When penalties were handed down to the Atlanta Braves in wake of their Latin American international signing operations on Tuesday, the baseball community was taken aback.
In perhaps its most harsh penalty to date, Major League Baseball concluded that Atlanta circumvented MLB rules in order to sign a collection of 13 prospects, all of whom were declared free agents. To add, the Braves’ international bonus pools in both the 2019-20 and 2020-21 periods were reduced; the team cannot sign any player for more than $10,000 in the former of the two periods and will have their overall pool reduced by 50 percent in the latter. Lastly, former Braves’ general manager John Coppolella joined Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson on MLB’s permanently ineligible list.
However, there was something missing: what made Coppolella different? What stimulated such a harsh reaction from the league?
Coppolella is the scapegoat; he took the fall. Yes, Coppolella violated the rules and conducted shady business, and, as MLB found, it was on a massive scale. There isn’t anything in here, though, that suggests what Coppolella did as the Braves’ general manager is anything different than what most teams do on a yearly basis.
This, of course, speaks to a larger concern as a result—the entire Latin American market. The system is broken with your players too easily exploited. Teams, negotiating with buscones, or Latin American trainer-agents, make behind-closed-doors deals to ensure that the best prospects get into their system. Package deals, or using their money to sign multiple players, often via the same buscón, allow teams to be more “creative” with their bonus pools. It’s nothing new; the Red Sox were investigated for something similar just last year and, in what was called an unprecedented ruling at the time, five of their prospects became free agents and they were barred from signing any players during the 2016-17 international bonus period.
The inconsistency here is baffling. Sure, the 13 voided contracts still make sense; if Major League Baseball concludes that those players were signed illegally, the Braves should not be able to benefit from their future production. The severe restrictions on Braves’ future pools (not to say the Red Sox’ punishment wasn’t severe, but the Braves won’t have a normal signing period until 2021-22) and the banishment of John Coppolella seem to be taking this one step further.
Coppolella was not well-liked by others around the league, and as Yahoo Sports reported, an anonymous complaint is what started MLB’s investigation in the first place. Had Coppolella been more better-received by his peers around the league, would he still have a job? It’s a fair question to ask considering the nature of the Latin American market and the way in which all teams conduct business there.
That’s not to say that Coppolella isn’t a crook. As Ken Rosenthal reported in The Athletic on Wednesday, Coppolella not only “blatantly cheated, he then lied and changed his story repeatedly.” Like he was running a ponzi scheme, Coppoella’s tenure in Atlanta came to a crashing end. But that probably will not change things in Latin America, and conduct like this will continue to happen and largely be part of the normal operation in the region.
As Peter Gammons also considered in The Athletic, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s message to Coppolella and the Braves might just be a forewarning to teams interested in Japanese superstar Shonei Ohtani, called the country’s “Babe Ruth” and again subject to the international bonus pools that the Braves evaded. This punishment may only be this harsh to ensure that teams are on their best behavior when dealing with Ohtani, meaning that Coppolella, once again, is the scapegoat.
This is not a defense of John Coppolella. Manfred is right—he should not be allowed to participate in Major League Baseball for a long time, as he deemed it, as long as Coppy shall live. Still, though, the nuances here have to be discussed, and there are broader more systemic issues at work here.
This won’t fix a permanently broken Latin America system in which many teams likely did something similar to the Braves’ system. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but if anything, all 30 teams deserve to be investigated, with hopefully a systemic change as necessary.
Coppolella might still have a job if not outed by others around the league who dislike him. Tying into point No. 1, what does that say about the state of Major League Baseball? Executives appear willing to keep “dirty dealing” quiet if they are on good terms. That isn’t good; it’s obviously cheating, and there are real victims at play.
Lastly, what does this mean for Ohtani? Teams must be reviewing their international signing departments to ensure that he will sign legally. With all eyes on that transaction, it should be by-the-books.
The real question here is the embedded illegality of the international system. It came crashing down on the Braves, but was that really fair?
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.