Major League Baseball announced on Tuesday that former Braves general manager John Coppolella has been placed on the permanently ineligible list, essentially banning him for life.
The punishment is the result of an MLB investigation that determined the Braves intentionally circumvented the rules governing the signing of international free agents from 2015-17 as well as violating draft rules. Former Braves special assistant Gordon Blakeley was also suspended for one year and may not perform any service for any MLB club during that time. A statement issued by Commissioner Rob Manfred announcing the punishments said further discipline would be handed down at a later date, including to “other Braves' International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct” and “representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association.”
MLB investigators determined the Braves signed five players during the 2015-16 international period to signing bonuses lower than what had been agreed to, and reported the lower contract figures to MLB. The Braves then funneled the additional money into the contract of a foreign professional who was exempt from international signing pool limits. The additional money given to the foreign professional was then kicked back to the international amateurs without MLB knowing about it. The Braves did this to ensure the total reported signing bonuses for the amateur players would not exceed the teams’ bonus pool amount by more than five percent, which would have restricted them from signing any players to bonuses of more than $300,000 the following two years.
With the scheme, the Braves remained eligible to sign players to contracts larger than $300,000 during the 2016-17 international signing period. They did so for nine different players, including international No. 1 prospect Kevin Maitan.
MLB’s investigation also found the Braves entered into “package” deals in which they signed three players for reduced amounts and provided additional money to those players’ agents by signing other players who were clients of those agents, with inflated bonuses being funneled back to the original three players. MLB further determined the Braves agreed to sign six other players represented by the agent of touted 2019 prospect Robert Puason in order to receive a commitment that Puason sign with the Braves when eligible. They were also found to have offered Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae extracontractual compensation.
The nine players the Braves signed during the 2016-17 international signing period have been declared free agents eligible to sign with any team: Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, Abrahan Gutierrez, Kevin Maitan, Juan Carlos Negret, Yenci Peña, Yunior Severino, Livan Soto and Guillermo Zuniga.
The three players signed to “package” deals, Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre, have also been declared free agents. Puason will be restricted from signing with the Braves and Bae’s contract with the Braves will not be approved. The Braves further will not be able to sign any prospect for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 international signing period and will have their bonus pool cut in half for the 2020-21 international signing period.
The Braves were also found to have offered impermissible benefits to a 2017 draft pick in return for accepting a lower signing bonus. The draft pick was previously reported to be second-round selection Drew Waters and the impermissible benefit a car, which was never provided. The Braves have been stripped of their 2018 third-round pick as a result.
Copollela took over as the Braves general manager in Oct. 2015 and held the position until Oct. 2017, when he resigned amidst the investigation. He previously served as the Braves’ director of baseball operations (2006-10), director of professional scouting (2011) and assistant general manager (2012-15).
Blakeley served as a Braves special assistant to the GM since Oct. 2014. He also resigned in Oct. 2017 but reportedly rescinded his resignation.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month that Copollela and Blakeley have hired labor attorneys and are expected to file lawsuits related to the investigation.
The full text of MLB’s statement from Commissioner Manfred is below:
"My office has completed a thorough investigation into violations of Major League Rules by the Atlanta Braves. The Braves cooperated throughout the investigation, which was conducted by MLB's Department of Investigations. The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves. I am confident that Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Alex Anthopoulos and their staffs have and will put in place procedures to ensure that this type of conduct never occurs again and which will allow the Club to emerge from this difficult period as the strong and respected franchise that it has always been.
"The investigation established that the Braves circumvented international signing rules from 2015 through 2017. During the 2015-16 international signing period, the Braves signed five players subject to the Club's signing bonus pool to contracts containing signing bonuses lower than the bonuses the Club had agreed to provide the players. The Club provided the additional bonus money to those players by inflating the signing bonus to another player who was exempt from their signing pool because he qualified as a 'foreign professional' under MLB rules. Consistent with the rules, the Braves could have signed all of the 2015-16 players for the full, actual signing bonus amounts. Had the Club signed the five players to contracts containing their actual bonuses, however, the Braves would have exceeded their signing bonus pool by more than five percent and would have been, under MLB rules, restricted from signing any players during the next two signing periods for contracts with bonuses greater than $300,000.
"As a result of the 2015-16 circumvention, the Braves were able to sign nine high-value players during the 2016-17 signing period who would have been unavailable to them had the Club accurately accounted for its signings during the 2015-16 signing period. These players were Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario, Abrahan Gutierrez, Kevin Maitan, Juan Carlos Negret, Yenci Peña, Yunior Severino, Livan Soto and Guillermo Zuniga. In addition, the Braves entered into additional 'package' agreements in 2016 and 2017 in which they signed Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas and Antonio Sucre for reduced amounts, and provided additional money to those players' agents by signing other players affiliated with their agents to contracts with inflated bonuses. In order to remedy these violations, I am releasing these players from their contracts with the Braves and declaring them free agents eligible to sign with any other Club. The procedures governing the players' release and the signing process will be communicated to MLB Clubs under separate cover.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves: (i) agreed to sign six players to inflated signing bonuses pursuant to an agreement with prospect Robert Puason's agent in exchange for a commitment that Puason would sign with the Club in the 2019-20 signing period; and (ii) offered prospect Ji-Hwan Bae extra-contractual compensation. In order to remedy these violations, I am prohibiting the Club from signing Robert Puason when he becomes eligible to sign, and disapproving the contract between Bae and the Braves, which has not yet become effective.
"While the remedies discussed above will deprive the Braves of the benefits of their circumvention, I believe that additional sanctions are warranted to penalize the Club for the violations committed by its employees. Accordingly, the Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, which is the first signing period in which the Braves are not subject to any signing restrictions under our rules; and the Braves' international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 percent.
"The investigation also determined that the Braves offered impermissible benefits, which were never provided, to a player they selected in the First-Year Player Draft in an attempt to convince him to sign for a lower bonus. As a penalty for the Club's attempted circumvention involving a draft selection, the Braves will forfeit their third-round selection in the 2018 First-Year Player Draft.
"With respect to individual discipline, former Braves General Manager John Coppolella will be placed on the permanently ineligible list, effective immediately. Former Braves Special Assistant Gordon Blakeley will be suspended for a period of one year, effective immediately, and may not perform services for any MLB Club during his suspension. I intend to discipline other Braves' International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures. My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association."