Major League Baseball on Tuesday announced severe sanctions against the Atlanta Braves because of international-signing improprieties. As part of the penalties, 12 players from the 2015 and 2016 international signing classes have been declared restricted free agents. The Braves also won't be able to sign a player for more than $10,000 in the 2020 and 2021 signing periods. For blowing past prior signing pools, the Braves were already limited to being offer no more than $300,000 for an individual player in the 2018 and 2019 international signing periods. MLB also dinged the Braves for an infraction in the most recent June MLB draft.
Most notably, switch-hitting shortstop prospect Kevin Maitan is now a restricted free agent. Maitan was a consensus top-100 prospect coming into the 2017 season, and he responded by putting up solid numbers at the rookie-ball level despite being just 17 years of age. He's now free to sign with any team, albeit under international signing-bonus restrictions. Maitan originally received a $4.25 million signing bonus in 2016.
The Braves also lose catcher prospect Abrahan Gutierrez. The 17-year-old played 35 games in the the rookie-level Gulf Coast League this past season. The Braves reportedly signed Gutierrez to a $3.53 million signing bonus in 2016. That's second only to Maitan's bonus in the 2016 class on which the Braves spent almost $27 million. Also gone are the recipients of the third- and fourth-largest bonuses among Braves 2016 signees: Infielder Yunior Severino and right-hander Juan Contreras. Here's how Baseball America ranked these four prospects within the 2016 class of international free agents:
- Maitain: No. 1
- Severino: No. 8
- Gutierrez: No. 15
- Contreras: No. 41
Maitan, again per Baseball America, was the Braves' No. 9 prospect, so the system remains one of the best in the game even after the loss of Maitan. Still, this is a big blow in terms of system depth and in terms of their ability to be an active player on the international market in the near- to mid-term.
The Braves are being punished in part for "bundling" signing bonuses for international players, which allowed them to skate around MLB's spending limits. Atlanta, like many other teams, had been limited to $300,000 signing bonuses in recent years because they had previous exceeded their spending pool. Bundling essentially means they paid two players $300,000 bonuses, though most of the money went to one player. The other player received a larger-than-expected bonus relative to his talent for his troubles. In essence, that allowed the Braves to sign players who'd otherwise not consider a inking for just $300,000.
Last year the Red Sox were caught undertaking a similar scheme, and MLB declared every player they signed during the 2015-16 international signing period a free agent. However, none of those prospects was of Maitan's caliber. The Red Sox were also banned from signing international players for one year.
Back in October, a source told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic that the Braves' violations were "unprecedented," and these penalties certainly back up that notion.
On the domestic front, MLB will also take from the Braves their third-round pick in the 2018 First-Year Player Draft (i.e., the June draft) after investigators discovered the club offered extra benefits to outfielder Drew Waters, the 41st overall pick. Waters will remain with the Braves.
In October, general manager John Coppolella and international scouting director Gordon Blakely resigned from the Braves as part of the fallout from the scandal. Mere days ago, John Hart also exited the Braves' front office. Recently, former Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos was named GM of the Braves.
Though he was unlikely to get another job in baseball anyway, Coppolella has been placed on the permanently ineligible list, which is known as a "lifetime ban," in cases such as this and with Pete Rose. Blakely has been suspended for one year.
Here's the full statement from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred:
"My office has completed a thorough investigation into violations of Major League Rules by the Atlanta Braves. The Braves cooperated throughout the investigation, which was conducted by MLB's Department of Investigations. The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves. I am confident that Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Alex Anthopoulos and their staffs 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.
"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. Consistent with the rules, the Braves could have signed all of the 2015-16 players for the full, actual signing bonus amounts. Had the Club signed the five players to contracts containing their actual bonuses, however, the Braves would have exceeded their signing bonus pool by more than five percent and would have been, under MLB rules, restricted from signing any players during the next two signing periods for contracts with bonuses greater than $300,000.
"As a result of the 2015-16 circumvention, the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to them had the Club accurately accounted for its signings during the 2015-16 signing period. These players were Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, Abrahan Gutierrez, Kevin Maitan, Juan Carlos Negret, Yenci Peña, Yunior Severino, Livan Soto and Guillermo Zuniga. In addition, the Braves entered into additional 'package' agreements in 2016 and 2017 in which they signed Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre for reduced amounts, and provided additional money to those players' agents by signing other players affiliated with their agents to contracts with inflated bonuses. In order to remedy these violations, I am releasing these players from their contracts with the Braves and declaring them free agents eligible to sign with any other Club. The procedures governing the players' release and the signing process will be communicated to MLB Clubs under separate cover.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves: (i) agreed to sign six players to inflated signing bonuses pursuant to an agreement with prospect Robert Puason's agent in exchange for a commitment that Puason would sign with the Club in the 2019-20 signing period; and (ii) offered prospect Ji-Hwan Bae extra-contractual compensation. In order to remedy these violations, I am prohibiting the Club from signing Robert Puason when he becomes eligible to sign, and disapproving the contract between Bae and the Braves, which has not yet become effective.
"While the remedies discussed above will deprive the Braves of the benefits of their circumvention, I believe that additional sanctions are warranted to penalize the Club for the violations committed by its employees. Accordingly, the Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, which is the first signing period in which the Braves are not subject to any signing restrictions under our rules; and the Braves' international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 percent.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves offered impermissible benefits, which were never provided, to a player they selected in the First-Year Player Draft in an attempt to convince him to sign for a lower bonus. As a penalty for the Club's attempted circumvention involving a draft selection, the Braves will forfeit their third-round selection in the 2018 First-Year Player Draft.
"With respect to individual discipline, former Braves General Manager John Coppolella will be placed on the permanently ineligible list, effective immediately. Former Braves Special Assistant Gordon Blakeley will be suspended for a period of one year, effective immediately, and may not perform services for any MLB Club during his suspension. I intend to discipline other Braves' International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures. My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association."
Needless to say, this is pretty hefty and a huge deterrent to front offices taking part in such activities in the future. Especially note the case of Coppolella. Is it really worth this practice to put your entire career in baseball on the line? Manfred came out strong here.
The Braves, at the same time, seem resigned to their fate: