Last week the Atlanta Braves formalized what many people who follow the organization closely had assumed, that John Coppolella would be the team’s next General Manager. There are plenty of media stories out there about who he is and where he came from, so I’ll just link this one from which you can learn the basics.
What I would prefer to focus on is what we can expect from Coppy, as he’s called. What kind of GM will he be? After all, he served under former GM Frank Wren during virtually his entire tenure. For much of that he was considered one of Wren’s right-hand guys, and specifically his analytics guy.
I’m not quite as ecstatic as some around baseball and the Braves are about Coppy’s ascendancy to the GM’s chair. I wonder if some of the same factors that caused Wren’s relationship with many in the organization to turn sour will similarly affect Coppolella. I don’t dislike the move, but I’m hesitant to praise the move or to believe that he will be any better at his job than his predecessor was.
However, Coppolella will have two huge advantages that Wren never had. First is the rebuild the team went through this year that allowed them to restock the farm and reset the roster. The second, and most important advantage, will be the added payroll space that the new stadium will create.
Wren was never allowed to rebuild the Braves. He was mandated to try and put a winning team on the field every year, without the benefit of tearing down the big club and restocking. Sources within the Braves organization have told me that Wren wanted to rebuild the team several times after he took over, but was told that he could not. That decision not to rebuild, which came from above Wren, caused several necessary reactions by him and his front office and thus defined his tenure as GM:
- Wren had to start using the draft to select players closer to the majors.
- He was unable to trade away star players before they left via free agency, and those free agents didn’t net the draft picks they had netted under John Schuerholtz (because of a change in MLB free agent compensation rules).
- He was forced to sign free agents to fill gaps in order to keep competing.
- He had to spend more and more on the major league team, which left less for player development, especially internationally.
- And most destructively, he had to use what farm system he had to make trades to try and remain competitive.
Coppy will have the advantage of eliminating virtually all of those hurdles. With the rebuild, the draft focus on younger talent has been reset — all of those trades last offseason also brought back more draft picks, and the Wood/Peraza trade this year added an extra 2016 draft pick. Clearly star players are now not immune from being traded. Coppy can be more selective in free agency, especially the next two years, with a rebuilding team that has low expectations. He will have more money to spend on the major league club and on player development with the opening of the new stadium and the development of better TV deals. With all of the above factors being more favorable, he will not be forced to deal away so much talent from the Atlanta minor league system.
Wren and Coppy will be judged against each other, just as Wren and Schuerholtz were, but none of them operated in the same environment or with the same advantages (or disadvantages).
While Coppy will start with fewer expectations and fewer disadvantages than Wren did, he nonetheless comes with some warning signs (or caution flags).
Remember that Coppy was involved in many of the decisions, even the unpopular ones, that happened under Wren. The case for signing free agent B.J. Upton was largely an analytical one, with expected future performance the main driver. One of the advocates in the front office for that signing, over other free agents at the time like Hamilton, Victorino or Bourn, was Coppolella. That signing was a huge risk, though it was one that many analytically inclined fans heralded at the time. Of course, it turned out to be too big a risk that didn’t work out in the Braves favor.
As Wren’s anaylitics guy, Coppy ran the numbers on many of the contracts that were handed out before the 2014 season. Most of those contracts seem like good value, though Chris Johnson’s stands out as a poor one in retrospect. How much of a hand did Coppolella have in pushing that contact forward?
Under John Hart, who took over after Wren was fired, Coppy had a huge hand in every trade that was made. Many in and around the organization questioned that all those trades needed to be made. To some it seemed like trades were being made simply to make a trade. Will that inclination (possibly compulsion) to constantly make trades erode trust within the organization?
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Coppolella will face is the same one that Wren ran into — the necessary expansion of analytics from the front office to the field. One of the chief complaints about Wren was that he was occasionally telling the manager how to make out his lineup, or trying to interfere in how the pitching coach was doing his job. The old school baseball guys in the Braves front office didn’t like that.
Coppy will face the same criticism when he attempts to steer the coaches and the manager in the direction he wants them to go. If he hasn’t already, Coppolella will realize that the modern pitcher is more susceptible to getting hurt if he’s treated like pitchers were 30 years ago — is that why the Braves have had more Tommy John surgeries than any other team since Roger McDowell became pitching coach?
What happens when Coppy tries to explain to Fredi Gonzalez that he should not have gone to his bullpen to go lefty on lefty when the left-handed batter has a reverse platoon split? At least Wren played professional baseball when he was younger. How will coaches react when a guy who never played baseball professionally, who is younger than they are, starts trying to alter or critique their decision making?
For the sake of the team, and of our collective Braves fandom, I hope it all works out, and that Coppy is smart enough to approach these things the right way (if there is a right way), or at least learn from Wren’s mistakes in those endeavors.
I simultaneously worry that Coppy needs someone to vet all of his moves with so that he doesn’t just make trades all the time, and that the old guard will leave him alone and let him chart a more analytically driven course for the team.
I’m going to root for the guy, while also scrutinizing every one of his moves. I’m hoping that he can either build up enough cachet to convince the higher-ups to replace Fredi, or convince Fredi that he needs to vastly improve his handling of pitchers, his in-game match-up skills and decision making.
This Braves team has a long way to go before they are competitive again. How much rope will Coppy be given? What happens if he inadvertently steps on some heretofore unmentioned tenant of “The Braves Way?”