Braves country and the entire baseball world were rocked on Monday when it was announced that John Coppolella would be stepping down from his position as General Manager. As details pour in regarding his violations in the International market, it has become increasingly apparent that his mistakes will leave a scar on the organization for years to come.
Despite the transgressions these impacts could have on the future for the Atlanta Braves, no one can deny that Coppolella has made arguably a larger impact on his organization over the last three years than any other general manager in baseball. His complete and total tear down of the major league team often drew scorn from fans, but he left a team on the rise that is stocked with the deepest farm system in baseball. His work in the international market and in the domestic draft was astonishing, but what he drew the most attention for was his unending willingness to part with key pieces in trades to earn prospects. It all started with the swap of Jason Heyward to the Cardinals for Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, and from there the list of key contributors or future contributors that Coppolella amassed grew stronger.
The first year was the toughest for the Braves and their fans, as the team parted ways with many of its top players. Jason Heyward left in the aforementioned deal, and then over the course of the offseason Coppolella shipped off Justin Upton, Evan Gattis, and Craig Kimbrel for a total of 11 more players. While Carlos Quentin, Jordan Paroubeck, and Andrew Thurman never played in Atlanta, the other eight all played or seem ready to play for the Braves. Mike Foltynewicz has been frustrating as a Brave over his two seasons of play, but has settled into a pretty solid role at the back end of the Braves rotation, while Max Fried’s emergence at the end of the season give many hope he will turn out to be the best player of that group of players. Cameron Maybin and Mallex Smith have been shipped off after shorts stints in center field, Jace Peterson has been relegated to a bench role, and Rio Ruiz and Matt Wisler seem well on their ways to being busts, but with Dustin Peterson knocking on the door to get playing it seems even more talent is on the way for the Braves from that group of trades. While Paroubeck didn’t spend long in a Braves uniform, he was sent out as part of a series of important trades over the summer that netted the Braves international signing slots that allowed them to stay under their pool allotment and set up the signing frenzy of 2016 that netted Yunior Severino, Yefri Del Rosario, and hopefully Kevin Maitan though his status seems up in the air at the moment.
Over the next few months he also traded for 2 collective bargaining picks in the 2015 MLB Draft, which turned into Austin Riley and AJ Minter. Minter seems destined to become a star out of the bullpen for Atlanta now, while Riley is poised to be the heir at third base especially given the extremely aggressive promotion he faced this season.
Just 2 weeks following the draft Coppy made his first landslide win trade, as he traded Phil Gosselin for Touki Toussaint and Bronson Arroyo’s $10m contract. I still can’t believe that happened, and finally this season the highly talented Toussaint started to put it all together and led the system with 167 strikeouts while posting career bests in strikeouts, walks, and home runs. A month later, Coppolella completed the first of the Kelly Johnson trades and swung John Gant and Rob Whalen from the Mets. Neither made huge impacts on the field for Atlanta, but both became important trade pieces down the road. Of course that good work came crashing to a halt a week later when he completed the disaster that was the trade of Alex Wood, top prospect Jose Peraza, and a trio of pitchers for future convicted domestic abuser Hector Olivera and a pair of relievers that made no impact on the team. The most important piece gained in that trade was another draft pick which the Braves turned into Joey Wentz. Wentz has climbed the prospect rankings in the system and was one of the top pitchers in the South Atlantic League last season with his 2.60 ERA and 152 strikeouts.
The biggest and perhaps most vilified trade was what came next, when centerpiece shortstop Andrelton Simmons was traded for top pitching prospect Sean Newcomb. Newcomb is and was a fantastic prospect, but being able to match the amount of value that Simmons brought to Atlanta was a near-impossible task. Since then, inconsistency and questions about mental makeup have made the trade seem even less desirable. Newcomb had a good debut season in Atlanta, and although inconsistent he showed flashes of the potential to be a guy who can be a rotation workhorse. He has a long way to go to win fans to his side of the trade, and he likely will never match Simmons value but he if the Braves are to be successful in the next 2 years Newcomb will play a key role in their revival. A month later a minor trade was made that turned into a useful piece, as Coppolella swung Jose Ramirez for next to nothing and has seen him turn into a contributor out of the bullpen. Still, none of this compared to what came next.
December 8th, 2015, 9:11 PM EST, a tweet rolls in from Ken Rosenthal.
With that, John Coppolella changed the future of the Braves franchise in an instant. In the biggest move of his tenure Coppolella acquired a solid, young center fielder with 4 years of team control left, a top 50 pitching prospect in Aaron Blair, and the number one pick in the previous draft in Dansby Swanson. The Braves went from one of the best systems in baseball to the best, all without parting with their best pitcher, position player, or prospect. Ender Inciarte has been more than he was ever advertised and turned into a key central piece in the Braves system, signing a team friendly extension that makes him one of the most valuable players in the major leagues. Aaron Blair never amounted to what was expected of him, but even if both he and Swanson completely flame out the Braves will come out as the clear winners in this swap. Dansby Swanson, well he’s probably not as good as most first overall picks. Then again, maybe he is, but one thing I can be certain of is that he is not as bad as his start to 2017 season. If/when he adjusts he should settle into being at least an average regular, giving the Braves the potential over both players years of team control for 20 or more wins of excess value over what the Diamondbacks received. That is a big time move and alone garnered Coppolella much of the acclaim he received by writers across baseball.
It took more than 5 months for Coppolella to get back on the horse and make another impactful trade, but on May 23, 2016 he swapped Trevor Belicek and Brandon Barker-two 12th round picks-for a collective bargaining pick that turned into Brett Cumberland. The jury is still out on Cumberland’s future, but it seems clear he knows how to hit a baseball and he could fill a void behind the plate if the Braves decide he can handle the position well enough defensively. Soon, the second of the Kelly Johnson moves gave the Braves Akeel Morris from the Mets. Morris has always put up good numbers in the minor leagues and this year in the major leagues, and though the Braves have been hesitant to give him a chance it is obvious he has the potential to make a splash as a middle reliever with his dynamite change up. As he gathered together waiver wire pickups and Olivera, Coppy was able to get the Braves Travis Demeritte, Matt Kemp, Michael Mader, and Anfernee Seymour in the system-three legit prospects and a former MVP. Say what you will about Kemp’s time in Atlanta, he was better than having Olivera both on the field and off of it, and getting Demeritte could be a huge coup. If he solves his hitting problem, Demeritte is a 25-30 home run potential middle infielder with plus defense, well worth the risk and cost for that level of talent.
Next up on John Coppolella’s hit list was the Seattle Mariners, and he started them off by trading talented 3rd rounder Max Povse and Rob Whalen for former 6th overall pick Alex Jackson. Jackson had struggled with Seattle but upon moving back behind the plate and making both physical and mechanical changes was reborn as a hitter and broke out. Jackson posted an .808 OPS between High A and Double A, and if he can develop behind the plate will turn out to be one of the biggest steals of John Coppolella’s tenure. A month and a half later Coppy pulled off the most underrated move of his short career and swiped star pitching prospect Luiz Gohara from Seattle for Mallex Smith and Shae Simmons. Simmons pitched a total of 7 2⁄3 innings for Seattle this season with a 7.04 ERA, and Mallex went on to have a good season following a trade to Tampa Bay, but the star of the show was Gohara. Gohara started the season in High A but made quick work of the league with a 1.98 ERA, and upon earning a promotion to Double A was able to respond with a 2.60 ERA. The Braves pushed him to AAA where he had a 3.31 ERA, and finally gave him a chance in Atlanta in September. Gohara’s 4.91 ERA in his debut may not have been that great, but his peripherals were off the chart and in the month of September he led the Braves in strikeouts, was second in innings pitched, and was second to only Sean Newcomb on the team in FIP. The young Brazilian has emerged as a frontrunner to make the rotation in 2018, and with the work he and Newcomb did both are poised to make up a strong 1-2 punch in the rotation next season and for a few years into the future. In his final big trade as Braves GM, Coppy showed his mettle with building a major league team, managing to move fringe prospect Juan Yepez for Matt Adams. Adams went on to dominate over the last few months and become a huge piece of value for Atlanta.
Perhaps more important than all of theses, Coppolella made a lot of the right decisions on who not to trade. When choosing to rebuild around a centerpiece, he made the correct call to keep Freddie Freeman and part ways with other valuable pieces like Jason Heyward. Throughout this process he has remained wedded to keeping Freeman, and Freeman has paid him back by maturing into an MVP-caliber player who is truly a centerpiece to this team. With the arrival of Ender Inciarte the Braves had a second building block to work with, and Coppy made another wise choice to keep Ozzie Albies. Many teams asked for Albies, and it’s possible that a deal centered around Albies would have landed the Braves a very talented starting pitcher. In holding on to Albies and Ronald Acuna rather than making a quick trigger move while the Braves still had a slight chance at the wild card, Coppy has left the next regime 3 proven starters in Albies, Inciarte, and Freeman, a potential 4th in Swanson, and perhaps the top prospect in all of baseball in Ronald Acuna.
While the rotation hasn’t rounded into the form Coppy had perhaps hoped, a handful of those he did keep, specifically Fried, Gohara, and Newcomb, have begun to pay dividends. In total, 22 of the Braves current 40 man roster came to Atlanta as the result of a trade. There is no doubt that teams called constantly on Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Fried, and other prospect starters, but Coppolella stuck to his plan and has built a system on trades that is now ready to start stocking a major league team. Coppolella had his slip ups on the trade market, but when it came to getting value from nothing he was always savvy to a good trade and his myriad of smaller moves has paid off in some big time prospects and player all across the board.