The Atlanta Braves reputation in Major League Baseball took a major hit this week, when disgraced former GM John Coppolella was put on MLB’s permanent ineligibility list. Additionally they were stripped of 13 prospects, saw special assistant Gordon Blakely suspended for one year, will be out a 3rd round international draft pick next year, and all told will be out about $17M in cash bonuses. Once the epitome of a well run, classy franchise, this is a major blow that will take years to recover from both in talent and reputation.
The Braves were the ultimate model of consistency in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, going from worst to first in 1991 under General Manager John Schuerholtz who took over 1990. They won 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005 and Schuerholtz moved from GM to President in 2007. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017. Furthermore they did it with a decided lack of bombastic characters(save John Rocker). Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Fred McGriff, Chipper Jones…the list goes on but the public relations missteps do not.
After Schuerholtz things got a little messy. Frank Wren had been groomed by Schuerholtz to replace him, which he did and quickly led the Braves back to the playoffs in 2010 where they lost to the Giants. In 2011 they dramatically collapsed to the Cardinals on the final day of the season, before making it to the 1 game playoff in 2012 and losing that one to the Cardinals on a botched infield fly rule. In 2013 they won the NL East for the first time since 2005, but lost to the Dodgers in a tough NLCS.
In 2014 they signed several players to long term contracts, including Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman (8 years), Jason Heyward (2 years) and Julio Teheran and seemed to continue competing for years. Then – in one week in Spring Training they lost Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy, and Mike Minor to injuries and essentially ended the new dynasty before it started. They finished 79-83 thanks to a desperation signing of Ervin Santana that worked but Wren would be fired before the end of the season and old Indians GM John Hart who had come on board the previous season took over.
He began grooming young Coppolela who is a magna cum laude from Notre Dame in Business Management and an analytical whizkid was was supposed to lead the next Braves dynasty. He took over as GM after 9 years in the Braves organization and 7 with the Yankees before that.
Now – it’s all over and at 39 Coppolella is done with baseball forever.
When rumors began to circulate, Coppolella resigned as if to take the first move, but Manfred made sure that was not the end. After banning Coppolella, he added, “additional sanctions are warranted to penalize the club for the violations committed by its employees.”
This could be far from over.
The Braves knew it would be bad, and Manfred noted that they cooperated with the investigation. John Hart also resigned after naming new Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos because though he was linked in the scandal – if he didn’t know about it – then he was also not doing his job very well.
Make no mistake about it – the Braves are not the first or the last that has been taking advantage of economically disadvantaged in Latin America whose one ticket out of poverty is baseball. Manfred is taking a stand – and making the Braves the first living example of that stand. Other teams are on notice.
How this affects signings in Latin America and the international draft in general will be interesting to see. We have seen research done by the Society for American Baseball Research show the percentage of Latin Americans in baseball rise from 11.6% in 1980 to 27.4% in 2016. Interestingly enough, we also see that as recently as 1993 0% of Asians in MLB to 2.1% in 2016. Yet baseball is still predominantly a white man’s game, from the 63.7% of players and certainly to GM’s and owners. Will baseball move to another region with less control and visibility to exploit in hopes of finding the next Sammy Sosa or Jose Altuve, who was signed as a 16 year old?
The Braves have fallen far, and now have gone 16 years without winning a postseason series. A streak longer than the run of division titles. They appeared to be on the cusp of breaking through, as although the 2016 wasn’t good, their farm system is flush with prospects and many expect them to contend in the next couple of years. However, after what is currently in the pipeline, they may find that well running dry quickly.