OXON HILL, Md. – Braves general manager John Coppolella was at the airport Sunday morning, about to board his flight to Washington, D.C., for the Winter Meetings, when asked about the team’s plans. He said they’d done much of their offseason heavy lifting already, then sounded excited as he explained. (OK, even more excited than usual.)
“If we were to break camp at spring training right now, we’d be fine with our club. That being said, we’re always trying to find ways to get better,” he said. “I feel like we’ve gotten so much better over the past five months, starting with the Matt Kemp trade, starting with the callup of Dansby Swanson. Now on a smaller level Josh Collmenter, now you add R.A. Dickey, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, Sean Rodriguez … we’ve added a lot of guys.
“We feel really good about where we’re at and what we can do in 2017. We aren’t going to make games-won prediction, all we’re going to say is we’re going to be better and we’re going to be fun. Guys like Bartolo, R.A. – ‘Big Sexy, Little Ugly’ – Dansby Swanson, Freddie Freeman, Ender Inciarte, Matt Kemp, Julio Teheran…. This is a fun team. Plus, a top-rated farm system. Plus, future financial flexibility. I mean, I’m feeling good.”
By Monday night, the Braves had signed Jacob “The Strikeout Machine” Lindgren out from under the Yankees (who non-tendered the rehabbing reliever with intention of signing him to a minor league deal), and indicated the asking price was too high for them to trade for Chris Sale or Chris Archer. Other than that, they hadn’t yet made any real waves at the Winter Meetings, and it appeared they might not, certainly not along the lines of last December when the Braves train-robbed the Dbacks with a deal that yielded Swanson, Inciarte and Aaron Blair in exchange for Shelby Miller.
And if they didn’t make a big move at these meetings, Braves brass said they’d be fine with that. They already added three starting pitchers – Colon and Dickey on one-year deals, Garcia in the last year of his contract -- and a super-utility player (Rodriguez) to a team that went 50-47 in its last 97 games and won 20 of its final 30.
“We’re going into the new park,” Braves president of baseball operations John Hart said, explaining how the late-season success led to the decision to beef up the rotation for 2017 in hopes of a solid season in the first year at SunTrust Park. “A lot of our kids aren’t quite ready; we don’t want to abandon our (rebuilding) program, don’t want to jump out and block kids. So I think we looked at trying to do as much as we could on short-term guys that could improve our club….
“When we opened the meetings here, we told our (scouts and special assistants), look, we’re not coming in here with any big agenda, that we’ve got to get this next guy here. Believe me, we’re talking with a lot of clubs and a lot of people, but it’s nothing that we feel we have to do.”
Coppolella said, “I think a lot of times at these meetings, teams get here and they feel like they’ve got to do something. Like, ‘oh, let’s make our mark.’ And I think for John and me and our group, we don’t have to do anything. We’ve kind of done a lot of the heavy lifting. We’re in a situation where if something good comes our way, we can be opportunistic. If it doesn’t, we saw John Schuerholz get the Hall of Fame nod. It’s been a great Winter Meetings even if we do nothing.”
Hart, like Coppolella, likes the team’s makeup and potential to put an exciting product on the field in 2017. Hart said the Braves’ roster is close to being set for next season, other than deciding on a fourth outfielder, possibly adding another utility player, and potentially another catcher (Welington Castillo unexpectedly became a non-tendered free agent last week, drawing the Braves’ interest.)
“We know Kemp, Ender, Nick (Markakis),” Hart said, listing the team’s starting outfielders. “Who’s going to be the extra fill-in (outfielder)?” Then he moved on to the infield: “You look at Freddie, you look at Jace (Peterson and) Sean Rodriguez at second, you look at Dansby; who’s going to (back up) Dansby? You look at Adonis (Garcia at third base). That’s where we’re going. (Catcher) Flowers. Is there somebody better than can go with Flow? Yeah, we’re looking.
“Who’s the extra infielders? Obviously Sean Rodriguez was a seven-position guy, you can see him at a lot of positions. So that’s kind of what we’re looking at now. It’s not that we’re not focused on the big deal out there, but that’s a very small portion of what we discuss in here. It’s more, let’s take a look at the club, at some of the pieces here.”
By that he meant, Brave officials and scouts are focusing more of their time on going up and down their high minor-league team rosters, the bullpens and starting rotations and position players who could potentially help the Braves if needed in 2017, than they were spending further time talking about a trade for an ace.
“We know what we have at the two low-A clubs. But could Johan Camargo (shortstop/third baseman at Double-A Mississippi in 2016) come up and help us at some point? This guy can really defend, switch-hitter, if something happens is this guy (ready)? Or do we need to go get another piece?
“We’re doing a lot of that kind of stuff.”
Coppolella went into greater detail about the catching situation. The Braves looked for a left-handed-hitting, strong-defense catcher to pair with incumbent Tyler Flowers, but they backed away from their top free-agent target, Jason Castro, due to price. (He ended up signing a three-year, $24.5 million deal with the Twins.) And the Braves similarly weren’t willing to give up prospects and take on as much of the remaining $34 million owed over two seasons to Brian McCann to make a trade for the former Brave, who ended up being dealt to Houston.
So, the Braves re-signed right-handed hitting Anthony Recker for $800,000, avoiding arbitration, and also signed Tuff Gosewisch to have at Triple-A Gwinnett in case they needed to bring him up at any time. They were prepared to go with that group, and still might. But Castillo, a right-handed hitter with power (31 home runs in 760 plate appearances in 2015-2016) became available, became available and the Braves began to explore that possibility.
“We have a great deal of confidence in Tyler Flowers as someone who could be our primary catcher,” Coppolella said. “We feel great about the way that Anthony Recker played last year. Not that WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the be-all, end-all (statistic), but his WAR was better than half the free agents out there. And he’s ours, a guy that we know, a hard worker, and he cares. So if we end up with Tyler and Anthony and Tuffy Gosewisch at Triple-A, among others, we feel that’s a pretty good catching group.”
Hart said, “We realize there’s some things that happened in the last couple of days and we’re continuing to look at that. Whether there’s free agents that or out there or trades, we’re on it. We’re examining that. But I think that, again, it’s kind of a hard market to put your hands on. In a perfect world for us, we were looking at that left-handed (hitting) sort of platoon guy. We don’t necessarily see that guy out there right now. Doesn’t mean we wouldn’t play with (adding another) right-handed hitting catcher, but it’s not as big of a priority for us going in.
“I think we’ve probably come to the conclusion that Johnny (Coppolella) said, that you say, OK, can we put our head on the pillow at night and feel that these guys are going to be good for our pitchers, are going to work our pitchers? Is there somebody out there arguably that maybe could be a little better offensively, that maybe is a little younger or a little more of a defender? Yeah, we’ll examine that. But if we don’t, we’re OK.”
Coppolella is driven to make deals and keep doing things that he believes can make the Braves better. He is not a man who likes to rest, as we were reminded when the Braves agreed to a deal with Rodriguez on Thanksgiving. (The Braves agreed to terms with A.J. Pierzynski on a contract two year ago on Christmas Eve.)
And so, sitting relatively still during the Winter Meetings, doing plenty of work behind the scenes but not making The Big Deal, probably isn’t easy for Coppolella. But he’s learning from Hart that sometimes, patience is, indeed, a virtue. And it’s been said, sometimes the best trade is the one you didn’t make.
“We’d all love to make the big deal and get the great player and we win the Winter Meetings and there’s high-fives and all that,” Coppolella said near the end of the first day of the meetings Monday, as he sat next to Hart in a couple of lounge chairs in Coppolella’s suite at the Gaylord National resort. “But we’ve got to be conscious -- John talks about his all the time – of the long pull. We’re in this for the long pull. We don’t want to have a window (to compete for a title), we want to have waves.
“When you meet the asking prices that are out there for these pitchers at this current time, it’s going to put a hole in your system. It’s not going to be easy, they’re not just going to hand these guys over to the Braves or to any other team. So we’ll see. If the price meets what we’re willing to do, I think we want to strike; we’re not afraid to make a deal. But I think it’s something for us where we don’t want to undo what we spent two years doing.”
After sizing up the trade market for Sale, Chris Archer and Sonny Gray, the top three starting pitchers potentially available when the Winter Meetings began, Hart decided that unless the prices came down, the Braves would back away from the table.
“The key obviously, what you’re talking about in Sale, you have a (Number) 1,” he said, referring to Sale as the only indisputable No. 1 starter of the trio. “Look at Archer, Gray -- are they 1’s, 2’s, 3’s? Obviously there’s some level of club control (with each) and you don’t have to go get (that top-of-rotation pitcher) in the free-agent market (later, if you trade for one of them now). I mean, that’s why we kicked the tires on these guys, why a lot of clubs do. Because there’s not a big market out there for those kinds of guys, so you’re going to examine the trade.
“Whether these clubs move them or don’t, it still remains to be seen. They know they have a value, and so I think for us, we’ve always said – and we’ve hit the pitching hard (in trades and drafts acquire prospects the past two years) – that as we go forward we’d like to develop our 1’s and 2’s and 3’s. That’s what we would like to do. And we realize that we think we’ve got some guys that can fall into that mix, but they’re not ready yet.
“And do you fast-forward it and maybe trade off some of those guys to go get a ‘now’ guy, that you control for three years, and then you look up in three years and your guy (traded) has blossomed into that guy? Or the guys – because it’s not just one guy that you’re talking about (trading for an ace), it’s (trading) multiple, multiple guys.”
And the Braves just weren't ready to do that. Not now. Not with their own elite pitching prospects starting to percolate down in Class-A and Double-A. They'll stick to the plan.
• Let's close with this appropriate one from the TP not named Terry Pendleton.
"THE WAITING" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Don't it feel like something from a dream
Yeah I've never known nothing quite like this
Don't it feel like tonight might never be again
We know better than to try and pretend
Baby no one could'a ever told me 'bout this
I said yeah yeah The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
Well yeah i might have chased a couple women around
All it ever got me was down
Then there were those that made me feel good
But never as good as I'm feeling right now
Baby you're the only one that's ever known how
To make me wanna live like I wanna live now
I said yeah yeah
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
Oh don't let it kill you baby, don't let it get to you
Don't let it kill you baby, don't let it get to you
I'll be your bleedin' heart, I'll be your cryin' fool
Don't let this go too far
Don't let it get to you