The Braves under John Hart and John Coppolella have finalized major trades immediately after baseball’s general managers meetings two years in a row. Now they’re attending their third together in the city where their first big trade was hatched: Jason Heyward to St. Louis four days after the 2014 meetings.
They’ve moved past the stage of making trades to shed payroll, dump contracts and fortify a now-robust farm system. But don’t think for a moment the Braves, with Coppolella as GM and Hart as president of baseball operations, were content to socialize as GMs began to arrive Sunday — others will get in Monday — at the Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa.
The meetings run through Thursday morning and it won’t be a surprise if the Braves make a deal during or soon after the event, though most teams treat the GM meetings as a place to lay the groundwork for future deals rather than get deep into negotiations.
The Braves’ overriding emphasis is on improving the starting rotation. They’d also like to add a left-handed-hitting catcher to team with Tyler Flowers, but only if a suitable option is available at acceptable cost.
Bringing back former Braves catcher Brian McCann was discussed in recent months, but Yankee demands were so unrealistic — initially they asked the Braves for both Ender Inciarte and Mike Foltynewicz — that a deal seems unlikely. Signing a free agent such as Matt Wieters or Jason Castro is more plausible for now, though things could change with McCann if the Yankees become more reasonable.
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Coppolella reiterated that bolstering the rotation is the focus and that if the Braves ended up with the same catching tandem they had for most of 2016 — Flowers and Anthony Recker — they’d be OK with it.
“The biggest needs for us one, two and three? Starting pitching, starting pitching, starting pitching,” Coppolella said Friday during an Arizona Fall League game, where he and several of his top assistants watched Braves prospects playing for the Salt River Rafters.
The Braves seek to add at least two starting pitchers on either one- or two-year deals. They don’t want anyone with long-term contracts blocking the elite prospects in a next wave the Braves expect to arrive within 2-3 years or possibly sooner in a couple of cases, such as top prospect Max Fried.
While this winter’s free-agent pitching class pales next to last year’s, that isn’t really relevant to the Braves since they wouldn’t have pursued pitchers like David Price, Johnny Cueto and Zack Greinke.
“We weren’t going to go after those guys anyway. It was not efficient for us,” Coppolella said. “You don’t buy No. 1 starters; you grow them. You draft them, you develop them. For us, it’s not efficient for us to go out and buy a No. 1 starter. Unless something drastically changes, you won’t see us going after a No. 1 starter.”
Asked how the Braves plan to acquire players this winter, he said, “We’re looking at a number of different trade possibilities, but also the free-agent market where we don’t have to trade away prospects. (When signing a free agent) you spend the money and keep the (young) talent.”
That’s a bit of a different strategy than in recent years and for a few reasons. The Braves have more financial flexibility now, both from dumping several onerous contracts and from what the Braves anticipate will be significantly increased revenues derived from their new ballpark in 2017.
Although they don’t want to trade top prospects that they’ve acquired via trade or draft, they say there will come a time when they’ll be ready to do so in order to fill a need that could put them over the top as a championship contender. At this stage of their rebuild, the Braves seem open to possibly trading mid-level prospects to help the team take another step forward, realizing that trades might be the only way to add quality pitchers given the weak free-agent class.
Coppolella said the Braves aren’t looking to trade any of their outfielders — Nick Markakis, Inciarte, Matt Kemp — who were all instrumental in the team’s substantial offensive improvement in the second half last season.
“We really like what Matt Kemp, Ender Inciarte and Nick Markakis did this year,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got one of the best outfields in all of baseball and we don’t want to break that outfield up. Now, if somebody offers something crazy, do you have to listen? Sure. But we’re not out there shopping guys. In fact we’re not really even listening on guys. Because these are players that we really like and we feel like they fit us well on the field as well as off the field.”
Gaining financial flexibility puts the Braves in position to make a run at a free agent who might not get a qualifying offer from his current team before Monday’s deadline. Or they could quickly make an offer to a player who becomes a non-tendered free agent on Dec. 2, as the Braves did last year when they quickly signed Flowers after he was non-tendered by the White Sox.
The Braves won’t say how much money they can spend, but Coppolella made it clear that it’s an amount that allows them to strengthen the starting rotation, a glaring weakness as the 2016 season wore on.
He used favorite line that the Braves front office adopted from the movie Boondock Saints: “We’re sort of like 7-Eleven. We’re not always doing business, but we’re always open.”
“We’re open (to moving early on a deal),” Coppolella said. “We don’t know what’s going to be brought to us. There could be a great deal that we would have to explore further. If something makes sense for the Braves and will make us better in the short term and the long term, in the view of our scouts and our front office and our whole group, yeah, we’re not going to wait around for any type of artificial date.
“I couldn’t care less about (waiting for) the Winter Meetings or whenever. The best time to make a trade is when a good trade is offered to you.” We’re always trying to find ways to get better.”
Coppolella and Hart have a reputation for moving quickly. They dealt Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins four days after the 2014 GM meetings. A year ago they dealt Andrelton Simmons to the Angels the day after the GM meetings.
That Heyward trade keeps giving, as the Braves dealt Miller a year later to the Diamondbacks in what could go down as one of the most one-sided deals in recent history: the Braves got Inciarte, shortstop Dansby Swanson and pitching prospect Aaron Blair. When that deal took shape at 2015 Winter Meetings, the Braves moved quickly.
They’re ready to pounce again if they see something they like.