A week before the regular season ended, general manager John Coppolella sat in the executive box at SunTrust Park and spoke of how next year would be different – and presumably better. The Braves would be younger, with as many as seven prospects primed to make their big-league debuts. The first full fruits of a rebuild about to enter its fourth year were about to be seen. The 2018 season figured to be an exciting time.
One day after the 2017 Braves played their final game, Coppolella resigned – using the Braves’ phrasing – “due to a breach of Major League Baseball rules in the international player market.” Thus did Week 1 of what figured to be a serene offseason become an exciting time, and not in a good way.
As we speak, about all we know for sure is that the 2018 Braves will be managed, at least for a while, by Brian Snitker. Everything else is open to question. Such as:
Can the rebuild continue apace without its rebuilder-in-chief? Don’t be misled by John Hart’s title. The president of baseball operations was mostly a sounding board – occasionally a veto – for Coppolella, who was concocting and executing exotic trades while technically an assistant general manager. This happened with the blessing of team patriarch John Schuerholz, who hired Coppolella from the Yankees. For better or worse, the nuts and bolts of the rebuild were mostly if not entirely Coppolella’s doing.
Wouldn’t anyone who assumes stewardship of the Braves be willing to let what is generally considered baseball’s No. 1 farm system continue to flower? The nature of baseball execs is to value what they inherit less than what they accumulate. Note how many of Coppolella’s prospect-gathering trades were made with teams with new GMs – A.J. Preller in San Diego, Dave Stewart in Arizona, Billy Eppler in Anaheim, Jerry Dipoto in Seattle. Note also that Coppolella was willing to shed Jose Peraza, rated the Braves’ No. 1 prospect under Frank Wren, in the Hector Olivera trade. Different eyes see different things. While it’s hard to imagine anyone’s first move after alighting in Cobb County being to put out feelers on Ronald Acuna, you never know.
Will new management be given a different mission statement? As stressed on the day of Wren’s termination, Schuerholz’s aim was to return this franchise to “The Braves’ Way” of doing business – meaning building through the minor leagues, building around young pitching. (Also meaning: No massive contracts for the likes of B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla.) Schuerholz was mostly glowing in his assessment of the rebuild, but he did promise “never again” after the desultory 2015 season. As we know, 2016 and 2017 offered only incremental improvement. The next GM – or president, or whatever – could be told, “Enough of this. Win now.” Which could mean that other teams start getting calls about, if not Acuna, then some of these young pitchers.
Speaking of which, will the new GM be just a GM? It’s widely believed that the Braves would like to bring Dayton Moore, once Schuerholz’s No. 2 man, back from Kansas City. Moore, who presided over two World Series runs and the 2015 championship, mightn’t warm to the notion of working under Hart. If Hart is doing the hiring – he has left the impression that he is, though some are wondering if Schuerholz, officially the team’s vice chairman, again wants to act patriarchal, perhaps literally – would he be amenable to hiring his eventual and perhaps immediate replacement? Jon Heyman of FanRag suggested this week that relations between Schuerholz and Hart have frayed and that the former would like to see Moore return to groom Jonathan Schuerholz, the team’s assistant director of player development, for a bigger job.
Should John Schuerholz have a say in this? The Hall of Famer’s influence on this franchise remains powerful, but he has stepped away from day-to-day concerns. And, to be frank (pun slightly intended), he’s the guy who brought Wren and Coppolella here and championed their advancement. He is — or was — close friends with Hart, who was contracted as a consultant during the Wren administration and who was lured out of semi-retirement after Wren’s ouster.
How much blame does Hart bear? As much as the Braves might love to dump everything in the lap of one overzealous GM and one rogue chief of international scouting (Gordon Blakeley, who also resigned Monday), Hart is president of operations. A whisper holds that MLB’s investigation was a function of an in-house whistle-blower. If what was happening was known within the front office, why didn’t Hart know? And if he did, why didn’t he act? He isn’t exactly a president-in-absentia – he has a condominium in The Battery Atlanta; he and Coppolella would talk many times a day – but his work rate has been a source of curiosity. This week he felt compelled to tell Joel Sherman of the New York Post that he has played golf fewer than 10 times this year. Hart also said that he and Schuerholz had gone to lunch three times this week.
Is Hart staying? He’s not under contract for next season, though it’s believed he plans to work through 2018. It would look weird if he hired Moore as president, handed him the office keys and said on his way out, “Good luck – we’re all counting on you.” The Braves’ issues with MLB aren’t close to being resolved. The organization figures to get hit with significant sanctions. More resignations could be coming. They could lose Kevin Maitan, their No. 5 prospect. Had the Braves felt there was no meat to the investigation, they wouldn’t have pointed Coppolella toward the door. But if Coppolella had to go, should his mentor go, too?
Is this as big a mess as it appears? Sometimes we in the media say, “Such-and-such team is in chaos.” Two months later, upheaval has yielded to business as usual. Until we know what MLB does, we can’t affix a real prognosis. But it’s clearly the darkest moment “this great, grand organization” – Schuerholz’s immortal and immodest description – has known. Losing games is one thing. Losing face is another. The Braves have been so embarrassed they might well wonder if “The Braves’ Way” is has outlived its usefulness, like Turner Field. Which makes us wonder if the solution is yet another old Braves’ hand riding to the rescue.