Atlanta Braves

Heyman | The upshot of the Braves penalties

Mar 15, 2015; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; The Atlanta Braves logo painted on the field during a spring training baseball game at Champion Stadium. The Toronto Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves 10-5. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Braves are in good position now with experienced and respected Alex Anthopoulos as GM, and a farm system that, even after the removal of 13 Latin players, who signed in 2016, via MLB’s severe penalties for rules violations, people within the organization still believe is second-best in terms of organizational talent (i.e. prospects), behind the White Sox. But while the Braves came out OK, a lot of folks were impacted.

Most affected was former GM John Coppolella, who was banned for life by MLB after being forced out. He is believed to have made a settlement with the Braves and this week he issued a very conciliatory, contrite statement this week that is seen by people close to the situation, who know how much he loved his job, as an important step before he could think about re-applying to get back into the game, which is allowed by rules. (He declined comment beyond the statement.)

The story may not be fully told by those involved, but let’s take a look at the upshot so far.

1. MLB

MLB made a strong statement by letting 13 players go free, suspending top international scout Gordon Blakeley for a year and banning Coppolella for life. (And sources say there may yet be another suspension or two to come for the Braves, though they may be at level below GM.) MLB for too long couldn’t catch up with widespread international shenanigans, and good for commissioner Rob Manfred that he has made a real crackdown a priority.

With these penalties – particularly the one to Coppolella, who’d worked his way up from low-paid Yankee intern to the low-paid GM – executives and scouts have been put on notice that there is a new reality regarding rules flouting. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. And the playing field needed to be leveled, almost as much as it needed to be done with steroids and performance enhancers.

“The Commissioner’s Office did the right thing. They had to make it clear. It’s bad for the game, and bad for the franchise,” one rival GM said. “There had to be a franchise penalty.”

2. The 13 players let go

All of these players will receive a  fresh start and some an undeserved monetary boost since presumably at least a few were complicit in the shenanigans. Some are highly regarded and will turn out to be pretty good, so this definitely hurt the franchise (as do future penalties). Many believe infielder Kevin Maitan might need just that, as he didn’t perform to the level of his $4.25 million bonus.

The allegation was that the Braves agreed with him at 14, then hid him, and as one rival evaluator said, it’s not worth breaking that age rule as it’s impossible to tell who’s going to turn out at age 14. As of today, the jury’s out on Maitan, who has since signed with the Angels for an extra $2.2 million, as Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com reported (his $6.45 million total will be more than any future young international prospects will presumably receive under the new rules that limit teams to $5.75 million total per year).

“He’s not that good,” one rival evaluator said, though others still think highly of Maitan, who is good enough to shoot to the top of the Angels’ new prospect list.

3. Coppolella and Blakeley

Since both men resigned under pressure, there were obviously admissions of wrongdoing, and the excuse that it is widespread obviously wasn’t going to fly, not when there are emails and texts.

While such activities have been presumed to be going on elsewhere, Coppoella’s very tough penalty came after MLB found him evasive and even untruthful in their initial interview with him. (The Braves turned over all emails and texts, as MLB requires in such circumstances.)

It’s hard to gauge the culpability without seeing the emails/texts, which obviously aren’t public, but the fact that Coppolella was seen as being less-than-cooperative (sources suggest he was less-than-candid with MLB investigators, at least in his initial interview, may have led to the very tough penalty.

Meanwhile, Blakeley, who had much less to lose (since he’s about 60 and more than two decades older than Coppolella, who is in his late 30s), had much more to say. Initially, he said more to the media, too, issuing a statement to select media (including here), saying, “I am obviously very disappointed in the Commissioner’s decision regarding my suspension, particularly given my 32 years of unvarnished service to the game. That said, I am digesting the Commissioner’s findings and considering all of my options going forward. I take responsibility for my actions in this situation; however; I always acted under the direction of my superiors.”

Blakeley declined further comment, but David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said he has a date to talk to Braves upper management, Judging by his first comment, he could have more to say about one or more people at the top of the baseball department, presumably above Coppolella, and perhaps  Blakeley could be on the way to his own settlement.

Before issuing that statement this week in which he took responsibility for his actions, Coppolella had said nothing to the media since he was suspended, and he has consistently declined comment when contacted.

People close to him point out that he broke no laws (unlike a couple others in the small group of banned-for-life folks) and suggest that these were garden-variety violations that are widespread – though people familiar with the case will tell you the proven scope with 13 players made free agents is unprecedented – and past violators received very minor personal penalties by comparison.

Coppolella was thought to be among the lowest-paid GMs at $500,000, and was working around the clock to prove his worth and aid the Braves, and he left the Braves in excellent shape for the future through creativity, doggedness (and yes, rule breaking), so he has something to offer should he ever re-apply.

While execs on other teams have long referred to Latin America as “the Wild West” and rule skirting isn’t uncommon, the excuse that “everyone does it” obviously isn’t going to fly in this MLB regime, and the written evidence was revelatory in this case.

MLB was also surprised there were enough irregularities to fall into four separate baskets – the Dominican signings, a Korean signing, an underage recent signing and a drafted player signing (in that one, there was something memorialized either on text or email regarding the promise of a car, though no car was ever delivered and the principles claimed that was actually a joke and the drafted player stayed, so there wasn’t actual proof in that case).

Some could view Coppolella as an unfortunate example, taking the brunt of an organizational issue. One executive, who indicated he understood the hefty penalty, suggested in light of the widespread nature of the problem (consider that signings are very frequently reported before signing periods have even begun) and past penalties, it still feels a bit like Coppolella is “the fall guy” for a sport.

When the Red Sox were caught and penalized for international violations a year ago, there weren’t any penalties given to individuals, and in fact their international guy received a promotion soon after. That isn’t to excuse Coppolella, or to say he didn’t deserve what he got, but it’s also worthy noting that MLB has relied heavily on precedent when it comes to penalties for players. (Of course, they have the protection of a very powerful union.)

4. John Hart

The former Braves baseball president who lost his job had a long and storied career, and while no one has yet suggested that even one email or text implicated him in the schemes, even if he didn’t know what was going on (which tests the limits of believability), that’s damning in itself.

He made a seven-figure salary (one person said it was $2 million plus) and the claim is that he didn’t know anything about anything – the Korean, Dominican, draft or underage signings – can’t possibly work, which led to his ouster. He hasn’t spoken about his role since being forced out (he has received no additional penalty from MLB, which seems to confirm there was no email/text tying him to any of the rule breaking), but he’s admitted no wrongdoing and presumably is claiming he had a limited scope despite his extraordinary salary.

He declined to speak about this situation but is also said to understand that he had to accept some responsibility since this all happened under his watch, which is why he was forced out (his contract was up at the end of the year, but he was let go a month early to “pursue other opportunities”).

Hart obviously did some great earlier work, especially in Cleveland, where he went to two World Series as GM, and he long had a delegating, hands-off style that worked elsewhere.

In Atlanta, people say he may have taken that to an extreme. Though while they say Hart was “detached” or “disengaged,” and that he spent a lot of time on the golf course, people around the team also say he and Coppolella were constantly in touch. There was even a flattering story about Hart written last spring training about how he and Coppolella were almost joined at the hip. (Coppolella said in that piece by Travis Sawchik that he talked to Hart more than his wife.)

In any case, even if Hart did absolutely nothing for that $2 million salary, he should be happy to have been accorded a “soft landing” and “graceful exit.” If he legitimately knew nothing, one wonders what the Braves were paying for the past couple years after he said he was going to mentor and oversee the young GM.

Ultimately, the right call was made to push him out, even before his contract was up. But it still seems odd that, with all that was going on, he was the guy who acted as the point man in the GM search that narrowed the field to Jim Hendry and Anthopoulos, and selected Anthopoulos. He even hung around the GM meetings for two days, which also seemed odder still since he had been busted down to “adviser” by the time, a title that would stick a total of a few days.

5. Eric Young, Walt Weiss, Sal Fasano, Terry Pendleton and Eddie Perez

Good for Young, Weiss and Fasano to land coaching jobs. But it seems a bit strange that the Hart regime was allowed to let go of Pendleton and Perez, who had previously been mentioned as managerial timber, after the investigation was in full flight. (Thank goodness, they decided to keep manager Brian Snitker after Coppolella was forced out.)

6. Perry Minasian, Andrew Tinnish and Adam Fisher

Anthopoulos rightly received the opportunity to bring his old front office lieutenants back, promoting Minasian, who had recently been hired by Hart/Coppolella, and Tinnish, who came from Toronto (though he has quickly resigned from his Braves position, citing family reasons, to return to the Jays).

Word is Anthopoulos will get one or two more hires of his own for a front office that was thin (with Hart apparently doing nothing, Coppolella was obviously working around the clock).

Fisher was let go by Anthopoulos, not because of anything he did, but because he’d been hired as the No. 2 man and he didn’t know him. Fisher will be paid the length of his deal (it’s two years) minus the expected offset, and the Mets may hire him back.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Merlin

    Dec 8, 2017 at 10:04 am

    This is one of the best written pieces I’ve seen from Heyman right up o the point he says, “Thank goodness, they decided to keep manager Brian Snitker . . .”
    Snitker’s been a disaster as a major league manager. From bad bullpen use to choosing the worst among a bad set of choices in pinch hitting roles, and using players out of position when he had better players available, he looked like what he is, a minor league manager out of his depth.
    It was reported prior to the departure of Perez and Pendleton that the Braves wanted a bench coach familiar with the new metrics though Pendleton had a chance to become more familiar and keep the job. Obviously he didn’t and the Braves hired Weiss to explain how to use the new metrics to Snitker. Explaining a tool to the man using it as he’s using it seems a recipe for disaster.
    They kept Snitker because at a time of turmoil the Players said they wanted him to stay. That’s the wrong reason. As proof I’ll offer that the same team leader said the same thing about Fredi Gonzalez after Gonzalez consistently demonstrated his ineptitude.
    Anthoploulos will fire Snitkerand install either Weiss or Washington as interim they look for his guy after 2018. Meanwhile the Fans will suffer Snitker’s follies once more.

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