Today Major League Baseball announced long-rumored penalties against the Atlanta Braves for multiple rules violations regarding the signing of amateur players. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred released the following statement:
"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 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.
In addition, former Braves GM John Coppolella has received a lifetime ban from MLB. Assistant Gordon Blakeley has been suspended for one year and additional penalties for other front office officials are possible. The Braves will also not be allowed to sign any international player for more than $10,000 in the 2019-2020 signing period.
There were also irregularities in the spring draft. Jeff Passan at Yahoo Sports reports that the Braves offered “extra benefits” to 2017 draft pick Drew Waters. Waters will not be made a free agent, but the Braves will lose their third-round pick in the 2018 draft as compensation for this violation.
Manfred’s decision isn’t exactly a death penalty for the farm given the depth of the Braves organization but it is a serious blow that removes some of the highest-ceiling talents from the system. A bidding war for Maitan at least seems inevitable.
Passan notes that “executives around baseball agreed that other teams disregard the rules in similar fashion to Atlanta.” The Boston Red Sox were caught in similar rules violations in 2016 and were banned from signing international players from one year.
While rules bending has been commonplace, the Atlanta violations were apparently more egregious than most, a point made most strongly by the banning of Coppolella for life. This serves as a warning to all front office personnel that their careers are at risk if they don’t follow the rules.