If the MLB offseason seems slow, it’s because two unresolved issues have lingered over the proceedings.
On Tuesday, Major League Baseball brought closure to both of them.
The Atlanta Braves investigation
For weeks, we’d heard that the league was going to crack down on the Atlanta Braves for unprecedented rule violations in the international market, but John Coppolella’s abrupt dismissal was followed by relative silence. John Hart excused himself from the front office, but that had just as much to do with Alex Anthopoulos’ hiring.
On Monday, it all came spilling out. In the end, MLB declared 12 minor league players free agents, suspended scout Gordon Blakeley for one year and placed Coppolella on the permanently ineligible list. They also prohibited the Braves to signings of no more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, reduced the following year’s budget by 50 percent. Oh, and they took away a third-round pick for 2018.
The international market isn’t exactly a level playing field, with deals brokered well in advance of the opening of signing periods. So if most teams cut corners in one way or another, what made the Braves’ offenses so egregious?
Rob Manfred outlined them in a statement, but in summary, the Braves:
*Underreported the signing bonuses for five international signings, and paid them more by inflating the bonus of a player exempt from their signing pool during the 2015-16 period. They could have paid all players the full amount had they been willing to accept the penalty for doing so. Instead, they...
*Signed nine more players with bonuses they shouldn’t have been allowed to hand out during the 2016-17 period.
*Entered illegal ‘package’ agreements with agents to sign three more players to reduced amounts.
*Entered an illegal agreement to sign 14-year-old Robert Puason in 2019-20 by signing six other clients of the Puason’s agent to inflated bonuses.
*Offered “extra-contractual compensation” and “impermissible benefits” to an international free agent and a domestic draft pick, respectively.
So that’s pretty bad. I’m not certain it’s lifetime-ban-for-Coppolella bad, but players and executives have been reinstated from that list numerous times over the years, and MLB probably wanted to set a harsh precedent as the bonus money becomes even more restricted. I’m guessing the commissioner’s office had plenty of company in seeking blood since the majority of MLB teams have willingly suffered (or are currently taking) the punishment for exceeding their bonus pools over the years.
The White Sox are one of those teams currently serving time. Because they blew out their budget by signing Luis Robert, they’re prohibited from signing players to bonuses of more than $300,000 for this signing period and the next. Those are the two signing periods teams can draw from as they pursue the recently released players.
That likely takes Kevin Maitan and the other top international prospects out of play. However, the players are allowed to keep their signing bonuses, and many teams won’t have their full budgets available to pursue them, so perhaps the White Sox can jump in on the lower end of the spectrum. Ben Badler’s story at Baseball America has the details including their bonus amounts, and five players signed for or within a reasonable distance from the $300,000 limit.
For the time being, the White Sox benefit from the Braves’ lost luster by having less competition for best farm system.
MLB, NPB reach posting agreement
It took a little longer than the original Monday deadline, but MLB, the MLBPA, and Nippon Professional Baseball agreed on a posting system that will allow Shohei Ohtani to come to the United States.
The deal is expected to be ratified on Dec. 1. Ohtani will become a free agent the next day, and then he’ll have three weeks to make a choice. That bargaining window was one of the key obstacles in completing a deal, as the players’ union wanted a shorter period in order to get Ohtani off the board and open up free agency for the rest of the league.
Every team can and should be willing put up a $20 million posting fee to negotiate with Ohtani, because only the team that signs him has to pay it. Ohtani is subject to the international signing rules, though, so the White Sox would only be allowed to sign him for $300,000, while teams like the Rangers, Yankees and Twins can offer more than $3 million.
Since Ohtani could command a nine-figure salary if he were exempt from the international rules, the natural question is whether or how teams will go about circumventing the restrictions to offer more compensation. With this in mind, Manfred’s crackdown on the Braves seems like more than lucky timing.