John Coppolella never grew into job, damaged Braves need leadership

John Schuerholz (left) and John Hart (right) hoped John Coppolella would grow into the general manager’s job, but he never did, and he damaged the franchise in the end. (Hyosub Shin/hshin@ajc.com)

The story was so unexpected, so staggering in terms of scope and deception, that it’s natural most of the focus has been on the dirt.

There are stories that John Coppolella routinely circumvented international signing bonus limitations by “bundling” bonuses, with money effectively being funneled from a lesser prospect to a more valuable one through a third party … that he so blatantly disregarded tampering  rules he phoned an agent 2½ months before his player hit the market … that he arranged for housing for top Venezuelan prospect Kevin Maitan near Miami before the Braves nabbed him as a way of shielding him from competitors. … that he negotiated a verbal agreement with a 14-year-old in the Dominican Republic, two years before he was eligible.

Those are your Braves today: coming off their third consecutive 90-loss season and with a pile of alleged infractions, just short of a Louisville basketball stripper party.

That’s a lot to unwrap. The ripple effect of Coppolella’s underhanded dealings may extend far beyond his forced resignation as general manager. There’s the potential of Major League Baseball declaring some prospects free agents and imposing further restrictions on the Braves, a once-proud franchise that competed at the highest level, won with class and served as a blueprint for other organizations.

But this is when the attention needs to shift away from the dirt. Here’s the bigger question: What has happened to the Braves’ front office and how did they allow this to happen?

John Schuerholz, the Hall of Fame executive, understandably didn’t like the job Frank Wren did as his successor. So he, in concert with chairman Terry McGuirk, fired Wren and lured John Hart out of retirement. The mission: rebuild the player-development system, the roster and dump the bad contracts Wren had accrued.

Schuerholz and Hart were more overseers at this stage of their lives and career, so they brought in Coppolella as the young, hard-working grunt guy to do most of the work. It was their sincere hope that Coppolella, who had strengths in areas of analytics and personnel evaluation but was inexperienced as an executive and weak in the area of people skills, would grow into the GM’s job.

He didn’t. He didn’t come close.

In fact, over the past year, Coppolella had becoming more autocratic, listening less to people around him and growing increasingly obsessed to the point of, well, feeling compelled to cheat. He became like an addict. He lost perspective, clarity. The job clouded his thinking.

Coppolella did a fine job rebuilding the minor league system. The Braves’ system is widely considered to be stuffed with more young talent than most, if not all, organizations. But that’s only one piece of the job. Coppolella failed in so many others. The Braves went 72-90 this season largely because he believed signing older, expensive stop-gap starters — Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia and R.A. Dickey, at a total salary of $32.5 million — would make the team competitive in 2017 and provide a bridge to the young starters on 2018. That plan failed spectacularly this season, and there’s no more certainty about the readiness of the young arms now than there was last winter.

There’s no need for a general manager to be “friends” with competitors. But Coppolella failed to build working relationships with other GMs, possibly limiting trade options. He failed to acknowledge mistakes until long past they were obvious, most notably being the Hector Olivera/Alex Wood deal with Los Angeles.

More than a year later, he tried to cover that by saying Matt Kemp-for-Olivera was a makeup call. No, it wasn’t. Kemp added some punch to the lineup, at least until familiar injury and weight issues came up. But the Braves are on the hook for $54 million of Kemp’s salary from 2017 to 2019. They would’ve owed Olivera only $28.5 million from 2017 to 2020. It would’ve been better just to walk away from him after the Olivera’s arrest for domestic assault.

Perhaps most troubling of all, I heard an increasing amount of feedback over the past few months about declining morale in the team offices, strikingly similar to Wren’s final days. Coppolella turned on anybody who didn’t agree with his positions on players or roster strategy. He took on an almost bunker mentality. He became overly sensitive to criticism.

I can certainly attest to the latter: Coppolella hadn’t spoken to me for several months, believing I was overly critical of his plan. In fact, I agreed with the rebuild. I just had a problem with the front office’s lack of transparency and honesty about the rebuild, questioned specific moves – the Olivera and Andrelton Simmons trades, the firing of pitching coach Roger McDowell, the old-guy signings – and believed Coppolella and Hart never took ownership for the losses.

Instead, they blamed the manager and coaches.

The Braves have lacked true leadership. They didn’t have it with Coppolella. They also haven’t had it north of him: not from McGuirk, not from Schuerholz, not from Hart, certainly not from anybody in corporate headquarters in Colorado, where the focus is on stock price.

When something gets this ugly, it always starts at the top.

This has been a franchise that for too long has been driven by revenue streams and not on-field product. Imagine if top executives were as driven to improve the product as they were to get public financing for a stadium deal or a spring training home.

The Braves’ brand has taken a beating. They need to get it right this time.

Hire a general manager who has an ounce of humility, knows how to manage people and can see the big picture. Dayton Moore from Kansas City seems like the perfect and obvious choice, but there must be others out there.

Let the new general manager make the decision on manager Brian Snitker.

Let the new GM decide on whether it’s time to acquire a No. 1 starting pitcher — by spending money, dealing prospects or both.

Let the new GM realize that it takes more than a spreadsheet to build a team – it takes chemistry and personalities and clubhouse leadership, which the Braves have lacked.

Let the new GM ask the question: Why aren’t we bringing in Tom Glavine or John Smoltz to help tutor some of these young pitchers?

Let the new GM evaluate the major league roster and realize that the best years of Freddie Freeman are being wasted.

Get it right this time.

Because for as much as Coppolella did a nice job building the feeder system, that’s only part of the job. He got the rest wrong. And now somebody has a mess to clean up.

→ “We Never Played The Game” podcast: Zach and I break down Coppolella resignation with AJC’s David O’Brien. Great stuff from DOB. Download and subscribe on iTunes or CLICK HERE.

Subscribe to the,We Never Played The Game” podcast with the AJC’s Jeff Schultz and WSB’s Zach Klein on iTunes. Episodes also can be downloaded from on-demand link on WSBRadio.com.

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65 comments
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Mike
Mike

So glad the Braves moved out of the ATL, they are damaged goods and belong in Cobb.

patriotdog
patriotdog

how could this be a surprise? Coppy wasn't 'brought in' to be the GM, he was Wren's assistant and therefore it shouldn't shock anyone that he became Wren-like when given the GM title.

passion8181
passion8181

If the Braves are to truly win again, Schuerholz and Hart need to get the hell out of the way.


Just to bring you up to speed on who I am. I worked in baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves. I was hired during the Schuerholz GM years, then fired at the end of the Frank Wren GM years. I had a front row seat to the downward spiral of "The Braves Way", which evaporated as soon as Mr. Schuerholz left the GM seat for the President's seat. Mr. Schuerholz left the baseball side of things in the hands of Frank Wren, and his assistant, Bruce Manno. Both Frank and Bruce did a wonderful job in mistreating people and not listening to the people who were hired to develop the farm system, thus single handily destroying the Atlanta Braves. All of this of course was taking place while Mr. Schuerholz feel asleep at the wheel on the baseball side of things, and devoted all of his time to developing the business side of things (The new stadium, which was a HUGE secret.) 


I can remember one spring training, a couple years before Bobby finally retired, when Bobby got so frustrated that he got in his car and was driving home to Atlanta, essentially quitting because he was sick and tired of the Frank Wren regime. I'm not clear on what made Bobby come back, but I do believe he retired earlier then he wanted to because of Frank Wren.


I can remember sitting in player development meetings in spring training, with Bruce Manno and Frank Wren, and all of the minor league instructors, coaches, and managers (All of the guys in uniform, many of whom had been with the Braves for decades [And/or played in the big leagues], helping get players to the big leagues) discussing the minor league rosters for the upcoming season. During the meeting, players are talked about in depth, and decisions are made for their development based on the opinions of all of these people. Of course, at the end of the meeting, Frank and Bruce did the opposite of what was decided by the people in uniform, thus creating an internal struggle and the destruction of the farm system.


I can remember the fall out of the farm director prior to Bruce Manno, Kurt Kemp. Kurt (Who was a John Schuerholz hire) got sabotaged by the arrival of Bruce, who turned Kurt into his puppet. Of course, Kurt was tired of the abuse, and essentially was forced out, and left under his own accord.


I can remember Bruce Manno loudly berating a staff member over the rehab protocol, in front of others, while the staff member was getting his meal. I can remember Bruce Manno preaching the "Braves Way" and stating the Braves being the "Gold Standard" of baseball, prior to the start of our camps, and my blood curdling in frustration, along with others. 


Frank and Bruce's lack of leadership and abuse spread like wildfire. Internally, everyone was treating everyone badly and there weren't enough knives lying around for all of the back stabbing. The Atlanta team was losing, player development was in shambles, and finally the cries of some long time scouts and Bobby Cox reached Mr. Schuerholz. I can't remember exactly when, but I believe sometime in early 2014, John Hart was brought in to essentially "Spy" on baseball operations and gather info along with Bobby Cox, all of which made Frank and Bruce extremely nervous. Finally, after a sub-par season and the evaluations of John Hart and Bobby Cox, Frank and Bruce were gone. The weight of the world was lifted off the baseball operations department and there was a breath of fresh air that Bobby Cox, John Hart, and John Schuerholz had rode in to save the day. Of course, over the next several weeks, anyone who smelled of Frank Wren and Bruce Manno were let go, and I lost my job.


Now, we can all see what has transpired over the last 3 years with the gutting of the Atlanta Braves under the guidance of John Hart and John Coppolella. Of course, I no longer have my front row seat to the internal operations of the Braves, and I was certainly shocked to learn about the violations and resignation of Coppy, who I had a lot of respect for and was a victim to the abuses of Wren and Manno.


The burning question I have, which prompted me to write is WHERE WERE JOHN HART AND JOHN SCHUERHOLZ? Don't tell me that Coppy acted alone and that at least Hart didn't know what was going on. Hart was Coppy's boss, thus the ultimate responsibility lies on his shoulders, but I haven't heard him take any responsibility. Don't tell me that there was internal abuse going on again and Hart and Schuerholz weren't aware. Did Mr. Schuerholz fall asleep again? Hart, Schuerholz, and Cox rode in and had their chance to rectify things after they canned Wren and Manno, now we again have this internal power struggle and NO LEADERSHIP?


I have a lot of respect for John Schuerholz and what he did in his career, but in my opinion, that ended as soon as he stepped down from the GM chair. Sure, he is a Hall of Famer, but those days are long gone. He needs to ride out into the sunset and take John Hart with him. The implosion and internal struggle of the Atlanta Braves occurred, and will continue to occur until there is one true leader in baseball operations. John Schuerholz and John Harts' successes in baseball are extinct.


John Schuerholz and John Hart, get the hell out of the way and make room for some real, contemporary leadership.

DrTruth
DrTruth

@passion8181  Well, looks like you found at least one person who believes your BS...

MikeMalone
MikeMalone

Schurholtz has been coasting for 10 years. He should retire. Hart should go too Bad job of overseeing things Mr. Hart.

#41
#41

I also extend my compliments to Jeff Schultz for this article.

Dan Schlossberg
Dan Schlossberg

No team has made more bad trades than the Braves under the Coppolella regime. Look at the All-Stars he dealt away: Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood, Craig Kimbrel, Justin Upton, and Evan Gattis for starters. Plus the team held onto Bartolo far too long; he showed in spring training that his age and weight finally caught up to him. The Braves need a young, dynamic executive pulling the strings -- plus an infusion of money from Liberty Media, the richest team owner in MLB.

#41
#41

@Dan Schlossberg Agree. The trading away of some of the best proven talent in MLB for unproven prospects has been appallingly bad. Not to mention that these players sold tickets because fans loved them.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@Dan Schlossberg Ok ,Looks like I'm the defender of Coppy and some of his Trades , Start with Gattis for Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz , Gattis was a fan favorite for sure ,but what position was he going to play , in 3 seasons in Houston Gattis has played a position other than DH in only about 1/4 of the Astros games played.This year Gattis appeared in only 84 games batting .263 with 12 HR ans 55 RBI.Foltynewicz will likely be the Braves #2 starter in 2018, he started 28 games in 2017 went 10-13 with a 4.79 ERA. Rio Ruiz will likely be traded this offseason..

You left out Jason Heyward, traded for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins. Miller later traded for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair. Heyward went on to sign a 8 year $188 million contract with the Cubs.

Justin Upton traded for LHP Max Fried, Jace Peterson, Dustin Peterson, and Mallex Smith. Justin Upton played one season in San diego and then signed a 6 year $132 million contract with Detroit , he has since been traded to the Angels.

With not taking in effect what the players acquired in the Heyward and Upton trades have contributed to the Braves ,the real issue was Liberty Media was not going to spend over $300 million to keep Heyward and Upton.

That is enough in defending ex GM Coppolella. In my opinion his worst trades were the Wood ,peraza deal for Olivera that resulted in the Kemp trade and his massive contract. Close second is the Simmons trade.

Techmate
Techmate

John Scherholtz has overstayed his time with the Braves. Bobby Cox was responsible for the rebuilding of the Braves in the early 90's. Yes, Scherholtz made some nice moves during the 90's that helped augment Cox's rebuild. But Scherholtz made some very dumb trades in the early 2000's and he hired both Frank Wren and Coppy. Where is that accountability? All he seems to talk about these days are his HOF credential. 


The Braves are way too top heavy with their executives as an organization. Time for Scherholtz to retire. And maybe McGuick as well. 

LSharkReb
LSharkReb

 This isn't rocket science Braves. Hart needs to go or you make up a new job title for him. You bring back Moore and his boy wonder GM that he loves. You pay Moustakas.. YOU FREAKING PAY MOUSTAKAS! and you go from there.

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@LSharkReb Why pay Moustakas? There is a less expensive option via trade Eugenio Suarez current Reds 3B (expendable due to the development of Reds #1 prospect 3B Nick Senzel) 

stat lines :

Moustakas .272 BA .312 OB% 38 HR 85 RBI .835 OPS .962 Fielding % 312 total chances

Suarez .260 BA .367 OB% 26 HR 82 RBI .828 OPS .976  Fielding % 372 total chances. 

Suarez is 3 years younger than Moustakas and is only an ARB 1 player who made 600K in 2017 and won't be a free agent until after the 2020 season.Moustakas made $8.7 million in 2017 and is likely looking for at least 5 years $90 million to sign. 

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

So many things one wants to say. In short, this is a measure of vindication for my views of this regime and their tanking strategy, ridiculous (in some cases ruinous) trades, and over-the-top arrogance. 


We don't have any idea how close this team is to competing because the pitchers they need by and large aren't here yet. And Baseball America ratings are for losers (like, ex-GM's). This is the Major Leagues. MLB standings and playoff appearances and advancement are the measure of success. 


Wren was FAR more successful, because he got the team into the playoffs, put butts in the seats, and made our baseball summers and several falls interesting. If the powers-that-be don't like hearing that, please resign immediately, you are incompetent.


I don't think for a moment the buck stops with Coppy. They need to clean house on the baseball operation at the top, all of them, including the dead weight pre-historic relics at the Sr. VP-President level. The ownership has now proven they can't get the baseball operation right; may be time or past-time for them to sell.


Why would a top-shelf GM want to join a sinking ship? 

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@DawgDadII Dayton Moore could be a solution to help right the ship. But only if the Keepers of the Braves Way (McGuirk, Schuerholz, Cox and Hart) are no longer in charge.Give Moore the title of President of all Baseball Operations/GM or let him bring in his own GM. It is way past time for the upper management of the Braves to retire. Time to start fresh and hopefully Liberty Media will finally commit to bringing a winning franchise to Atlanta. But ,I am not holding my breath. Unfortunately it appears that Liberty is still content with the status quo and seems content on letting Coppolella take the fall and blame for the failure of the team to progress, and the illegality of his handling of the international draft. 

DawgNole
DawgNole

@Buschleaguer: "Time to start fresh and hopefully Liberty Media will finally commit to bringing a winning franchise to Atlanta. But ,I am not holding my breath."

_______________

Probably a pretty good idea there about not holding your breath.

Optimism says ". . . Liberty Media will finally commit. . . ."

Realism says they won't.


RTPIV
RTPIV

Your paper, especially Mark Bradley, has been praising the Braves' management for taking them in the right direction while there was carnage in the streets. After he's gone, you have all the reasons why he failed. Where were you while he was in the process of failing?

Bob_the_Blogger
Bob_the_Blogger

I can see Dayton Moore getting the GM job with an agreement that he will get Hart's job at the end of next year.  That solves all of the problems - Moore gets the promotion he wants, and Hart, who wasn't paying enough attention to Coppy - or wasn't able to control him, retires. Moore then hires a competent GM and they build a respectable management team. 

BobDawg
BobDawg

@Bob_the_Blogger Great Post!  Hopefully the Bravos are reading?!  Dayton would be great here and get the job he wants 

bidunek
bidunek

Hey Avi, the CNN Fear & Greed Index is trading at 90, i.e. extreme greed levels.  Shouldn't we be expecting at least some pullback in the near future?>>>>>>>>+*www.2morepath.com


#41
#41

PS: It sucks being a Braves fan.

#41
#41

 I sure miss Ted Turner. It has been a steady, downhill slide since he sold the Braves to Liberty. We need new ownership first and then new leadership. 

Crooked Coppy should never have been given the GM job. He lacked maturity/experience, and the required negotiating and the people skills. Motor mouth Hart, Coppy's supervisor, needs to go too. How could he miss all that crooked stuff going on under his nose? Can anyone name one positive contribution Hart has made?

JS deserves to stay in recognition of all his past contributions including 1995; but, in a ceremonial/PR role only. 

This makes me sick. This sets us back even more. Have been a fan since 1957 and not getting any younger. 

Note to Freeman: Get out Freddie! Get out now! -- go while you're still young and at the top of your game. You don't want to spend your entire career with no chance at a pennant or WS. You owe it to yourself. 

DawgNole
DawgNole

Good column, JS--and right on the money. It's about time somebody in the ATL media got serious about taking this franchise's woeful front office to task.

BKinGA
BKinGA

Does anyone proof read anymore? I'd expect better from the AJC.

EngLab
EngLab

A nice pic of Larry, Moe, and Curley... clowns.

Atlanta Doc
Atlanta Doc

How much public money have these guys made off with. The poor people in Florida that just ponied up $20 million are going to be sorry. Before it's over the Braves will get double out of them. This is the way of Malone and his tactics. No remorse from Plant or McGuirk for their ethics.

Atlanta Doc
Atlanta Doc

They didn't always exhibit class in the run of 14 titles. They wouldn't pay health insurance of their base coaches, they were cheapskates with salary, they bullied employees.

mgunter
mgunter

Schultz...... why haven't you reported on this disfuntionality before now. You are always late to th story just like Bradley. Coppy was good man, Schurholtz , Cox, and Hart are all still drawing a paycheck that could go toward a free agent. I hope Libery Media will throw out th old guard and start over !

DawgNole
DawgNole

@NorwegianB

mgunter's the jerk who kept promising he was done with the AJC and would post no more.

Eight typos in five lines probably represents an improvement for him.

KarlWelzein
KarlWelzein

Lets list off some of the accomplishments of the great John Schuerholz JUST the last 12 years as GM/President...

1 Division Championship

977-966 record

Soon to be 4th different GM in just over 3 years


Wow, hail to the chief! Congrats on the 90's(funny what a top 5 payroll each year can get you), but you haven't come close to winning a World Series in over 20 years and have overseen this organization become the joke that it is today.


DawgNole
DawgNole

@KarlWelzein: "Congrats on the 90's . . . ."

_____________

You mean the three straight 90-loss seasons, of course.

Howard Sokol
Howard Sokol

I know Schuerholtz is in the Hall of Fame, but I think he is overrated. Bobby Cox was the General Manager before him. Bobby built the Braves winning history by building a strong farm system and because he has a great feel for talent. Scheurholz made some good trades but had many bad ones.I think there are many problems with the Braves now. This recent management group seems to have turned over the minor league coaches etc. I am not impressed with the development of the pitchers. Seems like they are good when they come up and then go bad. Some of that maybe that the hitters learn their weaknesses but I think the pitching coach is to blame. Roger did a better job though maybe he was responsible for blowing out a lot of arms. I like the talent on the minor leagues but I think Snitker and his coaches should go.

AKBravesFan98
AKBravesFan98

Jeff: You got this right. And now I can understand better some of the vibes I was getting from Snitker and others - even some on-air comments. They were aware of the problems but couldn't voice their concerns. Good results never come from bad motives, and this is a perfect example. Players need to know the front office is solid. The Braves I love need to be reconstructed from the top. Thanks for your analysis.

Big Wally
Big Wally

They need to get Schuerholtz out of the organization as fast as possible.  Much of this is his fault - he picked Wren (and always seems to get a pass on that).  He also was involved with the hiring of Coppy, yet seems to get a pass on that as well.  Schuerholtz being asleep at the wheel is when this organization fell down, and the AJC won't critique him at all.

DawgNole
DawgNole

@Big Wally

Well, he's a Hall-of-Famer, you know--so surely that must mean his crap don't stink.

BillSeng
BillSeng

Ever since they kept everyone in the dark on the move to Cobb, this franchise has reeked of deception and shadiness. I was a long-time season ticket holder, and I was livid when they announced the move. They claim they asked STHs about it, but which ones? The ones who live in Cobb?

But, as I saw the team sink lower and lower and lower, I began to realize that maybe them leaving was a good thing.  2016 was my last year as a STH. This year I didn't go to a single game at the new place. I survived fine on a diet of Gwinnett Braves ball.

Now I am an Atlanta United STH. A team that right out of the blocks treated fans with respect, fielded a very competitive team which is playoff bound in year one.

The key to success is to have a viable plan and acting on it - the Braves? They seem to think that they can just do stupid after stupid after stupid, and the fans will eat it up. 

I guess that's why they drew more fans in 2008 with a 4th place team in a 11 year old stadium then they did this year in a brand new one in a terrible location.

I can't wait to see them drawing 15,000 on a good day. At this rate, that will be next year.

TideDawg
TideDawg

Heard on the news earlier that the Braves picked up the option on Snit.

TideDawg
TideDawg

The Damaged Braves........Don't you love it. Has a nice media ring to it. A new controversy. Maybe it will get them off the QB controversy they were trying to create with the Dawgs. How in the world are the Braves damaged? Somebody in the business end gets fired for who knows what. Yeah, I hear what the Braves are saying. The media has a new toy to play with and they can run this one into the ground all winter long. The GM is in the procurement business. He stocks the minor league with players and makes trades. He does not manage the team on the field. So how are the Braves damaged? So he makes a bad trade. He still doesn't run the team on the field. Management is damaged. Management is shaken up. So the GM screwed up and got fired. They are going to replace him with someone else probably the guy with KC. Problem solved. It's a lot easier than making a lineup, knowing the rules of the game, and knowing when to make a pitching change with whomever!

Buschleaguer
Buschleaguer

@TideDawg Don't be so sure that Liberty will make Dayton Moore the next GM, he likely will want total control of the baseball operation (something he already has in KC) and at least a 5 year contract. . Will Schuerholz finally be ready to step aside and retire and let a younger man like Moore take the reins as Director of baseball Operation/GM. I have a sinking feeling he won't give up being Chairman and have his pal Hart remain as director of baseball operations. Worse case scenario will be if Asst GM Adam Fisher is made interim GM , and becomes the next Coppy, but under much more control from Hart and Schuerholz.

There also may be some damage to the farm system ( Maitan may be declared a free agent) and the Braves may have to forfeit  draft picks in this years amatuer and international drafts.

TideDawg
TideDawg

@Buschleaguer @TideDawg  Right on most counts. It's been discussed on talk radio that is the case with Moore. He would have to have Hart's job and bring in his own GM. Maitan could be just another talent lost.....not that big of a deal. He's 17 and many years away from even AAA. Forfeiting draft picks may sting but they have enough talent to trade for what they want to develop.

DawgNole
DawgNole

@TideDawg: "How in the world are the Braves damaged?"

____________

Four straight losing seasons--three of them 90-loss stinkers, no less--is more than enough damage for me.

DawgNole
DawgNole

@TideDawg

No, it was caused by him not being fired--along with the rest of the incompetent front office.