Season 3 of a rebuild that the Braves initially wouldn’t call a rebuild is about to begin, and this is an even bigger year than folks in the organization likely will say publicly. There’s a new ballpark, a revamped starting rotation and raised expectations after a 50-47 record in the last 97 games of 2016, including 20 wins in the final 30 games.
The Braves embarked on their current course about 28 months ago under the direction of president of baseball operations John Hart and top assistant John Coppolella, who did the work of general manager at the time and was promoted to that title less than a year later. The project hasn’t paid dividends yet in terms of the major league record — a 95-loss season in 2015 was followed by a 93-loss, last-place finish in 2016, representing the worst two-season span for the Braves in a quarter-century, and more emotional pain than Coppolella ever imagined the job could bring.
However, the initial goal of the rebuild was to address a neglected farm system that had slipped precipitously. In that regard, the rebuild already is a rousing success: The Braves have ascended from a bottom-five minor league system to No. 1 in the view of most expert evaluators of such operations.
They are bursting at the seams with elite pitching prospects and also added top-shelf position prospects led by some of the best young up-the-middle talent (shortstop, second base, center field) in the game.
But now, attention turns squarely back to the major league product on the field. Can the Braves, after increasing the payroll primarily with the addition of $32.5 million in 2017 salaries for three veteran starting pitchers, pick up where they left off in 2016 and at least move closer to .500 than to another 90-loss season?
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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves writer David O’Brien sat down with Coppolella in the final week of spring training to discuss the state of the Braves.
Q: Much has been written about the Braves’ rebuild as folks try to figure out where this season fits within that process. How would you characterize this season, as far as where the organization is and what you want to see from the team this season in year three?
A: We are better. Our organization is better. Our major league team is better. Our minor league talent is better. All that said, we still have a lot of room for growth and improvement. We are barely two years into this rebuild — two drafts, two foreign signing periods, two trade deadlines — we haven’t had five years like the Cubs, seven like the Astros, nine like the Royals, or 20 like the Pirates. The improvements we have made the last two years have been incredible.
Q: How did the fact that the team is opening a new stadium this season, SunTrust Park, affect the plan? In other words, did it add urgency that might not otherwise have been there at this point in the rebuild, knowing that you’re going to play in front of big crowds and that it would be advantageous to be competitive in order to keep them coming back once the novelty of the ballpark wears off?
A: Yes. Sun Trust Park is going to be terrific for our fans and tremendous for our franchise. We couldn’t be more happy about it. Again, all that said, it did speed up a timetable for being competitive. It’s something about which we have been cognizant since we began this rebuild, and it factored into our trades of Melvin Upton Jr. and Chris Johnson, both of whom would be under contract and counting against our payroll for the 2017 season.
Q: What was the most encouraging aspect of spring training for you, whether that was an individual or something you saw from the team?
A: The most encouraging aspect of spring training for me was seeing young prospects like Max Fried, Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Patrick Weigel come up here and show so well. Each day on the back fields it’s an embarrassment of riches where you see top-shelf talent. The other day in minor league games we started Fried, Ricardo Sanchez, Mike Soroka, and Ian Anderson — watching those games on the back fields it’s like your head is on a swivel.
Q: Are you confident that this team could and should get off to a much better start than last year’s 9-28 that got Fredi Gonzalez fired and that it can play like it did during the last 100 or so games of the season?
A: We should get off to a better start, but it’s not fair to anybody for me to make predictions. We are a better team and we should be better.
Q: What area of the team still needs to be strengthened if you’re to be truly competitive this season?
A: We like our team and our players. We need to stay healthy and have our guys play to the back of their baseball cards. If those two things happen it should be a fun year.
Q: For those who might not have followed the offseason moves closely and read the logic at the time the moves were made, why did an up-and-coming team with so many young pitching prospects find it prudent to sign two starting pitchers over 40, Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey, and trade for another veteran starter, Jaime Garcia?
A: Lots of factors. First and foremost, they make us better. Ideally they will provide us 550-600 innings of quality and certainty. There were so many times last year where our pitcher would be knocked out before the fourth inning and you absolutely decimate your bullpen and end up having to make three or four roster moves each day. We rushed some pitchers up here who weren’t ready and, candidly, some who were just not good. We didn’t have anywhere else to go. We used our money on young players, not on back-of-the-rotation starters. Acquiring these three pitchers allows time for our young pitchers to develop and creates competition — we have moved past the time where jobs are handed out like candy at Halloween. All three of these pitchers are as good off the field as they are on the field, and we feel our young pitchers will and have learned from them. Finally, all three signed one-year deals, so it’s not like six years and $200 million where it will block our prospects and cripple our payroll. We feel these moves make the Braves better in the short and long term.
Q: Do you think this starting rotation is significantly improved over last season, in terms of current starters and depth for potential call-ups and fill-in starters?
A: Last year our starting five was Julio Teheran, Bud Norris, Matt Wisler, Jhoulys Chacin and Williams Perez. This year it’s Julio, Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia, R.A. Dickey and Mike Foltynewicz. What do you think?
Q: How significant a blow was the Sean Rodriguez injury, considering he was going to not just be your primary second baseman until Ozzie Albies was ready, but also was going to serve as a high-level backup at several positions?
A: The most important thing is that Sean and his family survived that horrific accident. On the field, losing Sean was an extremely significant blow for many reasons. It wasn’t only our starting second baseman, but like you said a high-level backup at several positions. For us he was a lot like Ben Zobrist for the Chicago Cubs where he would play a lot and play a lot of different positions. The talent, versatility, makeup — he’s one of the toughest guys to replace on our whole roster.
Q: Brandon Phillips had an impressive spring training, came in extremely fit and looks ready to perform at a reasonably high level in a contract year. So, what does that do to Albies’ chances of being called up at midseason if he shows he’s ready?
A: We were very fortunate to acquire Brandon just before we opened camp. Brandon has been awesome, at the plate, in the field, off the field, with our fans, in the clubhouse. He’s fit in perfectly. We expect a big year for Brandon and also expect it will have very little impact on when we call up Ozzie. Ozzie is going to tell us when he is ready, and he needs to play, be completely healthy, and dominate Triple-A. Ozzie is a special kid with a really bright future, and when he is ready to help us in the major leagues, nobody is going to stand in his way. It’s a great problem to have too many good players and too few spots. Young players with talent and versatility can merge with veteran players on a team looking to win. Ask the Cubs about Javier Baez.
Q: Coming off spring training, how would you rank your top pitching prospects in terms of being closest to the majors? And without naming names — unless you want to — how many legit top-of-the-rotation starters do you think the Braves now have stockpiled in the system?
A: We feel a number of our top pitching prospects are close to the majors and will have a chance to make an impact this season. It’s difficult to say how many legit top-of-the-rotation starters we have, but, with all due respect, we can confidently say we have more than any other team — and it’s not even close.
Q: Was there ever a temptation to trade one or more of your top pitching prospects this winter or spring in order to add a big bat to the lineup? Or is the organization not to that point of the rebuild?
A: There was a temptation to trade prospects for “now” help, and we did engage in conversations on big-name players. Our organization is blessed to have John Hart as our president. John and I speak multiple times each day and run through a million ideas a million times over, searching for ways to make the Braves better. We aren’t afraid to trade prospects, but we just didn’t find the right fit.
Q: From your observations and conversations, what have you thought of how the coaching staff shapes up with the additions of Ron Washington and Chuck Hernandez? What has been the feedback you’ve heard from pitchers on working with Hernandez?
A: Both Wash and Chuck have been outstanding. Wash is such a great leader and special person. He’s one of the first people to the park every day and brings boundless energy, passion, and knowledge. Chuck has also done a great job and has developed a strong rapport with our pitchers.
Q: Generally speaking, how close is this team to being back to where you want it to be, back where the Braves were for a decade and a half?
A: We aren’t there yet, but we are getting closer all the time. Where the Braves were for a decade and half was a function of the young talent pipeline created by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz through scouting and player development. You have to sign and develop your own impact players like the Braves did with Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, David Justice, Ron Gant, Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Rafael Furcal, etc. Trying to buy championships kills franchises, and free agency is the murder weapon. We made a vow to become the best farm system in baseball and we have done it; we thought it would take five years and instead we did it in two years. The most exciting thing is when you talk to some of our minor league coaches who have been here for 40 years, who had the players that led to that historic run and have our prospects now. They feel we have more talent now and they know what that means for our future.
Q: The payroll has risen to over $120 million this year, closer to the middle of MLB pack than near the bottom, where it’s been in the past several years. Do you anticipate a continuing rise in payroll given increased revenues expected at the new ballpark, or will payroll likely reside in that middle to lower-half range of MLB for the forseeable future?
A: The payroll isn’t the issue. Terry McGuirk and Liberty Media have been tremendous and given us everything we wanted. What we need is time for these prospects to develop, and once that happens we will see something special.
Q: When you think about it, is it hard to grasp that the Braves last won a playoff series in 2001? That’s now a postseason drought as lengthy as was the Braves’ 14 consecutive division titles in 15 years. So, how driven are you to reverse that postseason trend as quickly as possible at the new ballpark?
A: Beyond driven. Beyond obsessed. We talk about winning playoff series and the World Series all the time. It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. It’s impossible to overstate how driven all of us together are to electrify this new ballpark, our fans and the city of Atlanta — it’s all we think about all the time.