Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2017 — No. 8: Braves GM banned following international signings scandal

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We’re a few short days away from 2018 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2017. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

On October 1, 2015, longtime Braves employee John Coppolella was promoted to general manager. Two years and one day later, he was fired. In the wake of his dismissal emerged the most serious front office scandal in baseball history. In the wake of the scandal, the most severe sanctions ever leveled on a baseball team.

According to the findings of Major League Baseball following a lengthy investigation, Coppollella, with help from his assistant, Gordon Blakeley, who was also fired, hatched a scheme to bundle signing bonuses to international players in order to circumvent the bonus caps to which teams are subject pursuant to the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Coppolella got amateur players — through their representatives in Latin America — to take lower than the amount typically allotted in one year in order to use the money to sign other, highly rated players in subsequent years, with money they wouldn’t have otherwise had. They would likewise inflate the bonuses given to players not subject to the caps — “foreign professionals” — and divert that money to amateurs for whom they did not have sufficient legal cap money.

As a result of this cap circumvention, MLB found that the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to them had they accurately accounted for signings during the 2015-16 signing period. Three other players were also found to have been improperly signed. As a result of that, the Braves were forced to give up 12 players in all:

  • Juan Contreras;
  • Yefri del Rosario;
  • Abrahan Gutierrez;
  • Kevin Maitan;
  • Juan Carlos Negret;
  • Yenci Peña;
  • Yunior Severino;
  • Livan Soto;
  • Guillermo Zuniga;
  • Brandol Mezquita;
  • Angel Rojas; and
  • Antonio Sucre

These guys, most of whom were highly-sought-after prospects — are now starting to sign with other teams.

Coppolella, who reportedly would not cooperate with Major League Baseball’s investigation and who has threatened litigation — has been placed on baseball’s permanently ineligible list — the same list Pete Rose is on — banning him from a job in baseball forever. His assistant, Blakeley, was suspended for one year. Other Braves’ international baseball operations employees who participated could still be suspended as the league finishes its investigation.

Beyond that, the Braves received what, in many ways, is an international signing death penalty. Thy will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period. Their international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will likewise be reduced by 50 percent. They are, functionally, out of the blue chip international prospect market for the next four years.

There are a lot of problems with baseball’s international signing pool system, which amounts to a salary cap for international players. It’s also likely that other teams, besides the Braves, were breaking these rules in one way or another. But rules are rules, and Coppolella’s breaking of them was insanely egregious, causing baseball to lower the boom, both to punish the Braves and to send a message to the other 29 teams who may or may not be operating in a shady fashion.

In so doing, Coppolella handicapped the Braves in significant ways for many years to come and, of course, committed professional suicide.

RHP Fairbanks, Rays agree to 3-year, $12 million contract

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Reliever Pete Fairbanks and the Tampa Bay Rays avoided arbitration when they agreed Friday to a three-year, $12 million contract that could be worth up to $24.6 million over four seasons.

The deal includes salaries of $3,666,666 this year and $3,666,667 in each of the next two seasons. The Rays have a $7 million option for 2026 with a $1 million buyout.

His 2024 and 2025 salaries could increase by $300,000 each based on games finished in the previous season: $150,000 each for 35 and 40.

Tampa Bay’s option price could increase by up to $6 million, including $4 million for appearances: $1 million each for 60 and 70 in 2025; $500,000 for 125 from 2023-25 and $1 million each for 135, 150 and 165 from 2023-25. The option price could increase by $2 million for games finished in 2025: $500,000 each for 25, 30, 35 and 40.

Fairbanks also has a $500,000 award bonus for winning the Hoffman/Rivera reliever of the year award and $200,000 for finishing second or third.

The 29-year-old right-hander is 11-10 with a 2.98 ERA and 15 saves in 111 appearances, with all but two of the outings coming out of the bullpen since being acquired by the Rays from the Texas Rangers in July 2019.

Fairbanks was 0-0 with a 1.13 ERA in 24 appearances last year after beginning the season on the 60-day injured list with a right lat strain.

Fairbanks made his 2022 debut on July 17 and tied for the team lead with eight saves despite being sidelined more than three months. In addition, he is 0-0 with a 3.60 ERA in 12 career postseason appearances, all with Tampa Bay.

He had asked for a raise from $714,400 to $1.9 million when proposed arbitration salaries were exchanged Jan. 13, and the Rays had offered for $1.5 million.

Fairbanks’ agreement was announced two days after left-hander Jeffrey Springs agreed to a $31 million, four-year contract with Tampa Bay that could be worth $65.75 million over five seasons.

Tampa Bay remains scheduled for hearings with right-handers Jason Adam and Ryan Thompson, left-hander Colin Poche, third baseman Yandy Diaz and outfielder Harold Ramirez.