Coppy's Lost Prospects
The first of the lost 'spects is a major leaguer
For fans of the rebuilding Atlanta Braves, there are certain moments that stand out. The lunch between Dave Stewart and John Coppolella that led to the Dansby Swanson trade. The Craig Kimbrel trade that included a draft pick, which later became Austin Riley. But in terms of dates, few stand out like July 2, 2016. That was the day the Atlanta Braves announced the members of a monster international free agent class led by Kevin Maitan, the "next Miguel Cabrera."
According to MLB.com's international prospect list for 2016, the Braves signed five of the Top 30 prospects - including the top overall player, Maitan. They added several other prospects beyond those five, including the #41 overall prospect on Baseball America's list. It was an unprecedented spending frenzy by the Braves since baseball started to attach caps on draft bonuses. By the end, the Braves had dished out approximately $15 million in bonuses.
Thanks for reading Walk-Off Walk! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Ranked 25th according to MLB Pipeline that year among international amateurs was Livan Soto, a shortstop out of Venezuela. The Braves signed him to an even million dollars, one of six teenagers to receive seven figures. The class was meant to supplement a growing collection of young talent the Braves already had. At the end of the season, the Braves had eight players ranked in Baseball America's Top 100 prospects including Swanson (#3), Ozzie Albies (#11), Mike Soroka (#48), and Ronald Acuña Jr., who ranked #67 after an injury-shortened campaign with Rome. Now, with Maitan, Soto, and company, the Braves were re-building the lower levels of the minors with firepower as Acuña and others moved up the latter.
Of course, you know the story.
Just over a year later, John Coppolella, the wunderkind general manager, resigned in disgrace after unethical practices became the standard operating procedure of the Braves’s international department. Rational women and men can debate whether a lifetime ban was warranted for something so many other teams were doing and whether the penalties were too severe in comparison to other egregious examples such as the Houston Astros openly cheating their way to a World Series title, but what is not up for debate was that Coppy was in the wrong. The punishment was nearly as shocking as finding out the news in the first place. As I mentioned, Coppy got a lifetime ban, which almost never happens in baseball. Others got suspensions. For several years after, the Braves would be barred or limited from being an impact player in the international amateur scene.
For guys like Maitan, Soto, and the rest of that July 2 class from 2016? Their contracts were voided and they became free agents again. Thirteen prospects hit the open market yet again. On Saturday, Soto became the first of Coppy's 13 to make it to the majors. With that in mind, I figured it was a great time to look back at those 13 and see how they're doing.
The Original 2016 Class
Livan Soto, SS - Let's start with the new major leaguer. Has Soto "earned" a shot in the majors? Well, he was hitting .281 with a .379 OBP while Angels' shortstops currently are hitting .211/.248/.335. But the fact was that it took injuries to David Fletcher and Andrew Velazquez to force the Angels to bring up Soto. But, then, nobody has ever accused the Angels of trying to win. Soto's already picked up three hits in a dozen at-bats with a homer. He has some pop and the plate discipline is for real. Questions continue about his bat, though the belief is that the glove is good enough to stay at shortstop and keep him on the MLB roster bubble. If this year's offense remains close to the same level, he'll be on a MLB roster for good moving forward.
Kevin Maitan, IF - The crown jewel of the 2016 class, questions immediately seemed to dog Maitan. Namely, when American fans got a good look at him when he played for the Danville Braves the following season, he looked far more pudgy than athletic. After becoming a free agent, Maitan also joined the Angels. 2022 has been a career season for Maitan. His season OPS of .736 is a career-high and he reached 20 doubles for the first time! Okay, those numbers won't jump off the page no matter how much I try. Even worse, the fear is that he can't even stay at third base, the fallback position if/when he outgrew shortstop. He's started to shift over to first base this year. The Angels opted to leave Maitan in the minors and that probably says about as much as you need to know.
Abrahan Gutierrez, C - Considered the second-best player of the class for the Braves, Gutierrez earned a scouting report as an athletic catcher with almost no limit on how good he could be. Several years later, Gutierrez is probably the best prospect the Braves lost. In 2021, he was traded to Pittsburgh so Braves fans don't have to worry about beating him in the division for the next decade. He belted a dozen homers in the South Atlantic League this year, his first full season in the Pirates' organization after initially signing with the Phillies post-Coppy.
Juan Contreras, P - Given the third-highest signing bonus at $1.2 million, Contreras joined Maitan and Soto as future Angels, but his playing career was short-lived. After 10 games in the Braves' system in 2017, he pitched just six times with the Angels in 2019, never making it out of rookie ball. On May 29, 2020, the Angels released Contreras and the pitcher has not resurfaced anywhere else.
Yunior Severino, SS - When the punishments were handed down, many prospect people I talked to suggested that it was Severino, not Maitan, who would become the best hitter of the group. They're probably right. Ranked #20 in the international class for 2016, Severino made a move from A-ball to Double-A this year for the Twins, hitting .278/.370/.536 for the year between both levels. His 19 homers nearly doubled his output prior to 2022. Overall, he upped his career OPS to .801 and, while his shortstop playing days seem behind him and he gets lost in an organization full of infield talent, Severino has a great chance to stick in the majors whether it be at second or third base.
Yenci Pena, SS - The sixth player to bank seven figures from the Braves, Pena headed to the Texas Rangers' organization once able to. He has not been close to the hitter Severino is, struggling to a .227 average in 715 career plate appearances. This year was spent mostly in the Carolina League, where he had a .652 OPS. A seven-game promotion to the South Atlantic League only hurt his season stats. Worse for Pena is he couldn't stick at shortstop so he better hit to have any value.
Yefri del Rosario, P - The class's strength was hitters, but del Rosario was a guy that stood out as well. In his first taste of professional ball, he finished with a 3.62 ERA over 37.1 innings prior to being set free. He joined the Royals and has been on a slow journey since. This year, however, he made it to Triple-A for eight games. Overall, del Rosario won't stand out - especially as a reliever who lives off contact like he did in 2022 (6.5 K/9). His control and ability to keep in the ball in the yard also haven't impressed to this point.
Guillermo Zuniga, P - One of the few prospects who debuted in 2016, Zuniga has been a Dodgers' product since the punishment. The strikeout numbers are gaudy, though like del Rosario, Los Angeles is still trying to harness Zuniga's control and to do something about his tendency to surrender gopher balls (12 in 54.2 innings this year). The big righty has been stuck at Double-A the last two seasons.
Juan Carlos Negret, OF - A free-swinging corner outfielder, Negret definitely has power. He belted 19 homers in 2019, 23 last year, and 18 more this year. But do the Braves regret losing Negret? Not so much. In 402 professional games, Negret has hit .213 including an abysmal .170 in '21. While he has shown some skill to take some walks, his strikeout rate remains too high. Negret's power will keep him around, but the hole in his swing will likely stunt any growth.
The 2017 Package Deals
Brandol Mezquita, OF - Maybe the most interesting of the prospects who didn't get a million dollar signing bonus, Mezquita joins the next two prospects on this list as guys who were a package deal. Signed in 2017, he only received a portion of his reported signing bonus with the rest of the bonus going to other players as part of a package deal. Mezquita also stands out because he was the one of two players who came back after the punishments were announced. He's even developed into a bit of a prospect, hitting .281/.371/.375 this season for A-ball Augusta. While the Braves' farm system is going through a bit of a rebuild, Mezquita is now the #22nd-best prospect in the system according to MLB Pipeline.
Angel Rojas, IF - Following his contract being voided, Rojas joined the Yankees. He spent much of this season hurt, playing just nine times after only 28 games in 2021. Overall, the middle infielder has a .752 career OPS, but that's only that high because of a 2018 run in the Dominican Summer League. He has struggled to hit since coming state-side.
Antonio Sucre, OF - Like Mezquita, Sucre returned to the organization after being declared a free agent. Curiously, after not playing in 2018, Sucre would get cut prior to the 2019 DSL season. His career appears to have ended. In his 57-game run with the 2017 DSL Braves, he hit only .237 with four homers and 58 K's in 198 AB.
The Special Case
Ji-Hwan Bae, SS - So, Bae may have been the final straw. Though, he inked just a $300K contract in 2017 because of restrictions following the 2016 excessive spending, Bae reportedly received $600,000 in under-the-table money to bump up his signing bonus. Of course, it was easy to see why John Coppolella was desperate to add Bae. The team immediately compared him to Trea Turner. MLB never approved his contract and he was declared a free agent after the punishments. This time, he got a $1.25 million bonus from the Pirates, nearly a million more than he "received" from the Braves. Yeah. Now a top prospect for Pittsburgh, Bae is on the cusp of joining the majors after hitting .290/.359/.431 in Triple-A with 30 steals in 2022.
The Lasting Effect
In the end, the biggest penalty may have been the limitations that followed. While the banishment of Coppolella and voiding of contracts for Maitan and others were the headline news, underneath it was a series of restrictions over the several years that followed which limited new general manager Alex Anthopoulos's ability to bring in young talent to supplement the lower levels of the minor leagues.
The restrictions were a bit nuanced because, to justify the decision to void every Brave signed to a contract of $300K or more in 2016, the league used Atlanta’s shady money dealing from the previous year. In 2015, Coppolella made a splash by signing top international prospects, Derian Cruz and Cristian Pache. He made a number of trades to increase the bonus pool, but also worked under the table to give the impression that the Braves were staying within the rules. Had the actual bonuses for Cruz, Pache, and others matched what they ultimately received, the Braves would have been unable to sign a player for more than $300K in either 2016 or 2017. Hence, the deals for Maitan and company, even if you ignore all of the shady unethical choices, were illegal from the get-go.
But the penalties didn't end with the 2016-17 signing period. For their actions during that period, Atlanta was restricted from signing a player for more than $300K in 2018-19 and were unable to sign an international player for more than $10,000 for the 2019-20 period. Finally, in 2020-21, their bonus pool was cut in half.
Essentially, the Braves were restricted from being a player on the international scene for four signing periods plus only a minor player for a fifth year.
That is a long time to go without any significant international talent and it has obviously hurt the Braves. Going by MLB Pipeline's Top 30, the Braves did add their #21st prospect in 2018 (Royber Salinas), their 15th prospect in 2021 (Ambioris Taverez), and their #20th (Diego Benitez) and #28th (Douglas Glod) prospects this year. But for a team that wants to build a robust farm system with waves of talent up-and-down the system, not being able to dish out big bonuses for much of the last half-dozen years has definitely been felt.
All in all, Coppy’s misdealings are still following the Braves. But they have been managed by his replacement and the scouting and development team of the Braves. While Guiterrez and Severino may still become productive major leagues and Soto dresses for another game in the Show, it’s worth remembering what could have been, but it’s better to never lose sight in what ultimately happened: the Braves fought through all the adversity to become World Champions.
Thanks for reading Walk-Off Walk! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.