Dan's Dugout: MLB Blasts Braves With Massive Penalties • Latino Sports

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Dan’s Dugout: MLB Blasts Braves With Massive Penalties

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NEW YORK – Does the punishment fit the crime?

After Major League Baseball stripped the Braves system of 13 top prospects, barred the club from the third round of the 2018 draft, and restricted its ability to enter the international player market, executives of other teams wonder who could be next.

It’s hardly a secret that virtually all 30 clubs cut corners in courting and signing the best players they can, especially in the fertile, often-virgin territory of Latin America.

But Major League Baseball maintains a straight-and-narrow image and has zero tolerance for those who bend its rules. The commissioner wanted to enforce that message and found the perfect target in Atlanta.

Rob Manfred lowered the boom on the Braves

Rob Manfred lowered the boom on the Braves

In the boldest move of his three-year-old administration, Rob Manfred not only raided the game’s richest farm system but also barred long-time scout Gordon Blakely for one year and erstwhile Atlanta GM John Coppolella for life. Shades of Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

It’s not exactly Eight Men Out but it has the potential of doing to the Braves top-rated farm system what the iceberg did to the Titanic.

One of the newly-freed players, for example, has already been called a future Miguel Cabrera and, at 17, has been projected as the Venezuelan version of Chipper Jones. That player, Kevin Maitan, is a switch-hitting shortstop likely to shift to third as he gains size and muscle. He’s listed as No. 38 in the MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects.

Atlanta’s crime? Extensive violation of signing rules regarding international prospects from 2015-17. Most of the freed prospects, who cannot be signed by the Braves again, were inked last year.

Few fans remember but this has happened to the Braves before: they once signed a college pitcher named George Thomas Seaver but lost him after then-Commissioner Spike Eckert ruled the team signed him before he was eligible.

This tim around, the Braves are fortunate that Manfred did not mandate the release of Ronald Acuna, a five-tools outfielder still shy of his 20th birthday. Signed out of Venezuela as a non-drafted amateur free agent in 2014, he’s virtually certain to open next season as Atlanta’s rightfielder after winning Minor League Player of the Year honors and the MVP award in the Arizona Fall League.

Venezuelan slugger Ronald Acuna, 19, escaped the purge of Atlanta prospects Credit: Dan Schlossberg

Venezuelan slugger Ronald Acuna, 19, escaped the purge of Atlanta prospects
Credit: Dan Schlossberg

Still, the baseball czar made an example of the once-proud franchise, which once won a record 14 straight division titles but now has a string of four straight seasons with at least 90 losses.

The Braves have been banking on their history to bring fans to their games. In 2014, the year the losing started, they sent three men to the Baseball Hall of Fame. One year after the admission of Bobby Cox, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine, John Smoltz followed the same path to baseball immortality. Last summer, John Schuerholz was chosen by the Veterans Committee, which is now considering Dale Murphy on a 10-man ballot to be announced Dec. 10. If Murphy makes it, he’ll join Chipper Jones, a certain first-rounder, and perhaps Andruw Jones, also eligible for the first time, in Cooperstown next July.

There’s a new ballpark, Sun Trust Park, in Atlanta and a new spring training facility, slated to open in 2019 in the Port Charlotte area on Florida’s West Coast.

All that good news, however, has been shrouded by the darkest day in the team’s storied history.

Atlanta hopes to end its string of four 90-loss seasons in 2018

Atlanta hopes to end its string of four 90-loss seasons in 2018

In addition to Coppolella and Blakely, both of whom resigned under pressure on Oct. 2, president of baseball operations John Hart left after CEO Terry McGuirk hired Alex Anthopoulos as executive vice president and general manager. The former Toronto Blue Jays GM, still just 40, was most recently working for the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

The challenge is immense, since clubs will be wary to trade with the Braves and players will be reluctant to sign.

In addition, angry fans will voice their displeasure by staying away – especially if the team continues its losing ways.

McGuirk’s apology to fans was lame at best. If he really wanted to put his money where his mouth was, he would have mandated across-the-board cuts in ticket prices, concessions, and parking. Don’t hold your breath.

Maybe Anthopoulos will go out and trade for Josh Donaldson, who would fill Atlanta’s gaping hole at third base, or even get into the bidding for Giancarlo Stanton, whose power would be much-appreciated by a ballclub that leaves far too many runners on base. A free-agent pitcher named Jake Arietta would be nice too.

Unfortunately for the long-suffering fans, however, Liberty Media, which owns the team, seldom invests in it. John Malone, top dog there, is worth $7 billion, which makes him the richest owner in baseball. But the Braves have not reached for their moneybags since Ted Turner’s heyday.

From every indication, it’s going to be a long winter in Dixie. Whether that icy condition continues next summer is Mission Impossible for the men in the front office.

About Dan Schlossberg

Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ has produced 35 baseball books, including autobiographies of Ron Blomberg, Al Clark, and Milo Hamilton. Also a broadcaster, he is the host and executive producer of Braves Banter and Travel Itch Radio and a contributor to Sirius XM.

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