NASHVILLE – Seated at one end of a couch in a top-floor suite at the Opryland Hotel, Braves president of baseball operations John Hart had his reading glasses and a can of Copenhagen next to him on the edge of a glass dining table. General manager John Coppolella was seated at the other end of the couch.
They were fielding questions Monday night from reporters about trade rumors on the first day of the Winter Meetings, and about the state of the Braves’ franchise and the disenchantment of many fans. They wanted you to know that they feel your pain, Braves fans.
They want you to know that they fully comprehend how difficult this period has been for supporters of one of the National League’s gold-standard franchises, with Hart colorfully referring to the past year as “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for our fans and us and everybody else.”
It should be noted, that’s a relatively dark ride at the original Disneyland in Orange County, where the airport is named after the late John Wayne, a longtime local resident. Hart, coincidentally, has some John Wayne in him, though the Braves’ boss is a bit slimmer and more irreverent.
Anyway, the team brass knows how frustrating it is for Braves fans to watch popular players get traded away and see other teams sign big-ticket free agents for hundreds of million of dollars, while the Braves move forward with accumulating young players as the foundation for their rebuild (or retool, or re-whatever term is being used, although it’s perhaps worth noting that “rebuild” was uttered once Monday by Hart).
But they also are resolute in their plan, unswayed by popular opinion and certain that they are doing the right thing to get the Braves back to being annual contenders for the long haul.
“You’ve never heard me come out one time and try to sort of make this pretty,” Hart said of the process. “I say, look, this is hard. This is painful. Here’s what we’re doing. It’s the right thing to do. I’ve been there before. I understand it. We’ve got a lot of good people that are shoulder-to-shouder on this, and we’ve got to take the hit. We’re taking the hit right now. But we are absolutely wanting us to be the best club that we can have in ’16, knowing that, you know, the skies part going into ’17.”
The Braves will move into a new Cobb County ballpark in 2017, and are counting on significantly increased revenue streams there to help fund a significantly increased payroll.
For now, they are building through drafts and international free-agent signings and trades, rather than trying to be a team with payroll restrictions that nevertheless uses quick-fix free agents in a piecemeal attempt to remain relevant.
Not that they aren’t pursuing any free agents. They are, it’s just that they aren’t the highest-priced marquee free agents, or even many mid-priced ones. For now, the Braves are going after guys like catcher Tyler Flowers, who they’d like to have share catching duties with A.J. Pierzynski in 2016, and pitchers like the ones they recently signed to one-year deals, Jim Johnson and Bud Norris.
But the Braves did travel to Franklin, Tenn., last month for a free-agent recruiting visit with versatile Ben Zobrist. And though it looks like Zobrist, at 34, will sign with Washington, New York or San Francisco in order to play with a contender again after being a big part of the Royals’ World Series championship run, he did welcome a visit with the Braves and expressed to them an appreciation and admiration for what they’re doing.
So for those who’ve expressed concern that no free agent will want to sign with the Braves after they’ve traded away so many players in the past 13 months, team officials say, fear not.
“I think it’s understandable for our fans to look up and go, ‘Now nobody’s going to want to come here. This is not good,’” Hart said. “We’ve got to look at how were we going to get there and win, versus ‘Gosh, this is going to be a painful trade PR-wise, this won’t really sound good.’
But this is going to make us better. And talking in our room to guys who’ve been around the block a lot – including John Schuerholz, Bobby Cox, and three or four of our scouts – as we’ve made these deals, and realized that there’s going to be a short-term, if you will fan reaction. Don’t think that we’re not feeling as bad as our fans do, for the short term. But we’re living this every day, and we have total, complete confidence in what it is that we’re doing and where we’re going. And the economic capacity for us to be able to compete, going forward, with a lot of clubs in other markets that we haven’t necessarily been able to compete with.”
Hart was asked whether he gets tired of having to defend the team’s overhaul of the past 13 months every time they make another trade, most of which have brought back pitching prospects.
“I don’t get tired of having to defend it; I just want to spread the word as to what we’re doing,” he said. “Fans are going to make their own decision. We’ve got great fans. They’ve been here. The Braves’ brand is what it is. It’s a new era, there’s a different world that’s going on, but I don’t get tired of defending it. I think that it’s difficult because – we were talking about this last week – when we did it in Cleveland, nobody cared. Here you look up and we’ve had all this great success, but the club wasn’t going anywhere.
“We (Braves) would have had to go out and spend wildly, and then we would have been sitting here with (Jason) Heyward and (Justin) Upton both free (agents), and we would have had to go out and drop huge money (going forward) with no guarantee that we were going to win it all in 2015.”
Getting back to the fear of some fans that free agents might have no interest in coming to Atlanta, Hart and Coppolella both said that’s not the case at all, and that they’ve actually heard the opposite from some players.
“People are coming to us,” Hart said of free agents expressing interest. “They know what’s coming in ’17; they know what we have in our farm system. Players are excited about coming here. We’ve had conversations with a lot of (free agents). Some of them maybe don’t fit, but we’re going to have conversations with them. And almost to a man, they love what we’re doing.
“You’re either out there charging to go win it right now, or you’re building something to win as you go forward. Everybody knows we have a new park coming, everybody knows that we have a farm system that has been turned around. We have absolutely no issues. It’s the type of player that we’re going after, what they’re looking for is opportunity. They want an opportunity to play. …
“It’s also selling the fact that people like our club, they like the makeup around the club, they like our young pitching, and we’re not getting any pushback. It’s just that we’re not going to go fish this year in those big waters. We’re not going to give up a draft pick (as compensation for signing a top free agent). We’re not giving it up. We don’t want to go out and fish in the waters where we’re abandoning this plan after one year, where we say, we’re going to give up a draft pick. It would have to be something absolutely special that works for us. (Next winter) is a different story.”
Coppolella added, “There was a free agent that we chased, a pretty big name; I don’t want to say who it was. He signed elsewhere since. But I talked to the player on the phone three or four times. John Hart talked to him twice. And he was actually drawn to us. He actually said to us, ‘I love what you’re doing.’ They see all the talent we’ve built in the farm system. They see what we’ll be off of some bad contracts soon. This has a chance to get really good really fast. I think that a lot of people see that, and that’s what makes them excited.”
Taking a step or three back is not as easy in Atlanta as it was back when Hart engineered a rebuild in Cleveland, because the Indians had been down for quite some time before the project began, and the Indians weren’t a team familiar with sustained success like the Braves were during their unprecedented run of 14 consecutive division titles through 2005.
“That’s the difficult part, that you’ve had years of Braves success and at some point, every team is going to have a take a step back,” Hart said. “Take Boston. (The Red Sox) just went back-to-back last place. How did they remedy it? They went out and they wrote some big checks. They unloaded their farm system (in trades) and they said, ‘fine.’ We’re not in that position. We’re not ready to do that yet. We’re not there.
“Boston said, ‘OK, we’ve got a good farm system, we worked it, we built it, we’ve had two last-place finishes, in Boston, unacceptable. Let’s go start writing checks.’ We’re not there yet. I hope our fans are patient. We want to put a great club out in ’16, a fun, exciting club. Winning club. But our path is really clear as to how we’re doing this, and I think it’s probably harder for our local fans than it is for the national people (in baseball) that do this every day. Other teams look at it and go, ‘They’ve got a lot of players now.’ But it’s hard for is our fans.”
Coppolella jumped in immediately after that last line from Hart. “But here’s what’s cool for our fans – 2015 was rock bottom, 2016 is going to be a better year, 2017 is going to be even better,” Coppolella said. “You’re seeing so many good young players that there’s going to be steps forward every year, until we get to where we want to be, and that’s the World Series.”
Hard said he told Coppolella a year ago, when they took over baseball operations after the firing of GM Frank Wren, that Hart wanted the Braves to have the No. 1 farm system in the majors in three to five years. According to several services that rank them, the Braves are at least a borderline top-five now.
“I don’t know where we are after one year. And it’s been painful, it’s been Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for our fans and us and everybody else. But at the end of it you look up and you go, if we’re not 1, I tell you this, we’re top five. There is no doubt about it. Let’s see what happens after this draft and this international signing period. …
“You realize we have more money this year to spend, and we’re going to have significantly more money to spend next year. At some point you realize you can’t just go out and (spend freely), unless you’re the Yankees, or the Dodgers – and how did it turn out for them this year? Spend $300 million and $200-plus million, and the Red Sox $190 million. At some point you’ve got to have young players.
“Fans love to see a guy come through your system and you guys are writing about him, and all of a sudden he comes through the door at Turner Field or SunTrust Field, that guy walks out on the field and they’re vested in that guy. But those guys who become really good players give us the ability to go out and pick and choose what you want on the market. …
“For us to do it we have to have that first piece in place first. That’s the young players, the foundation. And then we can begin to go play when it’s what takes us over the hump. It’s that simple. So you’re not going to see us go out on the podium this year and announce the big $200 million player. Not happening. Not the right time.”
Coppolella added, “We always talk about, if you build a skyscraper, you build from the ground up. You don’t build for one year and then have it fall apart. The first four picks in the draft last year, high-school kids. We’ve done a lot of work with foreign signings. I mean, we want to be good for a long time. We don’t want the bottom to fall out like it did in the second half of 2014, when we went to look for young players and there were none to be found. So if we’re going through some pain now – and we are – it’s to lead to a much brighter future. And for a long-term run, that our fans have been used to.
“What we’re trying to do is feel like we have a chance to go to the World Series every year when we get to spring training. That we have a chance. And we think we can do that for a long period of time. We’re not taking any shortcuts. No college guys that could get here quicker. We’ve gone after impact players. And if they’re far away, that’s fine. We want to be good for a long time, not just a quick fix. We’re getting away from the quick fix.”
They’ve got a plan. Now we’ll all just have to wait and see if it works.
• Let’s close with this classic from the great James McMurtry.
“LIGHTS OF CHEYENNE” by James McMurtry
Look off down the highway
At the glittering lights
Like windshield glass
On the shoulder tonight
As the diesels come
Grinding on up from the plains
All bunched up like pearls on a string
And I guess time don’t mean nothin’
Not nothin’ at all
And out on the horizon
The broken stars fall
Old broken stars they
Fall down on the land
And get mixed together
With the lights of Cheyenne
Well I’ve been up all night
And I’m down on my back
Workin’ the counter
To take up the slack
‘Cause the money tree’s light
And the whiskey stream’s low
You ain’t worked a week
You say the gravel pit’s hiring
After the first
But you don’t have the
Nature for that kind of work
You might get hired on
But you won’t make a hand
And I’ll still be here lookin’
At the lights of Cheyenne
You stand in the sky
With your feet on the ground
Never suspectin’ a thing
But if the sky were to
Move you might never be found
Never be heard from again
We go on good behavior when
Our youngest comes home
She comes up from Boulder
But she never stays long
And that oldest still fights
Me like she was 18
Stopped in for a 6-pack awhile ago
And she’s got a cowboy problem
And this last one’s a sight
All dressed up like Gunsmoke
For Saturday night
And they were off to the bars
For lack of a plan
Racing the stars to the lights of Cheyenne
And you’ve kept all that
Meanness inside you so long
You’d fight with a fence post
If it looked at your wrong
Well the post won’t hit back,
And it won’t call the law
I look at your right,
Or I don’t look at all
Now take a crumpled up
Soft pack and give it a shake
Out by the dumpster on a cigarette break
With one eye swelled up from
The back of your hand
And the other eye fixed
On the lights of Cheyenne
You stand in the sky with
Your feet on the ground
Never suspectin’ a thing
But if the sky were to
Move you might never be found
Never be heard from again
Now there’s antelope grazing
In range of my gun
Come opening weekend
You won’t see a one
They’ll vanish like ghosts
’cause somehow they know
But now they’re up to the
Fence in the early dawn
And it’s warming up nicely
For this time of year
The creeks are still frozen but
The roads are all clear
And I don’t have it in me
To make one more stand
Though I never much cared
For the lights of Cheyenne