Braves promote Coppolella to GM position

After the Braves named John Coppolella as their new general manager Thursday, promoting him from assistant GM and giving him a four-year contract that runs through 2019, the 37-year-old son of an Italian immigrant couldn’t help but stop to think about his own journey to this high-profile position.

“A little surreal to get that title,” Coppolella said after a news conference where he sat between Braves president and legendary former general manager John Schuerholz and Braves president of baseball operations John Hart. “I was never worried about titles or who was doing the work; you just want to be part of the team. But it’s one thing where you’re, I don’t want to say held accountable, but it’s on me now.

“I’ve always been motivated, I’ve always been challenged, and this just kind of raises the bar further.”

While the team has had no one with the general-manager title since Frank Wren was fired Sept. 21, 2014, Coppolella and Hart shared those duties, with Coppolella doing most of the negotiating and procedural work involved in an extremely busy 12 months that saw the Braves make a multitude of trades as they sought to rebuild the farm system.

“One of the bright and creative minds that we have in our game today,” Hart said of Coppolella. “The fans of Atlanta should be very comfortable that there’s no stone that’s going to be left unturned with John there. Brightness and creativity is one thing, but his unrelenting work ethic is the thing that stands out as much as anything. Whether I’m on the phone with him at 2 o’clock in the morning or 6 o’clock in the morning, John is there. He finishes what he starts. He cares greatly about the Braves. There’s a loyalty there.”

Hart will continue in his current position in a contract that runs through 2017, the first season in the Braves’ Cobb County ballpark. The promotion of Coppolella to GM doesn’t effect the chain of command or the way the Braves conduct player-personnel business and transactions.

“Nothing changes,” Coppolella said. “It’s the same exact setup that we had, it’s just I end up with this title. John’s been such a great leader. He has final call, as he’s had from the very start. It’s the same kind of setup you see seven or eight other teams have – Cubs have it, Dodgers have it, Phillies are going to have it…. I’m fortunate, you can’t ask for two better leaders than John Schuerholz and John Hart.”

Coppolella, a Notre Dame graduate, began his career as an intern in the Yankees’ front office, worked his way up the ladder in their scouting department and earned a reputation for hard work and a keen sense of both the analytical/statistical side of baseball — he draws frequent praise from the sabermetric community — as well as the traditional insights of scouts.

He was called a rising star in executive ranks for several years by industry insiders and publications including Baseball America. He’s completing his ninth season with the Braves, having been hired by Schuerholz as director of baseball operations 2006, promoted to director of professional scouting in 2011, then to assistant GM after the 2012 season.

Now, he’s a GM. At 37.

“It’s a huge honor for me and my family,” Coppolella said. “I’m from a family with a father that didn’t speak English when he first came here at 25 years old. Coming from a family that went paycheck-to-paycheck, just having this to where it can help out my family in the future. I think the pride for my family is really big. I think it probably means more to them than it does to me, but it still means a lot to me.”

When the Braves promoted Hart form an advisory role and semi-retirement to his current position last October, they made it clear that Coppolella — “Coppy” to friends and associates — would be his right-hand man and a top candidate for the GM title at some point in the future.

Turns out, it was sooner than most anticipated. But again, it was a change in title more than anything.

“I never felt like he wasn’t the GM,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He made all the moves as the general manager, and our relationship has always been of manager-general manager. But now he gets the title, and good for him. I think he’s going to be fantastic. He’s got a great support system above him and mentoring system, with Schuerholz and John Hart. And he’s got the support of all the staff underneath him, and the lines of communication have been open and I think will continue to be open.”

From an organizational standpoint, making the move now also helps keep other teams from potentially luring away Coppolella to another GM position at a time when there are some attractive job openings around the majors.

They wanted to continue grooming him for the role by having him work alongside Hart, a longtime former GM who’s respected for his baseball acumen and ability to interact with everyone from his managers, coaches and players to scouts, o other teams’ executives, media and player agents.

The Braves brought in a bevy of prospects and future draft picks through a series of big trades that began in November with the deal that sent Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden to the Cardinals in exchange for starting pitchers Shelby Miller and prospect Tyrell Jenkins.

The frenzy continued with winter deals that shipped out Justin Upton and Evan Gattis, the eve-of-opening-day megadeal that sent Craig Kimbrel and Melvin Upton Jr. (and his onerous contract) to the Padres, and in-season trades including a huge one in July that brought Hector Olivera from the Dodgers as part of a 13-player, three-team swap that sent Braves pitchers Alex Wood, Luis Avilan and Jim Johnson, plus top infield prospect Jose Peraza, to the Dodgers.

Say what you will about the moves, but Hart and Coppolella have been anything but timid.

Bold strokes were required, they said, in order to get the organization back on solid footing for many years to come, even if it meant taking a step back in 2015. As things turned out, they took a few steps back, having compiled a 63-95 record with four games to play. It’s their worst season in nearly a quarter-century, since the Braves finished 63-97 in 1990 – before their famous worst-to-first season of 1991 that began their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles.

Top Braves executives have vowed it will never happen again, and privately their goal is to get back to at least .500 in 2016, then be serious contenders in 2017 in the first season in the new ballpark.