Here’s the second half of our conversation with Atlanta Braves general manager John Coppolella, conducted in the upstairs lobby of the Cobb Galleria Centre — the Braves had hunkered down for the draft in Room 105 — early this week. (Part 1 can be found here.)
Coming off the second half of last season, going into a new ballpark, there was a good feeling. Is it fair to say this season hasn’t quite been what you thought it might?
It would be great if we were playing at a .667 win-percentage clip. I don’t think anyone expected that from us. I think our players are playing very hard. I think we’re in almost every game. I think there’s a marked difference between our team this year as opposed to 2015 and 2016.
I don’t think many people would argue with that. It looks like a ballclub now.
Yeah, we’re getting closer. Am I satisfied? No, but I’m never satisfied. You always want to do better. You always feel like you’re letting somebody down.
You put a lot of thought into alternatives before keeping Brian Snitker as manager. You talked to Ron Washington, whom you liked enough to hire as third-base coach, and Bud Black, who’s probably going to be the National League manager of the year with Colorado. Are you satisfied with what you’ve gotten from Snitker?
Brian does a great job. He’s really good with players. There’s a lot of positive things Brian’s done. In an interview, you don’t want to point out negatives about anyone who works for you. I could point out negatives about my wife, and she’s perfect in my eyes. It’s the same thing. If you asked Snit, he could point out negatives about me. If you asked me about me, I think there’s negatives. There’s negatives associated with everybody, but also a lot of positives. I don’t want to get into that kind of stuff. We’re in the middle of a draft right now. I’m not thinking about it. Our players and staff are fighting every day. Let’s see how the year goes.
Is there a role here for Bartolo Colon the rest of the season?
We’re going to get Bartolo off the DL and see what happens.
With what happened with Newcomb’s first start and the stats Lucas Sims has at (Triple-A) Gwinnett, do you feel you’ve been too slow to bring guys up, or are you choosing to err on the side of caution?
We want to err on the side of caution. Without naming names, I don’t think we’ve been as fair to some of our prospects, just calling them up too soon, in the past. The longer you can wait, the better off you are. As you know, because you’ve covered the Braves and baseball for a long time, it used to be that guys had to force their way up here. Sean Newcomb isn’t a finished product. He’s going to keep getting better. He’s going to learn on job. But young pitching is going to break your heart early. There’s going to be great starts for Sean Newcomb, and there’s going to tough starts. I don’t think we expect perfection every time. For us, you want to put them in a position where they can have success.
Rebuilding has been a challenge, to say the least. You’ve had periods of some jubilation over the talent you’ve been able to assemble, but John Hart refers to two tracks, the other being the major-league product. Are you getting closer to the tracks running together, where we’ll get to see the prospects we’ve heard about?
My statement would be, “Look at our roster at the end of 2014.” Where could we go in our farm system? Where we could go in free agency? I look at our team. We have no Freddie Freeman, who’s arguably the best hitter in baseball. He’s out, through no fault of his own. Look at the catching duo (Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki), both signed as free agents — they’re among the best in all of baseball. Look at the first baseman (Matt Adams), who we traded for 48 hours after Freddie got hurt — he’s doing OK; he’s played very well for us. Look at our second baseman (Brandon Phillips), who we got for $1 million after Sean Rodriguez got in a car accident — he’s hitting over .300. Look at the shortstop (Dansby Swanson) we got in a trade. Look at the third baseman, Rio Ruiz, who came up when (Adonis) Garcia got hurt — we got him in a trade. Look at the left fielder, Matt Kemp — we got him in a trade. And (Ender) Inciarte — we got him in a trade. And (Nick) Markakis — free agent.
It takes years to build a quality major-league team. Look at the roster in 2014. Say we signed Jason Heyward for $184 million (the amount of his Cubs contract). Say we signed Justin Upton for $132 (the amount of his Tigers contract). They’re both great players; I’m not arguing with the contracts. If we were to keep the same payroll, where do we go to get pitching? We’ve got Julio Teheran. Take out the trade for Mike Foltynewicz. Who’s in our farm system? Who have you seen who could come up and pitch?
Swanson had a difficult start this season and he’s a key guy in your plans. Was there any thought to sending him down?
None. Young players struggles to make adjustments as the league makes adjustments to them. We can’t speak for Dansby, but there’s a lot of pressure, you know, almost being the face of the franchise a year and a half after being drafted. We have no idea what Dansby goes through as far as pressure, but we know the kid’s makeup. We know who he is. We love the effort level. We love what he’s doing defensively. We love what we’re seeing offensively; we’re seeing a lot of line drives and hard outs. We love what we’re seeing from Dansby. We talk all the time about Dansby, as we do with every player, and he’s someone we wanted to keep up here. We felt he gave us the best chance to win. Look at the league. A lot of young players are struggling, even within his draft year. (Houston’s Alex) Bregman and (Boston’s Andrew) Benintendi have not kept up the pace they did last year. Dale Murphy struggled. Chipper Jones never did, but that’s Chipper Jones.
Will you be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
Both. You’ve seen us make deals that will help us for the long term. If we’re in it, if we’re in the playoff race, you’ll see us be buyers. We want to make the playoffs. We want to bring excitement to the fans at SunTrust Park.
How would you define being in the playoff race: five games back of the second wild card?
It’s hard to quantify. If we’re in shouting distance, if we feel like things are trending the right way and it’s not an insurmountable deficit, I think we’ll take a look. I think we’ve got to be conscious of everything. We don’t want to be short-sighted. We’ve got to balance a lot of different things. If we do end up as sellers, what makes the most sense is guys that are on expiring contracts — if we can buy and sell kind of like we did last year. The big thing for me is just that we’re getting better and our minor leagues are getting better and are graduating players and they’re making adjustments. You’re seeing a foundation being built here. Is it as quickly as John Hart and I would like? No. But we’re getting better, and we’re trying.