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.