John Coppolella has a plan. He also has a goal, which is to help return the Atlanta Braves to prominence. Last week, the 37-year-old general manager – along with president of baseball operations John Hart – made a bold move toward that end. Andrelton Simmons, a gifted and popular shortstop, was traded to Anaheim in exchange for Erick Aybar and a pair of pitching prospects.
The deal wasn’t particularly popular, but that’s not Coppolella’s biggest concern. The Braves are coming off a pair of losing campaigns, and they’ll be moving into a new stadium for the 2017 season. The fan base expects a winner, and that is what Coppolella and Company are working to build.
Coppolella on trading Andrelton Simmons: “It was a talent-based deal for us. Using scouting and analytics we simply felt the talent level we were getting back in this deal was too good to pass up. We have high hopes, in the short- and long-term, for all three of the players we acquired.
“Everything we do here is as a team, and it starts with John Hart and myself. Many of our top scouts were in the Dominican Republic during the GM Meetings and we did a conference call one morning with Roy Clark, Brian Bridges, Sean Rooney, and Gordon Blakeley, all of whom had a lot of history with the three players we acquired from the Angels. Billy Ryan and Rick Williamswere representing us at the meeting. We also discussed the trade at length with other members of our front office and scouting staff. We all knew it was hard to trade Andrelton, but we also knew this was the right move for our franchise.”
On the trade talks: “The New York Yankees made a run at Simmons last off-season so there was history and familiarity there with (Angels GM, and former Yankees assistant GM) Billy Eppler. Billy called me the first week of the off-season and asked about Simmons. I told him we would listen on anybody, but weren’t looking to trade Simmons.
“We spoke on and off for three weeks, sometimes on the phone and sometimes on text, where each party made offers that were ultimately declined by the other party. Billy and I met Tuesday night, one-on-one for over two hours, and got the ball to the one-yard line. The delays after Tuesday night on both side were more about ownership, etc.”
On the deal’s near-term impact: “We feel there is an argument to be made that we may be better in 2016 with Erick Aybar because he’s one of the best hitting shortstops in baseball with a career .276 batting average. We finished 30th in baseball in runs in 2015 and 29th in 2014, so we need to find ways to improve our offense. Erick is a good step in that direction, but we need more. We also feel that both Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis have a chance to impact our club at the Major League level in 2016, so they should also help us have a better season with a potential huge payoff in future years.”
On the relative importance of infield defense: “Infield defense is very important and Andrelton may be the best of all time. It’s hard to quantify not only the hits he turns into outs, but also the extra pitches, and the stress associated with those pitches, for our young arms. That being said, defense isn’t everything.
“The New York Mets reached the World Series this year and, with all due respect, they didn’t have an impact defensive shortstop. There is a value to defense, but sometimes you see such spectacular plays from some defensive masterminds that you forget about other deficiencies in their games.”
On the team’s shortstop future: “Aybar was a big part of this deal. We are going to get to know him and let him get to know us, and maybe we will end up signing him to an extension. If not, we feel like we have a lot of really good shortstops coming up in our farm system.
“Daniel Castro did a nice job for us last year coming up to the major leagues and Johan Camargo has done some nice things in the Arizona Fall League. Obviously, we are really excited about Ozhaino Albies, but we also don’t want to put pressure on him to feel like he has to be ready for 2017. Albies will tell us when he’s ready and he won’t be rushed. However, whether it’s Albies or other shortstops in our organization, as a result of this trade there is now a tremendous opportunity with the Braves.”
On building for the future: “We’re a team that’s poised to get better in 2016. We’re unhappy with our performance in 2015. That said, Fredi Gonzalez did a great job – especially in the first half of the season – of doing more with less. At 42-42, we were a fun, overachieving team. It was a tough end to the season, but out of that adversity is some opportunity.
“We’re always looking for the most talent possible. We’re looking at the way John Schuerholz built the Royals and the Braves. We’re looking at the way John Hart built the Indians and the Rangers. They went with young, upside talent. They took long-range views. I think we’re on the same track. We don’t want to build a team that is going to win 85 games every year; we want to build a team that expects to be in the World Series every season.”
On tearing down to build up: “We did something like that last year. I think we’re at a point this year where we need to get back on track and get back to winning games. We can’t have another year where we lose 95 games. We need to get better, and as a group, that’s what we’re looking to do this year. We don’t want our young players or our fans to get used to losing.
“The Braves have been one of the best franchises in baseball. We’ve been a gold standard. Since John Schuerholz took over the Braves 1991, we have the second most wins in baseball, right behind the New York Yankees. We need to keep that gold standard going.
On constructing an offense: “If you look at the 2014 World Series, it pitted two teams, the Royals and the Giants, that made the most contact. I believe the Royals were last in their league in home runs. There are many ways to skin a cat. Whether you do it with power, on-base percentage… when I was with the Yankees, for seven years, we preached on-base percentage. Get on, work counts, get the starter out early. Now, you may not want the starter out early, because so many teams have such good bullpens.
“I think the more talent you can get, whether they’re guys who are big on-base or low on-base, big power or low power, if they’re good winning pieces they will help us score runs and win games.”
On the park factors and pitching: “They will be very similar in the new park to what they are at Turner Field right now. There are different wind patterns, but I don’t think they’re going to make much of an impact.
“I think you have to factor in your park when putting together a team. I think our new park is going to play fair, but maybe a little bit toward pitching. The Braves have been built on pitching and defense. Pretty much every trade we made this year, we tries to get back pitching. That’s the way John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox did it, and it worked really well for a long time.”
On not mandating managerial moves: “We try to give Fredi everything he would want in terms of game preparation. We have members of our analytics department devoted specifically to providing him with in-game strategy information and probabilities. But at the end of the day, Fredi is going to make the calls. He’s going to use his gut, for better or for worse. Fredi won 96 games for us in 2013. He’s been one of the winningest managers since taking over the Braves. We trust Fredi.”
On analytics and perception: “I think there might be a perception out there that we’re an old school organization, because we don’t tell Fredi who to play or where to hit them, or who to pitch. That doesn’t mean we’re not on the cutting edge of analytics. We’ve made a lot of hires, especially to help grow our analytics department, in the last few weeks.
“While we use a lot more analytics than people think, we’re still going to count on our scouts. We have really good baseball people working here, in scouting, player development and in our front office. We are all pulling the same way and dedicated toward getting back to the Braves Way. At the end of the day, this is about winning games and we feel we’re on the right track to do that. It was a painful year, last year, but we feel we’re going to keep getting better.
“We have a lot of work to do, so definitely expect additional trades and/or signings. The goal for us isn’t to get to 80 wins, or 85 wins, or 90 wins; the goal is to win a World Series, and I feel we move closer to that with every move we make.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.