This was not a slap on the wrist. This was a punch in the nose. I thought it would be bad. It was worse.
The Braves lost 13 minor-leaguers, breaking the Red Sox’s existing record by nine. Their future in the international market has been restricted if not choked off. Their former head of international scouting has been banned from baseball for a year. Their former general manager -- the architect of their three-year rebuild -- has been banned for life.
Even those who’d braced themselves for the worst were knocked backward by this. MLB hammered the Braves to the extent that the consensus No. 1 farm system won’t be the consensus No. 1 anymore, and maybe not in the top three. When the biggest achievement of three grueling rebuilding years was having the top-ranked farm system, that’s no small retreat.
Kevin Maitan was a big deal in this organization. Key word: “was.” MLB found that the Braves broke rules to sign Maitan, Abraham Gutierrez, Yunior Severino and Juan Contreras – the top four from what was considered a bountiful international class of July 2016. The Braves were stripped of all the above, and also -- pause here for effect -- of NINE other minor-leaguers.
At last check, a baseball lineup includes nine players, 10 if you’re doing the DH thing. The Braves are losing the rough equivalent of a minor-league team. That’s devastating. It’s also unprecedented.
That 2016 international class was seen one of the high points of Coppolella’s time as general manager. He was forced to resign Oct. 2. MLB decreed Tuesday that he won’t work again in baseball.
Think about that. How many banned-forever baseball people can you name? Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox. Peter Edward Rose. Christopher Correa, the Cardinals’ mad hacker. Now John Coppolella, former Braves GM.
Now think about those names. The Black Sox threw a World Series. Pete bet on baseball. Correa stole information. But how far afield can a GM go in the pursuit of young talent? (Pretty darn far, apparently.)
As for the abashed team Coppolella leaves behind: Were the penalties limited to past misdoings, that’d be bad enough. Thing is, the Braves will be severely restricted in the international market from 2019 through 2021. That’s a huge blow to Alex Anthopoulos, the new GM. With Toronto, his Blue Jays were among the most ardent suitors of international talent. (Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a Toronto signing of July 2015, is ranked the No. 2 overall prospect by Baseball America.)
There’s also this: The Braves won’t be allowed to sign Robert Puason, a 14-year-old shortstop from the Dominican Republic with whom they’re said to have struck a handshake deal two years too soon. And this: The Braves will lose their third-round pick in the 2018 domestic draft for the illegal inducement extended to Drew Waters of Etowah High, their second draftee this June. (Coppolella reportedly offered a car to make up a difference in slot money.)
They will not, however, lose Waters. Be thankful for small favors.
From the Braves’ statement released late Tuesday afternoon: “As we expressed last week, our organization has not lived up to the standard our fans expect from us and that we expect from ourselves. For that, we apologize. We are instituting the changes necessary to prevent this from ever happening again and remain excited about the future of Braves baseball. We do not plan to comment further.” No wonder.
There’s no question that Coppolella was zealous – overzealous, it’s safe to say now – in his attempts to make the Braves a winner. As has long been known, the international market is a tricky place. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports wrote Tuesday: “As the investigation into the Braves unfolded, executives around baseball agreed that other teams disregard the rules in similar fashion to Atlanta. The Braves were simply the ones caught.”
But, as the saying goes: You can’t get framed if you don’t put yourself in the picture. Coppolella and Gordon Blakeley -- the chief international scout also pushed aside; MLB hit him with a one-year ban -- were apparently so blatant that they became the Hugh Freeze/Ole Miss of baseball. Even rivals not averse to cutting a corner themselves recoiled at how brazen the Braves had become. These penalties were MLB’s way of saying, “Enough is enough.”
For the post-Coppolella Braves, the job just got much harder. Most of the prized young players he banked over the past three years remain Braves property, but not nearly all. Beyond that, the brand has been tarnished in a way few baseball brands have ever been.
I thought it could get bad. This is close to the absolute worst. Coppolella’s great rebuild is itself in need of rebuilding. Coppolella himself must find another line of work. MLB sent a message. The Braves caught it right between the eyes. If you want to call Tuesday the darkest day in franchise history, I won’t rise to object.