- Gabriel Burns
The Braves just wanted to move on, and after a Tuesday of historically harsh and humiliating scolding, they finally can.
MLB decided to make an example of the Braves, dropping extraordinary sanctions on the organization following a long investigation into malpractice by the previous regime, largely involving the illegal packaging of signing bonuses for international players.
Former general manager John Coppolella received a lifetime ban from baseball, while former international scouting director Gordon Blakeley was suspended for a year. Former president of baseball operations John Hart, not named in MLB’s statement, relinquished his position upon the hiring of GM Alex Anthopoulos, transitioning to a senior adviser title that he resigned from four days later.
With the penalties announced, a scarred Braves franchise can move forward, though still plagued by its recent checkered past. The results of the last administration’s sins will bleed into the plans of the new front office, with the most significant sanctions restricting spending on the international market through 2020.
But first, the short-term damage: The Braves lost 13 international signees, with each eligible to sign with another team Dec. 5. The organization also lost its 2018 third-round pick for offering under-the-table benefits to outfielder Drew Waters, the Braves’ second-round selection in the 2017 draft.
Commissioner Rob Manfred ruled the following free agents: Kevin Maitan, Abrahan Gutierrez, Yunior Severino, Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, Livan Soto, Yenci Pena, Jihwan Bae, Juan Carlos Negret, Guillermo Zuniga, Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre.
In a day full of losses, there were a couple of things salvaged from the wreckage. Retaining Waters, a promising 18-year-old switch-hitter out of Etowah High School and a native of metro Atlanta, was a win. With the amount of uber-young talent lost Tuesday, keeping him became that much more important.
The Braves come out of their mess with minimal domestic-related damage. The team was stripped of just a third-round pick in the next draft and no foul play in the draft was cited outside the offer(s) to Waters. The team keeps its first-round pick (eighth overall) in 2018, which will allow it to add another premium talent to what’s still one of baseball’s best farms.
Keeping the system among the elite, however, will be a unique long-term challenge for Anthopoulos. He’s down 13 players from when he accepted the job, including Maitan, the prize of the 2016 international signing period.
The early returns on Maitan were disappointing. He hit .241 with two homers in 176 plate appearances in two rookie-league affiliates. ESPN’s Keith Law said his swing looked “awful” and he may not even be a top 100 prospect anymore.
That’s a far cry from the amateur reports on Maitan when the infielder signed with the Braves for $4.25 million, a Venezuelan bonus record.
Still, Maitan is only 17 and maintains the same natural ability and tools that made him so highly coveted in the first place. While perhaps not as dooming as it would’ve once appeared, based on potential alone, it’s a loss. Though the Braves’ outlook in the infield could jettison the blow. The organization loves third-base prospect Austin Riley, who could debut next season, while Maitan was obviously years away.
Bae was a player who Coppolella and special assistant Chad MacDonald hoped would help the team develop a stronger presence in Asia. MacDonald compared Bae to a player he once signed, Nationals standout Trae Turner, saying that at his peak Bae’s speed and defense could be game-altering. The franchise considered him the best prospect in the Pacific.
While the losses of talents such as Maitan and Bae can be withstood, subtracting 13 players severely impacts the franchise’s depth. That could make the team less-likely to pull the trigger on a trade involving multiple prospects for a major-leaguer, for example, because the organization has less to fall back on.
The largest issue will come in replenishing talent. The Braves cannot exceed $300,000 in signing an international player over the next two periods. The team is limited to a $10,000 limit per player in the 2019-20 periods – a remarkably low number that will result in extremely shallow gains in the international market – and loses half its bonus pool (estimated $4.75 million) over that time.
Today’s era relies on international signings. Ten of Baseball America’s top 15 prospects, and eight of its top 10, were international free agents. While it’s entirely possible many, if not most of the players the Braves lost will never contribute at the major-league level, it indisputably hurt the franchise’s foundation.
Limited activity in the market could also harm the team from a relations standpoint. Such as Coppolella hoping the Bae signing would lead to more activity in Asia, or the benefit in the Venezuelan market by having Ender Inciarte and Ronald Acuna in the major-league outfield, and Maitan as a potential future piece.
The spending limitations effectively remove the Braves from adding premier talent they otherwise may have built a bridge to. Anthopoulos has to pilot the team out of a rebuild and into contention while walking on egg-shells, knowing he’ll be at a disadvantage for the next several signing periods. That may prompt more delicacy with prospects while certainly increasing the importance of the domestic draft.
MLB’s punishment dealt a blow to the Braves’ brand and made sustainable success more complicated, but it didn’t throw the rebuild off course. The Braves’ immediate future remains the same. The trick will be in how Anthopoulos and his staff handle the bridge to contention, and how they can avoid the farm system falling back to its barren, pre-Coppolella days.