Now that the Super Bowl has officially ended, marking the end of football until fall, the countdown to pitchers and catchers is on. (Well, for some of us, it’s been on since October 2nd). In just 9 short days, Braves pitchers and catchers report to Walt Disney World for their second-to-last Spring Training at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex. This season was originally supposed to be their final year, but delays in construction of their new complex in North Port have forced the organization to sign an extension to remain at Disney through 2019.
As we look back on the waning offseason, it was one marked with chaos, dissension, and a brutal shellacking from MLB, causing Atlanta to lose 13 international prospects and face severe future international signing limits after disgraced former General Manager, John Coppolella abruptly announced his resignation on October 2nd, day one of the tumultuous Braves offseason. The investigation would also lead to Coppolella’s lifetime ban from baseball, a one-year suspension of special assistant, Gordon Blakely, and the resignation of former President of Baseball Operations, John Hart.
Fortunately for Atlanta, the organization has, for the most part, been able to turn the page on a few of the darkest weeks in Braves history, with the hiring of Alex Anthopolous as General Manager. While deals have been few and far between this offseason (not only for Atlanta, but just about every team in baseball), with the exception of dealing Jim Johnson to the Angels and moving Matt Kemp to the Dodgers, the team’s biggest priority was settling the front office infighting, which had reportedly become widespread over Coppolella’s final season, and returning morale to a broken, absentee-owner organization in desperate need of leadership. For the most part, I believe Atlanta fulfilled that need with the hiring of Anthopolous, who has a track record of success with Los Angeles and especially Toronto. Beloved by many fans and described by rival executives as articulate and easy to work with, Anthopolous seems to have a clear objective in mind that seemed to be lost under the prior regime – winning, and soon.
Recently at a ChopFest Q&A at SunTrust Park, Anthopolous said, “nobody is coming to games to hear me talk about how good Gwinnett or Rome is… they’re here to see the Atlanta Braves win baseball games”. This approach is a marked difference from the previous administration who preached patience and touted top-ranked prospects often at low levels of the farm system. That’s not to say Anthopolous doesn’t value the bevy of prospects accumulated, but he has an understanding that Braves fans are tired of mediocrity and ready to win sooner rather than later. While Anthopolous is no doubt an ambitious dealmaker who will look to make Atlanta a contender in the near future, his lack of knowledge with our system (and very valuable top prospects) along with the moster free agent class of next winter, has forced him to stay pat (so far) this offseason like much of the rest of baseball. Anthopolous has said to give him until around the All-Star Break to watch top prospects and form opinions on our farm before big deals go down, presumably trades for experienced, impact players who could make an immediate impact such as the 2014 blockbuster trade that would send Josh Donaldson to Toronto.
From what we’ve seen thus far, Anthopolous understands the importance of developing star prospects such as Ronald Acuna, but also knows the importance of using some prospects as currency rather than refusing to trade away much of the young talent as seemed to be the case under the Hart/Coppy regime. While there is absolutely no doubt that the farm is in tremendous shape and the work done by John Copolella is beginning to pay dividends in Atlanta despite the harsh penalties he left us with. Despite the international signing fiasco and ensuing disgraced exit, he seemed to – for the most part – accomplish his goal of rebuilding our farm system to the best in baseball. That being said, it’s time to turn the page. To echo the sentiments of our new General Manager, it’s time we stopped celebrating #1 farm system rankings in Baseball America and started being #1 in the NL East, the National League, and all of baseball. There’s no doubt that our enormous pool of prospects will help us get there, but it’s time we had a strategy that placed the emphasis on winning at the Major League level – not five years down the road, but now.
While the players on the field will (mostly) be familiar faces to kick off Spring Training, barring some major move, the Braves appear to be on the right track with Alex Anthopolous at the helm. It’s hard to envision the Braves competing for a playoff spot this year, but I expect it to be a year of improvement – both for the team on the field, much of our young talent on the farm, and especially for the team in the front office who looks to remove the “rebuilding” tag and build a team Atlanta can truly be proud of.