In an article for The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal points to possible dissension within the Atlanta Braves front office. The article is behind a paywall so I won’t quote it word-for-word, but the general perception is that Braves general manager John Coppolella and John Hart, the President of Baseball Operations, could be in a bit of a power struggle with Team Vice Chairman – and former GM and Team President – John Schuerholz. Rosenthal cites unnamed sources in the organization that suggest a number of internal shuffling of Schuerholz hires like Roy Clark and Dave Trembley as a possible sign that Coppy is either trying to squash dissent in the front office or at least see how many changes they can push past Schuerholz, who seemingly retains a good amount of team control.
One unnamed team official offers this particularly worrisome quote:
“It’s a power struggle over who is running the club…is John Schuerholz running the club or are John Hart and John Coppolella running it?”
If true…this is a bad sign for the Braves’ organization. Worse – it’s nothing new.
It can be difficult for guys who are used to calling the shots to move to the side so that new decision makers are given the proper autonomy to lead an organization. That seems to run especially true for Schuerholz, who spent nine seasons at the helm of the Royals before 17 years as the Braves general manager. Rather than retire at the age of 67 when he finally moved aside for Frank Wren after the 2007 season, Schuerholz simply moved to a different position as the Team President. For an additional eight years, he held that spot before being promoted (?) to his new position of Team Vice Chairman in March of last season. The new role was created specifically for Schuerholz to keep him in the loop, but also keep him at an arm’s reach as Schuerholz entered his late 70’s.
It was supposed to be the Hart/Coppy show for the Braves with Hart providing leadership while Coppy handled the day-to-day grind that would likely make the young general manager lose his hair – if he had any to speak of, that is. However, things don’t appear to have actually moved in that direction. And again, this is really nothing new for Schuerholz and “The Braves Way” culture, which has a stranglehold on the Braves’ decision-making.
When Schuerholz moved up to the Team President role, he handpicked his successor in Frank Wren. Despite a contentious previous run as the Orioles’ GM, Wren was lauded for his baseball mind and had spent a number of years providing support to Schuerholz in an assistant role. You couldn’t blame the Braves for valuing consistency over a new direction of the franchise which had run off division title after division title from 1991 to 2005. The team still had Chipper Jones, John Smoltz, and Bobby Cox in the fold along with a young nucleus led by Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur. Wren was given the keys, but Schuerholz’s watchful eye was never far away.
According to many reports, Wren was difficult to work with and the culture shock soon grew hard on longtime Braves employees. Many, like Roy Clark, left the organization in droves. The most high profile defection would have been Cox himself, who nearly quit the Braves during their first spring training with Wren in charge. It took Schuerholz smoothing things over to keep the future Hall of Fame manager in charge. Major league managers with the kind of pull Cox had have often used the threat of their resignations to enact change. It took Jim Leyland blowing up and threatening to leave to avoid a Barry Bonds-to-the-Braves trade in March of 1992. Cox, known for a short temper, was agitated by what he felt was a micromanager trying to butt his nose where it didn’t belong. Of course, considering that Wren joined the Braves eight years before becoming its general manager, why was his style such a surprise for so many people in the organization?
Despite the problems, the two put their differences aside and Wren eventually gave Cox a team that was playoff worthy in Cox’s final year and third year with Wren calling the shots. Moving forward, whether Wren made the choice of who replaced Cox is debatable. Considering how much dissension would develop between Wren and Fredi Gonzalez, I tend to believe it wasn’t Wren’s choice – or at least it wasn’t his choice alone. Instead, Schuerholz and Cox intervened with Cox essentially afforded the opportunity to select his successor in Gonzalez. Just 48 hours after Cox’s final game as Braves’ manager, the team had already named a new manager without even pretending to perform a search. Both the Schuerholz-to-Wren transition and the Cox-to-Gonzalez one were reflective more of a college football team replacing coaches with “coach-in-waiting” picks rather than a professional team seek out the best possible candidates available.
Wren and Gonzalez were not a good mix. The team that Wren wanted to build was one of power and pitching. The team Gonzalez wanted to coach was more traditional – one that put down bunts and put the ball in play. This was never more evident than in 2013 when Wren built the All-or-Nothing Braves, a team capable of big home runs and offense – and a lot of strikeouts. This was simply not the kind of team Gonzalez ever felt comfortable with. The two forces were never meant to co-exist and as the Braves collapsed in 2014, Wren wanted to fire Gonzalez for a manager better suited to take the young-and-talented mix he had built into contention for 2015. It was Cox who stepped in and saved the job of his handpicked successor by appealing to Schuerholz. Instead, it was Wren that fired.
What happened next was another sign that the Braves’ organization was not too interested in radical change. Instead, they sought reverting back to “The Braves Way,” something they felt Wren was never interested in following. Before announcing John Hart as the future choice to lead the Braves, the organization staged a GM search with Cox, Hart, and Schuerholz as the search team. It was a sham as Schuerholz and Cox simply convinced Hart to take the job full-time while they organized a power-sharing agreement with John Coppolella. The system was simple. Hart would take the hit as the organization blew the team up. Gone would be popular members of the Braves like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and Craig Kimbrel. The deals would have Hart’s name on it, allowing the Braves to protect Coppy, who was the guy actually putting the trades together for Hart to sign off on. It was a convoluted process from the beginning.
Even before announcing the Hart/Coppy grouping, the Braves began to reshape the front office with Schuerholz calling the shots. He brought Roy Clark back into the mix, named Clark disciple Brian Bridges as scouting director, and Dave Trembley as the Farm Director. And frankly, the process began the year before with hires that were largely made without Wren’s input the previous winter (including Hart as a senior adviser and Rick Williams as a special assistant to the GM). Once again, Schuerholz was putting his guys into place, which cuts the legs out from a GM making similar decisions.
All the while, the Braves kept Gonzalez at the helm. Well, of course, they did. They had Cox on the search team after all. It would take a truly rotten start to the 2016 team to finally stain Gonzalez enough to get rid of him. The Braves named long-term organizational filler Brian Snitker as his replacement. At the end of 2016, Snitker seemed like a longshot to return despite a solid end to the 2016 season. The Braves were valuing heavyweights like Ron Washington and Bud Black and Snitker just seemed overmatched. He also seemed like a questionable fit with Coppolella, who took a more innovative and nuanced approached to baseball than a traditionalist like Snitker (or Washington and Black for that matter). Instead of a more exciting younger hire, Snitker was promoted to full-time manager and Washington was brought on for added experience.
But the team only gave Snitker one year. It screamed of compromise, but why? Freddie Freeman had joined the ranks of baseball’s elite in 2016 while dynamic young stars like Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, and Sean Newcomb were either already in the majors or very close. The Braves seemed on the rise and the farm system was only getting better. The job had to be enticing with a new park, a winning tradition, and so many pieces in place. Why had the Braves settled for an organizational lifer as their manager? Why had they been so focused on guys like Black and Washington over younger and hungrier – not to mention better fits – like Dave Martinez, the longtime second-in-command under Joe Maddon? None of it made much sense.
Perhaps today’s article by Rosenthal speaks to why these strange decisions have been made. For all of his flaws, could you really blame Wren for wanting to run the organization the way he wanted? For wanting the manager he wanted? For wanting to be the general manager the way he wanted to be a general manager? I would say no.
Three years later, many of the same figures are in place in high-profile or, at least, influential positions. Could we really blame Coppy for wanting more of an active role in deciding the makeup of the Braves front office – decisions he was not allowed the luxury of making after Wren’s sacking in 2014? And if there is any truth to the idea that Coppy is testing the waters, what might come next? Could the Braves scrub most of the coaching staff, including its beleaguered manager, and start anew in 2018?
And shouldn’t that be his decision anyway? After all, when the 2015 season concluded, the Braves elevated Coppolella to the general manager position. Isn’t it about time the organization give him the responsibilities it once handed Schuerholz so willingly?
A lot of this is perception, I admit. We are not privy to the closed door meetings taking place. Perhaps Schuerholz has voluntarily moved to the side while telling his former pupil to, “call if you ever need to bounce ideas off someone.” Maybe the article over-exaggerates the idea that there is any sort of power struggle between the two camps. I would like to believe that is the case, but we’ve seen this script before. Again, Wren had many flaws and made a number of poor decisions along the way. In no way am I suggesting that his firing wasn’t appropriate. Nevertheless, the Braves did him few favors by micromanaging him nearly as much as he attempted to micromanage the organization. It would be a shame for them to do the same to such a capable GM in Coppolella.
After all, it’s his team now.