Yesterday was part one of the series, looking at the 10 worst decisions in the John Hart-John Coppolella era. It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. There were some really good decisions made. Today we’re looking at the 10 best. You can click over to part one if you want to see the intro and stuff. We’re just diving right in today.
Deciding to Rebuild
The decision that was made before all other decisions sometimes gets overlooked. Given the state of the major league team after the 2014 season, the players about to reach free agency, the bad contracts, the state of the farm system, and the rising monster that was the Washington Nationals, rebuilding might have seemed like an easy call. But tearing down your team for the next 5+ years is never an easy conclusion to reach. Remember how long it took the Phillies to admit they were done? Look at the Giants now. Or the Orioles. Far too often, when facing the certainty of needing to blow it up, teams try to hang on for one more year. The Braves didn’t. They probably could’ve justified keeping Heyward, and Justin Upton, and Gattis, and Kimbrel and making one more run at it. The team had just won 96 games in 2013. It wouldn’t have been that crazy of a notion. But it would have set this rebuild back another 2 years at least. Maybe more. Credit to them. They made the hard call and ultimately what I believe to be the right call. And it wasn’t as easy or obvious as it may have appeared.
Getting Shelby Miller
Once the decision to rebuild was made, it then became all about the deals. And basically, the first deal out of the gate was a good one. Jason Heyward was one year away from free agency and no long-term deal was coming. For a rebuilding team, this meant he had to be dealt. But trading a 1-year rental is always tricky and it’s very easy to end up with 60 cents on the dollar. But Atlanta got strong value. Getting 4 years of a talented pitcher like Shelby Miller for 1 year of Heyward can’t be considered anything but a win. Shelby would go on to pitch the best season of his career for the Braves in 2015 and then would help the organization out even more in a deal that’s coming later on this list. But even if he hadn’t, the logic and process of this deal was sound. It couldn’t have been fun or particularly enjoyable trading away a fan favorite like Heyward, but once they decided to do it, they moved quickly and did well. That was a good trade.
After the first year of the rebuild in 2015, it was pretty clear there was an organizational hole at the catcher position. In December of 2015, the White Sox non-tendered Atlanta native Tyler Flowers and Atlanta immediately jumped on the opportunity. They signed him to a 2-year/5.3 million-dollar deal with a club option in 2018 for $4M. Tyler has responded by producing a 115 wRC+ the last 2 years to go along with elite level pitch framing and making that contract look ridiculously team friendly. Similarly, last January, the team was looking for a solid backup to go along with Flowers and signed Kurt Suzuki to a 1-year/1.5 million-dollar deal. All he did was post a 2.7 WAR season in just over 300 ABs with a 129 wRC+ and 19 HRs. Braves were so impressed with Suzuki, they re-signed him for the 2018 season with a 1-year/3.5 million-dollar deal. This means the last 2 years, Atlanta has gotten 6.3 WAR out of there catchers and paid a total of $6.8M. And they have both locked up next year for a total of only $7.5M. Creating this type of surplus value, for a team on a budget and at a scarce position, was tremendous work by the front office and they need to be acknowledged for it.
Getting Alex Jackson for nothing
Sticking with the catcher theme, Atlanta took another step in potentially filling that hole at the end of the 2016 season. The Mariners had fallen out of favor with former number one pick, Alex Jackson, and were looking for some rotation depth. One thing the Braves have had in spades ever since this rebuild got going is an army of arms to deal from and in November of 2016, the Mariners and the Braves completed their deal. Its final form was C Alex Jackson for SP Rob Whalen and SP Max Povse. Even if Jackson hadn’t turned his misfortunes around, this is a deal I would’ve loved. Consolidating lesser pieces together from a position of strength to get a potential star at a position of weakness is just good business. Atlanta was also banking on a change of scenery helping jump start a still young and talented prospect and so far, that’s what has happened. Jackson has done nothing but impress since he arrived in Atlanta and even if he can’t stay at catcher, LF power is another area of need for them. Whalen and Povse were never going to be anything more than 5th starter/AAA types for Atlanta and getting a potential middle of the order bat for them was impressive work.
This is cheating a bit as it’s not one decision but a series of decisions. Drafting under the Frank Wren regime had become a nightmare, and for a small-market team, at least in terms of payroll, you can’t be swinging and missing in the draft. For all their faults, Coppy, Hart and company drafted really well. Granted they were picking a little higher than Wren was, on average, but you still have to pick the players. In the rebuilding years, the Braves have drafted Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson Mike Soroka, Kolby Allard, Joey Wentz, Austin Riley, A.J. Minter, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Muller and more. Yes, it’s more pitchers than I would like but if you’re going to pick pitchers, at least pick good ones. And Atlanta seems to have done that. You could argue the greatest contribution Hart and Coppy made to this organization was the accuracy in which they drafted.
Buying Touki Toussaint
This move was made possible by a front office in Arizona that was in over its head and a front office in Atlanta looking to be creative with some payroll space. Arizona decided it needed to shed salary and Bronson Arroyo and his $10M commitment was the piece chosen to be moved. Atlanta, having a surplus of payroll space at the time, decided to facilitate the transaction for a fee. That fee: Touki Toussaint. Touki was a recent a first-round pick with some of the nastiest stuff in the minors and someone the Braves had being eyeing for a while. Hilariously, Arizona said yes to this deal trading away 40-50 million in value to save 10 million in salary. This was just another example in a long line of instances when Arizona’s front office showed they had no idea how to properly value players or assets and Coppy swooped in to take advantage. And not for the last time. Touki himself, is a bit of a mystery as a prospect but still has immense talent. And when the acquiring cost is $10M, what’s there to lose?
The J-Up deal
After they moved Heyward, the next piece Atlanta needed to move to kick off it’s rebuild was Justin Upton. Upton was in a similar position has Heyward, one year away from free agency and zero chance at re-signing. Atlanta made the correct decision in dealing him, but this meant yet again, they had to make the best of trying to deal a 1-year rental. Considering those parameters, I was impressed with deal they made. San Diego, in the midst of ‘going for it’ decided to pony up the best offer. The final deal end up being Upton, and SP Aaron Northcraft to SD for OF Dustin Peterson, OF Mallex Smith, INF Jace Peterson, and SP Max Fried. With 3 of those guys already making the majors and the other, D. Peterson, not far away, it looks like Atlanta got 4 major league players for 1 year of Justin Upton. It’s really hard to complain about that. But the jewel of the deal was Max Fried. One of the best pitching prospects in the game at the time, the only reason he was available was because he just had Tommy John surgery. Braves took advantage of a guy’s market dropping because of injury and got a player they never would have otherwise. Making the definitive call to move Justin and then making the deal they did, considering their lack of leverage, was about as good as you could’ve hoped for as a Braves’ fan.
I think Jerry Dipoto, the GM for the Seattle Mariners, is actually a really smart dude, but he probably needs to stop dealing with Atlanta. A few weeks after giving the Braves a former first round pick for a couple back-end starters, Dipoto doubled down by moving one of the highest ceiling arms in his system. It was actually a 3-team deal and a little complicated, so I won’t go over it all, but from Atlanta’s perspective, they traded OF Mallex Smith and RP Shae Simmons for SP Luiz Gohara and RP Thomas Burrows. This was a really good move. Mallex was a fun player and I still hope nothing for the best for him, but his most likely outcome is still a 4th outfielder. Gohara on the other hand, can legitimately be an ace. In fact, if you told me the best pitcher from this entire rebuild ended up being Luiz Gohara, it really wouldn’t surprise me. And we aren’t talking 4 or 5 years down the line. He could very easily be Atlanta’s best starter this year. And oh, by the way, Thomas Burrows posted a 2.16 ERA, a 2.49 FIP and a 32% strikeout rate in Rome last year. For a 4th outfielder and an injured reliever. Good shit Coppy.
2. Ender and Dansby
The best trade made in the Hart/Coppy era was easily the Shelby Miller trade made with the Diamonbacks before the 2016 season. Arizona’s front office had already shown themselves to be incompetent and you can believe Coppy’s eyes lit up when they showed serious interest in Miller. For most of the conversations, Atlanta insisted on A.J. Pollock being the return but Arizona balked, insisting that was too much. That’s a pretty ironic little fact if you think about it. Had they just made that deal, it probably would’ve received a fraction of the criticism. Instead the landed on Ender Inciarte, #1 pick Dansby Swanson, and Top 50 pitching prospect Aaron Blair as the return. Just an insane haul for 3 years of Shelby Miller. If you had to pick the brightest day of this rebuild amidst all the dark ones the last three years, the day this trade happened was probably it. And it was far and away Coppy’s best deal.
Ok, so you’re probably wondering, if that was Coppy’s best deal, then why is it #2 on this? Well because far and away the best decision of the rebuild was…
1. Not Trading Freddie Freeman
The house was being torn down to the studs. It made all the logical sense in the world to finish the deed and trade their first baseman. I campaigned for them to do it. Back then, Freeman was more of a good player than a great player and I really didn’t see the upside in getting rid of everyone else and keeping him. (And Teheran) But to their credit, they saw more. They believed he could be the cornerstone of this franchise when it wasn’t clear that was true. The player Freddie Freeman has become since then has done nothing but confirm those beliefs. Every bit of hope Braves’ fans have about the team starts with Freddie Freeman. We have a superstar. Guys that are almost impossible to trade for and who you just have to hope your system produces. Coppy saw that and absolutely refused to part with him. Imagine had they traded Freeman and he became what he is for the Red Sox or something. It’s terrible to think about. But they could’ve done it. They could’ve been absolute in the tear down, traded Freeman, and been completely justified in doing so. But they didn’t. They kept him. And it’s the best decision they made. It wouldn’t have been hopeless without Freeman. But there’d be a lot less hope.