Via email, Braves general manager John Coppolella responded this week to 20 (plus one) questions regarding the half-season just past and his team’s future.
Q: The Braves have the worst record in baseball at the All-Star break. Before the season, you said you believed this team would be better than last year’s. What happened?
A: It’s been a disappointing season and we feel for our fans. We never said we would be a World Series team, but we did think we would manage more than the 67 wins we had last season, and that’s still possible.
Q: As difficult as it is to endure a 100-loss season – and your team is on pace to lose 106 games – would the examples of the Cubs and the Astros soften such a blow?
A: No. Although we are following a similar plan to what those two teams did – and many others in recent years have done – it doesn’t mitigate the pain associated with every loss. It’s extremely difficult, but we know we are doing the right thing.
Q: As the principal architect of this rebuilding effort, are there nights when you lie awake and wonder, “What have I done?” Or is your commitment to this grand design so resolute that you’re able to say, “Losing at the big-league level is the cost of what we believe will be enduring excellence”?
A: Our commitment is resolute because what would have been worse is a decade of irrelevance. Look at where we were in October 2014. We had arguably the worst farm system in baseball. We had just lost 800 innings over the past 12 months with Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang leaving as free agents and Mike Minor and Kris Medlen suffering injuries, with nobody to replace them. Jason Heyward and Justin Upton were both a year away from free agency, with nobody to replace them. We finished 27-40 in the second half of 2014 with a team that was not performing, endearing to our fans, or on budget.
Q: There’s no need to rehash Fredi Gonzalez’s firing, but duty compels me to ask: Have you gotten what you wanted from Brian Snitker as interim manager? Is the team now playing more or less the way you hoped it would coming into the season?
A: Brian has done a great job and the team has played much better since we made the change. That’s not a knock on Fredi or Carlos Tosca, who are both great baseball men. It was just time for a change.
Q: The Braves have a history of promoting from within. (You’re an example of that.) Is your preference to hire a full-time manager from within the organization, or will your first look be to find someone from outside? Is Snitker a viable candidate to manage the big-league team beyond this season?
A: Brian is a viable candidate. However, as we made clear from the day we made the change, we will also look outside the organization.
Q: With so many moving parts within the big-league Braves, has it been possible to get a feel as to which players are keepers? For example: Jace Peterson started the year as the second baseman; then he got demoted; now he’s back in the majors and playing every day. Is he part of the Braves’ future?
A: Baseball is an extremely difficult game and we see elite players fall off cliffs in short periods of time and mediocre players turn into superstars. It’s been great seeing what Jace and other young players have done and we hope it continues.
Q: Three of your young pitchers – Williams Perez, Mike Foltynewicz and John Gant – are or have been on the disabled list. Given what has happened with the Mets – Matt Harvey has opted for season-ending surgery; Noah Syndergaard has undergone a series of MRIs and left his last start with a “dead arm”; Steven Matz is pitching with bone chips in his elbow and Zack Wheeler’s recovery from Tommy John surgery has been delayed – do you ever wonder if rebuilding around pitching was the way to go? (The Cubs, as we know, rebuilt around hitting.)
A: The fact that so many of these pitchers get hurt is precisely why we are building around pitching. There’s so much attrition associated with pitching that you truly can never have enough talent or depth when it comes to arms. It’s great the Cubs built around bats, but that’s what was available to them in the draft. There was no Kris Bryant or Kyle Schwarber in the draft this year. It’s also worth noting that all those bats the Cubs had still got beat (in the NLCS) by a Mets team built around pitching.
Q:Entering the season, the highest-rated pitchers in your chain were Aaron Blair and Sean Newcomb. Blair has been demoted to Gwinnett after an unimpressive turn in the majors; Newcomb is still in Class AA fighting command issues. Another top prospect – Lucas Sims – was returned to AA after struggling in AAA. Yet another – Tyrell Jenkins – has been converted to a reliever. Is this a sign that maybe your young pitching isn’t good enough, or is this just part of the process of developing pitchers?
A: It’s part of the process, but we won’t feel our pitching is good enough until we can run out our own version of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz, and we’ve still got a long way to go. Aaron, Sean, Lucas, and Tyrell all have extremely bright futures, but like so many other pitchers they have struggled along the development road. Last year, Mike Foltynewicz and Matt Wisler were in similar positions, as were Julio Teheran and Mike Minor when they were first called up to the major leagues. We are happy with the development we have seen and we understand it’s a journey more than a destination, and we have faith in our players and our coaches to continue making progress.
Q: Arodys Vizcaino had one blown save and no losses through June 6. He has had two blown saves and four losses since. Are you confident he can be your closer of the future?
A: Arodys is extremely talented, but he needs to be more consistent. We hope he’s our closer of the future, but it’s short-sighted to make definitive proclamations on any players.
Q: Was sending Bud Norris to the Dodgers on June 30 an attempt to get ahead of the trade-deadline crush and maximize the value of someone who was signed as a one-year stopgap?
A: Yes. It was difficult to trade Bud, but knowing he was a free agent after the season was the overriding factor. Bud was pitching terrific and the Dodgers made us an offer that we felt compelled us to make that move at that time.
Q: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but will you trade Julio Teheran?
A: No. We aren’t trading Julio.
Q: Do you regret the Hector Olivera trade? Do you see him having a role with the Braves when his suspension is lifted Aug. 1? Will you actively move to trade him? Will you cut him?
A: The Olivera trade has not worked out as we hoped, both on and off the field. The struggles at the major league level are frustrating, but the domestic violence incident is appalling. We will evaluate his future once the suspension is lifted, but we have tried to trade him and have considered cutting him. Even if he were the best player in baseball, what he did is totally unacceptable.
Q: You said on Jonah Keri’s podcast you’d probably need to find a catcher from outside the organization. Is that something that might be accomplished at the trade deadline, or is more likely a matter for the offseason?
A: We are searching for catching everyday so the answer to that question is predicated more on other teams’ willingness or lack thereof to move catching. It’s more likely during the offseason, but we will definitely try at the trade deadline.
Q:Beyond the deadline, are we apt to see any of your top prospects in the majors this season? Dansby Swanson? Ozzie Albies? Rio Ruiz? If not this season, will any/all of the above be legitimate possibilities for Opening Day in SunTrust Park?
A: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but these prospects will tell us when they are ready. We don’t want to put any type of artificial timelines on when they might be recalled. I trust our player development staff, Dave Trembley and Jonathan Schuerholz and all of our managers and coaches, and we will all make this call together as a group with our goal being not what’s easiest for us, but rather what’s best for these players.
Q: As someone who just moved from Newnan to East Cobb, do you see the new stadium jump-starting this franchise the way other new stadiums have jolted other teams? Or do you, now a Cobb Countian, worry about traffic?
A: The new stadium is going to be fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about it and the mixed-use complex, the people associated with it, especially Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Derek Schiller and Mike Plant among literally hundreds involved, and what this will mean not only to Cobb County or Atlanta but the entire Southeast. I’m not a traffic expert, but the story here should be about how this is going to be something truly special that has never been done anywhere else. It will be a huge boon to our team in terms of recruiting free agents and creating new revenue streams. Most importantly, the fan experience, from everything I’ve heard, should be amazing.
Q: When Keith Law of ESPN rated the Braves’ farm system as baseball’s best, you indicated a belief that 2016 would be an even better year for amateur talent acquisition. With what the team has done in the MLB draft and the international signing period, do you feel you’ve reaped the expected windfall?
A: It’s exciting to see what we did in the draft and the foreign market. Major props to Brian Bridges, Roy Clark and Gordon Blakeley, among many others, for their hard work. Not to continue to name-drop, but even more impactful was the commitment made by Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz and John Hart to spend this money and make such a strong statement about the importance of acquiring impact amateur talent as we build from the ground up to create long-term and sustainable success for our fans.
Q: Some fans wanted to see the Braves take a college hitter with the No. 3 overall pick. Instead you took a high school pitcher – and then took two more. With the Braves again last in the majors in scoring and there being no real power hitter in the system, where will you find the offense to support all this young pitching?
A: We wanted a college hitter, too, but when we picked at No. 3 we went with the best player on our board in Ian Anderson. The fact we were able to get two other players out of our top 10 in Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller with our next two picks is tremendous for our franchise. The easy thing to do would be to force a college hitter and appease the masses calling for that bat. We took the long, hard road – as we have with pretty much every move we have made – and we are excited for what it means for our future.
Q: In his newsletter, baseball writer Joe Sheehan advocated that the Yankees – who have spent $214 million on a .500 team – should sell off aging and high-salaried resources to rebuild around youth. Wrote Sheehan: “What’s worse than losing with purpose is being mediocre without it.” Not to put words in your mouth, but isn’t that the basis for what the Braves have done these past 21 1/2 months?
A: We didn’t have $214 million. If we did our approach may have been different. Instead, our most expensive free agent this year was A.J. Pierzynski, at age 39, for $3 million. We all want to win, but it would have been foolish and negligent to spend big money on free agents just so we could finish a few games closer to .500. We chose to invest in young talent, and that payoff may not be immediate, but we know it will provide the best return and the brightest future for our franchise.
Q: I know you agonize over every loss. John Schuerholz and John Hart have a history of building winners, but you’re a rookie general manager: Is it harder for you to keep your eyes fixed on brighter tomorrows when the day-to-day can be so dreary?
A: It is dreary and difficult, but this isn’t about me, my record as a GM or any personal pride on my part. What this is about is a group of people tirelessly working together to do what is difficult and smart and right in order to get back to the Braves Way of building through young, impact players. John Schuerholz and John Hart are two highly decorated and successful baseball legends who, with all due respect, aren’t getting any younger. However, they are both selfless, totally committed to the Braves, and have both built franchises from the ground up. They understand where we were in October 2014 and why we have to go through this process.
Q: There have been three snafus – the procedural error over Emilio Bonifacio’s recall to the majors; Fredi Gonzalez learning he was about to be fired via an emailed alert from Delta, and the revoked offer to draftee Josh Anthony because the Braves didn’t have as much allotted money as had been offered – that became public knowledge. Do you worry that such missteps erode confidence in a rebuilding project that was always going to be a tough sell?
A: Those errors all happened, we accept responsibility for them, and ultimately, as the GM, all of it lies with me. That being said, insensitive or not, I’d much rather make those errors than take the wrong player with a high pick, choose the wrong guy in a trade or sign the wrong free agent. The aforementioned administrative errors have nothing to do with the players we have acquired and nothing to do with a rebuild.
Q: Last question: How long will it be until the Braves make the playoffs?
A: What’s great about baseball is you never know. We are the worst offensive team in baseball, but in the span of a week we scored nine runs off Jose Fernandez and eight runs off Chris Sale. We could be a playoff team next year – stranger things have happened – when we will be in a new park with a lot of exciting young players and a ton of financial flexibility. It’s going to be an exciting ride as we build this thing back to a level of quality that makes our fans proud. And, once we do, jump on the bandwagon and watch out because we are going to be really good for a really long time.
Rockies at Braves
- When: 7:35 p.m. Friday
- TV: FOXSN, 7 p.m.
- Radio: WLTC-FM 105.5, 7:20 p.m.
- Pitchers: Rockies, Jorge de la Rosa, 5-6, 5.74 ERA. Braves, Joe Harrell, 1-0, 1.32 ERA