PHOENIX – John Coppolella and the Braves enter this week’s General Managers Meetings with money to spend and roster needs they plan to fill through free agency or trades, unlike the past two years when they came to the GM meetings looking to dump payroll and rebuild their farm system by trading for prospects.
“Coppy” was excited coming into these meetings, excited about the opportunity to add players who can help move the Braves forward, to make the team solidly competitive from Day 1 next season in their first year in the new ballpark.
Then again, he’s pretty much always excited, especially when it comes to making deals. So these GM meetings aren’t much different in that regard.
“It’s always exciting for me,” said Coppolella, who's at his third GM meetings with Braves president of baseball operations John Hart since they took over when Frank Wren was fired late in the 2014 season. “I love going there, I love being around (other GMs and team officials). It’s what drives you, you know you have a chance to get better every day. You have an opportunity to wake up every day and make the Braves better.
“So for me, whether we’re in full rebuild like we were, or whether we’re now coming out of it to where we can put a real competitive team on the field, having finishing 20-10 in our last 30 (games in 2016) and 12-2 in our last 14, it’s still exciting because we’re looking for ways to get better.”
Coppolella is beginning his second year with the GM title, after serving one year as assistant GM when he and Hart together served as de facto GM. The two are accompanied at this year’s GM meetings by special assistant Rick Williams and director of baseball operations Billy Ryan.
“It’s great to be in there with (them),” Coppolella said. “You’re on the phones with your scouts and you’re all working as a group, trying to find ways to get better. That’s what’s exciting. It’s good seeing other GMs that you’re friends with and talk to a lot. It’s fun. But the best time I would have at the GM meetings would be coming off a World Series win for the Braves. That’s when it would feel different. Until then, we’ve just got unfinished business.”
The Braves have been as busy as any team in baseball since Hart and Coppolella took over, making a flurry of trades over a 25-month span to re-shape the organization. They’ve turned a farm system that was ranked among the worst five in baseball into one that most experts rank in the top three and some have ranked No. 1.
There certainly was a cost: The Braves lost 93 games this season and 95 in 2015, the worst two seasons for the franchise since 1990. But Hart, Coppolella and other team executives believed it necessary to take the short-term hit in order to shed onerous contracts, rebuild the farm system and give the team payroll flexibility when it moved into its new ballpark in 2017. They have that flexibility now, though they won’t say how much money they have or how much their payroll -- ranked in the bottom third of baseball in recent seasons -- will rise in 2017.
After adding no big-ticket free agents in some time, the Braves are looking to add at least two starting pitchers and possibly a catcher this winter (Nick Hundley, Jason Castro and Matt Wieters head the free-agent group of catchers they'll likely look at, though Wieters' asking price could be beyond what the Braves will consider).
They say they're more inclined to fill this winter's needs through free agency than trades, in order to avoid trading away many if any of the higher-rated prospects they’ve accumulated over the past two years. Not that they won’t entertain trade offers as well – they will, if a deal makes sense to them.
“We should be players, whether it’s in the free agent or trade market, we should be players,” Coppolella said. “Because we will have money to spend.”
While he insists the Braves aren’t looking to trade any of their outfielders and aren’t even listening to offers for them so far, Coppolella added that if a team makes an enticing enough proposal, he’d listen. The fact that the Braves are in position to potentially trade a player or prospect and make the current team better is an indication, they believe, that most of the moves made in the past two years have been good ones that put the Braves on solid footing again.
“The biggest thing for us, when we’re looking at ways to make the team better, the favorite word that John Hart and I use is options,” Coppolella said. “We want options. When you’re trading away short-term guys for long-terms guys, when you’re dealing someone who’s a (pending) free agent for a prospect, what that prospect gives you is options. You may call that prospect up and he’s a Brave and helps us as a part of our next World Series team. Or you may trade that prospect to get somebody that’s going to be part of that next World Series team. So for us it’s about creating options.
“Part of what we’ve done now is built a farm system of which we’re so proud, through the hard work of many. So the last thing we want to do is trade half the farm for any one player. So I think we’re going to be very protective of our players. We want to build a good big-league team. We’re looking at a number of different trade possibilities, but also the free-agent market. That’s where we don’t have to trade away prospects. At that point, you spend the money (and) you keep the talent.”
In recent years, Braves CEO Terry McGuirk has mentioned to reporters how the free-agent market was an inefficient and overly expensive way to obtain players and especially starting pitchers. But the Braves seem ready to make a pitch for a free-agent starter if the deals are short, Coppolella said.
Among the free-agent starters they're believed to be considering or have at least discussed: Jason Hammel, Rich Hill, Ivan Nova, Doug Fister, Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and Edinson Volquez.
Jeremy Hellickson might've fit the bill, but not after the Phillies made him a qualifying offer ($17.2 million). Hellickson rejects the qualifying offer and signs with another team, that new team would have to give up a high draft pick as compensation. The Braves place great value on draft picks.
In fairness, McGuirk’s past statements about free-agent inefficiency were more in relation to exorbitant prices for long-term deals, not the short-term offers the Braves could be expected to make this winter.
“I don’t want to put words in Terry’s mouth; I don’t know what context he said that in,” Coppolella said. “I don’t think you’re going to see us do any nine-figure deals ($100 million). I think that we’re more looking at short-term guys. Part of what it is ... I’ll give you an example: We signed (free-agent first baseman) Troy Glaus in 2010. We could have tried to make a trade to get Prince Fielder, but we really liked (then-prospect) Freddie Freeman and we knew he was coming. It’s the same way (now) with our starting pitching.
“We feel like we have some impact, top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher (prospects). So we don’t want to sign anybody for six years. One, it would cripple us financially. Two, it would block young pitchers that we really like. For that reason I think you’re going to see us go short-term on pitchers – one-year deals would be optimal. Two-year deals, we’ll see. But I don’t see us going beyond two years on any of these deals, just because we don’t want to block the young pitchers that we like so much. We feel like there’s a good group of them to where we want to see what they can do.
“We intend to build through our young players. We’re very excited about what we have, and our fans should be, too. And we want to give them opportunities, as we did with Freddie Freeman, as we did with Jason Heyward, as we did with Chipper Jones, as we did with all these other guys that came through.”
Regarding those options that Coppolella referred to, here's an example of what he meant by deriving payroll flexibility and being able to move quickly:
"You look at Tyler Flowers, he was a non-tender last year," the GM said. "He was a guy that, as soon as he got non-tendered (by the White Sox, becoming a free agent), we called him the following morning. We were very interested. If you have flexibility with the payroll.... There are dividends we’re seeing in that there’s not $27 million tied up in B.J. Upton and Chris Johnson (for 2017, as there would’ve been if the Braves had kept them). We traded away future contracts so we’d have more flexibility and more options. Now that we’ve got options – we’ve got to have money to play on somebody if they get non-tendered, if they’re in the free-agent marketplace, or if a trade comes available.
"We don’t know what’s going to be presented to us, but we can promise there will be no stone left unturned.”
• Since we're in Arizona, I'll close with this one from Tuscon's own Calexico .
"FALLING FROM THE SKY" by Calexico
An old guitar from a five and dime
There was a song trapped inside
With the sweetest tune
You said it was sad to sing Where do you fall when you have nowhere to do?
Where do you go where you have no one to see?
What do you see when you have nothing to feel?
What do you feel when you're all alone? It’s a song that circles round and around
Like a bird lost inside a cloud
Cut off from the stars and they’re guided in the light
Not sure which way is up or down anymore Where do you fall when you have nowhere to do?
Where do you go where you have no one to see?
What do you see when you have nothing to feel?
What do you feel when you're all alone? Tired of waiting
Clouds will be breaking
Soon you'll escape and
Someday we'll find a place in the sky