John Coppolella was forced to resign as Braves general manager on Monday after an ongoing Major League Baseball investigation revealed alleged international free-agent market infractions more extensive and serious than team officials had initially thought.
It was a stunning development one day after after the Braves finished their third consecutive 90-loss season. On an afternoon that many believed might bring an announcement regarding the fate of manager Brian Snitker, instead there was a seismic shift above him with the ousting of the 38-year-old GM who had made a frenzy of trades and other moves to re-stock the farm system during a rebuilding project that is three years in and counting.
“MLB always looks at the Braves as being a standard-bearer organization, a gold-standard, high-glass organization,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said. “And in this situation, it just didn’t pass muster. Certainly didn’t pass MLB’s muster, but at the same point it didn’t pass the Atlanta Braves’ (muster).”
Coppolella was forced by the team to resign after MLB revealed to the Braves during the weekend the scope of its investigation involving infractions involving Coppolella and Braves special assistant to the GM and international scouting supervisor Gordon Blakeley, who also resigned Monday. Hart didn’t rule out other Braves international scouting officials being part of future disciplinary measures.
Neither the Braves nor an MLB spokesman would comment on the exact nature of the infractions.
“In the past couple of weeks we were informed by Major League Baseball that there was an investigation into some issues, primarily in the international arena,” said Hart, who will assume the general manager duties until a replacement is found. “We obviously did everything we could to help MLB, we were very cooperative. We didn’t think that there was really anything to it.”
Their thinking changed abruptly a few days ago after MLB presented its findings so far, the extent of which led the Braves to call Coppolella back to Atlanta from Miami, where the Braves were playing a season-ending series. He met with MLB investigators and with team officials about a situation that was now viewed as untenable by the top brass in the organization, the few officials with higher ranking than Coppolella.
“In their investigation they dug up a number of things that were quite serious, as far as the MLB rules,” Hart said. “And ultimately, I think, because of what they did dig up and what they did have, it sort of drove us into the spot we’re in right now. I can speak for certainly everybody with the Braves, we’re deeply disappointed. ...
“This is the Atlanta Braves, there’s a certain standard that you just live up to. And there were a lot of instances that we found that just weren’t (up to that standard). These are MLB rules, no criminal activity or anything like that. That’s not even an issue. It’s an MLB rules violation that has to do with the international marketplace, that’s the primary focus as to where this is. Ultimately, Gordon Blakeley has resigned as well.”
Hart said the GM upheaval would not affect the pending decision on whether to retain Snitker, who has a team option on his contract for 2018. That decision could be made by mid-week, with Hart making the call.
Hart also vowed that the GM change would not affect the Braves’ offseason plans including the pursuit of potential trades or free agents, and said if they had to hire a new GM, this was the best time of year for a change to happen.
Royals GM Dayton Moore, a former Braves assistant GM under John Schuerholz, is likely the top target, but if he’s not available the Braves could turn to Dan Jennings, a former Marlins GM and manager who’s now a Nationals special assistant.
The Braves believe the hardest part of their rebuild is completed, though there clearly is plenty of work ahead.
“John has helped immensely as we’ve got through this rebuild, we have worked and I think we’re in such a good position going forward,” Hart said. “I think we’re poised to do some really good things in the near future. We’ve done a lot of heavy lifting to get here. That’s a good thing.”
As for his personal feelings regarding Coppolella, Hart said, “It’s not ever going to change, I have high regards for Coppy. I do. I love his family. Again, it’s deeply disappointing that we kind of came to this point. I think more than anything I’m just saddened for him and his family.”
Hart said the MLB investigation looked back “about two years” into Braves dealings and produced significant alleged infractions. When asked if the Braves might receive any penalties over the incidents, Hart said, “I don’t know yet. I don’t know. Again, we’ve cooperated right from the beginning in any way we could. Obviously they’ve detected violations, and I don’t know (if there will be penalties). They haven’t given us a heads-up on that at all.”
He said the decision regarding Coppolella and Blakeley was made independent of MLB and wasn’t a “bargaining” move in hopes of avoiding any stiff penalties, the way that some universities do when self-imposing sanctions in hopes of avoiding worse penalties from the NCAA.
“The decision that was made here internally was that it just wasn’t right, and it wasn’t going to fit for what worked for the Braves,” said Hart, who would not go into any details about the alleged infractions because of the ongoing nature of the investigation.
An MLB spokesman said the investigation was ongoing and that it was too early to draw any conclusions.
Until the past few days, the Braves had believed the infractions were relatively minor, the type of thing that would blow over. When MLB first contacted them, Hart said team officials pledged to help in any way they could.
“They alerted us that they had become aware of some issues, and we immediately, full circle, ‘What can we do to help?’” Hart said. “And in the last 72 hours you could see and feel a different tone as they got deeper into it.”
The Braves are already in the so-called “penalty box” for two years, permitted to spend only as much as $300,000 apiece on international free agents after spending far above their international signing-bonus pool in 2016, when they signed a bevy of top young Latin teenagers including Kevin Maitain, a Venezuelan shortstop who’s still just 17 but was rated as the No. 77 prospect in baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2017 season.
The Braves’ recruitment of Maitan -- the consensus around around baseball at the time was that he agreed to a deal with the Braves long before his eligible signing day -- is among the signings that will likely be investigated by MLB if it hasn’t been already.
Ultimately, those with knowledge of the Braves’ dealings in the Latin American free-agent marketplace say they were a little too fast-and-loose even by the standards of that area of player procurement, which has been described as the “wild, wild west” when compared to scouting and drafting players in the United States.
“The international market is different, as you know,” Hart said. “It’s not as (organized, structured) as the domestic (market), just different dynamics down there, and I think it lends to some ability to play a little bit down there. That’s ultimately where it happened.”
Hart said he didn’t think the MLB investigation would lead to any penalties that might cost the Braves players. “I don’t know that to be a fact, but I would assume not,” he said.
Coppolella held the GM title for two years and served as the de facto GM for a year prior to that. The Braves fired GM Frank Wren and turned over baseball operations to Hart, who was named president of baseball operations in October 2014, and Coppolella, who served under Wren and kept an assistant GM title for one year as Hart’s right-hand man before being promoted GM on Oct. 1, 2015.
The Braves embarked on a rebuilding project after firing Wren, as they systematically traded away veteran players with high salaries and/or those nearing free agency in numerous transactions that brought back prospects, most of them pitching prospects.
The organization’s farm system improved from bottom-tier status a few years ago to No. 1 or No. 2 according to most experts, as the Braves loaded up on prospects acquired via trades and the draft.
But the product at the major league level has not improved as quickly as the Braves had envisioned, and while attendance was up in the first season at SunTrust Park in 2017, the increase wasn’t as great as the Braves had hoped for after moving from Turner Field to the new ballpark with its surrounding village of bars and restaurants.
Coppolella has a couple of high-profile mistake trades on his resume, most notably dealing away left-hander Alex Wood and other young talent to acquire Cuban third baseman Hector Olivera, who turned out to be a bust on the field even before he was suspended after being arrested for domestic assault. He was later traded to the Padres in a swap of bad contracts that has saddled the Braves with injury-prone outfielder Matt Kemp.