Rob Manfred Strikes Fear in Heart of MLB by Banning Former Braves GM for Life

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterNovember 22, 2017

John Coppolella
John CoppolellaAssociated Press

The press release from Major League Baseball dropped just before the close of business Tuesday.

"Commissioner's Statement Regarding Braves' Violations," it said, and that's exactly what this was.

It was a statement, perhaps the strongest one Rob Manfred has made yet in his three years as the commissioner of baseball. It was a statement heard round the baseball world, one that many who have decried the Wild West nature of baseball's international signing game had been hoping for but never really expected.

Manfred's full release, describing findings and penalties, was posted on MLB.com.

The Braves later responded to MLB's decision, saying they "cooperated fully throughout this investigation and we understand and accept the decision regarding the penalties that have been handed down."

"Game-changer," said one executive who has worked in the international market. "I think this will have a major impact in how people operate."

It should. It might not, because the incentives to cheat are still great. But at least now everyone in baseball should understand the penalties for cheating can be even greater.

Ask John Coppolella, the former Braves general manager who had already lost his job but now has lost any chance at getting another one in MLB. In addition to stripping the Braves of 12 prospects Coppolella and his staff signed over the last three years, Manfred placed Coppolella on MLB's permanently ineligible list.

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To be clear, that's the Pete Rose list, the Shoeless Joe Jackson list, the list that says you did something so bad baseball wants no part of you anymore.

That's a statement.

Rob Manfred
Rob ManfredJohn Raoux/Associated Press/Associated Press

Manfred also effectively prohibited the Braves from signing any significant international free agent between now and July 2, 2020, and cut their signing bonus pool in half for the year after that. Gordon Blakeley, who had been a Braves special assistant until he and Coppolella were forced to resign Oct. 2, received a one-year ban. Manfred also took away the Braves' third-round draft pick in June, because they were found to have broken one of the draft signing rules, too.

That's a statement, too.

There will be those who say everyone cheats on the international market, that the Braves were simply the team that got caught. Multiple officials from teams around baseball strongly disputed that sentiment in the hours after Manfred's announcement. All of them agreed the penalties were strong, even stunningly strong, but not one of them suggested they weren't justified.

"The Braves were reckless," one major league general manager said.

What did they do? Like everything in the international market, it's a little complicated, but we'll try to simplify it.

While players from outside the United States and Canada aren't subject to the June draft, teams can't simply sign anyone they want for as much money as they want to give. For the last several years, MLB has given each team a pool of money. What the Braves did, according to MLB, was circumvent those rules by giving some prospects smaller bonuses on paper while channeling more money to them through their agents and claiming it went to players not covered by the signing rules.

By doing so, they stayed within their cap for the 2015-16 signing period, enabling them to overspend the next year. Had they reported the bonuses they actually gave in 2015-16, they would have been prohibited from signing any player for more than $300,000 in 2016-17, effectively taking them out of the market for the nine "high-value" prospects they signed that year.

Basically, the Braves found a way to get around the rules and sign a huge number of players they could not have signed within the rules. Other teams trying to sign the same players suspected right away something fishy was going on, and an MLB investigation that took nearly two months found significant cheating.

Other teams have been charged with similar "bundling" violations in the past. Five players originally signed by the Boston Red Sox were made free agents in 2016, and the Red Sox were banned from international signings for a year.

"My [international scouts] have been upset for a long time because it progressively gets worse with more clubs each year," said another general manager, who said the Braves have been the worst offenders.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

Both general managers contacted by Bleacher Report said the only long-term solution that would work is an international draft. One of the GMs called the current system unfair to the players involved, saying many of the bonuses never get to the players and are instead diverted to trainers and others who deliver the players to the teams that sign them.

The players union has long fought the idea of an international draft, believing it would cut bonuses even further by limiting players to negotiating with a single team. Baseball officials and players in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries have feared a draft and lower bonuses would harm the baseball infrastructure in those countries. The collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2021, doesn't allow for a draft.

Baseball is going to continue to operate under the current system, at least for a while. Manfred is determined to get teams to play by those rules—or else. He showed Tuesday what "or else" means.

"I think it will put the brakes on things, at least for the immediate future," one of the GMs said. "MLB has done a lot, and I believe they will continue to work on this."

The Braves got hit hard, make no mistake about it. Coppolella got hit even harder. The penalties were severe, even unprecedented, for this type of violation.

They were strong enough to catch the attention of everyone in baseball. The hope is they're strong enough to convince everyone that serious cheating on the international market isn't worth the risk.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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