The hammer has been dropped on the Braves. On Tuesday afternoon, Major League Baseball announced its punishment for Atlanta from its investigation of the franchise and former general manager John Coppolella over reports of violations of international signing rules. The judgment was harsh: On top of Coppolella’s ouster, the Braves will lose 12 international prospects, including top-rated shortstop Kevin Maitan, as well as incur severe restrictions on signing players in the 2019–20 and ‘20–21 periods. The removal of prospects, as well as a lifetime ban for Coppolella, serves as a loud statement from commissioner Rob Manfred with regards to the frequently corrupt and byzantine world of international signings. It’s also a move that could have big and possibly negative long-term effects for foreign amateurs down the road.
Details on exactly what crime the Braves committed had been scarce since Coppolella stepped down as GM back on Oct. 2, with the team stating only that he had engaged in “a breach of MLB rules regarding the international player market.” MLB’s statement on the matter, though, goes into full detail:
The investigation established that the Braves circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017. During the 2015-16 international signing period, the Braves signed five players subject to the Club's signing bonus pool to contracts containing signing bonuses lower than the bonuses the Club had agreed to provide the players. The Club provided the additional bonus money to those players by inflating the signing bonus to another player who was exempt from their signing pool because he qualified as a 'foreign professional' under MLB rules.
In other words: The Braves paid under-the-table bonuses to top-ranked players in package deals with agents in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. That allowed them to skirt MLB’s rules that restrict how much a team can spend on international amateurs; teams that go above a preset cap are subsequently limited on how much they can spend in the next signing period. By hiding the money paid out in 2015–16, the Braves were able to sign Maitan and several other teenagers the summer after for bigger bonuses than they should have been allowed to receive.
This kind of tactic is both well-worn and commonplace in the international signing market, which has long been a lawless frontier. Package deals, kickbacks, sub-rosa agreements and other such illegalities are part and parcel of signing Latin American kids, who are represented by shady agents all too eager to make money off vulnerable teenagers. That was the case with Robert Puason, a Haitian-Dominican infielder who was promised to Atlanta for the 2019–20 signing period despite being just 14 years old as part of an arrangement in which the team gave huge bonuses to six other players represented by his agent. (That deal was uncovered by MLB in this investigation and subsequently voided, as players aren’t allowed to sign with teams until they turn 16.)
Such shenanigans occasionally caught the eye of MLB, resulting in resignations and punishments. In 2009, Nationals general manager Jim Bowden stepped down after his team was accused of skimming bonuses. Last July, the Red Sox were banned from signing players and stripped of five prospects after being caught paying out inflated bonuses. And just earlier this month, the Pirates fired director of Latin American scouting Rene Gayo after an MLB investigation showed he had received improper payments from a Mexican Summer League team.
But in terms of scope and severity, what Manfred did to the Braves is a world apart. Losing Maitan alone—a 17-year-old Venezuelan switch-hitter signed to a $4.25 million bonus in 2016 and the team’s No. 9 prospect, according to Baseball America’s latest rankings—would have been bad enough. To that, you can add 11 other highly considered players, including catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, who was given a $3.5 million bonus in 2016. And Atlanta’s ability to replace them will be significantly limited: Already restricted to a $300,000 maximum per player in the next two signing periods, the team will only be allowed to give $10,000 in individual bonuses in 2019–20 and have its bonus pool cut in half the year after.
With this punishment and Coppolella’s lifetime ban, Manfred has announced that the league will no longer tolerate the flouting of international rules. This isn’t exactly a death penalty—even with the loss of Maitan and others, Atlanta’s farm system is still one of baseball’s best, and the punishment won’t affect the team’s international crop for a couple of years anyway—but it’s as harsh a warning as can be given. Coppolella’s booting, meanwhile, gives Manfred a head on a stick he can use to put other GMs on notice (though the apparent loathing around the league for Coppolella likely made it that much easier to make an example of him).
The end goal in all of this, though, isn’t simply to get the Braves back in line and stop teams from doing something that they’ve been doing under the radar for years. This is just the latest step in the league trying to take full control of the international market—one that accelerated in the last collective bargaining agreement, when MLB instituted hard caps on signing bonus pools and lobbied for an international draft. That was one of the few things that the MLB Players Association was able to avoid, with the union otherwise selling out foreign amateurs by agreeing to the bonus pool caps and to raising the age limit on when they can qualify for unrestricted free agency—a condition that will cost future MLBPA member Shohei Otani hundreds of millions of dollars on his first big league contract.
Limiting Otani’s earning potential, though, as well as that of countless Dominican, Venezuelan, Mexican and Cuban teenagers, is exactly what MLB owners want. The old international signing system was an easily exploited mess, but it also offered elite players the ability to command bonuses commensurate to their skills. Take Yoan Moncada, who was given a $31.5 million bonus as a 19-year-old out of Cuba by the Red Sox in February 2015. Boston took a gigantic risk shelling out that much for an untested teenager, but that’s what the market deemed he was worth, so that’s what he got. Fast forward to this winter, when Otani—arguably an even bigger talent than Moncada—will get a bonus of no more than $3.5 million thanks to MLB’s rules.
But there’s an even easier way to depress bonuses for international players: a draft. An artificial construction designed to keep players from receiving their true worth on an open market, the draft has long limited what American teenagers and college graduates can make by restricting their bonuses according to where they’re selected (to say nothing on how it robs them of the ability to choose their preferred team). That kind of cost control is what owners dream of, and Manfred is seemingly happy to help deliver that. And with a scandal like Atlanta’s, the commissioner has more ammo in the battle, as he can argue that the current system is so easily corrupted and defeated that the only way to ensure a fair and open signing process is through a draft.
Let’s be clear: A draft isn’t about making sure the small-market teams get an even playing field. It’s about making sure more money stays with owners than gets spent on players. That’s what the hard bonus pool caps were all about, and that’s what the soft caps and punishments before them were about. And while it’s too late to push back against free agency for MLB players, foreign teenagers have no union to represent them or fight for their financial security. The international market is one that MLB can still fully control, and by cracking down on Coppolella and the Braves, Manfred can get one step closer to running it on MLB’s own terms by making sure teams know exactly how hard you’ll get hit if you break the rules.
Please don’t mistake that critique of MLB, though, as some kind of defense of what the Braves did. Coppolella isn’t some Robin Hood figure giving money back to the poor, and Atlanta wasn’t trying to strike a blow for Dominican teenagers by paying them more than the rules allowed. The Braves saw a loophole and tried to exploit it the same way a CEO uses offshore havens to keep from paying his company’s fair share in taxes. This was about cheating the system, not helping the player; that the Braves were sloppy or dumb enough to get caught doesn’t put them in the right.
In the aftermath of this decision, the Braves will move on hurt but not fatally wounded, albeit bearing a mark that won’t fade any time soon (to say nothing of Coppolella, now out of the game for good). Manfred gets to put fear into the hearts of other teams trying to run the same international cons. And Maitan and his fellow prospects will try to find new homes, as the 29 other teams will line up to offer them hundreds of thousands of dollars the first chance they get. It’s too soon to tell just what effect this whole mess will have on the league and international amateurs. But what is clear is that the old way of doing things may soon be on the outs, for better and perhaps for worse.