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The Braves’ scandal and possible implications for the Pirates

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I know there’s been some brief discussion here of the situation involving the sudden, apparently forced, resignation of Braves’ GM John Coppolella. It started off with reports of an MLB investigation into the Braves’ signing of Venezuelan shortstop Kevin Maitan, one of the most highly regarded Latin American prospects in years. It’s unclear whether there was any problem with Maitan or not, as there are reports both that MLB has initially found nothing wrong and that the Braves may have been putting Maitan and another player up in an apartment in Florida prior to the signing date. (One of the many forms of chicanery that teams have long employed in Latin America has been literally to hide players from other teams prior to the time they’re eligible to sign. Teams used to hide players at their training facilities in the Dominican, but I’ve read that MLB has cracked down on that practice at least.)

The more interesting aspect of the reports so far is that the Braves’ problems may be “significantly bigger” than the Red Sox’ recent situation. Boston got caught “bundling” prospects to evade the $300,000 bonus limit it was under as a result of exceeding pool restrictions. Reports have stated that the Braves may be under examination for reaching a verbal agreement with a 14-year-old prospect, Robert Puason, which of course would violate MLB rules.

And it may not be just the Braves. According to Ken Rosenthal,

. . . the league is also investigating other teams for agreeing to sign underage prospects . . . . One international scouting director informed him that up to 15 clubs have reached deals with players who, like Puason, aren’t allowed to sign until 2019. Keith Law of ESPN adds . . . that there are some prospects who can’t sign until 2020 but already have verbal agreements with teams.

It’ll be interesting to see how far this goes, because the practice of reaching agreement with underage players is probably widespread. If you read Ben Badler’s top international prospect lists at Baseball America, you know that, on a list of 50 top prospects, typically all but a couple are already “favored” to go to specific teams. And, in fact, those players almost always sign with those teams. It’s not exactly a stretch to think that a player who just turned 16, or isn’t even 16 yet, must already have a verbal agreement in place if Badler is able to find out what team he’s headed to.

Any potential impact on the Pirates is obviously speculative, but . . . this is the internet. One notion we can eliminate now is the possibility of the Pirates signing Maitan or any other top prospect who becomes a free agent as a result of MLB’s investigation. The Pirates don’t compete financially for talent, so that’s not happening.

I’d be surprised if there was any immediate impact on the Pirates and also if it turned out they were one of the possibly 15 teams being looked at. Investigations like the current one probably start when teams rat each other out. (I’d be willing to bet the Yankees and Red Sox have submitted complaints about each other.) There was at least one report that MLB’s investigation of the Braves arose at least in part from an anonymous complaint. Because the Pirates don’t compete for top prospects on the international scene, it seems unlikely that they’d trigger a complaint. A Kevin Maitan signing has to be infinitely more likely to generate a complaint than a Henry Henry signing.

Still, we do know that Rene Gayo, like probably every other experienced Latin American scouting director, operates in part based on connections with buscones and other people on the scene. He used connections with Luis Heredia’s Mexican team to screen out other MLB teams. In fact, that generated a (futile) complaint from the Yankees. Gayo also has a connection with a trainer in Colombia that produces one or more signings in most years, including Harold Ramirez. Whether any connection reaches the stage of having agreements in place with underage players is impossible to say. If MLB is serious about cleaning up practices in Latin America, it probably has a huge, and most likely intractable, task on its hands. And the very dubious prospect of an international draft won’t even arise again until the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. So it’s hard to see any major change in current practices.