Braves lose Kevin Maitan, top international signings amid harsh MLB penalties

ATLANTA — Major League Baseball removed 13 top prospects from the Atlanta Braves’ celebrated farm system and hindered the new-look front office’s ability to participate in the international amateur market for the foreseeable future as a result of the league’s investigation into the organization’s signing practices.

Atlanta’s infractions centered around the circumvention of MLB international signing rules to land top talent in the 2016-17 signing period, including switch-hitting standout Kevin Maitan, catcher Abrahan Gutierrez, infielders Yunior Severino, Yenci Peña and Livan Soto and pitchers Juan Contreras, Yefri del Rosario and Guillermo Zuniga. Prospects from current and future signing periods, including Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae and 14-year-old Dominican shortstop Robert Puason, were also involved in MLB’s penalties.

“As a result of the 2015-16 (signing period) 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,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. “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.”

Per the league’s unprecedented punishment, Manfred’s office declared each player a free agent subject to international bonus pool restrictions starting on Dec. 5. The Braves forfeited the prospects’ original signing bonuses, amounting to more than $20 million in de facto fines.

The club’s improprieties led directly to the shakeup in the franchise’s baseball operations department last month, including the resignation of former general manager John Coppolella and international scouting director Gordon Blakeley. Former president of baseball operations John Hart left the organization following Atlanta’s hire of new general manager and executive vice president Alex Anthopoulos.

Manfred announced that Coppolella was banned from baseball for life by being placed on the “permanently ineligible list, effective immediately.” Blakeley received a one-year suspension.

“The senior baseball operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves,” Manfred said. “I am confident that (Braves Chairman and CEO) 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.”

In addition to barring the franchise from signing Puason — a ruling resulting from the club agreeing to “sign six players to inflated signing bonuses pursuant to an agreement” with the shortstop to sign with the club in the 2019 class — the league placed punitive restrictions on signing future international prospects. The Braves were already limited to offering a maximum of $300,000 per player over the next two signing periods, but now can only offer a maximum signing bonus of $10,000 during the 2019-20 period and will lose half their bonus pool in 2021.

The Braves forfeited their third-round pick in the 2018 domestic draft for offering extra benefits to 2017 second-round pick Drew Waters, though he will remain in the system.

The penalties will dramatically affect how the Braves’ new leadership restocks its farm system over the next four years.

Atlanta held onto next summer’s 8th overall pick as well as top talents in the 2015 class like Cristian Pache, William Contreras and Derian Cruz.

The Braves released the following statement in response to the findings: “Today, Major League Baseball informed the Atlanta Braves organization of sanctions being levied as a result of their investigation. As MLB stated, the Braves cooperated fully throughout this investigation and we understand and accept the decision regarding the penalties that have been handed down. As we expressed last week, our organization has not lived up to the standard our fans expect from us and that we expect from ourselves. For that, we apologize.

“We are instituting the changes necessary to prevent this from ever happening again and remain excited about the future of Braves baseball.”

Braves Chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk called the months his franchise was under investigation the “toughest in the storied history of the Atlanta Braves franchise.”

The Braves handed Maitan, the crown jewel of the 2016 international class, a $4.25 million signing bonus, headlining a star-studded amateur haul that cost the franchise more than $15 million. The switch-hitting shortstop drew comparisons to Miguel Cabrera and Miguel Sano during his rise as one of the most coveted international products in years. During spring training of 2017, Coppolella said another organization offered Maitan a $10 million signing bonus at the July 2 deadline. Maitan entered his first season ranked as a top-100 prospect in baseball by multiple outlets.

“From what our scouts say, he’s the best player to come out of Latin America in the last 10 years,” Coppolella said of Maitan in July 2016. “It’s so hard to find offense in this game, as we’ve seen, and he has a chance to be a really special player.”

Teenage prospects offer extreme high-risk, high-reward potential for clubs — long-term bets still years away from approaching major-league success, if at all.

At 17 years old, Maitan played just 41 professional games in a Braves uniform, performing well in the Gulf Coast League before slashing just .220/.273/.323 at rookie-ball Danville. Questions about his future position and physical fitness remain, but opposing franchises will undoubtedly pursue the Venezuelan phenom.

Gutierrez, a 6-foot-2 Venezuelan product who trained with former big-leaguer Carlos Guillen as an amateur, ranked as the highest-rated catching prospect in the 2016 international class. In rookie ball this year, the 18-year-old hit .264/.319/.357 in 141 plate appearances. Even as the organization has stocked up on catching help — Contreras, Alex Jackson, Brett Cumberland and Lucas Herbert, to name a few — through trades and the domestic draft, Gutierrez’s upside made him one of the organization’s most coveted names behind the plate.

Severino, Soto and Pena each signed for at least $1 million in July 2016.

Baseball America ranked Severino and Soto, shortstops from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, as top-20 prospects in their class, while Pena was a high-profile Dominican signee at third base. Severino played exclusively at second base and hit 25 percent above league average in the Gulf Coast League this past season, reportedly showcasing an advanced feel at the plate, while Soto carries a projectable frame and has flashed potential with his glove. Pena, the youngest of the group, held his own in the Dominican Summer League.

Contreras, del Rosario and Zuniga were three right-handers at the organization’s lower levels who will warrant market attention — particularly Zuniga and Contreras, who originally signed for $1.2 million thanks to a fastball that now touches the upper-90s — despite the obvious risks involved with teenage arms.

Bae was the newest high-profile international signee in the system. The 18-year-old Korean shortstop, who signed for right at Atlanta’s $300,000 limit, even drew comparisons to Nationals standout Trae Turner when he made his first trip to SunTrust Park in September.

The loss of 13 promising teenage prospects is the first significant setback to one of baseball’s top farm systems since the franchise started rebuilding following the 2014 campaign. By industry-wide consensus, the Braves claimed a top-three farm system heading into this offseason, but its oft-praised depth (and the ability to replenish the lower levels) took a serious hit on Tuesday.

Major League Baseball approached the case with clear precedent: In July 2016, the Boston Red Sox lost five Venezuelan prospects and forfeited their signing bonuses after the league office discovered improprieties on the international market. After exceeding their bonus pool to sign Yoan Moncada during the 2014-15 signing period, the Red Sox packaged signing bonuses and funneled money to better prospects in order to circumvent their $300,000-per-player cap. The fact that the Braves continued circumventing international rules during and after MLB’s investigation into Boston’s baseball operations department likely led to a harsher ruling.

At his introductory news conference, Anthopoulos said the punishment, however punitive, did not affect his decision to take the position.

“Long term from my standpoint — the criteria for me, more than anything else, who are you going to work for and who are you going to work with? Regardless of what the fallout was going to be or what the sanctions may or may not be, that’s not gonna change who I’m gonna go to war with day in and day out, and who I’m gonna work with,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s what excited me about this job.

“You just deal with those challenges and we’ll get through them.”