As Braves GM, John Coppolella had his dream job. Now it’s gone

A dynamic duo no more: John Coppolella and John Hart. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

John Coppolella was never much of an athlete. He’d been the manager of Notre Dame’s football team. But Coppolella loved baseball, loved it so much that he turned down a six-figure job at Intel to earn barely a subsistence wage as a Yankees go-fer. His parents were not pleased.

Coppolella’s heroes were never ballplayers. His heroes were executives, two of whom he’d come to work under – John Schuerholz, who hired him away from the Yankees, and John Hart, who’d become his mentor. By his 36th birthday, the guy with the economics degree from Notre Dame was the general manager of a big-league club and the de facto author of the most aggressive rebuild the sport had ever seen. He mightn’t have fit the profile, but by golly he’d gotten where he wanted to go and was, damn the torpedoes, doing as he wanted to do.

On Monday, it all went away. Coppolella resigned as the Braves’ GM for what the team described as “a breach of Major League Baseball rules involving the international player market.” With the first full wave of this rebuild poised to hit SunTrust Park next season, the rebuilder-in-chief is out.

The international player market is a murky place. (Scout Gordon Blakeley, an old pro on the international scene, also resigned Monday.) Everyone had the Venezuelan teenager Kevin Maitan ticketed to sign with the Braves long before he was eligible to sign with any team; sure enough, Maitan signed with the Braves in July 2016 and is regarded, at age 17, as one of the 10 best prospects in what has become the sport’s No. 1 farm system. That farm system would never have gone from fallow to bountiful without some serious pushing. Monday’s resignation suggests that Coppolella pushed too hard.

Even when he was a front-office guy without a seat at the grown-up table, that was his M.O. He’d come to work with an exotic trade proposal, only to be shot down by a higher-up. He’d come back after lunch and say, “What if we do this instead?” He was relentless, and there were some who considered him too much. A year ago, Hart – who has nurtured many of the best and brightest in the sport – said: “The most valuable asset I’ve been fortunate to have is John Coppolella, with his work ethic and creativity.”

Without Coppolella’s manic intensity, the Braves would never have collected so many prospects so fast. But manic intensity can bear a cost: The Hector Olivera trade was always a reach, and in hindsight the Andrelton Simmons deal seems the work of a young GM desperate to make his mark. And yet: Not a month after trading Simmons, Coppolella swung the Miller-for-Swanson/Inciarte/Blair trade, which many consider the best deal of this century.

When you move this fast, you make enemies. Some baseball folks weren’t crazy about the nerdy non-athlete, whose ingenuity was widely hailed among the sabermetric set (read: nerds). Still, that No. 1 farm system had to come from somewhere. Largely it was the work of Coppolella, who was as smart as all get-out and backed by Hart and Schuerholz and Bobby Cox. To be nearer the Braves’ new ballpark, Coppolella had moved his wife and three young children from Newnan to East Cobb. He’d gotten the job he’d wanted, and he was within a year or two of reaping the rewards. Then he resigned.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports tweeted Monday: “MLB was looking into everything from Braves’ international operations to its domestic draft to Coppolella’s treatment of Braves employees.” He also tweeted: “Early on in investigation, little evidence had been found to corroborate a number of accusations levied against Coppolella.”

It’s unlikely that mere vocational jealousy would have forced this resignation. (Contacted via text message Monday, Coppolella declined to comment.) And it’s a matter of record that the Braves played the draft-slotting game as hard as anyone, spending all but $5 of their 2016 allotment. Asked what the Braves did with that fiver, Coppolella said: “We split a hamburger.”

This rebuild wasn’t going to work by taking half-measures, which fed into Coppolella’s wheelhouse. He was pedal-to-the-metal 24-7. He once said, “The first thing I think about when I wake up is the Atlanta Braves.” At his first press conference as fully minted GM, he said his aim – forget making the playoffs – was “to bring a world championship to the city of Atlanta.” The final sentence of an essay written by this correspondent for the 2016 Baseball Prospectus yearbook: “He might be new to the job, but he is not afraid.”

He wasn’t a politician, wasn’t an old-time baseball hand. He was an economics major who loved the game. John Coppolella had the job of his dreams and was doing it the way he’d envisioned. Now he’s gone. And several dozen baseball execs are lusting to inherit what he built.

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33 comments
passion8181
passion8181

If the Braves are to truly win again, Schuerholz and Hart need to get the hell out of the way.


Just to bring you up to speed on who I am. I worked in baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves. I was hired during the Schuerholz GM years, then fired at the end of the Frank Wren GM years. I had a front row seat to the downward spiral of "The Braves Way", which evaporated as soon as Mr. Schuerholz left the GM seat for the President's seat. Mr. Schuerholz left the baseball side of things in the hands of Frank Wren, and his assistant, Bruce Manno. Both Frank and Bruce did a wonderful job in mistreating people and not listening to the people who were hired to develop the farm system, thus single handily destroying the Atlanta Braves. All of this of course was taking place while Mr. Schuerholz feel asleep at the wheel on the baseball side of things, and devoted all of his time to developing the business side of things (The new stadium, which was a HUGE secret.) 


I can remember one spring training, a couple years before Bobby finally retired, when Bobby got so frustrated that he got in his car and was driving home to Atlanta, essentially quitting because he was sick and tired of the Frank Wren regime. I'm not clear on what made Bobby come back, but I do believe he retired earlier then he wanted to because of Frank Wren.


I can remember sitting in player development meetings in spring training, with Bruce Manno and Frank Wren, and all of the minor league instructors, coaches, and managers (All of the guys in uniform, many of whom had been with the Braves for decades [And/or played in the big leagues], helping get players to the big leagues) discussing the minor league rosters for the upcoming season. During the meeting, players are talked about in depth, and decisions are made for their development based on the opinions of all of these people. Of course, at the end of the meeting, Frank and Bruce did the opposite of what was decided by the people in uniform, thus creating an internal struggle and the destruction of the farm system.


I can remember the fall out of the farm director prior to Bruce Manno, Kurt Kemp. Kurt (Who was a John Schuerholz hire) got sabotaged by the arrival of Bruce, who turned Kurt into his puppet. Of course, Kurt was tired of the abuse, and essentially was forced out, and left under his own accord.


I can remember Bruce Manno loudly berating a staff member over the rehab protocol, in front of others, while the staff member was getting his meal. I can remember Bruce Manno preaching the "Braves Way" and stating the Braves being the "Gold Standard" of baseball, prior to the start of our camps, and my blood curdling in frustration, along with others. 


Frank and Bruce's lack of leadership and abuse spread like wildfire. Internally, everyone was treating everyone badly and there weren't enough knives lying around for all of the back stabbing. The Atlanta team was losing, player development was in shambles, and finally the cries of some long time scouts and Bobby Cox reached Mr. Schuerholz. I can't remember exactly when, but I believe sometime in early 2014, John Hart was brought in to essentially "Spy" on baseball operations and gather info along with Bobby Cox, all of which made Frank and Bruce extremely nervous. Finally, after a sub-par season and the evaluations of John Hart and Bobby Cox, Frank and Bruce were gone. The weight of the world was lifted off the baseball operations department and there was a breath of fresh air that Bobby Cox, John Hart, and John Schuerholz had rode in to save the day. Of course, over the next several weeks, anyone who smelled of Frank Wren and Bruce Manno were let go, and I lost my job.


Now, we can all see what has transpired over the last 3 years with the gutting of the Atlanta Braves under the guidance of John Hart and John Coppolella. Of course, I no longer have my front row seat to the internal operations of the Braves, and I was certainly shocked to learn about the violations and resignation of Coppy, who I had a lot of respect for and was a victim to the abuses of Wren and Manno.


The burning question I have, which prompted me to write is WHERE WERE JOHN HART AND JOHN SCHUERHOLZ? Don't tell me that Coppy acted alone and that at least Hart didn't know what was going on. Hart was Coppy's boss, thus the ultimate responsibility lies on his shoulders, but I haven't heard him take any responsibility. Don't tell me that there was internal abuse going on again and Hart and Schuerholz weren't aware. Did Mr. Schuerholz fall asleep again? Hart, Schuerholz, and Cox rode in and had their chance to rectify things after they canned Wren and Manno, now we again have this internal power struggle and NO LEADERSHIP?


I have a lot of respect for John Schuerholz and what he did in his career, but in my opinion, that ended as soon as he stepped down from the GM chair. Sure, he is a Hall of Famer, but those days are long gone. He needs to ride out into the sunset and take John Hart with him. The implosion and internal struggle of the Atlanta Braves occurred, and will continue to occur until there is one true leader in baseball operations. John Schuerholz and John Harts' successes in baseball are extinct.


John Schuerholz and John Hart, get the hell out of the way and make room for some real, contemporary leadership.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@passion8181 @passion8181 What a bunch of crap.  You do realize marijuana use is still legal in GA for medicinal purposes only, right?

Yeah, Frank & Bruce's "lack of leadership and abuse" spread like wildfire....But John Hart & Bobby Cox had to "spy" on and "gather info" on Frank Wren for several MONTHS before Schuerholz knew there was a problem?  LOL   And Wren "did a wonderful job in mistreating people and not listening to the people who were hired to develop the farm system, thus single handily destroying the Atlanta Braves"?  And Coppy was such a "victim" of abuse from Wren that he continued to work for him until Wren was fired.  It's no secret that Wren wasn't well-liked.  But you paint Schuerholz as being completely oblivious to all of these alleged abuses for several YEARS and I simply don't buy it.

Do you even know how long Frank Wren was GM?  SEVEN seasons.  Do you know how he "destroyed" the Atlanta Braves?  The franchise won more games over those 7 seven seasons than any other NL team except the Cardinals.  And I don't have the time to list all the successful prospects signed by Wren (Buschleaguer recently did in another blog), but as I'm sure you're aware, many of them made the majors with some of them achieving great success.  In fact, more prospects signed by Frank Wren achieved major league success THIS SEASON just with the Braves than the boatload of prospects signed by Hart & Coppy over the past 3 seasons.

It's also no secret that Wren wanted Fredi G fired and Bobby didn't, which eventually led to the showdown that ended in Wren being fired.  

The truth is if anyone destroyed the farm system in those years, it was the great John Schuerholz when, in his last season as GM before Wren took over in 2008, he traded away FOUR Top 100 prospects to the Rangers for what ended up being ONE season of the services of Mark Teixeira.  Read about here in case you forgot ( https://www.talkingchop.com/2014/9/26/6848977/frank-wrens-tenure-in-atlanta-a-deep-dive )

Frankly, I don't know and I don't care if you even worked for the Braves and if you were anything more than a gopher if you did.  But coming on here and spreading supposed dirt on your former employer 3 years later while the current franchise is in disarray shows a lack of class.  And if you were there under both Schuerholz and Wren as GMs, that's a lot of years and you should still have many internal contacts where you could get the real story on what happened to Coppy instead of coming on a blog and asking, "WHERE WERE JOHN HART AND JOHN SCHUERHOLZ? "  That just makes your entire story look even more like complete BS.

In any event, according to you, Frank Wren single handedly destroyed the Braves.  Then 3 years later, you say Hart & Coppy "gutted" the Braves.  I hope you realize BOTH of those events are not possible.  Funny how a person with a "front row seat" to the internal workings of the Braves organization could have such a distorted view of public facts about the franchise that are available to anyone.  Maybe that's why you were fired...

colt07
colt07

Coppy was in so far over his head he had no idea what was going on. He was so poor as a GM he cheated and we still lost 90 games for the last 3 years without really any light at the end of the tunnel.


A great farm system (which may or not be great) is just that a farm system. All these vaunted prospects are not showing much promise.


The Braves are a mess.

TideDawg
TideDawg

It would appear that Coppy was in a big hurry to become a legend. Now he is just a short story in baseball lore.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@TideDawg Yep.  In his rush to become famous, he just became infamous.

temixab
temixab

Well...we didn't get the "pop" I had expected so I was ready to move back into bonds the week between Christmas and New Years (I wish I had!!!).>>>>>>>+*www.2morepath.com


Jedediah Leland
Jedediah Leland

Bradley is still over-the-moon that the Braves are in his adopted homeland of Smyrna. Coppolella was a joke; a sacrificial lamb. As long as Liberty Media and its lapdogs McGuirk and Hart call the shots, the Braves will be first patting themselves on their backs over moving to Cobb County and distantly concerned about fielding a baseball team.

khd713
khd713

@Jedediah Leland Why do people like you make so much effort posting comments on articles about the Braves. You obviously are not a fan, and you have no idea what you are talking about. So why bother?

DrTruth
DrTruth

@khd713  Why do people like you spend so much time criticizing other fans who are entitled to their opinions too?  You've worshipped Coppy as much as Bradley has since he came on the scene.

So is Coppy still your man now?

khd713
khd713

@DrTruth @khd713 What he has is not a credible opinion – it's juvenile tripe that's steeped in some kind of irrational bitterness. It's not written by a fan.


To answer your question, I wouldn't say I've "worshipped" Coppy, but I certainly was impressed by his intensity and how quickly he turned our farm system from one of the worst to arguably the best. He made a couple of regrettable moves, but for the most part did a whole lot of good things in his short time to get this franchise back on the path to winning baseball. To find out he was cheating is disheartening to say the least, and he deserves to lose his job. At the same time I think we've all seen examples of competitive drive leading people to cut corners and make bad decisions. As far as I know, he doesn't have a track record of being a bad guy, so hopefully he will learn from this and move on with his career – likely in some other field. I imagine he's probably finished as far as baseball is concerned. I think it's a shame, and I hope it doesn't hurt the Braves rebuild because the process is at a very critical juncture. If it does set the Braves back, then Coppy has even more to be sorry for.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@khd713 After 3 seasons of 90+ losses, anyone who's still interested enough to come on here and read about the Braves and post about them IS A FAN, period.

He's absolutely right about the Braves patting themselves on the back, and not just over the move to CC.  And either Coppy or LM had no intention of going into the market and paying for SP talent, which makes no sense because do you know how many starting pitchers had a winning record this season?  ZERO.  But Coppy was thinking they just needed to add a piece to the bullpen.  Are you kidding?  That's delusional thinking.

Most of the prospects that had some semblance of success this year were FRANK WREN signees (Acuna, Albies, Sims, Camargo).  Coppy's prospects mostly failed, one after another.

We were continuously told by Coppy (as recently as a couple of weeks ago) that the Braves MLB team would be built almost entirely from the farm system.  But why?  Shouldn't the objective be to build the best MLB team possible, regardless of how?

Coppy was obsessively focused on doing it SOLELY through draft picks and prospects...plus a few of what he just called "CASTOFFS".  That obsession was on full display with the signing of a 30-yr old Cuban defector who'd never even seen an MLB pitch.  Just insane.

Face it, Coppy FAILED.  He worked under Frank Wren long enough to know the rules.  If he did break them, he did so INTENTIONALLY.  But that's what desperation sometimes does.  Think about sitting there and watching your prospects come up and fail, fail, fail, fail and fail.  It's no accident he "resigned" the day after the season ended.

Some of the top brass just got a good look at the pitching that's supposed to take this team to another level next season....and they don't like what they saw.

USMC2841
USMC2841

I hear Louisville is looking for a new A.D.

DrTruth
DrTruth

Can't decide if this blog is a love letter or an obituary....Since it's Bradley, probably some of both.

Donald_01
Donald_01

Curley Shuffle will not be the same as he is now gone from the team of John (Moe), my other brother John (Larry, and Curley.

joedavis
joedavis

So if indeed Coppy was dirty dealing, where were authority figures Hart and Schuerholz (and Cox)?  What exactly do they do for a living?

POV1948
POV1948

Simmons trade was beyond atrocious.  Coppy was in over his head from day one, especially evaluating arms.  He was too smart by half and thin skinned to boot.  It's a shame the corners being cut, whatever they were, didn't bring in some authentic big league pitching.

fcbowers
fcbowers

Here's an analogy:  "Mommy" and "Daddy" (Hart & Schuerholz) gave their "favored child" ("Little Johnny"), the "keys" to the rich family's "expensive houses and cars" because he had "earned their trust", then the "went on a family vacation" and lo and behold, with the "keys to the houses and cars", "Little Johnny's" let the money, power, ego (lack of humility), poor judgment and "questionable associations and friends" (sound familiar and he's not even the athlete, but it can happen to the "nerd-wannabes" too), get in the way because of his immaturity and lack of "supervision"..."Risky Business" for sure.  My Dad (God rest him) always had a couple of things he'd say about this time:  "Son, people don't do what you expect, they do what you inspect" and "if sounds too good to be true, it usually is!"  I'd be really surprised to find out that no one above him (either of the two "Johns") knew anything at all about his “breach of Major League Baseball rules involving the international player market”, and if they really didn't, what does that say about how much the Braves are paying those two guys to "manage"...all I can say now is, "Oops...another sports figure (of any type or position...players, coaches, front office personnel, etc.), NOT playing by the rules...can you say "Steroids", "AAU", "Gambling", "Points Shaving", "Taking a dive"...Oh and by the way, did any one of the two "Johns", tell him, hey "Little Johnny" at some point we are gonna need some HITTERS to go with "Freddie" and using "pitchers as bank cash" will NOT WORK...not when we're setting a new home run record each year...the game has evolved into a "put butts in the seats" promotion and a regular diet of 2-1 games and "minor leaguers" masquerading as major league players gets old after a year or so...that's my take...sorry "Coppy"...maybe next stop...

BaseballBuff
BaseballBuff

Excellent old-school sportswriting, a very fine article, MB.  Furman Bisher couldn't have done it better. A damned shame indeed, but Coppy must have done something pretty bad to blow up his dreams like that.


tmc
tmc

Something is not being told with this whole thing. Has this ever happened to another organization? cause it seems like the punishment doesn't fit the crime. Seems like the Braves found a way to cut bait on someone...
We can't drop any further down the totem pole... It's time for the sunshine boys to clear out and anyone still loyal to any of them. I'm sick and tired of the philosophy employed by the old-crony's of pitching, pitching, pitching and neglecting the every day 8 positions. It's been 16 years (& counting) since a playoff series win. IMO this offsets the 14 years of division titles. Yeah, they're great, but w/ only 1 championship it's more a label of the underachievement than major accomplishment.
Moving forward, can we please stop trading away proven mlb talent for prospects? We now have a stocked farm system that needs to be groomed to produce mlb talent. A trade needs to be done to supplement the major league club, not move money or to solve a problem on the horizon. If spending market share money is the problem for Liberty then time to sell the business. It's also past time for the current management to start spending money on the field. When every move revolves around saving money, the product on the field suffers. You would think they would have figured this out by now over the last 16 years. I think i'm just one of many that have grown increasingly angry with the Braves management. And Coppy isn't part of that equation. 

Bob_the_Blogger
Bob_the_Blogger

Coppy never seemed to have the people skills for the job. Even in interviews, he seemed to have a lack of respect for the players as people; his references to them always seemed cold and calculating without any humanity.  While GMs have to make difficult decisions regarding players, his coldness came through in the interviews in a way that contrasted Hart's and Schuerholz'.

khd713
khd713

@Bob_the_Blogger That's what I liked about him. He was all business, and didn't let emotion cloud his judgment. 

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

Still have to think someone in the current Braves hierarchy wanted Coppy gone whether it was Schuerholz , Cox or Hart . Fudging on international Pool money seems to be a matter settled with a Fine of a forfeited draft pick or picks. 

Marty McFlyball
Marty McFlyball

The stage may have been too big.  At times I thought he revealed too much during interviews.  You don't always have to answer the question.  I hope the Braves and Coppy aren't hurt too much from this.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@Marty McFlyball Braves will likely forfeit the rights to Maitan along with being barred from participating in the international draft for one or two years.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@Donald_01  Not so fast:

"The major story right now involves Kevin Maitan and there’s a chance that he could be declared a free agent once this is all said and done."

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

(1) I would not trade Simmons for Swanson/Inciarte/Blair. Ever. Under any circumstances. (2) Yes, you have to mind the store in the minors and sustain a reasonably productive feeder system. The Braves took this to obsessive degrees, bombarding the fans with the notion the Baseball America ratings mean more than enjoying the daily pennant race for . . . several years and counting. (3) 2018 doesn't figure to be any better unless we see a truly miraculous emergence of multiple young pitchers. (4) Several years in Braves haven't gotten over the bad contracts, they just keep stringing out the pain. Conclusion: The whole front office needs to go.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@DawgDadII The Braves traded Simmons to the Angels for Sean Newcomb and the now departed Chris Ellis. Ellis and John Gant were traded to the Cardinals for Jaime Garcia. The root of the Inciarte/Swanson/ Blair trade was the Jason Heyward trade for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins.from the Cards. Miller was flipped to the D-backs for Inciarte/swanson and Blair.

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

@Buschleaguer @DawgDadII My #1 comment is in direct reference to the statements in the article re: the players cited. I understand this wasn't the direct trade chain of trade events. If you keep Simmons, like any baseball person with half a brain would have, you don't trade for Swanson.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@DawgDadII @Buschleaguer If Swanson was not part of  Miller deal, why not make the deal anyway? It would have worked out well for the Braves even if it was Miller for Inciarte straight up.And Swanson could play 3b or 2b or be traded for another starting pitcher. If a team is willing to trade you the #1 pick in the draft. I think if you have half a brain you take him.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@DawgDadII @Buschleaguer Your # 1 comment does not make any sense. Swanson was not the player the Braves got to replace Simmons in the Angels trade, it was the forgettable Erryck Aybar who forgot how to hit when he was a Brave. Swanson fell into coppy's lap when another GM desperate to make a big move (Dave Stewart of the D-backs)  included Swanson in the Miller Trade . Stewart was fired during the 2016 season.

NomoreBS
NomoreBS

@Buschleaguer @DawgDadII As much as I'd love to still have Simmons, especially since he seems to have learned how to hit this year, his talent - and his salary - would have been wasted on the current Braves team. Simmons might even be past his prime by the time the Braves are truly competitive (I hope not); regardless, the salary saved by trading him helped acquire other young talent for the rebuild.  The same argument applies to Craig Kimbrel. As nice as it was to have him closing games, a bottom division team has no need for a high-paid, top notch closer. Sadly though, a lot of the money saved by trading Simmons and Kimbrel went to waste on the Uptons and Olivera-Kemp deals, instead of spending those dollars on first rate pitching.

TideDawg
TideDawg

Obsession leads to mistakes. Mistakes lead to firing. Maybe Coppy was trying to be a genius when simple logic should have prevailed.