General manager John Coppolella resigned. The Atlanta Braves remain under MLB investigation. Even though Coppolella and chief international scout Gordon Blakeley are no longer with the organization could mitigate any punishment, there’s apt to punishment — and not just a slap on the wrist.
Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic writes that “the Braves allegedly reached a verbal agreement” with Robert Puason, a 14-year-old shortstop from Haiti who is not eligible to sign a contract with an MLB club until he turns 16, which won’t happen until July 2, 2019.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports writes that MLB “is expected to look into the signing of top prospect Kevin Maitan, a 17-year-old shortstop who received a $4.25 million bonus last year. If improprieties are discovered with Maitan’s signing, he could be declared a free agent, according to multiple sources.”
Passan reports that MLB questioned Coppolella last week regarding “under-the-table benefits … to sign for under the slot value” allegedly offered to Drew Waters of Etowah High, the Braves’ second-round pick in the June draft. Writes Passan: “Coppolella and Keith Grunewald, Waters’ agent, denied the allegations, saying that Coppolella’s offer of a car to bridge the difference between the $1.5 million he signed for and the $1.675 million slot value was made in jest.”
Writes Rosenthal: “Coppolella also is accused of misconduct in the domestic amateur draft and illegal contact with major-league free agents and even other teams’ coaches regarding future employment, according to sources. The focus of baseball’s investigation, however, is ’98 percent international,’ one source said.”
Here we note the language in the Braves’ statement regarding Coppolella. His resignation was due to “a breach in MLB rules regarding the international player market.” Nothing else.
From Passan: “The domestic allegations are unlikely to carry the severity of penalty as the alleged international misdeeds, though the anonymous complaints offered a number of threads to investigate.”
The Braves fully anticipate that MLB will levy penalties, fines, what-have-you. They also expect any sanctions to be confined to misdoings in the international market. At this moment, the Braves have hope they’ll be allowed to keep Maitan, though that could change. Four days ago, they didn’t expect to be without a general manger.
From Passan: “For months leading up to the July 2, 2016, signing date, Maitan spent a significant amount of time living in a two-bedroom apartment near Miramar, Fla., with another teenage amateur the Braves eventually would sign, a source familiar with the arrangement told Yahoo Sports. While it is unclear whether the Braves funded Maitan’s time in the United States, he and the other player did not share a (trainer) and would have been connected by a third party.”
We say again: The Braves under Coppolella were dead serious about international signings. Blakeley, with whom Coppolella worked as a Yankee employee, was brought here because he’s considered one of the oldest and ablest hands in a marketplace that isn’t easy to navigate. That Coppolella and Blakeley resigned in tandem tells us that the Braves did something seriously wrong somewhere along the line.
As mentioned yesterday, Coppolella was so focused in his zeal to rebuild the Braves that it’s not hard to imagine him getting carried away. Had it been just one corner cut one solitary time, the team might have said, “OK, he made a mistake,” accepted whatever penalty MLB levied and carried on with him as GM. That the Braves were moved to cut ties so abruptly suggests this wasn’t just one corner, one time. Had Coppolella remained in place, his penalty would have been significant.
These penalties could still be significant. MLB is trying to clean up the international market, long a repository of handshake deals and blurred lines. Writes Rosenthal: “Other teams also are under investigation for their conduct in the international market, sources said. The international scouting director of one club said as many as 15 teams allegedly have reached verbal agreements with players who are not eligible to sign until 2019, when they turn 16.”
Last year, MLB voided the contracts voided of five international players signed by the Red Sox. Rosenthal again: “The Braves’ actions were believed to be more egregious and likely will result in harsher penalties; no Red Sox employees resigned because of their team’s actions.”
So: Yes, there’s a chance the Braves could lose Maitan, ranked by MLB.com as the Braves’ No. 5 prospect. There’s a chance they could be precluded from any international signings over the next year or two. They’ve become a test case. They’re bracing to get whacked.
This does not, however, mean that the No. 1 farm system will be ravaged. It wouldn’t be quite as good without Maitan, but it’d still be among the best. Ronald Acuna — an international signing under Frank Wren — was just named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year. At least four young pitchers — Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Kyle Wright and Touki Toussaint — could make their Atlanta debuts next year. Sean Newcomb, Max Fried and Luiz Gohara are already here.
The rebuild will continue, albeit without the chief rebuilder. That’s a major blow, and it’s also an embarrassment to the organization. But the Braves should be able to hire a capable GM — given their young assets, they’ll have no shortage of eager applicants — and in time this will be seen as misstep, as opposed to a derailing.
Oh, and one thing more: With John Hart in sudden need of a GM, I wouldn’t look for him to change managers. The issue of Brian Snitker has been hanging. Monday’s stunning events probably decided it. At the moment, the Braves would welcome a dash of continuity.