Staying course has Braves in coveted position
Hart, Coppolella building club to contend for long haul
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As Braves president of baseball operations John Hart and general manager John Coppolella sat in their suite at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, they could not hide the excitement they had generated just a few hours when they used Shelby Miller to gain a return greater than could have been realistically anticipated.
Once the Braves recognized the D-backs' willingness to do whatever it takes to focus on the short-term opportunity to become a legit World Series contender, they took advantage of this aggressive mindset by turning Miller into three highly-regarded, controllable players -- Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson and Aaron Blair -- who could significantly influence Atlanta's future.
"If we got to 2017 or 2018 with [Miller] on our team, we could have won a World Series with him," Hart said. "We can also win a World Series with the talent we got back, because we added to what we've been trying to do here for the last year. We've stayed very true to what we talked to the day we made the Jason Heyward announcement, the first real trade we made here."
It would have been easy for the Braves to simply stick with the comfort of keeping Miller at the front of a rotation that over the next few years will steadily fill with some of the club's top pitching prospects, who will endure some growing pains.
Keeping Miller would have provided some stability in the vital starting-pitching department and served as a conservative option as Atlanta aims toward becoming a playoff contender by the time SunTrust Park opens in 2017. But this option also would have contradicted the aggressive approach the Braves have taken since they began their rebuild last offseason by using Heyward to gain both Miller and Tyrell Jenkins, one of their many respected pitching prospects, from the Cardinals.
Given that Heyward and Justin Upton were entering the final year of their contracts and were not going to re-sign in Atlanta, it made perfect sense for the Braves to trade both. Upton netted four players from the Padres, including Mallex Smith and Max Fried, a high-upside prospect with the potential to become a front-line starter.
With Inciarte slated to serve as a leadoff hitter and everyday center fielder, there is reason to wonder what his presence means for Smith, who had been slated to reach Atlanta to fill these same roles next summer. But this is a welcome dilemma for the Braves, who entered Spring Training this year with Eric Young Jr., Todd Cunningham and Eury Perez as their center-field candidates.
"We know that our future is bright, because we have young players and the revenues that will come with the new stadium," Hart said. "That gives us the ability to be what I call dangerous."
For Hart, the most recent trade provided a welcome opportunity to utter this kind of emphatic optimism. Yes, the Braves will need for some of their young pitchers to fill Miller's void over the next few seasons. But with the additions of Inciarte, Blair and Swanson, they created the potential to be stronger in three vital areas over the course of much of the next decade.
While Inciarte provides a proven bat and top-notch glove, Blair is widely regarded as a solid middle-of-the-rotation prospect who could reach Atlanta early in the 2016 season.
In Swanson, the Braves gained one of the game's top 10 prospects without having to incur the cost of the $6.5 million signing bonus he received when he was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2015 Draft.
Swanson's arrival, which could come by the 2017 season, might lead the Braves to move one of their other heralded prospects, Ozhaino Albies, to second base. But yet again, this is another sign of the impressive depth Atlanta has gained since concluding the 2014 season with one of baseball's lowest-ranked farm systems.
"When you build a skyscraper, you build it from the bottom up," Coppolella said. "We aren't building for one year and then have it all fall apart. We want to be good for a long time. We don't want to have the bottom fall out like it did during the second half of 2015, when we went to look for young players [in our system] and there were none to be found."
Hart understood the backlash he received some fans over the past year. In fact, he laughs when he says his wife "looked at him like he had two heads" when he moved Craig Kimbrel in the Opening Day eve trade that rid the Braves of Melvin Upton Jr.'s contract and also netted them Matt Wisler and Austin Riley, who has drawn high praise from Bobby Cox and many others since being drafted in June.
But all along, Hart was determined to build the game's top farm system within three to five years. It could be argued that he has already done so. Atlanta now has six players listed among MLB.com's Top 100 Prospects.
The Braves have acquired three of their top four prospects -- Swanson, Sean Newcomb and Blair -- since Nov. 12, and five of their top six prospects (including Touki Toussaint and Kolby Allard) since June.
"With the painful trades we've made, we've made them with the idea that we're going to be chasing [World Series] championships, and we're going to be chasing them a lot sooner than if we would have retained certain players," Hart said.