Today…lived up to the fears of the Atlanta Braves and their fans. Thirteen players, some of which were top prospects, are now free agents. A draft choice in the upcoming draft has been lost. Further sanctions will hamper the Braves’ ability to sign international free agents. To sum up, the day was miserable and things are still looking pretty good.
Let’s unpack it all. During the first signing period after the Atlanta Braves shifted to their power-sharing duo of John Coppolella and John Hart, the Braves circumvented the rules of the 2015-16 signing class. That class was headlined by Cristian Pache and Derian Cruz and included a number of trades to increase their bonus pool to sign the players they wanted. However, those efforts weren’t enough. They needed more funds so they signed an international player who was exempt from the international signing rules and funneled the money through him to the players they signed. While that player was never named, it may have been likely Dian Toscano, who received $6 million despite the fact that he was a fourth outfielder at best. That said, he was signed well before Pache and Cruz were signed.
That money helped the Braves “pay” their players in full, but only a portion of their signing bonus was being recorded. That allowed them to stay under their bonus cap for the 2015-16 period. This is the sticking point for Major League Baseball. Without that “creative accounting,” the Braves would have suffered the kind of penalties they went through during the 2017-18 international signing period a year earlier (no signing bonus over $300K). Because of that, every prospect of the 2016-17 signing period that signed for over $300K had their contract voided.
The Biggest Class is No More
July 2, 2016, was a great day for Braves’ fans and not because they beat the Marlins 9-1. A couple of years of work went into the July 2 (or J2) class and some of the period’s best prospects were headed to Atlanta in Kevin Maitan, Abrahan Gutierrez, Yunior Severino, and Juan Contreras.
They’re gone now. Also gone are Yefri del Rosario, Juan Carlos Negret, Yenci Pena, Livan Soto, and Guillermo Zuniga. These nine players don’t just represent the bulk of that year’s signing class – they are significant prospects in anyone’s farm system. All are now free agents and many will be headed to a second big payday on the open market. While whispers suggested the Braves weren’t that high on Maitan anymore, I don’t buy it. Such comments were leaked to try to soften the blow more than anything.
2017-18 Suffers Losses as Well
As if John Coppolella wasn’t going about things unethically enough, he ignored the penalties for the previous signing period. Limited to contracts of $300K or less, Coppy signed Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas, and Antonio Sucre. However, he funneled money to their agents by giving more money to other players represented by the agent. The money then went back to Mezquita, Rojas, and Sucre. And their agents kept some – can’t forget those jackals. At this point, it seems like Coppy was either arrogant enough to think nothing would happen or incredibly stupid. This was the kind of stuff that the Red Sox were busted for.
Not finished, Coppy signed Ji-Hwan Bae. It was the final straw and probably prompted baseball to move quickly as much as anything. Coppy inked the shortstop to a $300K contract, but the Korean would have earned at least twice that. His contract, which was never approved, has been thrown in the trash.
Not related to this signing period, but the Braves also had a contract with 14-year-old Robert Pauson. He wouldn’t be able to sign until 2019, but to sign the young man, Atlanta had entered into an agreement to sign a half-dozen other players represented by Pauson’s agent. The Braves are now banned from signing him. One interesting takeaway from this is that baseball is not worried about teams coming to an agreement with teenagers who are not yet eligible to sign – only the way they get that agreement.
The Tahoe and Other Sanctions
John Coppolella brought his shady actions to the domestic draft, suggesting that he would give Drew Waters a Chevy Tahoe provided the young man signed. For what it’s worth, Waters was not named by Rob Manfred, but this business was leaked weeks ago. There is some doubt as to how serious Coppy was and the Tahoe was never given to Waters, but MLB found the evidence compelling enough. The Braves will keep Waters, but surrender their third-round pick in 2018. All told, that could have been worse.
Atlanta will not suffer a complete blackout as far as signing international talent, but they will be limited. The second year of penalties stemming from the 2016-17 J2 class remains in effect, limiting the Braves to only $300K max bonuses. In the 2019-20 signing period, the Braves will only be able to offer bonuses of $10K. (EDIT: According to Ben Bader of Baseball America, the Braves also lose their international pool money for that year which means they cannot trade it to try to add players). These individual signing bonus restrictions are lifted in 2020-21, but their pool will be reduced by 50%. Their bonus pool was expected to be $4.75M so that will be divided in half.
The Braves lost a lot today and they will lose even more in the near future. Restrictions for the next three signing classes and losing many of their top players from the previous two signing classes mean that for five years, Atlanta will not have access to premier amateur talent outside of the domestic draft. On a more personal note, losing guys like Maitan, Gutierrez, and Severino – guys I was incredibly excited about – is very sad.
Not all may be lost. Any of the players could sign back with the Braves, but it’s going to be a surprise to see it happened. The players can sign with another team for an extra payday should they ink a contract between December 5 and January 15. If they sign after January 15, they cannot receive a signing bonus. If they wait until May 1, 2018, they can return to the Braves – again, with no signing bonus. Don’t get your hopes up that Maitan and Severino will come back for nothing after they see some of the offers they are certain to receive next month.
John Coppolella not only lost his job for his actions but earned a lifetime ban. Gordon Blakely, his mentor and partner-in-crime, will be suspended for a year. Blakely later said he only did things under orders from his superiors. John Hart will not suffer any further punishment. Other people involved in the international signing process for the Braves could also be suspended, fired, or banned.
It’s easy to get attached to what the Braves will miss from these vacated signings. It may not provide much solace, but @Liz_Chandler22 summed up this mess up very well:
Something that makes all of this easier for me is knowing that it’s likely Maitan would never have been ours in the first place had we played by the rules.
— Liz (@Liz_Chandler22) November 21, 2017
How do the Braves deal with the other sanctions – specifically the international variety? It’s going to be tough to continue to build waves of talent with one pipeline effectively shut down. It will be up to Alex Anthopoulos to be creative. One thing that wasn’t mentioned by baseball is the ability to trade international signing bonus pool money. Under the new CBA, teams can trade as much of that pool as they so choose. That could help the Braves acquire some prospects to provide depth in the system over the next few years. (Edit: Mentioned before, but the 2019-20 class will not have any pool money to draw from so it cannot be traded. Thank you to Braves Options Guy via Knockahoma Nation for his detailed reading.)
You can bet that Anthopoulos will feel even more pressure in the domestic draft. That may have been expected as we heard Terry McGuirk in the press conference that introduced Anthopoulos say that the new general manager had the latitude needed to add the resources he felt were needed to build a better team. I’m betting the Braves are already looking to add more scouts to the mix domestically as they need to make sure the next few drafts are full of talent if they hope to avoid a down period of prospects that are being developed.
Other avenues exist as well. Atlanta can raid the independent leagues for their stars while also giving 18-and-19-year-olds who have been released from their DSL squad a second chance. Leudys Baez was once in that position.
Let’s be clear – the Braves weren’t alone in this. They were given a spanking to make an example out of this kind of stuff because, apparently, the Red Sox’s actions a few years ago didn’t do the trick. It’s an imperfect system and the Braves got screwed while doing what everyone else was doing. Get over it. Perhaps other teams will suffer some penalties, perhaps not. What we do know is the Braves did wrong regardless of how shady the international market is to begin with. The penalties are harsh, but Atlanta and its fans can’t complain about that. There is no doubt that they broke the rules. They messed up.
It’s not going to be easy, but if there is a team that can absorb these penalties, it’s the Braves. Atlanta’s farm system is full of high-ceiling guys who will continue to develop on their way to the majors. The cupboard isn’t quite as full, but the Braves aren’t starving. In addition to Pache and Waters, the Braves kept William Contreras, one of their top catching prospects. They kept Jeffrey Ramos, an outfielder with a lot of potential. They kept Juan Carlos Encarnacion and Isranel Wilson – two guys with a quick bat and projection for miles. You can add these guys to a treasure trove of prospects that are ahead of them.
Like I said, it’s not going to be easy and today certainly sucked. But…it’s not the end of the world. Atlanta’s future is still bright. What’s that they say – it’s always darkest before the dawn? All I can say is prepare for a bright day because it’s coming.