Coppolella: The Braves won’t draft for need

Braves general manager John Coppolella answers questions during an interview session on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Braves general manager John Coppolella answers questions during an interview session on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

The Braves awoke Monday on pace to hit fewer home runs than Mark McGwire did by himself in 1998. The leading homer-hitter among their top four affiliates is Matt Tuiasosopo, a journeyman who chose to accept another minor-league assignment after being dropped by the big-league club last month. Tuiasosopo has six home runs for Class AAA Gwinnett.

The MLB draft begins Thursday. The Braves own the third overall pick and five of the top 80. Given that they have nobody under contract capable of hitting the ball over the wall on a regular basis except Freddie Freeman — and his production has become highly irregular — you might think they’d view this week as prime time to load up on power. You’d be in error.

“We never draft on need,” general manager John Coppolella said Monday. “We always seek out the highest-upside player who can help us win a championship. Needs change. We could go out and sign a power bat this offseason.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this already, but baseball is different. There’s such a lag time: It took Chipper Jones, drafted No. 1 overall in 1990, three years to reach the majors (and then only as a September callup). Even with the best-looking prospects, unknowns abound. Can a young bopper handle a breaking ball? Can a heat-bringing pitcher develop a breaking ball and, if so, will his elbow bear the strain? Can a teenager handle being a professional?

With the third pick of the 2009 draft, the Padres took Cartersville High outfielder Donavan Tate, whose dad was the former Georgia tailback Lars Tate. Donavan Tate failed two drug tests and entered rehab. He tore his Achilles. Last season he hit .211 for the Lake Elsinore Storm. (Also the site of Coppolella’s first baseball job, FYI.) He signed with the Dodgers in November and is on the disabled list of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes. Seven years after being drafted, he hasn’t risen above Class A.

With the 25th pick of that same draft, the Angels took Mike Trout. Since 2012, he has been baseball’s best player.

Said Coppolella: “We’re looking for the best player on the board. If you start drafting for need, it’s a recipe for disaster. There’s such a road to hoe. That’s why, when you talk of tanking, it’s kind of silly. Ken Griffey Jr. was the first No. 1 pick to go into the Hall of Fame.”

(There’ll soon be a second. But the Braves took Chipper only because Todd Van Poppel told them he wouldn’t sign.)

It has become fashionable for teams to prefer college hitters and high school pitchers, the thinking being that college pitchers have excess arm wear while unpolished prep hitters are harder to project. Said Coppolella: “The biggest thing for me in a perfect world would be to draft a college bat. But in a perfect world, I’d have a full head of hair and we’d be 40-16.”

Meaning: The Braves could go any which way — pitcher or hitter, high school or college. Having predicated their rebuild on pitching, the Braves clearly believe in the power of arms. They’ve accumulated a ton of pitching already, which isn’t to say they couldn’t use more. Coppolella has said his vision is of “wave after wave of prospects.” This just in: Pitching never goes out of style.

Coppolella: “We go case by case. We’ve always loved high school players, but we know our fans want to win sooner than later. Then you look at our series in L.A. this weekend. Corey Seager (who hit five homers in the three games): High school bat. Chipper Jones: High school bat.”

We say again: You never know. As we speak, the Braves are trying to dope out the unknowable. Coppolella flew home from L.A. on Sunday to huddle with scouts and sound out agents. (As was the case with Van Poppel, signability is a big deal.) “We have a plan,” the GM said. “I can’t really divulge it, but we have a plan.”