John Coppolella has never doubted his daring course: To make the Braves great by shedding almost every player established enough to have graced a baseball card. But after only 16 months, this raze-to-raise process has accelerated at a rate even its architect couldn’t foresee.
“I feel so much better about where we are now than I did a year ago,” said Coppolella, the Braves’ general manager, speaking Monday at Turner Field. “I knew we were on the right track, but to see where we are is exciting.”
The Braves’ 10 major trades from November 2014 through the 2015 season were the rebuild’s launch. Their two big moves of this offseason were booster rockets. In November, Coppolella sent the elegant shortstop Andrelton Simmons to the Angels. In December, the GM sent Shelby Miller to Arizona for the sort of windfall that can change the course of a franchise.
“In a lot of the trades we made in the 2014-2015 offseason, the players were a lot further away,” Coppolella said. “With these two trades, you really got six players (big-leaguers Erick Aybar and Ender Iciarte; pitchers Aaron Blair, Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis, plus Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 pick of last year’s draft) you could see in 2016. A lot of the deals we made last year … were more to restart the system than have major-league impact in the short term.”
Then: “We feel a lot of our best prospects are close. You can see with teams like the Houston Astros and the Cubs and the Royals that when those young players come up, they can have an immediate impact.”
Then: “A great part about the Shelby Miller trade was that a lot of fans knew Dansby Swanson – he’s No. 1 overall and he’s from here. A lot of our fans knew Ender Inciarte, really good player, second in the league in runs saved. By the way, he had 29; Andrelton Simmons had 24. A lot of our fans don’t know Max Fried or Touki Toussaint. They will, but right now they don’t know those players. They think we’re trading for lottery tickets.”
Then: “I don’t want to put a timetable on it, but I’ve been here 10 years. I’ve never been more excited about the young players we have than I am right now. There are so many young players that we know and love that the mainstream prospect experts haven’t found out about yet.”
Sounds tantalizing, no? Well, here’s another scenario on which to dream: Swanson, rated the 27th-best prospect among minor-leaguers by Baseball Prospectus, and Ozzie Albies, rated 37th, are both shortstops. Who’ll move over?
Coppolella: “We’re going to find that out this year. We’re going to play them both at shortstop. In spring training they’re both going to get major reps at shortstop and second base … I don’t think we’re predisposed either way – that Swanson’s going to be the shortstop or Ozzie’s going to be the shortstop. It’s a good problem to have. I have the feeling they’re going to form our middle-infield combination in some way, shape or form for a very long time.”
Back to those rankings: The Braves have six of the top 82 prospects, four of the top 43. A year ago, Baseball Prospectus listed this farm system as having two of the top 100 with nobody above 54th. Coppolella is acquiring assets at breakneck speed, which isn’t to say he’s anywhere near satisfied.
“We need to stay disciplined in what we’re doing,” he said. “I talked about this at (Saturday’s) Fan Fest: It feels good to sign a free agent. It felt good to sign Derek Lowe, and he won 15 games his first year. But it ended up being a bad contract … What I value — what I’ve learned through things that happened under our previous administration — is flexibility and options. The more young players we have, the more flexibility and options we have. The less long-term commitments that are somewhat questionable, the more flexibility and options we have.”
There’s no guarantee that flexibility and options and touted prospects will culminate in a World Series title. But Coppolella believes in what he’s doing, and I, for the record, believe in Coppolella. And I, also for the record, have never bought a lottery ticket.