1.9 million), Dominican right-hander Juan Contreras ($1.2 million), Dominican shortstop Yenci Pena ($1.05 million), Dominican right-hander Yefri del Rosario ($1 million), Cuban outfielder Juan Carlos Negret ($1 million), Venezuelan shortstop Livan Soto ($1 million) and Colombian right-hander Guillermo Zuniga ($350,000).
Three players the Braves signed for $300,000 bonuses were set free because the Braves gave additional money to their agents by signing others to deals with what MLB called "inflated" bonuses: Venezuelan outfielder Antonio Sucre, Dominican outfielder Brandol Mezquita and Dominican shortstop Angel Rojas.
Atlanta’s deal with South Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae, which also called for a $300,000 signing bonus, was rejected by MLB because the sides agreed to compensation outside the contract.
In total, Atlanta takes a $16.48 million loss in bonuses given to prospects who will no longer be with the organization.
In addition, the Braves were banned from signing Robert Puason, a 14-year-old Dominican shortstop with whom they had reached a verbal agreement, when he becomes eligible for a contract on July 2, 2019. MLB said Puason agreed to sign with the Braves because the team agreed with his agent to deals with six other players for "inflated" signing bonuses.
Atlanta also forfeited its third-round selection in next June’s amateur draft as punishment for offering "impermissible benefits" to an unidentified draft pick in an effort to convince him to sign for a lower bonus.
The 13 players keep their bonuses from the Braves, must obtain new representatives and will be free to negotiate as free agents with other teams from Dec. 5 through Jan. 15.
As part of an agreement between MLB and the players’ association, a club can use money from either its 2017-18 or 2018-19 signing bonus pool to sign a player but can’t combine money from both pools in one contract. The first $200,000 of a signing bonus will not count against a team’s limit, but the $300,000 maximum remains for teams subject to the penalty for exceeding their pool under the previous labour contract.
Manfred said stripping the Braves of the 13 players was not sufficient punishment. He said "additional sanctions are warranted to penalize the club for the violations committed by its employees."
Therefore, the Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period. Also, the team’s international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 per cent.
The Braves already cannot give an international signing bonus of more than $300,000 for 2017-18 and 2018-19 as penalties for exceeding their signing bonus pools.
Manfred said he intends "to discipline other Braves international baseball operations employees who participated in the misconduct."
Blakeley said in a statement released to several media outlets that he accepted responsibility for his actions but was following instructions.
"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 in the statement. "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."
Coppolella, 39, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. He joined former Cincinnati manager Pete Rose (1989 agreement following investigation of his gambling), New York Mets pitcher Jenrry Mejia (2016, third positive drug test) and former St. Louis employee Chris Correa (2017, hacking into Houston computer systems) on the permanently ineligible list.
He was forced to resign after his 11th season with the Braves and second full year as general manager. He began his time with the Braves in 2006 when he oversaw quantitative analysis and baseball information initiatives.
Coppolella, a magna cum laude graduate of Notre Dame in business management, was hired by the New York Yankees as a baseball operations assistant in 2000. He spent seven years with the Yankees, including time as assistant director of pro scouting.
Coppolella was credited with helping to improve the Braves’ farm system, which was rated No. 1 this year by Baseball America.
Former team president John Hart was moved to a senior adviser role when a new general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, was hired on Nov. 13. Hart left the team on Friday.
"The senior baseball operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves," Manfred said. He also said the Braves "co-operated throughout the investigation."
Atlanta braced fans for the sanctions when team chairman Terry McGuirk apologized to fans "on behalf of the entire Braves family" for the rules violations at the news conference to introduce Anthopoulos.
The Braves said in a statement they "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."
Manfred said he is confident the Braves management team led by McGuirk, Anthopoulos and vice chairman John Schuerholz "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."
In 2016, the Boston Red Sox lost five players and were banned from signing international amateurs for one year as punishment for rules violations on signing bonuses.