Q&A with Coppolella: How did Braves get this bad?

WASHINGTON – After a 42-42 start that was better than predicted, the Braves’ season has crumbled, and some observers have suggested Braves officials overdid it with a rebuilding plan, a plan that until recently they were reluctant to even call a rebuild (they preferred “revamping” or other euphemisms). The Braves, who in late July traded away pitchers Jim Johnson, Alex Wood and Luis Avilan in one deal and hitters Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe in another, had a 10-game losing streak entering Saturday’s game against the Nationals and a 12-39 record since July 7.

Assistant general manager John Coppolella, as right-hand man to president of baseball operations John Hart, has been heavily involved in all personnel moves since last fall, when Hart replaced fired general manager Frank Wren and Coppolella assumed some GM duties. Coppolella, regarded as one of the top young GM prospects in baseball, has been with the Braves since 2006 after seven years with the Yankees as a baseball operations assistant and assistant director of pro scouting. He sat with Journal-Constitution Braves writer David O’Brien on Saturday to discuss the state of the team.

Q. Is this how you and John Hart thought this season might go, or could you have ever imagined that it would be this bad?

A. No. I think the way we envisioned the season going was the way the first half went, where you could walk parallel roads between building for the future and putting out a team (this season) that could fight night in and night out. That hasn’t happened, and we live through it and suffer through it every day, (Braves president and former GM) John Schuerholz, John Hart, myself. There’s a lot of reasons why it happened, but as John Schuerholz always says, “Losers make excuses, winners make commitments,” and we’re going to make a commitment to get better and better every year, and to build a team that has a chance to go to the World Series each year in spring training.”

Q. What has gone wrong with the plan?

A. All the moves we’ve made have been for the future, and they’ve been to help us get better. Could we have stopped, and not made the last couple of moves? Maybe. Will it lead to a better future? We think so. I think that you always want to follow through on things and not do things halfway. We went all the way on this. It wasn’t halfway. We could have ended up finishing with 75, 80 wins. That’s still a losing season. Is that better than where we’re at right now? It sure is, for us, every day. In the long run it might not be, but make no mistake, we want to win every game possible. Each loss is more crushing than the previous loss.

Q. Any regrets about the degree to which you committed to this rebuild, any trade you might not have made in retrospect?

A. No. I think we’re building for the future and all the trades we made will help us for the future. The regret we have is that we’ve fallen into this stage. I wish we could go back to Wednesday in Milwaukee, where we were 42-42 and we were up 4-0 going into the seventh inning. But we can’t, and we have to get through this season and keep moving forward. But this is something that Braves fans aren’t used to. And I’m not used to it, either, and neither are John Hart and John Schuerholz. They named the GM award after John Schuerholz – he was that successful. John Hart has been one of the most winning executives throughout baseball and has rebuilt two franchises. He’s on a third here, and it’s not going to be a five-year rebuild or a seven-year rebuild. We think we’ll be a team that will play meaningful baseball late into the season next year. We think we’ll be a really good team in 2017, and maybe start that window to where you feel like you can battle every year in that time between 2017 and 2018.

Q. What should Braves fan know to make them feel better about the future?

A. What they should know about the future is, look at the Kansas City Royals, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Houston Astros, and the Chicago Cubs, and look at what they did and how long it took them to rebuild. And we’re following a more aggressive path than what they did and are hoping to get this reset in the right way sooner and with more impact.”

Q. Are you fully aware of how much this second-half collapse has alienated some Braves fans?

A. Yes, I get a lot of hate email. You hear a lot of comments. There’s a lot of guys that say they don’t read stuff (criticism), but I do read stuff. Look, I’ve been on every road trip. I’m here after every game. And it’s hard. I’ve been a winner my whole life, too. I was with the New York Yankees for seven years, we won the AL East every year. And when I was here (with the Braves), we had a lot of winning seasons. But what we’re doing is about this: When John Schuerholz took over the Braves, they won 14 straight NL East titles. Since John Schuerholz left, the Braves won one NL East title in 2013. We were facing a lot of free agents (to be) and a really poor farm system. We didn’t want to end up with a new ballpark coming, with a fan based used to winning — that should see a good team, that has that right – we didn’t want to end up where it’s a five- to seven-year rebuild. With all the stuff that we were facing here, we did what we felt was in the best long-term interests of the Atlanta Braves. Is it painful now? ... It’s painful. Every day. But we’ll get through this year and we’ll stick to the plan, and we’ll get better next year and even better the year after that.

Q. Was the timing of Fredi Gonzalez and his coaches’ contract extensions (just after the All-Star break) an indication that you in the front office knew this could get ugly with the second-half trades that were coming?

A. I felt we overachieved in the first half, and I feel that’s a great credit to Fredi and his whole coaching staff. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be fair to go through this for this year and judge Fredi or his staff. We have told them they will be judged on how hard we play and on our young players improving. They’ve played hard every night, and we’ve seen improvement from some of our young players, not all of them.

Q. Are Fredi’s and Roger’s jobs secure going into next season? Can they be judged based on this season?

A. I think it’s unfair to judge them. We’ve decimated a bullpen through trades and injuries, so it’s hard. I think we’ve got guys playing hard. Do we expect more out of some young players? Have we seen regression from young players? Yes, we have. But we see guys playing hard every night. I thought we played a great game (Friday) night and we were one batter away from getting a win, and it just didn’t happen. (The Braves lost 5-2 against the Nationals in 10 innings.)

Q. Do the Braves plan to possibly spend significantly on free agents to fill some holes this winter, or is that still a year away?

A. We will have more flexibility this winter than we’ve had in five or six years. We’ll have even more in 2017. Our ownership has been great. (CEO) Terry McGuirk has been great. All those guys have given us everything that we needed, including the support and understanding that this was going to be a year where we take one step back to take two steps forward. And we’ve gone, as you’ve read about and heard, from a bottom-five (minor league) system to a top-five system. We were ranked 29th by Baseball America this past offseason; we were ranked No. 2 by ESPN six weeks ago. I’ve never seen that happen with any organization so fast, and it doesn’t just happen by snapping your fingers. It happens through making real gutsy trades. And it’s not easy for John Hart to wear – this is a proud man, a winner, who has really followed through on this plan. And I think it will pay dividends for us down the line.

Q. Is this losing jag something you’ll strive to never go through again?

A. Absolutely. It’s really hard. I’ve been through the 2004 ALCS (as a Yankees official) where we were up 3-zip on Boston; that was hard. I went through 2011 here, where we had a huge lead in the wild-card (race) and one of the best records in the game, and we lost. Because this (current slide) has been so long, because it’s been so bad, this feels harder and worse. John Schuerholz is a winner, John Hart is a winner, I’m a winner. And we’re going to fight our way out of this.

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