How the Braves went from MLB laughingstock to 2018 NL East champs

They swarmed the mound, one massive, team-wise embrace. Hopping up and down was Mike Foltynewicz, the hulking right-hander who'd grown into the team's flame-throwing ace. Sprinting in from the outfield to join the scrum was Ender Inciarte, the two-time Gold Glove-winning center fielder. Bounding in came Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Flowers, the bargain-priced catching duo who helped nurture a young pitching staff.

A huge smile spread over the face of Arodys Vizcaino, who closed the door on the Phillies to clinch the Braves' first division title in five years. Ditto for his bullpen tag team partner A.J. Minter, whose breakout was one of the biggest stories for the biggest surprise team of the year. Beaming all the while was Brian Snitker, the baseball lifer turned first-time big-league manager in his early 60s, who shepherded one of the league's youngest team to the postseason.

Every single one of those players was acquired by the same person. That same person handed the team's reins to Snitker, confident that a man who'd spent 40 years in the Braves organization would be up to the task of leading the big club to glory. Yet for all those astute moves, the architect of the Cinderella Braves can't bask in the team's success. That's because John Coppolella is no longer the Braves general manager, having been ousted a year ago in one of the biggest overreaches in sports history.

Last November, Major League Baseball banned Coppolella from the game for life, while also suspending former Braves international scouting director Gordon Blakely for a year. MLB's investigation into the Braves revealed widespread malfeasance in the team's international scouting and signing methods. The violations included paying out extra signing bonus money to five amateur players through a funneling scheme involving a sixth player classified as a foreign professional; reeling in three highly-touted international prospects by throwing additional money to those players' agents to sign far lesser talents; and another deal that would have paid a South Korean shortstop $600,000 in compensation not included in the contract the two sides agreed upon.

What's puzzling is not that Coppolella got punished for his actions; it's the severity of the punishment. During the 2015-2016 signing period, the Red Sox orchestrated the same scheme of overpaying lesser players to lock up more highly-regarded prospects represented by the same buscón. As in the Braves' case, those players were declared free agents, and the Red Sox earned a one-year ban on signing international players.

What did not happen was any significant punishment to any individual perpetrators, as head of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and his top lieutenants retained their jobs. Coppolella earning the same punishment as players embroiled in gambling scandals (the Black Sox' eight men out, plus Pete Rose), a player busted three times for PED use (former Mets closer Jenrry Mejia), and an exec found to have hacked into a rival organization's computer system remains one of the most confusing decisions ever carried out by an MLB commissioner.

None of that diminishes the job that Coppolella's successor Alex Anthopoulos did in adding to the Braves' arsenal. Check out all the green on Atlanta's Roster Resource page, and you can see the onslaught of transactions engineered by Anthopoulos, both in his first offseason on the job, then during the season as he sought to fortify the Braves for the stretch run, and ultimately for October. It may not have been as sexy as his 2015 deadline gambits in Toronto, but Anthopoulos's go-for-it nature was pivotal in pushing Atlanta back to the top of the NL East.

Anibal Sanchez was a mid-March Hail Mary, a depth move to hedge against the Braves' reliance on unproven youth in their rotation; Sanchez rewarded the team's faith with 125 ⅔ innings of strikeout-an-inning results, and a tidy 3.01 ERA. Charlie Culberson is making $20,000 more than league minimum as a do-it-all superutility man batting a cool .277/.327/.486. Shane Carle cost the Braves nothing more than cash in a January trade, and he's fired 63 innings with a 2.86 ERA. Brad Brach and Jonny Venters were two of the quieter deadline pickups for any contender, but they've added a deadly righty-lefty duo to an underrated bullpen.

More importantly, it was Anthopoulos who green-lit the promotion of megaprospect Ronald Acuna Jr., the Rookie of the Year frontrunner who took the league by storm. And it was Snitker who blended a youth brigade led by Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, Sean Newcomb, and Foltynewicz with a veteran core led by All-Star Freddie Freeman, hit machine Nick Markakis, and the two 30-something sages behind the plate.

But however this 2018 Braves joyride ends, it's worth doling out credit where credit's due. Atlanta landed amateur wunderkinds Acuna and Albies while Frank Wren served as the team's general manager, and Tony DeMacio ran the scouting department. Farm directors Ronnie Richardson and Dave Trembley deserve nods for running a minor-league system that produced many of the young stars who joined Saturday's dogpile. And while his trading record, like that of all his peers, was far from perfect, Coppolella played a gigantic role in building one of the biggest feel-good teams in recent baseball memory.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jonah Keri writes about baseball and numerous other topics for CBS Sports. He also hosts The Jonah Keri Podcast, which you should subscribe to on iTunes. Previously, he served as Lead Baseball Writer for... Full Bio

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