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MLB Sends a Message With Its Atlanta Braves Sanctions

The organization lost 13 prospects and won’t be able to replenish its system for years after it was found to have violated international signing rules

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Former Braves GM John Coppolella
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball levied harsh punishments against the Atlanta Braves organization on Tuesday after completing an investigation into Atlanta’s circumvention of rules legislating the international amateur market.

Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that he was voiding the contracts of 13 Atlanta prospects and making them free agents, as well as restricting the Braves’ ability to sign young players for the next few seasons. Former Braves general manager John Coppolella, who resigned on October 2 amid the investigation, was banned from MLB for life.

MLB found that the Braves had violated international signing rules in a number of ways, most notably by reporting lower signing bonuses for young, foreign prospects than were actually paid to them. The Braves packaged players with the same agent together as a means of siphoning more money to the best prospects, thereby allowing the club to stay within the limits of its signing bonus pool as prescribed by the collective bargaining agreement.

The severity of these punishments suggests the Braves’ discipline is chiefly about setting an example for the other 29 teams, which themselves have likely skirted rules for years in what the New York Post’s Joel Sherman termed the “Wild West of international [signings].” As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan wrote on Twitter, the main difference between Atlanta’s actions and the illicit dealings in which other clubs likely engage is that Atlanta “got caught.” Manfred must hope that when other team executives survey Atlanta’s sanctions and see one of their own receive a permanent ban from the sport, they will be less tempted to continue with their own shady dealings.

In 2016, Boston lost five minor-leaguers to free agency and was barred from participating in an international signing period after being investigated for a similar pattern of illicit signings, but the severity of Atlanta’s punishment goes far beyond what the Red Sox suffered, in both present and future sanctions.

In the present, 13 prospects in Atlanta’s system—many of whom were prized signings in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 international signing periods—will be returned to the international free-agent pool where any team can sign them using remaining bonus money from the current cycle or their allotment for next year. The headliner of that group, switch-hitting 17-year-old shortstop Kevin Maitan, ranks 38th on MLB’s top-100 prospect list and would prove a welcome consolation prize for any team that misses out on signing Japanese star Shohei Ohtani (assuming the Players Association agrees to a deal that would allow Ohtani to sign with an MLB team this winter).

And for the future, Manfred announced a set of punishments aimed to curb Atlanta’s chances of rapidly recovering from its losses. Atlanta will forfeit its third-round pick in the upcoming draft after engaging in at least one instance of an illegal bonus practice domestically. Internationally, the Braves were already subject to a hard signing-bonus cap for the next two international cycles; they will now also be prevented from signing any player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-2020 period, and their overall bonus pool will be slashed in half in 2020-21. Atlanta is also specifically barred from signing Robert Puason, a 15-year-old Dominican shortstop, after Manfred discovered that the Braves had inflated signing bonuses for six less-touted players in exchange for an early—and illegal, given Puason’s age—commitment from the youngster’s agent.

Tuesday’s announcement isn’t a death blow for the Braves’ ongoing rebuild. It hurts, to be sure, and Atlanta won’t recover the $20 million-plus it spent to acquire Maitan et al., but the franchise still boasts a bevy of top prospects. Despite ranking 38th among all MLB prospects, Maitan was just the fifth-ranked player in Atlanta’s farm system, which remains flush with talented arms and includes 19-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna, a top-five prospect in all of baseball who just last weekend became the youngest MVP in Arizona Fall League history.

Rather, it’s a warning that, at least in one instance, the days of lax treatment of prohibited international behavior are over. Those signing rules became even more stringent under the new CBA last year, as they now include hard-capped signing-bonus limits for every international prospect younger than 25. From MLB’s point of view, whether those limits are fair to the talented young players entering its ecosystem, who will toil at subpar wages for years in the minor leagues before potentially, one day, breaking through to the majors, is beside the point. The Braves got caught, and Manfred decided to make an example out of them. Other 29 teams, be warned.