Regardless of what side you fall on in the “Should Fredi Gonzalez have been fired” debate, most will agree on this: It’s rarely one person’s fault or one person’s success story. It’s organizational.
Ownership has to be committed (and Liberty Media hasn’t been). All front office members need to be on the same page, and there needs to be some clear definition of responsibilities — and here is where the Braves may have a problem.
John Schuerholz stepped up (and out) from general manager to president after the 2007 season — not coincidentally following the Mark Teixeira trade that failed to prevent a third-place finish. He knighted Frank Wren as his successor and watched as Wren generally proved to be far better as an assistant than someone being asked to manage people, build an organization and see the big picture. Wren failed. Therefore, Schuerholz failed.
Wren was fired. Schuerholz pried close friend John Hart out of semi-retirement. Hart agreed to come on as “president of baseball operations,” which meant there would be two elder statesmen to guide and watch over the new general manager in training, John Coppolella.
Schuerholz, Hart and Coppolella, along with a voice from the shadows, Bobby Cox, decided to let Gonzalez remain through a rebuilding project (termed “retooling” at the time). They didn’t fire Gonzalez with Wren before the 2015 season. They didn’t fire him after it. Instead, they gave him an extension, understanding that losing amid a rebuild wasn’t the manager’s fault.
Then they changed their mind. It’s called image preservation. The decision was made to fire Gonzalez, and it was done clumsily by Coppolella. (Gonzalez receiving an emailed itinerary for a one-way ticket out of Dodge before he had been told anything.) Then it was the more-polished Hart who parachuted into Pittsburgh and did most of the media commitments, in part because public speaking isn’t Coppy’s forte.
Schuerholz remained far off stage. It kept his cloak free of mud splatter.
In March, his title changed from president to vice chairman but he’s still an adviser on player-personnel matters to Hart, who oversees Coppolella, which effectively makes the general manager No. 4 under CEO Terry McGuirk.
I have a question: Who’s in charge?
Coppolella presumably was impressive enough in talent evaluation to convince McGuirk/Schuerholz/Hart to elevate him to GM. The jury will be out on that until the Braves win again. Schuerholz guessed wrong with Wren. Sports teams guess wrong with assistants all the time.
Coppolella was going to get this chance somewhere. He works hard, and he’s a smart guy. Aside from his botched firing of Gonzalez, he’s generally liked personally. But there’s more to being a GM than evaluating talent and financial spreadsheets.
It was amateur hour a few weeks ago: Gonzalez was forced to manage a game with the roster one man short after Coppolella attempted to call up the released/then re-signed Emilio Bonifacio, only to realize just hours before a game that he wasn’t eligible because it hadn’t been 30 days since he originally was released.
It’s an obscure rule. But GMs get paid to know obscure rules.
Understand this: If Schuerholz/Hart felt comfortable turning over baseball operations to Coppolella, they would have done so already. It’s also worth noting it was largely Schuerholz’s decision not to go outside “the family” with the hire, as the organization attempted to recapture the Schuerholz-Cox success of the 1990s.
Schuerholz did a fine job running things, even if the Braves won only one World Series title amid 14 division titles. But nobody likes to talk about how the slide started under his watch the past few seasons.
The Teixeira trade before the deadline in 2007 was the sledgehammer whack at the end. Schuerholz made it with good intentions, believing Teixeira would make the Braves World Series contenders. So he dealt four touted young players: Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The first three became All-Stars. Teixeira played well, but the Braves weren’t much better after the trade (32-26, .552) than before it (56-51, .523). They missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Schuerholz promoted Wren, who came in and was forced to clean up the mess, which he did somewhat. But giving big contracts to B.J. Upton, Kenshin Kawakami, Dan Uggla and Derek Lowe overshadowed the positives and ultimately buried him. Scouts left, player development withered and Wren’s obstinate attitude turned off many in the organization.
Hart and Coppolella have rebuilt the minor league system, but miscalculated this year’s team and appears to have made a $32 million mistake with Hector Olivera. When Gonzalez paid the price for their mistakes, Hart traveled to Pittsburgh to give the more polished sound bites and appear on the team’s broadcast, not Coppolella.
The Braves currently lack success and the front office lacks clarity. Maybe this will all work out. Maybe Coppolella will grow into the job and this period will be viewed as early hiccups. But we’re a long way from being at that point.
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